This Week in Washington - June 29, 2012

    29 June 2012


    U.S. Supreme Court Decisions.  On Thursday, the Supreme Court essentially upheld the health care reform law, including the individual mandate requiring health insurance, by a vote of 5 to 4.  Chief Justice John Roberts sided with liberal Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor in upholding the individual mandate as a proper exercise of Congress’s taxing power, although the Chief Justice agreed with conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas that the law was not a valid exercise of Congress’s authority to regulate interstate commerce.  The Court also ruled that the federal government cannot compel a state to participate in the law’s Medicaid expansion.  President Obama stated the decision is “a victory for people all over this country whose lives will be more secure because of this law.”  Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans vowed to continue working to repeal the law and instead promote a “step-by-step” approach to reform.  Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney promised to repeal and replace the law if elected.  On Monday, the Court struck down (5-4) Montana’s law limiting corporate campaign spending, thereby reaffirming its Citizens United ruling; found (5-4) unconstitutional the sentencing of a juvenile murderer to life in prison without parole; and struck down three of the four challenged provisions of Arizona’s anti-illegal immigration law but unanimously allowed police to conduct documentation checks on individuals they suspect are in the country illegally. 

    Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 Appropriations.  As the House Rules Committee met Thursday to prepare the Defense and Financial Services appropriations bills for floor consideration, the White House issued a statement opposing passage of both bills.  The Defense appropriations veto threat is based on the $607 billion top-line spending number and provisions that would limit the military’s ability to transfer or retire “unneeded aircraft,” de-fund the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), and reverse the Pentagon’s proposed TRICARE fee increases.  The House Appropriations Committee advanced the $28 billion Interior-Environment appropriations bill on a party-line vote Thursday.  The House is set to pass its sixth FY 2013 appropriations bill, the $51.6 billion Transportation-Housing measure, on Friday.  

    Budget/Sequestration.  On Wednesday, the House Budget Committee passed a measure demanding, within 30 days of enactment, a report from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on the implementation of sequestration.  This measure differs slightly from the Senate sequestration language passed last week, so the two will need to be reconciled.  Meanwhile, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-California) sent a letter to OMB Director Jeffery Zients Wednesday requesting him to testify at a July 18 hearing on the impact of the defense cuts mandated by sequestration.  Despite statements by defense industry executives that they will send thousands of layoff notices before November if no agreement is made to avoid sequestration, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) reiterated Tuesday that he will not “move off” the automatic cuts until he sees a proposal that is “better.”

    Transportation Compromise.  Late Wednesday night, Congressional leaders announced a deal on a transportation reauthorization package, which also includes a one-year extension of the federally-subsidized student loan interest rates as well as a five-year extension of the national flood insurance program.  The compromise transportation measure authorizes highway programs through September 2014 and includes provisions to streamline the review process for new projects, consolidate programs, and direct to the Gulf Coast 80 percent of BP’s federal fines related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  However, the bill excludes Republican-backed provisions to fast-track the Keystone XL pipeline and to restrict the government’s authority to regulate coal ash.  The House (373-52) and Senate (74-19) both passed the measure Friday.

    Attorney General Contempt Vote.  In response to the Administration’s claim of Executive privilege and corresponding refusal to provide requested documents to Congress in connection with the Justice Department’s discontinued “Fast and Furious” gun-tracking program, the full House approved two contempt resolutions (one criminal, one civil) against Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday.  The actions represent the first time Congress has held any sitting Cabinet member in contempt.  The House Democratic Leadership and the Congressional Black Caucus led a walkout to protest the vote, although 17 House Democrats joined all but two Republicans in voting in favor of the resolutions.  The fate of the Fast and Furious records themselves is tied to pending civil and criminal actions.

