DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS
Inauguration. After being officially sworn in to a second term at the White House on Sunday, January 20, as prescribed by law, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden took the oath of office again in a public ceremony in front of the Capitol on Monday. President Obama delivered a 19-minute inaugural address weighted with references to America’s founders and touching on themes of bipartisanship, but largely focused on the progressive economic and social agenda on which he successfully campaigned, including climate change, marriage equality, and immigration reform, among other issues. Although smaller than the record crowd of approximately 1.8 million in 2009, hundreds of thousands attended the 57th inauguration festivities.
U.S. Economy. On Wednesday, the House passed a bill (H.R. 325) by a vote of 285-144 to suspend the federal debt ceiling through May 18, and then provide for an automatic increase to cover the amount of the new obligations taken on by the government. The bill also includes a provision to suspend and hold in escrow the payment of member salaries in either chamber that does not approve a Fiscal Year 2014 budget resolution by April 15. Prior to House passage, the White House released a “Statement of Administration Policy” announcing it would not block the legislation even though it would have preferred a long-term debt limit increase. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) has since pledged to pass the House’s bill. The $50 billion Hurricane Sandy disaster aid bill passed by the House last week will be taken up by the Senate on Monday under the terms of an agreement made this week to allow Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) to offer an amendment to offset the costs of the legislation before voting on final passage.
House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee Ranking Member Nita Lowey (D-New York) called for a return of earmarks at an event on Sunday. Conversely, Senators Patrick Toomey (R-Pennsylvania) and Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) announced Wednesday that they will re-introduce a measure to permanently ban earmarks. The House passed a measure (H.R. 307) Tuesday sponsored by Congressman Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) to reauthorize and modify several medical disaster preparation programs. Transportation Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) filed a placeholder “Sense of Congress” cybersecurity bill (S. 21) Wednesday, a sign of the issue’s continued importance to many Senate Democrats. Also on Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey announced that the Department will lift a current ban on women in the military serving in combat. Following the announcement, the White House issued a statement calling the move “another historic step toward harnessing the talents and skills of all our citizens.” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Representative Carolyn McCarthy (D-New York) unveiled legislation during a press conference Thursday that would reinstate and expand the expired federal ban on assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines. That afternoon, freshman Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said he looks “forward to helping lead the fight to defeat this bill,” while Vice President Biden traveled to Richmond, Virginia, Friday for the first in a series of public events intended to bolster support for the Administration's gun control initiatives. House Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp (R-Michigan) released draft legislation Thursday that would expand “mark-to-market” taxation of certain financial instruments. Leading House and Senate advocates of Congressional action on climate change announced a new bicameral task force on the issue Thursday. After days of negotiations, Senate leaders came to a deal Thursday to ease partisan gridlock by limiting the use of the filibuster while protecting the minority party’s right to offer amendments on the floor and the 60 vote threshold for most major legislation. The D.C. Circuit Court ruled unanimously Friday that President Obama’s appointments last year of three members to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) while the Senate was not technically in recess was unconstitutional. If the ruling is not overturned, it would invalidate all of the decisions made by the NLRB since the appointees joined the board.
Political News. Thursday, President Obama nominated lawyer Mary Jo White to be Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The President also announced he would nominate Richard Cordray to continue as Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Two-term Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia) announced Friday he will not seek reelection in 2014, citing “frustration” with “legislative gridlock and partisan posturing.” Also Friday, President Obama named Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough to replace his current Chief of Staff, Jack Lew, who has been nominated to succeed Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary. Tuesday, after the Pentagon Inspector General cleared Marine Corps General John Allen of a related scandal that prompted David Petraeus to resign as CIA Director, the White House indicated it will move forward with General Allen’s nomination to be NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced Tuesday he will step down in late February.
FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS
In what was likely her final testimony before Congress as Secretary of State, Secretary Clinton testified Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations (SFRC) and House Foreign Affairs Committees (HFAC) on the September 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The Secretary reiterated in her opening remarks her personal responsibility for the security lapses that resulted in the death of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Republican Members in both chambers focused on the answers provided by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice in the aftermath of the attacks. Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) pressed Secretary Clinton on Rice’s "purposely misleading" statements, to which the Secretary countered: “"With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night decided they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator." At the HFAC hearing that afternoon, Representative Jeff Duncan (R-South Carolina) accused the Secretary of “national security malpractice,” intimating she should have resigned, while Committee Democrats focused on how best to confront ongoing security threats in Northern Africa. At both hearings, Secretary Clinton reaffirmed the Accountability Review Board recommendations were being implemented; noting also the creation of a new Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for High Threats position. Secretary Clinton also emphasized the increased terrorist threats in northern Africa and said “We’re going to see more and more demands on AFRICOM [U.S. Africa Command], and that is something, I think, the House and Senate will have to address.” Later, Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Ranking Member Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi) said if Secretary Clinton “is recommending it seriously and as a change in policy, programming or funding, we would certainly take her suggestions seriously and consider them carefully.”
On Thursday, President Obama’s nominee to be the next Secretary of State SFRC Chair John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) called on bipartisan “economic patriotism” during his confirmation hearing before the Committee, saying “… the first priority of business which will affect my credibility as a diplomat, and our credibility as a nation, … [is] that America at last puts its own fiscal house in order.” Senator Kerry later acknowledged to Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) that cybersecurity is one of the “significant” threats facing U.S. national security, likening it to being a “21st century nuclear weapons equivalent.” With respect to Iran, Kerry said the Administration’s “policy is not containment. It is prevention”, reiterating President Obama’s preference and his is for “a diplomatic resolution to this challenge,” noting Tehran needs to agree to intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. SFRC Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) expressed concerns about President Obama’s Secretary of Defense Nominee, Chuck Hagel, noting Hagel appears to support an 80 percent reduction of U.S. nuclear weapons. Senator Kerry highly endorsed Hagel and noted the 80 percent goal is aspirational, underscoring Hagel is a realist. Senator Kerry also testified he will continue to be an advocate for addressing global climate change issues if confirmed.
Early this week, sixty-nine hostages, including at least 39 hostages (including three Americans) and 29 Islamist militants, were confirmed to have died in Algeria, while some 685 Algerian workers and 100 foreigners escaped or were freed during the Algerian military rescue attempt that concluded last weekend. On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said “The blame for this tragedy rests with the terrorists who carried it out. And the United States condemns their actions in the strongest possible terms. This attack is another reminder of the threat posed by al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups in North Africa.” Reports emerged Friday from Mali that French and Malian forces had taken control of Hombori, which lies about 100 miles from the Islamist stronghold of Gao. Chadian forces are also reportedly moving overland to assist with the effort to wrest control of northern Mali from Islamist forces. Tuesday, the State Department confirmed the Department of Defense, via AFRICOM, was airlifting French equipment into Mali.
Syria & North Korea. During Kerry’s nomination hearing, the Senator fielded questions related to how policy should change with respect to Syria. Senator McCain urged the Administration to tell Syrians “... we're either going to help them or we're not”; noting “we can do a lot more without putting American boots on the ground. And we can prevent this further slaughter and massacre and inhumanity. Otherwise we will be judged very, very harshly by history.” In response, Senator Kerry pledged to consider the issue further. Tuesday, the United Nations passed a resolution condemning North Korea’s December 12 rocket launch as a breach of earlier U.N. resolutions. On Friday, North Korea warned it will take "strong physical countermeasures" against South Korea if Seoul takes part in U.N. sanctions aimed at punishing Pyongyang. This threat comes a day after North Korea vowed to target the United States – its "sworn enemy" – with a nuclear test and further long-range missile tests.