This Week in Washington - December 21, 2012

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DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

The Fiscal Cliff Debate. On Monday evening, the White House proposed a compromise of raising taxes only on income earners above $400,000 and increasing the amount of spending cuts to $1.2 trillion. However, Speaker Boehner announced Tuesday a Republican “Plan B” tax bill, which would make the Bush tax cut rates permanent for income earners below $1 million. The White House threatened to veto the measure, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) also expressed his opposition, stating it would not pass the Senate. However, just before a scheduled vote Thursday evening, Speaker Boehner pulled the measure from consideration due to an apparent lack of support within the Republican Caucus and called on the President and Senate Majority Leader to produce a new plan to avert the fiscal cliff, noting that the “House has already passed legislation to stop…tax rate increases and replace the sequester with responsible spending cuts.” Before pulling its Plan B vote Thursday evening, the House narrowly passed (215-209) legislation to delay sequestration’s defense cuts for one year and reduce non-defense spending in a manner opposed by President Obama and Congressional Democrats. Meanwhile, Senator Reid has stated the Senate will not move forward with further fiscal cliff legislation until the House considers the Senate-passed measure to extend the Bush tax cuts for family incomes below $250,000. He officially announced Thursday morning that the holiday recess is cancelled and that Senators are expected back on December 27th. In remarks on Friday, President Obama supported Senator Reid’s emphasis on renewing only middle-class tax cuts.

Response to Connecticut Tragedy. President Obama held a press conference Wednesday in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting, and the ensuing funerals of students and teachers, to urge Congress to consider measures early next year to ban the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, as well as requiring background checks prior to all gun sales. Additionally, the President announced that Vice President Biden will lead a Cabinet-level working group to develop specific recommendations by the end of January. Numerous Congressional Democrats have urged the immediate passage of a bill that would ban ammunition magazines of more than 10 rounds, and Democratic gun-rights supporters such as Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia) have expressed a willingness to consider new gun safety measures. Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) appointed Congressman Mike Thompson (D-California) to lead a House Democratic legislative task force on gun violence. Friday morning, the country honored the victims of the shooting with a national moment of silence. Later in the day, the National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre called for the placement of armed guards in U.S. schools but no new gun control measures.

Late Wednesday night, the Senate passed a package of bills related to veterans services and benefits, including burial assistance for certain deceased veterans and improved access to federal surplus personal property for veterans service organizations. The Commerce Department reported Thursday the U.S. economy grew at a better-than-expected annual rate of 3.1 percent over the third quarter, more than two times the previous quarter’s rate. Friday afternoon, after Senate leaders came to an agreement on amendment votes, the chamber voted (91-1) to proceed with consideration of a supplemental spending bill to respond to damage caused by Superstorm Sandy in October. Republicans oppose provisions in the bill aimed at mitigating and preparing for future disasters, and several of the amendments address their concerns.

Political News. Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Chairman of the Appropriations Committee and the second-longest serving senator ever, passed away Monday. Senator Inouye lies in state this week for his colleagues and the public to pay their respects – in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Thursday, the National Cathedral on Friday (which President Obama attended), and in Hawaii’s state capitol building on Saturday. Several Senate colleagues, including Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), are expected to attend the final memorial service in Hawaii on Sunday. Before he died, Senator Inouye wrote a letter asking Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie (D) to appoint Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) to his Senate seat until a special election in 2014. After Senator Inouye’s passing, Senator Pat Leahy (D-Vermont) and Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) turned down the chairmanship for the Appropriations Committee before Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) accepted the gavel on Thursday as the Committee’s first female chair. On Monday, to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Jim DeMint (R), South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (R) announced she will appoint freshman Republican Congressman Tim Scott, who will become the only African-American in the chamber. Conservative judicial icon and failed U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork passed away Wednesday. On Thursday, Democrat Cory Booker announced he will explore a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2014 after completing his second term as Mayor of Newark, New Jersey.

FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

State Department Developments. On Wednesday morning, the State Department released the unclassified Accountability Review Board (ARB) report on the September 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. ARB Chair Ambassador Tom Pickering and Vice Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen said the report found security measures were inadequate and “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies” contributed to the deficiencies. Secretary Clinton assured Congress all of the ARB recommendations will be implemented. On Wednesday, Eric Boswell, the Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security, Charlene Lamb, Boswell's deputy, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for North Africa Raymond Maxwell reportedly offered their resignations. Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) held separate hearings on the Benghazi attack, with Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources Tom Nides testifying instead of Secretary Clinton, who is still recovering from a concussion this past weekend. Secretary Clinton has been rescheduled to testify before the SFRC and HFAC next month. SFRC Chair John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) cautioned Congress also has a role in ensuring funding for U.S. diplomatic security is adequate. HFAC Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) challenged the State Department’s claim that Congress had provided insufficient funding, saying: “Perhaps it should take a closer look at the money that is being lavished [instead] on global climate change, a culinary diplomacy program, and other favored projects.” Friday afternoon, President Obama announced SFRC Chair Kerry as his nominee to be the next U.S. Secretary of State. The President expressed confidence Kerry will be swiftly confirmed by the new Senate, which would trigger a temporary Senate replacement and a summertime special election in Massachusetts to replace Senator Kerry.

Syria. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Friday the Syrian military continues to use Scud-type missiles against the Syrian rebels. Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said: "We are not concerned about the fate of Assad's regime. We understand what is going on there.” On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) sanctioned two Iranian companies – Yas Air and SAD Import Export Company – for shipping weapons to the Syrian government and thereby violating the U.N. arms embargo.

Late Tuesday night, the Senate-House Conference Committee released its Conference Report on the Fiscal Year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The House approved the Conference Report Thursday by a vote of 315 to 107. The Senate followed suit Friday afternoon with a vote of 81 to 14, sending the $633 billion authorization bill to President Obama’s desk.

On Thursday, President Putin endorsed a bill approved by the State Duma to prevent adoptions by U.S. citizens of Russian children. The measure also would bar any political activities by nongovernmental organizations receiving funding from the United States and imposes sanctions against U.S. officials believed to have violated human rights. The bill is largely viewed as Russia’s response to the U.S. Magnitsky law, which authorizes human rights sanctions on select Russian officials.

This week, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank co-chaired the 23rd session of the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan. Monday, President Obama congratulated Shinzo Abe on the Liberal Democratic Party’s victory in last Sunday’s elections in Japan, which led to Abe’s return as Prime Minister on Tuesday, replacing Yoshihiko Noda from the Democratic Party. President Obama and Prime Minister-elect Abe reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance as the cornerstone of peace and security in the region. On Friday, President Obama spoke with Park Geun-hye, the President-elect of the Republic of Korea, congratulating her on her victory in Wednesday’s election. President Obama and President-elect Park, who will replace term-limited fellow conservative Lee Myung-bak in February as Korea’s first female President, reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Korea alliance as a linchpin of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and in the Asia Pacific region.

On Friday, the United States welcomed the Thursday the UNSC resolution on the situation in Mali, which authorizes deployment of an African-led International Support Mission (AFISMA) to assist Malian government efforts to re-assert authority over Islamist- and rebel-controlled northern Mali. Thursday, President Obama terminated Africa Growth & Opportunity Act eligibility for Mali and Guinea-Bissau, but added South Sudan to the list of eligible countries. Also Thursday, the United States welcomed the Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda’s conviction and sentencing of Augustin Ngirabatware, a former government minister, for crimes against humanity in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. On Tuesday, President Obama spoke with Rwandan President Kagame to discuss the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, with President Obama underscoring that any Rwandan support to the rebel group M23 is inconsistent with peace and stability.