This Week in Washington

    2 November 2012


    Hurricane Sandy. Late Monday evening, category one Hurricane Sandy made landfall in southern New Jersey as a post-tropical cyclone, converging with two cold fronts and wreaking damage as it moved inland impacting the mid-Atlantic and Eastern seaboard. In advance of the storm’s arrival, Washington closed the federal government and New York and New Jersey suspended their mass transit systems, and several evacuations took place in lower-lying portions of New York City. Thousands remain without power throughout New York and New Jersey, and the death toll in New York City climbed to 41 Friday as clean up efforts continue. More than 36,000 storm victims from New Jersey, New York and Connecticut have applied for federal disaster assistance, and more than $3.4 million in direct aid has been approved. Building on the post-storm working relationship demonstrated by President Obama and Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) this week, the Obama Administration also announced it will provide approximately $26 million to the State of New Jersey to hire temporary workers to aid with clean up and repair roads damaged in the storm, as well as $13 million in emergency relief funds to help New York and Rhode Island begin repairing storm-damaged infrastructure. Although Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate said his agency currently has enough money to cover disaster response efforts, he stated Thursday that FEMA may seek more funding once it completes a total damage assessment. While senior House Appropriator Chaka Fattah (D-Pennsylvania) introduced legislation Friday that would provide FEMA an additional $12 billion in emergency disaster relief funds – with no budget offsets – Senate leaders in both parties suggested this week that they will wait for damage estimates before making decisions about whether to press for supplemental funding for disaster relief efforts.

    2012 Elections. With less than one week before Tuesday’s elections, both presidential campaigns fully suspended events during the height of the storm Monday and Tuesday. President Obama traveled Wednesday to New Jersey to view the storm damage, while Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney held events in the battleground state of Florida to raise money and goods to aid those affected by Hurricane Sandy. The President resumed campaigning Thursday, with stops throughout the week in Wisconsin, Nevada, Colorado, and Ohio. Governor Romney meanwhile campaigned the rest of the week in Virginia, Ohio and Wisconsin. On Thursday, Independent New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed President Barack Obama, basing his choice in large part on the President’s stance on climate change policy, stating “I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics.” Poll results throughout the week continued to show a tight race between the two candidates, with the Obama-Biden ticket appearing to have a slight edge in the race for an Electoral College majority. Polls continue to suggest a Democratic lead for maintaining control of the Senate and a Republican lead for holding a majority in the House.

    Budget, Sequestration, & the Economy. On Thursday, the Conference Board released a report showing that consumer confidence increased to a score of 72.2 in October -- up nearly 4 points from the previous month and the highest reading since February 2008. Additionally, on Friday, the Department of Labor released the monthly employment statistics for October. The economy added a better-than-expected 171,000 jobs for the month, but unemployment rose to 7.9 percent from 7.8 percent.

    After the Treasury Department rejected a request from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to provide documents related to an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rule that Congressional Republicans say conflicts with the language of the health care reform law, Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R-California) expressed support this week for a disapproval resolution to nullify the rule during the lame duck session. Voters in five states (Alabama, Florida, Missouri, Montana, and Wyoming) will consider referendums next Tuesday aimed at restricting the 2010 law. While the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee announced it will hold a hearing on November 15th regarding implications of the 2012 meningitis outbreak, Congressman Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) introduced a bill Friday to increase the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory oversight over compounding pharmacies like the one linked to the outbreak.


    Iran. The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoun Abbasi, confirmed for the first time Thursday the installation of the final centrifuges for enriching uranium at its underground nuclear facility in Fordo. On Friday, Iran marked the 33rd anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran – the event that led to the United States severing diplomatic relations – with its annual anti-American rhetoric demonstration outside the former mission building. A Wall Street Journal article published late Thursday revealed Iran is employing reflagging tactics for oil tanker vessels, primarily owned by the state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, to circumvent international sanctions imposed against it and Syria in order to provide refined petroleum products to Syria. Meanwhile, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) reported oil output rose slightly in October as extra supplies from Iraq, Angola and Libya offset disruptions in Nigeria and a further decline in Iran.

    Syria. The ceasefire over Eid al-Adha was widely ignored over the four day holiday. By Monday, the final day of the truce, the Syrian regime bombarded rebel stongholds via air strikes, killing an estimated 80 civilians. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday from Croatia: “We’ve made it clear that the SNC [Syrian National Council] can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition.” The Secretary clarified the “opposition must include people from inside Syria and others who have a legitimate voice that needs to be heard,” urging the creation of a new Syrian opposition council. Qatar and Turkey continue to support the SNC as the principal opposition group. Russia criticized Secretary Clinton's initiative Friday and accused Washington of attempting to impose its own terms. U.S. Ambassador to Damascus Robert Ford will be attending the Syrian opposition meeting in Qatar next week. Meanwhile, on Thursday, a new video emerged allegedly showing Syrian rebels killing a group of captured soldiers near the northern town Saraqeb, specifically at military checkpoint posts. International human rights nongovernmental organizations warned Friday a war crime may have been committed. While the video footage has not been verified, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said they are examining the video. On Friday, the media reported the Syrian military abandoned its base near Saraqeb.

    House Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon (R-California) sent a letter Monday to President Obama, inquiring about the President’s statement in a recent interview where President Obama stated he issued a “clear directive” to “make sure that we are securing our personnel”, once it was clear U.S. facilities were under attack in Benghazi, Libya. Chairman McKeon requested clarification, saying he found “it implausible that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, and the commander of U.S. European Command would have ignored a direct order from the commander in chief.” The day before, however, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta indicated to the media that he and top military officials were not confident of the intelligence received as the attack unfolded and decided against sending U.S. aircraft or deploying special forces.

    In Algeria Monday, Secretary Clinton met with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, discussing the ongoing situation in northern Mali and countering terrorist and drug threats in the region. Tuesday, the Secretary met with Bosnian Presidency Chairman Bakir Izetbegovic and E.U. High Representative Lady Catherine Ashton in Sarajevo. Later that same day in Belgrade, after a meeting between Secretary Clinton, Serbian Prime Minister Ivaca Dačić, and E.U. High Representative Ashton, a joint statement was issued, expressing a commitment to Serbia’s E.U. aspirations and furthering a continued, constructive dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo on normalizing relations. Early Wednesday, the Secretary and Lady Ashton met with Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi, discussing relations with Serbia and Kosovo’s E.U. aspirations. On Wednesday in Zagreb, the Secretary met with President Ivo Josipovic, discussing NATO and Croatia’s ascension into the European Union next year. Thursday, Secretary Clinton congratulated Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha for Albania’s “first 100 years” of independence, pledging a close working relationship for the next 100 years.

    The State Department said Monday the United States is concerned that the conduct of Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Ukraine, in which the Party of Regions allied with President Viktor Yanukovych was declared the victor, constituted a step backwards from progress made during previous parliamentary elections and the 2010 presidential election. Tuesday, South Africa hosted the first meeting of the U.S.-South Africa Senior Officials’ Working Group on African and Global Affairs, which met to discuss topics such as the African Union, regional economic integration, the Great Lakes, Zimbabwe, Sudan and South Sudan, Iran, and the Middle East. On Wednesday, Secretary Clinton welcomed the entry-into-force of the U.S.-Panama Free Trade Agreement. Also Wednesday, the State Department expressed concern over the Bahraini Government’s decision to ban all public gatherings and urged the Government to work with protest leaders to find a way for demonstrations to occur. State also noted the decision appears to be contrary to Bahrain’s professed commitment to reform and will not help advance national reconciliation. On Thursday, President Obama renewed economic sanctions against Sudan, citing the following concerns impede normalizing relations: the ongoing conflict in Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Darfur and the final status of Abyei. On Friday, the State Department congratulated the Libyan people on the formation of a government, hailing this as a “critical milestone” in Libya’s democratic transition and committing to work with the new government.