This Week in Washington - June 8, 2012

    8 June 2012


    Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 Appropriations.  Both the Senate and House were in session this week.  The House continued its work on FY 2013 spending bills, completing three of them – Energy and Water, Homeland Security, and Legislative Branch.  The House Agriculture, Financial Services, and Transportation-Housing Appropriations Subcommittees also approved their FY 2013 spending measures, which are scheduled to be considered by the full committee after next week’s recess.  

    Fiscal and Monetary Policy.  The Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) annual long-term budget projection released Tuesday warns that if Congress extends the Bush-era tax cuts and puts off sequestration, the federal debt will rise from the current level of 73 percent of GDP to almost 200 percent in 2037.  During a Joint Economic Committee hearing on Thursday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke urged Congress to do more to boost the economy, while not ruling out additional action by the Fed if Congress fails to act.

    Education.  On Thursday, President Obama delivered a speech at the University of Nevada Las Vegas on the student loan interest rates set to expire in July, urging lawmakers to find a solution.  Later that day, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) offered two new options related to employer pension funding to pay for the extension, which Senate Republicans appear to have taken under consideration.  In the meantime, the Administration announced Thursday a new policy to allow some additional federal student loan borrowers to cap their student loan payments at ten percent of their income.

    Farm Bill.  The Senate voted (90-8) Thursday to proceed to debate its five-year farm policy bill.  Debate is expected to last at least two weeks, as Senators already have filed over 90 amendments to the bill.  On Thursday, the White House released a Statement of Administration Policy in support of the bill, but also noted proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and expressed the need to cut funding further for commodity and crop insurance programs.  Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) plans to offer an amendment to redirect $4.5 billion from crop insurance to SNAP.

    On Tuesday, the Senate failed to advance the Paycheck Fairness Act, legislation that attempts to close the pay gap between men and women in the United States.  No Senate Republicans voted to proceed to debate on the bill, which they characterized as an example of excessive government regulation.  At a House Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday to discuss the aborted Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Fast and Furious operation, Republican members alleged that six leaked wiretap applications they have received from whistleblowers prove that Administration officials knew about Fast and Furious before they have admitted to being aware of it.  However, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. stated that he disagrees with their conclusions.  On Wednesday, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) called for an extension of the expiring Bush tax cuts for one year to help provide certainty to businesses and stabilize the economy.  White House spokesman Jay Carney responded Wednesday that President Obama firmly opposes extending tax cuts for households with annual incomes above $250,000.  The House voted Thursday (270-146) to repeal the health care law’s excise tax on medical devices, set to take effect in 2013.  Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) on Thursday accused the White House of leaking classified information to reporters for the benefit of President Obama’s re-election campaign, and Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees took issue with the potential national security consequences of the leaks.  President Obama responded on Friday, calling the accusation “offensive” and “wrong”.  On Friday, House negotiators will consider the Senate’s latest version of the surface transportation reauthorization bill offered by Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-California) and Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma).  However, on Thursday, Speaker Boehner threatened to support a six-month extension if there is no deal by June 30th, when the current temporary extension expires.

    Political News.  Representative Thaddeus McCotter (R-Michigan) announced Saturday that he will not attempt a write-in campaign to seek a sixth term in Congress, leaving behind a competitive open seat.  In New Jersey on Tuesday, Democrat Donald Payne Jr. won the special election for his deceased father’s former Congressional seat, and Representative Bill Pascrell defeated fellow incumbent Representative Steve Rothman to become the Democratic candidate for the solidly-Democratic 9th District.  Also on Tuesday, Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch survived recall attempts, although the Democrats appear to have regained control of the Wisconsin State Senate.   


    Syria.  Unarmed U.N. observers came under fire Thursday when attempting to access Mazraat al-Qubeir, the village site of the latest alleged massacre Wednesday of at least 78 Syrian civilians.  Also Thursday, U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy Kofi Annan admitted implementation of the Six Point Peace Plan is failing.  The White House also condemned the massacre by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, saying “Assad’s continued abdication of responsibility for these horrific acts has no credibility and only further underscores the illegitimate and immoral nature of his rule.”  Also on Thursday, China, Russia and Central Asian states reportedly called for dialogue rather than any further action by the Security Council.  In Istanbul Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined a power transfer plan to Western and Arab allies that includes Assad stepping down and departing Syria.  France announced it will hold a full Friends of Syria meeting in Paris on July 6th.  Turkey also announced the members had agreed to convene a "coordination group" to provide support to the Syrian opposition, agreeing representatives and Syrian opposition groups will meet in Istanbul on June 15-16.  Envoy Annan met with Secretary Clinton in Washington Friday to discuss the Peace Plan and how to apply additional international pressure against the Assad regime.  Meanwhile in Damascus and Homs Friday, heavy fighting was reported between Assad forces and the Syrian opposition forces.  

    Iran.  Iran indicated this week it may not attend scheduled talks in Moscow later this month.  From Istanbul, Secretary Clinton encouraged Iran to attend, saying Iran should be “prepared to take concrete steps, particularly in the area of 20 percent enrichment” and that the unified position of the international community is “that in response to their actions, we are prepared to take actions of our own.”

    Secretary Clinton was in Istanbul Thursday to attend the first ministerial Global Counterterrorism Forum, where she called for additional progress on strengthening rule of law and international cooperation to “defeat extremist ideology, blunt the spread of radicalization, and slow the flow of recruits to terrorist networks.”  The Secretary also held a bilateral meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, discussing Syria and Iran.  On Monday in Yerevan, Secretary Clinton met with Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian.  The Secretary met Tuesday in Batumi with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, discussing deepening the bilateral relationship, the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s plan to move forward with its second compact with Georgia, and Afghanistan.  The Secretary also met with leaders of opposition parties and discussed their role in deepening Georgia’s democratic development.  On Wednesday, the Secretary travelled to Baku, meeting with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and President Ilham Aliyev.  Topics of discussion included resolution of the Armenia and Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Afghanistan, energy security, and the role of civil society.  Last weekend, Secretary Clinton met with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt in Stockholm.  She also met in Tromso with Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støere.  This week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta continued his travels through Asia, meeting with officials in Vietnam and India, where the Secretary discussed the need to increase bilateral defense cooperation, and Afghanistan, where the delegation addressed Wednesday’s Taliban suicide bombing in Kandahar, NATO airstrikes, and the continuing Taliban presence in Pakistan.

    Congressional Developments.  Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee marked-up and endorsed legislation (HR 4405) that would compel the State Department to publish a list of Russian officials the U.S. government considers responsible for human rights violations, including the death of jailed whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, and allow the Secretary of the Treasury to freeze their assets.  Meanwhile, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has yet to set a date to mark-up its Magnitsky bill (S. 1039).  The House Judiciary Committee also advanced legislation (H.R. 5889) to comply with international treaty obligations that specifically prohibit hijacking a ship or fixed maritime platform to influence government actions.

    On Friday in Washington, Secretary Clinton held a signing ceremony with Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and hosted a lunch for Philippines President Benigno S. Aquino III.  The Secretary later joined President Obama’s bilateral meeting with President Aquino.  Secretary Clinton next held a bilateral meeting with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  Thursday, Vice President Biden welcomed Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, discussing Afghanistan, Syria, the Eurozone Crisis, and green energy and technologies cooperation.  On Monday, President Obama congratulated President-elect Danilo Medina of the Dominican Republic on his recent victory.  This week, President Obama also spoke with British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti about economic conditions in Europe and the upcoming G20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico.  The President also congratulated Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom on her Diamond Jubilee.  On Wednesday, President Obama announced his intention to nominate John Koenig to be U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus.