This Week in Washington - July 27, 2012

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DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 Appropriations/Sequestration.  The Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee announced it will mark up its FY 2013 spending bill on July 31st, and the full Appropriations Committee may also take up the measure before the Senate adjourns for the August recess.  On Wednesday, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education held a hearing focused on how sequestration’s projected across-the-board cuts would affect programs in education.  During the hearing, Subcommittee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) released a report that details the effects of sequestration on education, medical research, and other health and labor services.  The full Senate passed by unanimous consent Wednesday a House-passed measure requiring a report on the effects of the sequester set to take effect at the beginning of next year.  On Thursday, House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-Washington) praised Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) for their reported willingness to consider revenue increases to stave off sequestration.  On Wednesday, Senator Graham, Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire), and Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member John McCain (R-Arizona) announced a tour of political battleground states next week to discuss sequestration’s projected effects on the defense sector.  Meanwhile, during the week, consensus grew among a coalition of Congressional Democrats and Republicans to support a six-month FY 2013 Continuing Resolution, which will reportedly adhere to the discretionary spending level of $1.047 trillion established last year in the Budget Control Act.

Tax Policy.  On Wednesday, after defeating a Republican-backed proposal to extend all Bush-era tax rates, the Senate approved (51-48) the Middle Class Tax Relief Act (S. 3412), a Democratic plan to extend through 2013 the Bush-era tax cuts for all household income below $250,000, as well as certain other tax credits provided in the 2009 stimulus bill.  Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) and Senator Jim Webb (D-Virginia) joined all voting Republicans in opposing the Democratic plan.  Senator Scott Brown (R-Massachusetts) and Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) sided with the Democratic Caucus to defeat the Republican alternative, which counted Senator Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas) as its sole Democratic supporter.  House Republican leaders committed late Thursday to allow a vote next week on the Senate-passed measure, which is expected to fail, while also planning to consider a Republican alternative.  

House Republican leaders announced plans Wednesday to pass a one-year extension of the 2008 Farm Bill next week that would include livestock and fruit and vegetable disaster aid.  While originally not intending to move the farm bill due to a split within the Republican Party, a severe drought affecting much of the United States reportedly led the Republican Leadership to reconsider.  The vote could occur as early as August 1st, and may then go to conference with the Senate-passed Farm Bill.  On Thursday, after Democrats redrafted their cybersecurity bill (S. 3414), the Senate approved a measure to proceed to debate two cybersecurity measures next week, using an open amendment process.  The White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy in support of the Democratic-sponsored measure on Thursday, and noted opposition to any amendments that weaken the federal government’s authority over cybersecurity.  According to the Labor Department, new claims for jobless benefits neared a four-year low last week, dropping by 35,000 claims, while the Commerce Department reported Friday that U.S. Gross Domestic Product grew by a sluggish 1.5% from April through June.  On Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation released updated projections for the cost of the 2010 health care law, now expected to cost $84 billion less over 11 years, as a result of the Supreme Court’s June decision to allow states to opt out of the Medicaid expansion provision.  On Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new, voluntary public-private partnership among the federal government, State officials and several private health insurance organizations to prevent health care fraud.

On Thursday, the House and Senate voted to approve a resolution strongly condemning last week’s mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.  A day earlier, President Obama reiterated his support for some restrictions on access to guns, particularly assault-style weapons, although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said Thursday the Senate will not consider gun control legislation this year.  Meanwhile, presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney dismissed the ability of additional gun regulations to prevent tragedies like the one in Colorado.

FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS   

Syria.  Early this week, the Syrian regime warned against foreign aggression and broached the possibility of using chemical weapons, which brought a rebuke Tuesday from Russia, President Bashar al-Assad’s ally.  On Tuesday, Secretary Clinton observed that the Syrian opposition was beginning to consolidate and control larger swaths of territory.  Meanwhile, Syrian troops began converging Tuesday on Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city, as opposition forces prepared to counter their assault.  On Thursday, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland expressed concern that “the regime appears to be lining up for” a “massacre in Aleppo….”  On Friday, the Syrian regime began shelling Aleppo, following Syrian opposition groups reporting heavy shelling in Damascus, Daraa, Idlib and Homs this week.  Also citing the deteriorating security situation, Warsaw announced it had closed its embassy and evacuated its diplomats from Damascus. Poland had been representing U.S. interests in Syria since the U.S. shuttered its embassy in February.

Iran.  This week, the Senate Banking Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee staffs have been working to prepare a revised version of the Iran Sanctions Accountability and Human Rights Act, a bill that reportedly would attempt to shut out Iran completely from the global financial system and punish any insurance company underwriting that allows for Iranian oil sales.  While the legislation has been stalled for several months, recent momentum may allow for a vote this coming week.  On Tuesday, the State Department acknowledged an ongoing dialogue with the World Intellectual Property Organization to “institute substantive safeguards” to prevent illegal equipment and software transfers to Iran (and North Korea).

Trade.   On Thursday, the House Ways and Means Committee advanced out of Committee its bill to confer Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with Russia and Moldova.  The House is slated to join its human rights bill – the Sergei Magnitsky Accountability Act – to the PNTR bill for the House floor vote, which may occur next week.  On Tuesday, the House postponed its scheduled Tuesday floor vote on a trade bill that reauthorizes the Administration’s ability to ease or re-impose sanctions on Burma and to extend through September 2015 the Third-Country Fabric Program for Sub-Saharan Africa.  Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) raised objections to the bill’s spending offsets.  

On Thursday, the Senate sent to the White House a bill (S. 1959) that expresses Congress’ belief the Haqqani Network, an insurgent group based in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan that has led attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, meets the criteria to be labeled a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).  The bill calls on the State Department to decide if the Haqqani group should be listed as an FTO. 

Monday, Secretary Clinton delivered remarks at the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington.  On Thursday, Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) said he will no longer block the Administration’s FY 2013 State/Foreign Operations budget proposal to transfer HIV/AIDS (PEPFAR)-designated funds to the Global Fund (a fund that also fights other diseases) in order to meet a $4 billion, three-year pledge made in 2010.   

After China announced the establishment of a military garrison in the newly-formed town of Sansha on a disputed island in the South China Sea, the State Department criticized the perceived “unilateral” move.  On Monday and Tuesday, the State Department hosted the annual Human Rights Dialogue with China, discussing issues such as personal expression, internet use, religious beliefs, ethnic minorities, labor standards, and legal reforms.

On Tuesday, Secretary Clinton met with Prime Minister of Haiti Laurent Lamothe.  The Secretary met Wednesday with Luxembourg Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, discussing the global economic situation, NATO, Africa and Syria.  Secretary Clinton also held a bilateral meeting with Slovakian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak, discussing democracy promotion in Afghanistan, Tunisia, the Balkans and Eastern Europe.  The Secretary also congratulated President Pranab Mukherjee on his swearing-in as the 13th President of India.  President Obama proffered condolences Wednesday to the people of Ghana on the news of the death of President John Evans Atta Mills, who was succeeded in office by former Vice President John Mahama, prior to the country’s next presidential election in December.  Also Wednesday, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner welcomed the European Union’s announcement of a new position – E.U. Special Representative for Human Rights – and Stavros Lambrinidis’ appointment.  Next Monday, the State Department will release its annual International Religious Freedom report.  

This week, presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Mitt  Romney embarked on a six-day foreign trip, with stops in the United Kingdom, Israel and Poland.  Governor Romney will attend the Olympic Opening Ceremony tonight in London and has already met with senior British government officials, including Prime Minister David Cameron, after commenting on Great Britain’s preparations for the Summer Games.