This Week in Washington - February, 2013

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DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

U.S. Economy. Preliminary figures released this week revealed that the U.S. economy contracted at an annual rate of 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012, marking the first time growth has been negative since mid-2009. On Friday, the Department of Labor announced the economy added 157,000 new jobs in January 2013, and unemployment rose from 7.8 percent in December to 7.9 percent.

Debt Ceiling, Sequestration. The Senate voted 64-34 on Thursday to approve House-passed legislation to suspend the legal limit on the nation’s debt until mid-May, allowing the Treasury Department to continue borrowing and temporarily avoiding the threat of default. The measure would also withhold pay to Members of Congress if their respective chamber fails to adopt a budget by April 15. The legislation now goes to President Obama for his expected signature. Also on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) announced he will try to move a package to avert across-the-board spending cuts under sequestration.

Immigration Reform. A bipartisan group of eight Senators – including Republicans John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona and Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado – unveiled at a press conference Monday a proposal for immigration reform. The Senators noted that many details still need to be worked out, but they hope to have a draft bill available by early March. The proposal promises to improve border security and enhance employment verification while also creating a path to legal status and citizenship for certain undocumented immigrants. President Obama also spoke in support of immigration reform at a high school in Las Vegas, Nevada, Tuesday where he called for swift action on Capitol Hill. Unlike the parameters set forth by the eight Senators, the President prefers a system that does not condition a path to citizenship on certain prior border security improvements.

Gun Control. On Monday, President Obama and Vice President Biden solicited ideas on gun safety measures from law enforcement officers, including representatives from towns with mass shootings last year: Newtown, Connecticut; Aurora, Colorado; and Oak Creek, Wisconsin. On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held the first Congressional hearing on gun violence since the Newtown tragedy, at which former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona) gave a statement encouraging lawmakers to “be bold” in their efforts to enact legislation. The following day, Vice President Biden attended the Senate Democrats’ weekly Caucus lunch to urge support for the President’s gun control agenda, including an assault weapons ban.

On Monday, the special inspector general for the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program issued a report revealing that the Treasury Department disregarded its own guidelines to allow large payments to executives at three firms that received taxpayer-funded assistance during the financial crisis. On Monday evening, the Senate approved, by a vote of 62-36, a $50.5 billion House-passed federal aid package to assist the Northeastern states devastated by Superstorm Sandy. On Wednesday, Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) introduced legislation (S.180) to delay the enforcement of any rulings made by the National Labor Relations Board after a federal appeals court ruled Friday that President Obama’s appointments to the board last year were unconstitutional. The following day, Senator Barrasso reintroduced a bill (S.192) to expedite the Department of Energy’s permitting process and allow exports of liquefied national gas to NATO members and other allies. On Friday, the Obama Administration said it will not permit broad exceptions to the contraceptives mandate included in the 2010 health care overhaul, despite calls from certain employers to opt out over religious objections.

Political News. On Sunday, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) announced he will not seek re-election in 2014 to represent the perennial battleground state for a sixth term. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced Tuesday he is leaving the Cabinet, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced Friday he will resign once a successor is confirmed. On Wednesday, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick appointed his former Chief of Staff and fellow Democrat Mo Cowan to fill Secretary of State John Kerry’s former Senate seat until the June 25th special election. Former Senator Scott Brown (R-Massachusetts) announced Friday he will not run for the seat, improving the odds of Congressman Ed Markey and Congressman Stephen Lynch, the two announced Democratic candidates.

FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

Friday afternoon, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan confirmed a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device at one of the side entrances to the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, killing himself and the guard at the gate. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney condemned the attack as "an act of terror,” acknowledging the motivations behind the attack remain unknown.

Before the Council of Foreign Relations Thursday, departing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized “America today is stronger at home and more respected in the world.” The Secretary stated if the United States is serious about addressing illegal immigration and immigration reform, the United States needs “to do more on border security and internal security in Central America,” noting illegal immigration from Mexico has decreased. Secretary Clinton emphasized the United States also needs to “…be smart about how we use our power,” noting increased partnership with “invigorated” regional and sub-regional organizations. The United States, the Secretary said, needs to “widen the aperture” of its engagement to: include 21st century statecraft; keep “dangerous materials out of the hands of terrorists;” craft “common economic rules of the road;” address energy and climate change issues; and promote human rights and democracy.

On Tuesday by a vote of 94-3, the Senate confirmed Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) as Secretary Clinton’s replacement. Senator Kerry gave his farewell address on the Senate floor Wednesday, stating, “If the Senate favors inaction over courage and gimmicks over common ground…we will fall behind, we will stay behind and we will surrender our promise to those who are more than willing to turn our squandered opportunity into their advantage.” Secretary Kerry was sworn-in Friday as the 68th Secretary of State.

Thursday, in a confirmation hearing for President Obama’s Secretary of Defense-Designate Chuck Hagel that lasted over eight hours, Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) grilled the nominee on Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, and Iran, among other topics. Senator McCain expressed frustration after asking whether then-Senator Hagel’s vote against the 2007 “surge” of U.S. troops in Iraq was right or wrong and Hagel’s response: “I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out.” Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) challenged Senator Hagel to name one lawmaker who had been intimidated by what Hagel had named the “Jewish lobby,” a phrase for which he has subsequently apologized. No member of the 55-member Democratic Senate Caucus has announced opposition to the nomination, and Senate Republicans have not announced plans to attempt a filibuster. SASC Chair Carl Levin (D-Michigan), who clarified with Senator Hagel during the hearing that the Administration opposes a policy of containment for Iran, said the earliest the committee will vote on Senator Hagel’s nomination is next Thursday.

Syria & Iran. Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported at least 65 male bodies (including youths) were found shot execution-style in Aleppo province – with both sides in the conflict claiming the other was responsible. Also Tuesday, U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said to the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) the Syrian crisis has reached “unprecedented levels of horror”. That same day, international donors pledged approximately $1 billion at a U.N. Conference in Kuwait City to address the Syrian refugee crisis. On Wednesday, Israel carried out an airstrike inside Syria on an arms convoy believed to be en route to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Syria lodged a formal complaint to the United Nations Thursday. Thursday, Secretary Clinton said, “We know that the Iranians are all-in for Assad” and also stressed the complications arising from Russian support for the regime. While Secretary Clinton again noted the Administration favors a negotiated agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, she affirmed the United States “will do what is necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” The White House confirmed Thursday Vice President Biden will meet with Syrian opposition leader Mouaz Alkhatib in Munich.

On Wednesday, French and Malian forces entered Timbuktu, Mali, which had been under Islamist rebel control for over a year. Friday, the last major stronghold held by the militants – Kidal – was retaken by French forces. Meanwhile, French President François Hollande is expected to travel Saturday to Mali and has urged reconciliation steps with legitimate representatives of northern populations. Malian interim President Dioncounda Traore has said the country will hold elections by the end of July.

On Friday in Berlin, Vice President Biden met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, discussing NATO, Iraq, and U.S. fiscal developments. The Vice President next will attend the 49th Munich Security Conference Friday afternoon, before stopping in Paris and London. The Vice President is expected to discuss Syria, Africa, Iran and a possible U.S.-E.U. Free Trade Agreement with European leaders.

The media reported this week North Korean leader Kim Jong-un issued an order to complete preparations for a nuclear weapons test. On Wednesday, the State Department reminded U.N. Resolution 2087 provides for consequences should North Korea continue to flout its international obligations.