This Week in Washington - August 17, 2012

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DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

Political News.  Last Saturday in Virginia, presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney announced his choice for Vice President:  Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), current Chairman of the House Budget Committee.  On Monday, Romney and Ryan campaigned in Florida and Iowa respectively, defending Chairman Ryan’s budget proposal from Democratic criticism of indiscriminate cuts to non-defense spending, in part by noting the Obama Administration’s own proposed Medicare cuts.  Meanwhile, President Obama campaigned throughout Iowa Monday through Wednesday, touting his support for the farm bill pending in Congress.  On Tuesday, Vice President Biden told a racially mixed Virginia audience that Governor Romney’s approach to financial regulation would “put y’all back in chains,” which spurred quick criticism from Republicans and a defense from the Obama campaign.  On Thursday, Romney responded to criticism from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and others by noting he has paid a Federal income tax rate of at least 13 percent for the last 10 years.  Meanwhile, several states held Congressional primaries this week.  Last Saturday, Democrats in Hawaii chose Congresswoman Mazie Hirono to face former Republican Governor Linda Lingle in November in a competitive race for the seat of retiring Democratic Senator Daniel Akaka.  On Tuesday, former Governor Tommy Thompson won the Wisconsin Republican Senate primary and will face Democratic Representative Tammy Baldwin in November in a highly competitive race for retiring Democratic Senator Herb Kohl’s seat. Incumbent Representative Cliff Stearns (R-Florida) conceded the Republican primary race for Florida’s redrawn 3rd Congressional District to veterinarian Ted Yoho Wednesday.  Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica defeated freshman Representative Sandy Adams in the Republican primary for Florida’s 7th Congressional District.   Businesswoman Linda McMahon beat former Representative Chris Shays in the Connecticut Republican Senate primary and will now face Congressman Chris Murphy, the Democrat favored to succeed retiring Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut).  Representative Dennis Cardoza (D-California), who previously said he would retire after this year, announced his resignation Tuesday, leaving the House with five current vacancies.  California will not hold a special election for former Congressman Cardoza’s battleground seat.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) sent a letter to President Obama Monday urging an executive order on cybersecurity in light of the Senate’s inability to pass legislation on the issue to this point.  On Tuesday, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged Congress to pass cybersecurity legislation during a Pentagon press briefing.  On Thursday, the Department of Justice approved, with conditions designed to promote competition, a $3.6 billion deal for telecommunications company Verizon to purchase telecommunications spectrum from four U.S. cable companies.  

Immigration.  On Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security began implementing its “deferred action” program, which allows undocumented immigrants to apply for a two-year reprieve from deportation if they are pursuing an education, are younger than 30, were brought to the United States before they were 16, and have lived in the country continuously for at least five years. Senator Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) used the launch date to call on Republican lawmakers to support the Administration’s policy and work with Democrats to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Chairman Darrell Issa (R-California), filed a civil lawsuit in the U.S. District Court on Monday against Attorney General Eric Holder, asking the court to enforce an October 2011 subpoena for the Attorney General to supply documents related to the aborted “Fast and Furious” operation.  House Homeland Security Committee Ranking Member Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi) sent a letter to the Transportation Security Administration this week asking the agency to halt its airport behavior detection program, known as the Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique, until it provides Congress with an independent assessment of the science behind the program.  Several agricultural states continue this week to suffer from droughts affecting the corn harvest.  On Monday and Tuesday, respectively, Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe (D) and North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue (D) filed formal waiver petitions requesting the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce the amount of ethanol that refiners are mandated to blend in gasoline in 2012 and 2013. Meanwhile, the Department of Energy announced U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have fallen to their lowest point since 1992.

FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS    

Syria.  Last Saturday, Secretary Clinton stopped in Turkey and held detailed conversations on Syria with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Abdullah Gül, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and Syrian opposition activists on:  (1) supporting the opposition’s efforts (the Secretary again noted U.S. assistance is non-lethal), (2) handling the humanitarian crisis, and (3) preparing for the fall of the Assad regime and how to assist the Syrian people with the transition.  Secretary Clinton announced the United States is providing an additional $5.5 million in humanitarian assistance to Syria, bringing the total U.S. contribution to nearly $82 million.  The United States and Turkey also discussed a no-fly zone, although no decisions were reached.  On Monday, the rebels claimed to have downed a Syrian fighter jet over Aleppo.  On Tuesday, the Treasury Department announced the removal of sanctions against Syria’s former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab after he defected and renounced the regime last week.  After hosting a meeting last week on Syria, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad travelled Monday to Saudi Arabia to attend the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Summit that began Tuesday in Mecca.  The OIC Summit focused on Syria and concluded Wednesday with the issuance of a communiqué suspending Syria from the organization.  Thursday, the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) voted to end the already greatly-reduced U.N. observer mission in Damascus.  The observers will cease work this Sunday and withdraw by next Friday.  The UNSC also approved U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's proposal to replace the observer mission with a small group of military advisers and political, human rights and civilian affairs experts.  

Iran.  Last weekend, northwest Iran suffered twin earthquakes, which reportedly killed over 300 people.  Iran’s chapter of the Red Crescent Society, however, declined offers of international assistance.  Thursday, the State Department urged U.N. Secretary-General Ban not to attend the August 30-31 Non-Aligned Movement Summit (to be held in Tehran).  State noted the Secretary-General’s presence would send a “very strange signal” to the world, particularly since Iran is not in compliance with many of its U.N. obligations.  While Israeli leaders openly debated this week if, when, and how to attack Iran over its nuclear program, on Friday, Iranian President Ahmadinejad denounced Israel's existence as an "insult to all humanity."   

In Beijing Tuesday, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman attended the inaugural meeting of the U.S.-China Middle East Dialogue – a new forum that is part of the existing Strategic and Economic Dialogue with China.  Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun and Under Secretary Sherman consulted on a broad range of issues with regard to the Middle East, including Iran and Syria.  

The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General John Allen, said Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar released "an unmistakable message of death, hate and hopelessness" for Eid al-Fitr.  Mullah Omar claims the Taliban has successfully infiltrated the Afghan security forces.  On Friday, a newly officiated Afghan local policeman shot and killed two U.S. service members and injured an Afghan National Police officer.  On Thursday, a U.S. military helicopter crashed during a firefight with insurgents in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, killing seven U.S. troops and four Afghans.

On Monday, Islamist Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi sacked the two top-ranking military leaders and abolished the supplementary constitutional declaration put in place by the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces in June that curtailed the authority of the presidency.  President Morsi's move was generally well-received within Egypt and effectively leaves the country’s first democratically-elected president with sweeping executive and legislative powers.  On Thursday, the State Department expressed concern over reports the Egyptian Government is moving to restrict media freedom, noting “Freedom of the press, freedom of expression are fundamental tenets of vibrant, strong democracies.”   

On August 16th, the Republic of Ecuador granted asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.  Assange remains inside Ecuador's Embassy in the United Kingdom.  British authorities have stated he is still subject to arrest and extradition to Sweden on rape charges.  The U.S. Department of State has said the issue remains one for Ecuadorian, British, and Swedish authorities to decide.  On Tuesday, the State Department confirmed the Government of Venezuela had notified the United States of the August 9th arrest of an American citizen, reportedly for illegally entering the country.  Also Tuesday, the State Department urged restraint on all sides as clashes flared between Yemen’s Republican Guards and the Yemeni military.  The State Department confirmed the United States is working with President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to help the transition process in Yemen.  On Friday, the State Department expressed concern “about both the verdict and the disproportionate sentences handed down by a Moscow court in the case against the members of the band Pussy Riot …,” convicted of hooliganism for performing a song criticizing the rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  State urged Russian authorities to review the case and to ensure the right to free expression.