    Political and Presidential News.  Several states held primaries on Tuesday, notably resulting in the following outcomes:  Jim Bridenstine defeated six-term incumbent Representative John Sullivan in the Republican primary for Oklahoma’s heavily Republican, Tulsa-based 1st Congressional District; incumbent Senator Orrin Hatch won the Utah Republican Senate primary; and incumbent Representative Charlie Rangel leads the Democratic primary for New York’s 13th Congressional District by a slim margin as of Friday, but votes continue to be counted.  Congress will be in recess next week for the Fourth of July holiday.  Meanwhile, as wildfires rage throughout Colorado, with more than 30,000 residents evacuated to date, President Obama plans to survey the damage on Friday.  The President declared a major disaster in Colorado late Thursday, making federal resources available to state officials.


    Syria.  After the Syrian military shot down a Turkish fighter jet last Friday, Turkey alleged the attack occurred over international waters, with the Syrian regime claiming self-defense.  Secretary Clinton said Sunday that Syrian violated international norms by failing to warn the Turkish aircraft before it was fired upon.  On Tuesday, Turkey convened the North Atlantic Council under Article 4 of the NATO Treaty, which resulted in a NATO statement condemning Syria for the incident.  Turkish troops and missile batteries were also shifted to Turkey’s southern border, and Syrian tanks massed 20 miles from the border near Aleppo.  On Thursday, the Syrian opposition reported the death toll was the worst of any single day this year, with 125 confirmed civilian fatalities.  Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov issued a statement calling for new cease-fire mechanisms and the synchronized withdrawal of all armed combatants from Syria’s populated battle zones.  Later today in St. Petersburg, Secretary Clinton will meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov to again discuss Syria.  

    Iran.  On Thursday, Secretary Clinton announced China and Singapore had significantly reduced their volume of crude oil purchases from Iran and granted them exemptions from imminent U.S. sanctions.  A total of 20 world economies have now qualified for such sanctions waivers.  Early this week, in anticipation of Sunday’s planned E.U. embargo on Iranian oil, South Korea announced it will halt imports of Iranian crude, becoming the first major Asian consumer to announce such a suspension.  On Friday, the Revolutionary Guards announced Iran will equip its ships in the Strait of Hormuz with short-range missiles.  

    Egypt.  Last Sunday, President Obama called Dr. Mohamed Morsi of the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party to congratulate him on his victory in Egypt’s presidential election.  The President underscored that the United States will continue to support Egypt’s transition to democracy.  Also Sunday, President Obama called defeated former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq to encourage him to continue to support the democratic process and work to unify the Egyptian people.  Early this week, Mr. Morsi reportedly said he will uphold Egypt’s international treaty obligations and appoint a diverse team of vice presidents.  Mr. Morsi is due to be sworn-in Saturday before the country's Supreme Constitutional Court.

    On Thursday, the State Department commended the Bahraini Government for uncovering several bomb-making facilities and thereby preventing the escalation of tensions.

    This week, President Obama spoke with French President François Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, discussing the importance of continued efforts to promote growth and stability in the Eurozone.  Also Monday, the President welcomed Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ commitment to address Greece’s economic situation and urged the Prime Minister to work closely with the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.  

    After last Thursday’s unexpected parliamentary impeachment of President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, the State Department said this week the United States remains concerned about recent developments.  Several South American countries have recalled their Ambassadors.  Last weekend, Secretary Clinton discussed the situation with Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota.

    Thursday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) held another hearing on the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, as he works to foster U.S. ratification of the treaty.  In response to questioning from undecided Senators including Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and Senator Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia), the U.S. business sector essentially testified that ratification of the Treaty would encourage their companies to increase deep sea investments and generate new jobs.

    Secretary of State Travel.  In Helsinki Wednesday, Secretary Clinton met with Prime Minister of Finland Jyrki Katainen and participated in a signing ceremony for the General Security of Information Agreement with Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja and a Climate Clean Air Coalition and Green Embassy Event.  Thursday, in Riga, Secretary Clinton met with Latvian President Andris Bērziņš and Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis.  In St. Petersberg Friday afternoon, the Secretary met with Russian Federation Council Chair Valentina Matvienko and delivered remarks at the APEC Women and the Economy Forum.