This Week in Washington - November 23, 2012

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DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

Budget, Sequestration & the Economy.  Congressional staff members are working this week to prepare the legislative framework for an agreement to avert the “fiscal cliff,” and some proposals have been sent to the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office for review and cost scoring.  Congressional Democrats continued to stress that revenues from increased taxes on high-income earners need to be part of any agreement.  Meanwhile, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke encouraged Congress Tuesday to make a deal and again raise the federal debt ceiling to prevent the government from defaulting on the Treasury’s debt.  On Monday, the National Association of Realtors reported that sales of previously occupied homes rose 2.1 percent in October.  On Tuesday, the Commerce Department reported that construction on new homes and apartments in October reached its highest levels since July 2008.  While the seasonally adjusted annual rate for new home starts reached 894,000, that number remains short of the 1.5 million benchmark for a healthy economy.

Hurricane Sandy Recovery.  On Monday, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York) called on the Federal Communications Commission to improve wireless communications infrastructure after cell phone outages occurred along the East Coast after Hurricane Sandy.  Meanwhile, House Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats called for a hearing to investigate the outages and review the reliability of wireless networks.

Late last Friday, a fire erupted on an oil platform off the coast of Louisiana, injuring more than 10 people, while leaving one person dead and another still missing.  The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force issued a draft recommendation late Monday that everyone between the ages of 15 and 65 routinely be screened for HIV.  On Tuesday, the Obama Administration released proposed rules overhauling individual and small-group coverage in the health insurance market, pursuant to the Affordable Care Act.

Political & Election News.  Former New Hampshire Senator and deficit hawk Warren Rudman (R) passed away Monday evening.  On Tuesday, Virginia Senator Mark Warner (D) announced he will not run for Governor in 2013.  On Wednesday, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Illinois) notified House Speaker John Boehner he is resigning his seat in Congress, triggering a special election for the heavily Democratic Chicago-area House seat.  On Saturday, Representative Ron Barber (D-Arizona) was announced the official winner of his November 6th contest against Republican Martha McSally.  On Tuesday, Representative Allen West (R-Florida) conceded the race for Florida’s 18th Congressional District to Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy. The Democrats have picked up a total of seven House seats thus far, and Representative Mike McIntyre (D-North Carolina) retains a lead over Republican challenger David Rouzer in the one pending contest.  The recount in that race is scheduled to begin after Thanksgiving.

FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS    

Israel-Gaza Conflict.  Late Monday, President Obama called Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to discuss ways to de-escalate the situation in Gaza, with President Obama underscoring the necessity of Hamas ending rocket fire into Israel.  On Tuesday, President Obama dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Middle East.  Secretary Clinton spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem late Tuesday evening, reaffirming U.S. support for Israel’s security, and she met in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.  A bomb ripped through a bus in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, injuring 27 Israelis, and was immediately condemned as a terrorist act by Secretary Clinton.  Wednesday marked day eight of the conflict, with approximately 142 Palestinians and five Israelis reported as killed.  In Cairo Wednesday, Secretary Clinton met with President Morsi to continue the ongoing truce negotiation efforts.  By Wednesday evening, Secretary Clinton confirmed a truce had been brokered by Egypt, with reports indicating the Secretary had played an active role in the final negotiations.  President Obama spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu, commending Israel for agreeing to the ceasefire and saying the United States will help Israel further address its security needs.  President Obama also thanked President Morsi for his leadership in negotiating the truce.  Last Sunday, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) warned Egypt “You’re teetering with the Congress on having your aid cut off if you keep inciting violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”  After the ceasefire was announced, Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) said “the events of the past week offer hopeful signs that Egypt's new government is prepared to be the responsible regional leader that the Middle East needs.” 

Egypt.  On Thursday, President Morsi issued a set of presidential decrees that effectively consolidates power in the presidency by exempting the president's decisions from all judicial review and barring the courts from dissolving a constitutional-drafting committee – a committee that increasingly is under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.   Friday, thousands protested the decrees in several Egyptian cities, and the State Department issued a statement of concern about the power consolidation.

Southeast Asia Trip.  President Obama and Secretary Clinton met in Thailand Sunday with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, discussing the close bilateral relationship and welcoming plans to convene the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) Joint Council.  President Obama also welcomed Thailand’s interest in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. President Obama travelled Monday to Rangoon (Yangon), becoming the first sitting U.S. President to visit Burma (Myanmar).  The President met with President Thein Sein, where he acknowledged President Sein’s landmark reform agenda.  In an address to the nation from the University of Yangon, President Obama encouraged the Government to continue its democratic reforms and said, “America will support you every step of the way – by using our assistance to empower civil society; by engaging your military to promote professionalism and human rights; and by partnering with you as you connect your progress towards democracy with economic development.”  The President also announced the reestablishment of the USAID mission, and the State Department released a joint U.S.-Burma plan to combat trafficking in persons.  President Obama also met with Parliamentarian Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and reaffirmed “our goal is to sustain the momentum for democratization.  That includes building credible government institutions, establishing rule of law, ending ethnic conflicts, and ensuring that the people of this country have access to greater education, health care, and economic opportunity.”   In Cambodia, President Obama met with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to deepen diplomatic, economic, security, and people-to-people ties.  The United States and ASEAN welcomed the launch of the U.S.-ASEAN Expanded Economic Engagement (E3) Initiative.  The joint U.S.-ASEAN Statement also endorsed the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Statement on “Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea” and called for early conclusion of a Regional Code of Conduct.  The United States also announced its intention to join the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against ships in Asia.  On the margins of the ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit, President Obama met with Premier Wen Jiabao of China and said it is “important that our two countries cooperate to build a more secure and prosperous future for the Asia Pacific region and for the world.”  President Obama also held a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan, discussing Japan’s TPP preliminary negotiations, the South China Seas disputes, and U.S. engagement in the Asia-Pacific region.  

Syria.  On Wednesday, the Turkish Government requested that NATO deploy Patriot surface-to-air missiles to bolster its defenses along the Syrian border.  NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the North Atlantic Council will immediately consider the request, which "would contribute to the de-escalation of the crisis along NATO's southeastern border."  Meanwhile, Italy and the United Kingdom joined seven other nations in recognizing the Syrian National Coalition this week. 

Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) unanimously voted to sanction the leaders of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s M23 rebel force, which hours earlier occupied the eastern Congolese city of Goma.  The UNSC demanded the M23 rebels withdraw, disarm, and disband.  The office of E.U. High Representative Lady Catherine Ashton said Wednesday the P5+1 is "committed to having another round of talks with Iran as soon as possible.”  Senator Lieberman said Monday he hopes Congress will complete work on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) before year’s end but cautioned partisan gridlock could make that goal unattainable.  Senator Lieberman also said Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), and he are drafting additional Iran sanctions legislation, which could be introduced as an amendment to the NDAA.  Meanwhile, U.S. diplomats increased their efforts “to alleviate current tensions” between the Iraqi national government and the Kurdish regional government, following Baghdad’s dispatch of thousands of Iraqi troops to disputed areas in northern Iraq.  In Georgia this week, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Philip Gordon met with Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze, and President Mikheil Saakashvili.  The Prime Minister confirmed his desire for Georgia to continue to pursue NATO membership and build a free market economy.  Monday, 97 Republican Members of Congress called on President Obama to refrain from nominating U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice as Secretary Clinton’s successor.  The Republicans said Ambassador Rice’s account of the September 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya “caused irreparable damage to her credibility both at home and around the world.”  This week, it was revealed the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper approved the removal of the words "terrorism" and "al Qaeda" from the unclassified talking points on which Ambassador Rice based her comments.  Next Tuesday, President Obama will host President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico at the White House.  Also next week, Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs Jose Fernandez and Ambassador Gillian Milovanovic will host the annual Kimberley Process Plenary.