This Week in Washington - January 18, 2013

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DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS 

Debt Ceiling, Budget & the Economy.  During a press conference on the debt ceiling at the White House on Monday, President Obama warned Republicans in Congress that “the full faith and credit of the United States of America is not a bargaining chip.”  In a letter addressed to Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Monday, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner explained that the U.S. Government will hit the debt ceiling “between mid-February and early March of this year” if it is not raised.  As part of their strategy to focus more on sequestration and other spending issues in the ongoing fiscal debate with the White House and Congressional Democrats, House Republicans reportedly will vote next week on a plan that would raise the debt ceiling for three months and stop pay for Members of Congress if the Senate does not pass a budget.  

Gun Control.  On Tuesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) signed into law new state gun control measures, including an expanded assault weapons ban, that he called “the most comprehensive package in the nation.”  President Obama on Wednesday announced a package of legislative proposals and 23 executive actions, formulated by a White House task force led by Vice President Biden, aimed at curbing gun violence.  The President called on Congress to pass legislation requiring universal background checks (including for gun shows and other private sales) and banning assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines for civilian use.  On Wednesday, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) announced plans to introduce legislation to undo parts of the President’s executive actions.  On Friday, President Obama signed the directives, incentivizing states and Federal agencies to provide additional mental health information and other data to the Federal background check database, as well as localities to add resource officers in schools through COPS Hiring Grants and develop school emergency plans, and directing the Centers for Disease Control to study the causes of and ways to prevent gun violence and the effect of violent video games and media images.

While the Senate was in recess this week, the House of Representatives on Tuesday passed $50.5 billion in emergency assistance to areas hit by Hurricane Sandy by a vote of 241-180.  Prior to passage of the final bill, 38 Republicans joined 190 Democrats to pass an amendment by Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-New Jersey) to effectively triple the original $17 billion bill and bring it more in line with the request submitted by the White House.  Republicans failed to offset the assistance by imposing across-the-board spending cuts.

In a Thursday letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Mayor Dewey Bartlett (R) outlined the support of mayors in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana for moving ahead on liquefied natural gas export projects to spur job creation.  Senate Energy Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), however, has expressed his belief that shipping large quantities of natural gas abroad could raise domestic prices.  While House and Senate Democrats praised the Administration’s final rule Thursday that allows more aggressive enforcement measures against mines with repeated safety violations, House Education and the Workforce Committee Ranking Member George Miller (D-California) said:  “It is Congress’ responsibility to enact further commonsense reforms….”  Federal Aviation Administration officials said late Wednesday all Boeing 787 Dreamliner jets operated by U.S. carriers in the United States are temporarily grounded, after a series of safety issues this week.  Japan and other countries have similarly grounded their Dreamliner jets.

Political News. The White House announced on Monday that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will remain in her post for President Obama’s second term.  Former President George H.W. Bush was discharged from the hospital in Houston, Texas Monday.    On Tuesday, White House spokesman Keith Maley announced the Presidential limousine fleet will carry the District of Columbia’s “Taxation Without Representation” license plates for Monday’s Inaugural parade and beyond in a display of the President’s “willingness to fight for voting rights, Home Rule and budget autonomy for the District.”  Also Tuesday, President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska), received endorsements from Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California), who had expressed a need to hear more from Secretary-designate Hagel on Israel and gay rights.  Later that day, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced his opposition to Senator Hagel’s nomination.  Also, Tuesday, Congressman Ted Deutch (D-Florida) became the Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee while Congressman Brad Sherman (D-California) will remain Ranking Member of the Terrorism and Nonproliferation Subcommittee.  Wednesday, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced he will step down in March.  President Obama has yet to announce his successor.

FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS    

Hostage Crisis in Algeria.  On Wednesday, an al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) faction – reportedly called the “Masked Brigade” – seized the Tiguentourine natural gas complex in Algeria, a joint venture operated by BP, Statoil, and Sonatrach, the Algerian national oil company.  The terrorist attack resulted in several foreign workers and Algerians being taken hostage.  The terrorists reportedly initially demanded France withdraw its forces from Mali and later reportedly demanded safe passage, as the Algerian military quickly surrounded the complex, as well as the release of militants imprisoned in the United States.  Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the “United States takes that very seriously, when our citizens are put in jeopardy by terrorists," noting the United States is exploring "all of the necessary steps that we need to take in order to deal with that situation."  State Department Spokesperson Toria Nuland added, “The United States does not negotiate with terrorists.”  While Britain, Norway, the United States and other countries whose nationals were taken hostage had requested advance notification, late Thursday, Algerian Special Forces initiated an unannounced rescue mission that was still ongoing Friday.  Conflicting reports emerged on the success of the mission, especially on the number of casualties and the number of hostages still at risk, but reportedly at least one U.S. citizen has died.  U.S. military cargo planes reportedly have landed in Algeria to evacuate casualties and hostages of varying nationalities.  On Friday, Secretary Panetta met with British Prime Minister David Cameron, with the ongoing operations in Mali and Algeria reportedly predominating on the agenda, along with defense budget issues, Syria, Iran and counter-terrorism cooperation.

In Mali, Thursday marked the fourth consecutive day of French airstrikes in and around Diabaly – a town north of the capital of Bamako – in an attempt, in combination with ground troops, to stop the southern advance of Islamist forces.  This week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States is assisting the French-led efforts with “with intelligence and airlift” support, and Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, and Italy also have contributed.  The International Criminal Court, meanwhile, has launched a war-crimes investigation amid reports that Malians have been mutilated and killed for disobeying the Islamists.  On Thursday, 100 Togolese troops arrived, with more troops expected from Nigeria, Niger, and Chad that will comprise the pan-African mission complementing French and Malian efforts.  Meanwhile, on Thursday, the United States formally recognized the government of Somalia, marking the reestablishment of full bilateral relations for the first time since 1991 and acknowledging the containment of al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab.  Somali President Hassan Sheik Mohamud met with President Obama and Secretary Clinton.  

On Tuesday in Syria, twin blasts at the University of Aleppo killed more than 80 people.  Opposition activists claimed Syrian jets carried out an air strike, while a military official instead claimed rebels fired ground-to-air missiles that fell short.  Thursday, Defense Secretary Panetta expressed the belief the Assad regime has not used chemical weapons against its citizens; however, he confirmed the regime had mixed chemical ingredients into shells or bombs that could be used against the Syrian people.  Also Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed Syrian forces killed 106 civilians in Basatin al-Hasawiya this week.  On Wednesday and Thursday, a wave of attacks killed at least 59 people across Iraq.  Friday, the International Atomic Energy Agency team returned from Iran without a deal to resume its probe of Iran’s nuclear program. 

In South Korea Wednesday, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell warned North Korea against taking any more "provocative" steps, amid speculation that Pyongyang is preparing to conduct a nuclear test after its December long-range missile test.  The Assistant Secretary met later that day with South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye.  This week, Japan and the United States initiated working-level talks on updating joint defense guidelines that were last revised in 1997.  In Japan Thursday, Assistant Secretary Campbell said, ““We are interested in concrete areas where the United States and Japan can work more effectively together,” citing humanitarian issues, freedom of navigation, and regional stability.  On Friday, Secretary Clinton met with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Washington. 

Secretary Clinton will testify January 23rd before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the September attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.  Meanwhile, on Thursday in Tripoli, FBI Director Robert Mueller reportedly met with Libyan officials to discuss the Benghazi investigation.  Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) will chair the SFRC’s Benghazi hearing and its hearing January 24th to consider Senator John Kerry’s (D-Massachusetts) nomination as the next Secretary of State. 

On Tuesday, United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk notified Congress of the Administration's intent to enter into negotiations for a new trade agreement on international trade in services. The negotiations will begin in Geneva, Switzerland with a group of 20 trading partners.  On Friday, the White House announced Vice President Biden will travel in early February to Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.