This Week in Washington - September 21, 2012

    21 September 2012


    The House is in recess, and the Senate will follow suit over the weekend or next week.  Neither chamber will return until after the November 6th elections, when the lame-duck session is scheduled to commence. 

    Budget and Economy.  On Thursday, the Senate approved a motion to proceed to the Fiscal Year 2013 Continuing Resolution (CR) passed by the House last week.  For much of the week, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) has slowed consideration of the CR, as he has sought a vote to end foreign aid to Pakistan, Libya and Egypt.  Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) also pushed for consideration of legislation to limit restrictions on fishing and hunting on Federal land.  Small groups of lawmakers continued to work this week to find a compromise to avert the automatic spending cuts scheduled to go into effect under sequestration on January 2nd.  Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and 28 other Senators sent a letter to their colleagues on Thursday announcing their opposition to including Social Security cuts as part of any package.

    On Wednesday, the Department of Justice’s Inspector General released an investigative report on the terminated Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation, finding misconduct among officials in the Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.  While the report exonerated Attorney General Eric Holder, it recommended discipline for 14 other officials.  On Thursday, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-California) called the report “extremely comprehensive, strong and independent.”  President Obama focused on the continuing problem of illegal weapons flowing to Mexico and stated, “The question now is: how do we move forward with a strategy that will actually work?”

    On Wednesday, the House passed a number of measures as part of its last legislative business before returning home, including a bill (H.R. 2903) to reauthorize the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), despite Democrats’ call for a committee markup first.  On Thursday, the House passed a Republican-backed disapproval resolution to block changes to the 1996 welfare reform law by the Obama Administration, such as allowing some job requirement waivers.  On Friday, the House passed the Coal Miner Employment and Domestic Energy Infrastructure Act (H.R. 3409), sponsored by Congressman Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), which would limit many Department of Interior regulations related to the coal industry.  The White House released a Statement of Administration policy on Wednesday confirming the President will veto the measure should it reach his desk.  A U.S. District judge ruled Monday that the State of Arizona could start enforcing the “show me your papers” provision of its 2010 immigration law, allowing law enforcement officers to question the immigration status of people they suspect of being in the country illegally. 

    Political News.  On Monday, a video of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a May fundraiser was released, in which Governor Romney alleged there are 47 percent of Americans “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims….These are people who pay no income tax, so our message of low taxes doesn’t connect….And so my job is not to worry about those people.  I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives….”  President Obama responded on Thursday, “People want a hand up, not a handout,” as some Republicans also distanced themselves from Governor Romney’s remarks.  Meanwhile, for the first time since May, the President’s job approval rating reached the 50 percent mark in some polls released this week, as polls also indicated Democratic candidates are making gains in several contested Senate races.  Both President Obama and Governor Romney campaigned in the swing state of Florida this week.  On Friday, Governor Romney released his 2011 tax returns, which indicate the Republican nominee paid an effective tax rate of 14.1% on $13.7 million in annual income.  Also on Friday, the House Ethics Committee announced it will not charge Representative Maxine Waters (D-California) with any violations, after investigating the Congresswoman’s actions related to a bank in which her husband owned stock.


    On Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was a "terrorist attack" that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three State Department personnel last week in Libya.  The Secretary reaffirmed the United States will track down the "terrorists who murdered four Americans."  This week, the media reported Ambassador Stevens had expressed concern about security of the U.S. facilities in Libya.  Thursday, several Republican Senators accused the Obama Administration of “filibustering” a classified briefing on the U.S. Consulate attack in Benghazi.  The Senators warned they may pursue an independent investigation when Congress returns in November.  Secretary Clinton announced Thursday the State Department will launch an accountability review board to investigate any possible security failure in the attack.  Meanwhile, approximately 30,000 Libyans marched through the eastern city of Benghazi on Friday to demand the disbanding of independent militias.  As anti-American protests continued this week across the Middle East, several U.S. and other Western diplomatic facilities were shuttered Friday, in anticipation of intensified protests over the anti-Islamic film clip as well as recently published cartoons in a France of a figure intended to resemble the Prophet Mohammed.

    President Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke Tuesday, with the Prime Minister expressing his condolences for the American deaths in Libya last week.  The two leaders also discussed the Syrian regime’s escalating use of violence against civilians and Syria’s humanitarian crisis.  Early this week, the top commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said IRGC members are serving as “advisers” to Syrian regime forces.  At the U.N. Thursday, the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany accused Iran of shipping arms to Syria in violation of U.N. sanctions and ignoring demands to open key nuclear facilities to U.N. inspectors.  Media reports indicate Secretary Clinton is expected to announce late on Friday that the Administration will remove from the U.S. terrorism list an Iranian exile group in Iraq – the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK) – following Washington’s consideration of the MEK as “noncombatants” since 2004.

    President Obama met Wednesday with Burmese Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and welcomed Burma’s democratic transition and the recent progress made by Aung San Suu Kyi, as leader of the National League for Democracy Party, and President Thein Sein.  The President reaffirmed the United States continues to support their sustained efforts to promote political and economic reforms.  President Obama is expected to meet next week with President Thein Sein on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly.  While in Washington, Aung San Suu Kyi also received the Congressional Gold Medal.

    Earlier Wednesday, President Obama held a video conference with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, discussing efforts to stem insider attacks on U.S., NATO and Afghan forces; continuing to encourage restraint and non-violence in reaction to inflammatory materials; and continuing to implement the U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement, including by launching the U.S.-Afghan Bilateral Commission and beginning negotiations on a Bilateral Security Agreement.  Earlier this week, in light of the increased insider attacks, U.S. forces suspended training with Afghan security forces.  Also, Friday marked the end of the troop surge of an extra 30,000 U.S. soldiers, as U.S. troops in Afghanistan now number 68,000. 

    U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced Monday the United States has requested dispute settlement consultations with the Government of China at the World Trade Organization (WTO) concerning China's alleged auto and auto parts "export base" subsidy program.  The United States claims “China's program appears to provide export subsidies that are prohibited under WTO rules because they severely distort trade.”  Last Saturday, the 14th round of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations concluded in Virginia.  New Zealand will host the next round of negotiations (December 3-12).

    On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced an amended version of S. 2215, a bill that would direct President Obama to establish a strategy for doubling U.S. exports to Africa within 10 years.  The Committee also advanced an amended measure (S. 2318) to expand an existing State Department program that allows rewards for information leading to the arrest or conviction of those involved in transnational organized crime or violations of international humanitarian law.  The Senate panel also backed an amended bill (S. 3310) designed to provide greater accountability for U.S. foreign aid spending.  Thursday morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee reported out an amended bipartisan measure (S. 1894) that would allow victims of U.S. terrorist acts to pursue lawsuits in U.S. courts against countries that allegedly sponsor terrorism.  Meanwhile, the House passed H.R. 5910, a bill that directs the Secretary of Commerce to produce a report on enhancing U.S. competitiveness in attracting foreign direct investment. 

    On Tuesday, the State Department expressed regret over the Russian Government’s decision to end USAID activities in Russia.  The Russian Foreign Ministry alleged USAID has played a role in trying to influence Russian political events.  The State Department Wednesday rejected the notion that U.S. support for civil society, democracy or human rights programs interferes with political developments in Russia or elsewhere. 

    This week, President Obama announced his intention to nominate the following individuals:  Robert Godec to be U.S. Ambassador to Kenya (State); Cheryl Saban to be Representative of the United States to the 67th Session of the United Nations General Assembly; Frederick Vollrath to be Assistant Secretary for Readiness and Force Management (Defense); and Tony West to be Associate Attorney General (Justice).