This Week in Washington - May 25, 2012

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DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

The House was out of session this week, while the Senate met in Washington.  The House will return May 30th, and the Senate, which is scheduled to adjourn Friday, will return June 4th. 

Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 Budget/Appropriations/Debt Ceiling.  Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) called on President Obama to “begin to deal with our debt and our deficit” during an interview Sunday morning.  Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) released a letter Monday indicating that he does not see a way to reach a bipartisan agreement on deficit reduction before the November elections.  On Wednesday, Senator Reid added, “I am not going to back off the sequestration…defense is going to have to bear their share of the burden.”  Senate appropriators reported three FY 2013 spending bills out of Committee this week, including State-Foreign Operations, Homeland Security and Military-Construction-VA.  Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) said Wednesday that the goal of Senate Democratic leadership is to bring appropriations bills to the floor and take them to a Senate-House Conference Committee prior to the start of FY 2013 on October 1st of this year. 

On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) completed a closed mark-up of its draft FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.  Chairman Carl Levin (D-Michigan) and Ranking Member John McCain (R-Arizona) announced their hope that the full Senate will take up the bill prior to the August recess.  According to a summary released by the Committee, the $631.4 billion bill authorizes about $4 billion less than the spending levels authorized by the House and includes about 150 changes to the President’s budget request while adhering to the Administration’s topline number.  The Senate NDAA includes provisions that would restrict aid to Pakistan’s military, require the Defense Department to provide a report to Congress on the impact of sequestration, and authorize additional money for the Iron Dome air defense system in Israel.  The Senate’s bill does not include the House bill’s language to require an operational missile defense site on the East Coast by 2016 to defend against an intercontinental ballistic missile attack from Iran.

Education News. Senator Reid announced Wednesday an agreement to allow the Senate to vote Thursday on the Democratic proposal (S. 2343), as well as a Republican alternative (S. 2366).  Neither bill was able to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to pass.  On Wednesday, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney unveiled his education agenda at the Latino Coalition's Annual Economic Summit, which focused on flexibility of federal funding, parental choice of schools, expanding funding for the Washington, DC, voucher program for private schools, revising the No Child Left Behind law’s governance structure, and bolstering the role of the private sector in the student loan process.

Since last Friday’s Initial Public Offering (IPO) of social networking company Facebook, the Senate Banking and House Financial Services Committees have announced they are investigating allegations that banks underwriting the deal may have lowered growth forecasts on Facebook revenue in a way that violates securities law.  Following National Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko’s resignation on Monday, President Obama nominated Allison MacFarlane for the post on Thursday.  Tuesday, the White House and NASA hailed private-sector company SpaceX for the successful launch of its Dragon capsule. SpaceX is the first commercial company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS), where the Dragon arrived on Friday morning.  On Wednesday, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) released several documents detailing how it enforces election law in response to a Congressional subpoena.  Also on Wednesday, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Members persuaded the Homeland Security Department’s Inspector General to conduct an independent investigation into the Secret Service’s recent incidents in Colombia.  Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-California) said Wednesday that Speaker Boehner told her he has urged House negotiators to complete the conference report on surface transportation reauthorization before the temporary extension expires June 30th.  On Thursday, the Senate passed (96-1) the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act, a $6.4 billion, five-year reauthorization of FDA-industry user fee agreements.  Also on Thursday, the Senate passed an amended 60-day extension of authorization for federal flood insurance programs that expire May 31; the bill will now return to the House.  Meanwhile, the Senate Agriculture Committee formally filed its new draft farm bill.

FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS   

G8 Summit/NATO Summit.  Last weekend, at Camp David in Maryland, the G8 leaders focused on global economic themes, such as: (1) increasing productivity and growth potential via structural reforms and investments in education and infrastructure; (2) advocating for open markets and a rules-based trading system; and (3) affirming high standards for intellectual property rights protection.  The leaders also focused on climate change, oil prices and food security.  In Chicago earlier this week for the NATO Summit, NATO leaders focused on Afghanistan, reaffirming the Lisbon framework for transition by 2014 and agreeing on an interim milestone in mid-2013 whereby ISAF forces will transition to an advisory role with Afghan forces taking over the combat role.  President Obama declared, “I think that the timetable that we’ve established [on Afghanistan] is a sound one; it is a responsible one….”  Other topics included strengthening NATO partnerships, including with declared NATO aspirants Bosnia, Georgia, Macedonia, and Montenegro.  This week, the State Department announced U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker will retire for health reasons.  

Iran.  On Monday, the Senate passed the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, a bill that provides for new sanctions to punish individuals who knowingly enter into ventures through which Iran could receive nuclear weapons knowledge or technology.  Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) added language stating that all options, including military intervention, remain on the table to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  Meanwhile, in Baghdad, Iranian and P5+1 negotiators exchanged proposals, with Iran reportedly criticizing the international proposal as imbalanced.  On Friday, the media reported the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has found traces of uranium enriched up to 27 percent (above the 20 percent medical research level) at the Fordo plant in central Iran.   

Syria.  Syria’s newly elected Parliament, which most opposition forces have boycotted, convened Thursday, the same day the U.N.-sponsored International Commission of Inquiry said President Bashar al-Assad’s loyalists are responsible for most of the “serious human rights violations” in the country’s ongoing conflict.  The U.N. said Thursday U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy Kofi Annan may travel to Syria soon to meet with government and opposition officials.

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee marked-up and approved, by a 29-1 margin, its FY 2013 State-Foreign Operations (SFOPs) spending bill (S. 3241), which cuts and otherwise restricts funding for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.  Earlier, the Committee had unanimously adopted Senator Graham’s amendment to cut Pakistan’s aid (already reduced below $1 billion, 58% lower than the Administration’s request) by an additional $33 million, following the conviction for treason of Dr. Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani who aided the mission to kill Osama bin Laden.  Unlike the House SFOPs bill, the Senate does not ban funding for UNESCO; however, statutes already mandate funding be cut to U.N. bodies that recognize a Palestinian state. Senate Democratic appropriators included a $1 billion fund to help respond to political transitions taking place across North Africa and the Middle East.  Separately, the full Senate passed S. 414 by voice vote Thursday, a bill that would direct foreign assistance to assist with curtailing child marriages in developing countries.

This week, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) held a hearing on the pending U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey testifying in favor of ratifying the treaty.  While the treaty also enjoys broad private sector support – from environmental groups to the oil industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – some Senate conservatives have signaled their opposition on sovereignty grounds.  

On Thursday, Secretary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner released the 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.  The State Department noted the report reflected positive developments, such as the Arab Spring and Burma’s release of 200 political prisoners, and negative developments, such as restrictions on freedom of expression, including on the Internet; moves to censor or intimidate the media; and attempts to curtail nongovernmental organizations.  

Early this week, Secretary Clinton participated in the NATO Summit.  On Thursday, the Secretary acknowledged Egypt had just concluded two historic day of voting in the first round of its presidential election, as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi reportedly leads in early returns in advance of a two-person runoff in June.  The Secretary also met Thursday with New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully.  

This week, President Obama announced his intention to nominate the following individuals as U.S. Ambassadors:  Greta Holtz (Oman); Alexander Laskaris (Guinea); and Marcie Ries (Bulgaria).  The President announced his intention to appoint John Sopko as Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.  Thursday, the Senate confirmed the following Pentagon Under Secretary nominees:  Erin Conaton (personnel and readiness), Frank Kendall (acquisition, technology and logistics); and James Miller (policy).