This Week in Washington - September 14, 2012

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FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS  

On Tuesday, the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya came under attack by armed extremists, and in Cairo the outer perimeter of the U.S. Embassy was breached by Egyptian protestors.  The next morning, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reported the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya John Christopher Stevens and three State Department personnel in Benghazi.  This is the first killing of a sitting U.S. Ambassador since 1979.  From the Rose Garden Wednesday, President Obama said:  “The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack....And make no mistake; we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.”  Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had issued a statement early Wednesday morning criticizing the Obama Administration for being sympathetic "with those who waged the attacks".  Meanwhile, the President authorized the Pentagon to dispatch two U.S. naval ships to the coast of Libya to assist with tracking down those responsible.  U.S. Marines were also dispatched to reinforce the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli and other U.S. interests.  Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif immediately offered his condolences Wednesday and condemned the attack as "cowardly."  Analysts have speculated the attack may have been orchestrated by a radical Libyan organization with ties to al Qaeda.  Reports also indicate the extremists may have blended in with a large mob protesting a trailer of an anti-Muslim video produced in the United States.  As of Friday, media reports reflect the Libyan Government has arrested four individuals involved in the attack.  Friday afternoon at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, President Obama and Secretary Clinton participated in the ceremony transferring the remains of the Americans killed in Benghazi.

Protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo continued this week after the Tuesday evening security breach, which had followed an uncleared statement about the video by the Embassy that reportedly spurred the Romney campaign’s criticism.  On Wednesday, President Obama warned President Mohamed Morsi that Egypt needs to adhere to its international obligations and protect the U.S. Embassy.  President Morsi issued a statement Thursday saying Egypt will protect foreign embassies.  On Friday, extremists attacked the headquarters of the Multinational Force & Observers peacekeeping unit in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Thursday, before opening the plenary of the U.S.-Morocco Strategic Dialogue with Moroccan Foreign Minister Saad-Eddine Al-Othmani, Secretary Clinton disavowed any U.S. Government involvement in the “disgusting” anti-Muslim video and said “Violence … has no place in religion.”  Secretary Clinton further emphasized the United States does not repress free speech or expression, “no matter how distasteful they may be.”

In Washington, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) demanded a vote on two amendments that would cut off U.S. foreign assistance to Libya, Egypt, and Pakistan.  Senator Paul would withhold all U.S. foreign assistance to Pakistan until the government releases Shakil Afridi, the doctor who worked with the CIA to help locate Osama bin Laden.  Senator Paul also would prohibit foreign assistance to Libya and Egypt until anyone involved in this week's attacks is transferred to U.S. custody.  Without Senate votes on his amendments, Senator Paul has promised to maintain his hold on the nominations of Richard Olson to be the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan and newly named Robert Beecroft to be U.S. Ambassador to Iraq.

Meanwhile, anti-U.S. demonstrations in the Middle East expanded Thursday and Friday, with the U.S. Embassies in Yemen and Tunisia and U.S.-branded restaurants in Lebanon experiencing security breaches.  President Obama ordered U.S. Marines to Yemen Thursday to further bolster security at the U.S. Embassy.  President Obama also spoke Thursday with Yemeni President Mansour Hadi, thanking him for his swift condemnation of Thursday’s violence and welcoming the announcement of an investigation.  On Friday, Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan addressed the Middle East unrest and called for "consistent American leadership" and "moral clarity" in U.S. foreign policy.  On Thursday, Romney campaign advisor Richard Williamson said, “There’s a pretty compelling story that if you had a President Romney, you’d be in a different situation,” while Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt commented, “It is astonishing that the Romney campaign continues to shamelessly politicize a sensitive international situation.”

After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly had criticized the Obama Administration for refusing to identify military “red lines” on Iran’s nuclear program, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu discussed the issue again Tuesday evening.  On Friday, while announcing waivers to U.S. sanctions for several allies who have reduced oil purchases from Iran, Secretary Clinton noted, “Yesterday, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors overwhelming adopted a resolution that clearly reflects the international community’s concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program.”

At the IAEA governing board meeting in Vienna Friday, the United States accused the Syrian regime of “using its brutal repression of the Syrian people as an excuse” not to address IAEA concerns about suspected past illicit nuclear activity at the Deir al-Zor site.  U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is due to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Saturday, arriving in Damascus Thursday as Syrian regime forces reportedly bombarded the city’s eastern outskirts, where rebels are striving to maintain control.   

On Monday, the White House congratulated Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud on becoming Somalia’s new president.  On Tuesday, the 67th Session of the U.N. General Assembly will convene in New York City.  

DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS  

Budget and Economy.  On Thursday, the House approved (329-91) a six-month Fiscal Year 2013 Continuing Resolution, which will fund the federal government through March 27, 2013, at a discretionary spending level of $1.047 trillion. The Senate will take up the measure next week, with President Obama expected to sign it before the end of the current fiscal year on September 30.  Also Thursday, in an effort to stimulate the U.S. economy, the Federal Reserve (Fed) announced a program to keep interest rates low by purchasing $40 billion in mortgage bonds and $45 billion in Treasury bonds each month until the end of 2012, at which point the Fed will re-assess its approach.  Most Democrats applauded the Fed’s move to address unemployment; Republicans generally criticized the action as increasing the risk of inflation.

Sequestration.  Today, the White House Office of Management and Budget released a report, required by Congress, which outlines how federal agencies would implement the initial $109 billion in automatic sequestration cuts scheduled to go into effect on January 2, 2013.  On Thursday, the House passed (223-196) the Republican-backed National Security and Job Protection Act, H.R. 6365, which would require the President to submit a plan to replace the $109 billion in automatic reductions using alternative cuts and no new revenues.  In a move designed to stave off some defense spending reductions, the bill also would eliminate the mandated balance between defense and non-defense spending cuts in the Budget Control Act.  After passage, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) stated that the “White House is responsible for the ‘sequester’ that threatens our national security and President Obama has a duty to tell us how he’d replace it.”  The Democratic-led Senate is considered unlikely to take up H.R. 6365, and on Wednesday the White House threatened a veto, saying the bill “fails the test of fairness and shared responsibility.”

On Wednesday, the House passed (301-118) a five-year reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows intelligence agencies to wiretap foreigners communicating with people in the United States without obtaining individual court orders.  While the Administration strongly supports the measure, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and some other Senate Democrats have some privacy concerns.  On Thursday, the House easily passed (412-3) a three-year reauthorization of immigration and visa programs, which is now headed for the President’s signature.  Two House Committees advanced a Republican-backed disapproval resolution Thursday to block changes to the 1996 welfare reform law by the Obama administration, such as allowing some job requirement waivers.  The full House is expected to vote on the measure next week.  On Friday, the House passed a bill to limit the authority of the Department of Energy to issue additional loan guarantees for innovative or renewable energy projects, in response to the Solyndra scandal last year.  The Senate, meanwhile, began consideration of a veterans assistance jobs package.

Political News.  Tuesday, Congressional leaders gathered on the steps of the Capitol for a remembrance ceremony in honor of the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.  The President and First Lady attended ceremonies at the White House and Pentagon, where President Obama stated:  “No act of terrorism can ever change what we stand for.”  President Obama later campaigned in heavily contested Colorado, while Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigned in the swing-states of Florida, Ohio, Nevada and Virginia, while most national and battleground state polls suggest the President has re-opened a narrow lead in the race.  On Tuesday, incumbent Rhode Island Democratic Congressman David Cicilline won his primary, setting up a competitive general election contest against Republican Brendan Doherty.

This week, President Obama announced his intention to nominate the following individuals:  Mark Doms to be Under Secretary for Economic Affairs (Commerce); Lorne Craner to be a Member of the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s Board of Directors; T. Charles Cooper to be Assistant Administrator for Legislative and Public Affairs (USAID); Rose Gottemoeller to be Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security (State); F. Scott Kieff to be a Member of the United States International Trade Commission; and Joshua Wright to be a Commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission.  The President also nominated the following to be U.S. Ambassadors:  Robert Beecroft (Iraq) and Deborah McCarthy (Lithuania).