This Week in Washington - December 7, 2012

Explore:  Fiscal Cliff


The Fiscal Cliff Debate.  On Monday, House Republican leaders presented a debt reduction counter-offer to the White House.  The plan would raise $800 billion in new tax revenue through an overhaul of the tax code, cut $600 billion from federal health programs, and save $200 billion from reforms to Social Security.  Although it includes new tax revenue, the plan does not raise tax rates on the top two per cent of U.S. incomes, so the White House rejected the proposal as not meeting “the test of balance.”  On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said the Obama Administration is “absolutely” willing to go off the so-called fiscal cliff, if House Republicans refuse to increase tax rates on the wealthiest Americans.  House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Michigan) called the Obama Administration’s position “purely political.”  President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) spoke about fiscal cliff issues by phone Wednesday, and on Thursday, White House congressional liaison Rob Nabors met with House Republican leadership staff.

During a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing Tuesday, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) head Craig Fugate said the agency has “sufficient resources” to operate until the spring without supplemental disaster assistance funding.  However, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan confirmed the Administration will make a $60.4 billion request to Congress for emergency aid for Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts.  On Wednesday, Senate Republicans sought to take up the House-passed STEM Jobs Act (HR 6429), designed to increase the number of visas for high-skilled immigrants, but Senate Democrats blocked consideration over the bill’s elimination of the diversity visa program.  Also on Wednesday, the House amended a $17.4 billion Coast Guard reauthorization bill and sent it back to the Senate.  On Wednesday evening, hours before limited recreational use of marijuana became legal under Washington state law, the U.S. Department of Justice confirmed that “marijuana remains illegal under federal law,” setting up a possible legal challenge.  Leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees insisted Thursday they are still working on a compromise farm bill that could be part of a broader deficit-reduction agreement.  On Friday, the Department of Labor announced that the U.S. economy added 146,000 jobs in November, exceeding some economists’ predictions and bringing the unemployment rate down to 7.7 percent.  The White House stated, “[W]hile more work remains to be done, today’s employment report provides further evidence that the US economy is continuing to heal from the wounds inflicted by the worst downturn since the Great Depression.”  Reversing his previous position, President Obama announced Friday that his Inaugural Committee will accept unlimited corporate donations for his second Inauguration in January 2013.  The Supreme Court announced Friday that it will hear two cases on the constitutional issues surrounding same-sex marriage.

Political News.  Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson (R-Missouri) announced on Monday that she will become president of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and will leave her seat in February, meaning there will be a new House Appropriations Financial Services Subcommittee Chair.  On Tuesday, Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) announced he will serve as Chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the 2014 election cycle, when 20 Democratic-held and 14 Republican-held Senate seats will be on the ballot.  Also on Tuesday, the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) elected Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin as Chair.  Former House Judiciary Committee and House Government Operations Committee Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Texas) passed away Tuesday.  On Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) announced committee ranking members for the new Congress.  New York Representatives Eliot Engel and Nita Lowey will be the next Ranking Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Appropriations Committee, respectively.  On Thursday, Senator Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina), who was expected to serve as the new Ranking Member on the Senate Commerce Committee, announced he will resign in January to become President of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.  Senator DeMint’s resignation leaves an open seat that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (R) must fill via appointment until a special election is held in November 2014.


Syria.  On Monday, U.S. defense officials confirmed activity, including movements of weapons components, had been reported at the Assad regime’s known chemical sites.  The United States, NATO and Russia again warned the Syrian government against unleashing its stockpile of chemical weapons.  President Obama said:  “I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command:  The world is watching.  The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable.  And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there where be consequences….”  Tuesday, Secretary Clinton said an agreement had been reached to augment Turkey’s air defenses with advanced NATO Patriot missile batteries to protect against the ballistic missile threat from Syria.  On the margins of the OSCE Ministerial in Dublin Thursday, Secretary Clinton met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.N.-Arab Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to discuss options for the deteriorating situation in Syria.  Also Thursday, Senators John McCain (R-Arizona), Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) and Chris Coons (D-Delaware) called on President Obama to launch pre-emptive military action if the Administration receives “hard intelligence” of a Syrian decision to use chemical weapons.  Next week, the Secretary will be in Morocco to participate in a meeting of the Friends of the Syrian People before traveling onto Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.

Egypt.  While protests continued this week and accelerated on Friday, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi confirmed the referendum on a new Islamist-oriented constitution will go ahead as planned; saying if the constitution were voted down, another constituent assembly would be formed to write a new draft.  On Thursday, President Obama called President Morsi to express his deep concern about the deaths and injuries of protesters in Egypt.  The President welcomed President Morsi’s call for a dialogue with the opposition.

After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the planned expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem, the State Department said Monday:  “The United States opposes all unilateral actions, including West Bank settlement activity and housing construction in East Jerusalem, as they complicate efforts to resume direct, bilateral negotiations, and risk prejudging the outcome of those negotiations.  This includes building in the E-1 area as this area is particularly sensitive and construction there would be especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution.”

Tuesday evening, the Senate passed 98-0 its version of the Fiscal Year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, S. 3254); the measure authorizes $631.4 billion in discretionary spending.  Included in the Senate NDAA is Senator McCain’s amendment to require a feasibility study on a no-fly zone over Syria.  The Senate also approved an amendment, co-sponsored by Senators Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) and John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), to require the Administration to brief appropriate Congressional committees on any dialogue with Russia on nuclear arms, strike systems, or defenses.  The Senate and House now must conference to reconcile differences in their respective NDAA bills.  The House NDAA measure (H.R. 4310) authorizes $635.3 billion, about $4 billion more than President Obama’s request and $8 billion more than called for under the 2011 debt limit law (P.L. 112-25).  Other areas of difference are Senate-passed Iran sanctions (for which House leaders have voiced support), abortion services and insurance coverage for servicewomen, detention policy for U.S. citizens and legal aliens, and treatment of gay service members.     

On Thursday, the Senate approved (92-4) the House-passed legislation (H.R. 6156) to provide for Permanent Normal Trade Relations with Russia and Moldova.  The measure also repeals the Jackson-Vanik law and replaces it with the Sergei Magnitsky Accountability Act that would punish Russian human rights violators.  In withdrawing his amendment to globalize the Magnitsky bill’s reach, Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) said, “This bill may only apply to Russia, but it sets a standard that should be applied globally.”  Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov told Secretary Clinton in Dublin that Russia will in turn blacklist Americans guilty of human rights violations. H.R. 6156 now heads to President Obama for his expected signature. 

With October 2013 as the target date for concluding negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), member countries’ trade negotiators descend on New Zealand this week for the 15th round of discussions over the 29 chapters of the TPP agreement.  Negotiators are scheduled to spend six of the ten days discussing the environment chapter, particularly its dispute settlement provisions.

Monday, Secretary Clinton discussed energy security and other issues with Czech officials.  In Dublin Thursday, Secretary Clinton spoke on four frontlines of human rights, including: (1) religious freedom, which the United States is helping Burma and other transitioning countries to understand more fully; (2) Internet freedom; (3) the role of civil society; and (4) women and girls’ human rights.  The Secretary also said the State Department will begin to track every country’s legal minimum age of marriage and rate of underage marriage.  On Friday, Secretary Clinton was in Northern Ireland, meeting with Northern Ireland Executive First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and United Kingdom Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers.  Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney extended “…congratulations to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the welcome news…they are expecting their first child.”  The media reported Friday that Iranian scientists and military officers will attend North Korea's test launch of a long-range ballistic missile expected this month.  The United States is urging Pyongyang to cancel the test but is reportedly shifting four warships into position to track the rocket.

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