This Week in Washington - August 24, 2012

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DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

Political News.  Reports on Sunday indicated the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had investigated ethics issues related to a Congressional fact-finding trip to Israel taken by several Republican House members and their staff last summer; the trip reportedly included a night of drinking, followed by a swim in the Sea of Galilee by Congressman Kevin Yoder (R-Kansas) and others.  Also on Sunday, Representative Todd Akin (R-Missouri), who is running against Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), stated that women’s bodies can block a pregnancy from occurring in cases of “legitimate rape.”  Congressman Akin apologized for his remarks, but he has refused to step down from the Senate race, despite calls to do so from Republican Party leaders, including presumptive Presidential nominee Mitt Romney.  Public attention over the controversy extended throughout the week, as Governor Romney instead tried to focus his campaign on the U.S. economy and his new energy policy, announced Thursday while campaigning in New Mexico.  Romney’s energy policy seeks to make North America energy independent by 2020 with a focus on fossil fuel development, including constructing the Keystone Pipeline and conducting additional drilling for oil in Alaska and off the East Coast.  Meanwhile, President Obama campaigned heavily on education issues throughout the week, noting the importance of college affordability and investing in teachers.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security reported new intelligence Tuesday related to “potential anarchist extremism-related violent criminal activity and threats to public safety during the 2012 national political conventions.”  Next Monday, the Republican National Convention will open in Tampa, Florida, with the Democratic National Convention taking place the following week in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Both parties are heavily contesting Florida and North Carolina in this year’s election.

Budget and Economy. On Wednesday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report updating the U.S. fiscal and economic outlook for the next decade.  CBO estimates a federal budget deficit of $1.1 trillion for the current fiscal year, which is slightly less than earlier projections but marks the fourth year in a row with a deficit over $1 trillion.  The report further states that a sharp reduction in federal spending and a concurrent rise in tax rates, as currently scheduled to occur at the end of 2012 barring intervening Congressional action, will bring a renewed recession while putting federal deficit trends on a more sustainable path.  Meanwhile, in a letter Wednesday to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-California), Federal Reserve (Fed) Chairman Ben Bernanke said there is “scope for further action” for monetary stimulus by the Fed, if the pace of economic recovery does not pick up in the near term.

Pursuant to the Obama Administration’s “We Can’t Wait” initiative, the White House announced Monday that it will expedite four surface transportation projects in Maine, North Dakota, Oregon and Washington state.  In a 2-1 decision Tuesday, a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) overstepped its authority in enacting the “cross-state air pollution” (CSAPR) rule.  CSAPR has mandated emissions reductions in upwind states.  While several Republican lawmakers praised the ruling, House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) encouraged the EPA to appeal the decision.  Meanwhile, the EPA announced this week that it will hold a 30-day comment period on whether to reduce the federal mandate for ethanol production, in light of droughts that have devastated the corn crop in a large part of the country.  A report released Wednesday found that more than one quarter of high school graduates this year did not meet any of the college readiness benchmarks as part of a standardized test in English, math, reading and science.  Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) stated that legislation approved by his committee would hold schools more accountable for preparing students for college or a career, and he called on his colleagues to advance the legislation.  Friday morning, a disgruntled former employee at the Empire State Building in New York City shot several people there before being killed by police.

FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS   

Syria.  On Monday, President Obama warned, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized….That would change my calculus.”  The United States is reportedly monitoring at least four known chemical weapons sites in Syria.  Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones led an interagency team in talks with the Turkish government Wednesday on coordinating assistance to the Syrian opposition.  On Wednesday, President Obama spoke with British Prime Minister David Cameron about the dire humanitarian situation in Syria and the economic crisis in Europe.  France indicated Thursday it is now willing to pursue establishing partial no-fly zones over Syria, a suggestion Secretary Clinton proffered earlier this month.  Meanwhile, the media reported an increased number of executions by Syrian security forces in Damascus, with NGOs saying 730 civilians have died in Damascus this month and 529 in Aleppo.  In neighboring Lebanon, security forces reported new sectarian clashes broke out Friday between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime, killing two people and wounding 17 others.  Late last Friday, the United States welcomed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s decision to appoint former Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi as the new U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy to Syria.  

Iran.  Despite protests from the United States and Israel, U.N. Secretary-General Ban announced Wednesday he will attend next week’s Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Tehran.  On Friday, talks between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency regarding concerns about Iran's nuclear program and gaining access to the Parchin military facility concluded with no agreement and no future meeting scheduled.

Afghanistan.  Early this week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey was in Afghanistan, meeting with U.S. Commander of NATO forces General John Allen and Afghan Army General Sher Mohammad Karimi.  While a rocket attack at Bagram Airfield damaged a C-17 aircraft that had transported Chairman Dempsey, the General was not present during the attack.  Meanwhile, Congress has taken note of the fact that there have been 32 attacks by Afghans on NATO and U.S. forces this year, killing 40 coalition members, including nine in the past 12 days.  President Obama acknowledged the issue at a Monday news conference, saying, “In the long term, we will see fewer U.S. casualties and coalition casualties by sticking to our transition plan and making sure that we’ve got the most effective Afghan security force possible….”  Representative Duncan Hunter (R-California) sent a letter Monday to House Armed Services Committee Chair “Buck” McKeon (R-California) calling for committee hearings on the “impact of these attacks on mission safety, combat effectiveness and U.S.-Afghan cooperation.”  Representative Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) called for an Afghanistan-Pakistan study group to examine the Administration’s policy.

Trade.  On Wednesday, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dave Camp (R-Michigan) said, “As of today, Russia has become a WTO member.  While our competitors are reaping the benefits, we will not until the House, Senate and President act.  It is my hope that in September we build on the strong, bipartisan support in the Ways and Means Committee as well as the Senate Finance Committee and send legislation to the President for his signature.”  After returning to Washington on September 10th, Congress may take up Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) legislation for Russia and Moldova, which would repeal Jackson-Vanik restrictions on Russia and instead include human rights provisions from the Sergei Magnitsky Act.  Thursday, pursuant to the Dodd-Frank law, the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) finalized a rule designed to increase transparency of extractive industries, particularly “conflict minerals” from the Democratic Republic of Congo.  According to the State Department, “Under the rules issued by the SEC, oil, natural gas, and mining companies who are required to file annual reports with the SEC will have to disclose certain payments they make to governments for resource development on a project-by-project basis.” 

On Thursday, with respect to the reported Egyptian security operations against militants in the Sinai Peninsula, the State Department encouraged Egypt to be transparent, to maintain its treaty obligations, and to keep a dialogue with Israel.  On Wednesday, Secretary Clinton called Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, discussing the situations in the Sinai and in Syria in advance of President Mohamed Morsi’s visit to the United States next month, announced on Wednesday.  The Secretary also congratulated Libyan National Congress President Mohammed Yussef Magariaf on his new position Wednesday, and reiterated the United States’ interest in supporting the Libyan Government in strengthening its democratic institutions.

Late last Friday with respect to Ecuador’s decision to grant a diplomatic asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, the State Department emphasized "this is a bilateral issue between Ecuador and the United Kingdom” and noted the Organization of American States (OAS) has no role to play in this matter.  At Ecuador’s request, the OAS met today to discuss the issue.

Tuesday, President Obama and Secretary Clinton expressed condolences upon learning of the passing of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, with whom President Obama met at the G-8 Summit in May.  President Obama spoke with Acting Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on Thursday.  White House Press Secretary Jay Carney welcomed Monday’s announcement that Somalia’s New Federal Parliament would be convened, noting this marks an important milestone in completing the Roadmap to End the Somali Transition.  The White House further urged those remaining Somali communities that have not yet nominated their members of parliament to do so with urgency.  This week, President Obama accepted the resignation of Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams, thanking him for his service.