This Week in Washington - November 11, 2012

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DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

2012 Elections.  President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden won the 2012 U.S. Presidential election over Republican nominee Mitt Romney and running mate Paul Ryan on Tuesday, earning the Obama Administration a second four-year term in office.  The Democratic ticket won the popular vote by an approximate 51%-48% margin and only lost North Carolina among the battleground states.  In total, the President and Vice President won 332 Electoral College votes to the Romney-Ryan ticket’s 206, including Florida which was determined in the President’s favor Saturday.  In the early hours Wednesday morning, Governor Romney conceded from his campaign headquarters in Boston, and President Obama delivered an acceptance speech from his home town of Chicago.  Despite the fact that Democrats had to defend 23 seats versus only 10 for Republicans, Democrats also retained control of the Senate, notably winning heavily contested races in Massachusetts, Missouri, North Dakota, Montana, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Connecticut, and Virginia.  An Independent, former Maine Governor Angus King, also won a seat previously held by retiring Republican Senator Olympia Snowe.  If Senator-elect King caucuses with the Democrats as expected, the Senate Democratic Caucus will contain 55 members, two more than in the current Congress.  Republicans, however, maintained control of the House of Representatives.  Results in some Congressional races are still pending, but in the end, the Democrats are likely to have netted approximately seven seats, leaving the Republicans with roughly a 234-201 advantage in the House.  The Democrats defended their hold on governorships in New Hampshire, Montana, Missouri, and Washington state, but the Republicans won the Democratic-held governorship in North Carolina, meaning there soon will be 30 Republican governors across the country.  On balance, the Democrats made gains in state legislatures around the country.  Several states also voted on ballot initiatives on Tuesday:  Maryland, Maine, and Washington state voted to allow same-sex marriage while voters in Minnesota rejected a proposal to limit marriage to heterosexual unions; Maryland voters also approved in-state tuition for some undocumented students; and Colorado and Washington voted to legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational use while Oregon voters rejected a similar measure. Since federal law bans marijuana use, the Department of Justice is reviewing possible responses to these measures.

Budget, Sequestration, & the Economy.  On Wednesday, top leaders in each chamber of Congress addressed the pending expiration of the “Bush tax cuts” and automatic spending cuts under sequestration, collectively known as the “fiscal cliff,” in a post-election environment. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) urged the President and Congress to confront these major fiscal challenges through tax reform next year, and he stated his opposition to any action which allows the sequester or tax increases to go into effect. Rather, Speaker Boehner said he was ready to accept a budget deal that raises federal revenue by closing tax loopholes, as long as it is linked to an overhaul of entitlements.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) also spoke Wednesday, calling for immediate action in the lame-duck session to avert the fiscal cliff.  While Senator Reid acknowledged that compromise will be necessary, he said, “We are not going to mess with Social Security” and noted that “the vast majority” of voters agreed with President Obama’s position that new revenue from targeted tax increases must be part of the solution. Additionally, President Obama invited bipartisan Congressional leaders to the White House next week to build some consensus on tax and spending issues.  “I refuse to accept any approach that isn’t balanced,” the President said, noting that a majority of Americans expressed agreement with his fiscal plan on Tuesday. 

Hurricane Sandy.  Lawmakers are considering options for a disaster relief package for those impacted by the storm devastating the U.S. Mid-Atlantic coast last week.  Senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska) called for quick action through a supplemental spending bill during the lame duck. Senators Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana) have discussed an initial package of approximately $5 billion, which would not be offset and later would be supplemented with additional funds after more detailed estimates of the damage are known.  In the meantime, a winter storm hit the northeast on Wednesday and Thursday, slowing federal relief efforts in response to Sandy, and contributing to the 600,000 people still without power.  On Wednesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced it will increase by 25 percent the amount of rental assistance available to victims in New York and New Jersey. 

FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS    

Iran.  The Pentagon revealed Thursday two Iranian fighter jets fired on, but missed, an unmanned U.S. drone in international airspace last week.  The Pentagon said the drone was conducting a routine, classified surveillance mission over the Persian Gulf, approximately 16 nautical miles off the Iranian coast, well within international airspace.  The incident triggered a formal warning to Tehran through diplomatic channels.  Also Thursday, the Administration announced additional sanctions against four individuals and five entities for creating an “electronic curtain”, which blocks Internet access and jams satellite broadcasts.  Among those designated are Tehran’s Communication and Information Technology Minister Reza Taghipour and its Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.  On Friday, the media reported Senators Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) and Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) want to build on sanctions imposed primarily against Iran’s oil sector, by possibly attaching a new sanctions proposal to the Fiscal Year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.  The legislative proposal may target Iranian assets overseas and all imported goods.  Also Friday, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced Iran has agreed to a new round of negotiations, to be held December 13th. 
Syria.  The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Thursday: "The humanitarian situation [in Syria] is getting worse despite the scope of the [ICRC] operation increasing".  While British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested earlier this week safe passage may be available to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, President Assad refused the option Thursday, saying “I'm Syrian... and I have to live and die in Syria."  Assad further warned against a foreign invasion.  Also Thursday, Syrian opposition leaders converged in Qatar to work toward a goal of producing a unified opposition leadership. 

Thursday, the White House announced President Obama will travel November 17-20 to Southeast Asia, with stops in Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia.  The White House noted President Obama is expected to meet with Burmese President Thein Sein and Burmese Parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi to encourage the “ongoing democratic transition.”  This trip marks the President’s first international trip since winning a second term on Tuesday.  The State Department announced Friday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to the Asia-Pacific region November 11-20, with stops in Australia and Singapore, and then join President Obama in Thailand, Burma and Cambodia.  In Cambodia, the President and Secretary of State will participate in the East Asia Summit and a meeting with the heads of government of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Foreign Affairs Turnover.  Due to redistricting and California law that enabled two Democrats to vie for the same seat in the general election, House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) Ranking Member Howard Berman lost to fellow HFAC Member Brad Sherman on Tuesday.  Congressman Sherman, Congressman Eliot Engel (D-New York), and possibly other Democrats will compete to serve as HFAC Ranking Member.  Meanwhile HFAC Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) is term-limited as Chair and is supporting Congressman Ed Royce (R-California) for the position.  Congressman Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) and possibly other Members also will contend for the Chairmanship.  There is also expected to be transition in the Cabinet turnovers in the lead-up to the second term, possibly including Secretary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.  Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, and others are rumored to be on the list to replace Secretary Clinton.  On Friday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence announced Central Intelligence Agency Director General David Petraeus resigned.  Director Petraeus cited an extramarital affair as the reason he submitted his resignation to President Obama. 

The attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, remains a priority topic in Washington.  Next week, HFAC Chair Ros-Lehtinen will hold an open hearing on the attack, while the Senate Foreign Relations Committee receives a closed briefing and the Senate Intelligence Committee holds a closed hearing on the same topic.  On Friday, the House Rules Committee scheduled a meeting for Tuesday to consider a rule for a House vote on legislation to effectively grant Russia and Moldova Permanent Normal Trade Relations status.  The full House may vote on the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal Act of 2012 (H.R. 6156) shortly thereafter.

Secretary Clinton spoke Thursday at the State Department’s Partnership Meeting on Wildlife Trafficking, saying “Wildlife might be targeted and killed across Asia and Africa, but their furs, tusks, bones, and horns are sold all over the world.”  The Secretary spoke about thwarting poachers, strengthening and increasing enforcement and urged governments to join the global Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking.