Iran/Israel

The disagreement between the Obama Administration and Prime Minister Netanyahu deepened last week. In advance of his address before a joint session of Congress this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the deal emerging from the ongoing P5+1 Talks will allow Iran to become a “nuclear threshold state.” National Security Adviser Susan Rice said the Prime Minister’s upcoming visit is “destructive to the fabric of the [bilateral] relationship.”

President Obama is not expected to meet Prime Minister Netanyahu this week, with the White House citing the “long-standing practice” of not meeting government leaders close to elections. Israel will hold elections in mid-March. Meanwhile, congressional Democrats remain torn between supporting President Obama and their desire not to upset Israel. More than a dozen have said they plan to skip the speech, opening an unprecedented breach in the usual show of bipartisan support for Israel. Vice President Joe Biden will also miss Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress, due to official travel that has him in Guatemala today and Tuesday.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, 5 March, the House Foreign Affairs Middle East Subcommittee will hold a hearing to examine Iran’s noncompliance with its International Atomic Energy Agency obligations.

Upcoming Official Travel

Secretary of State John Kerry will be in Geneva, Switzerland, today to address the high-level segment of the 28th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council. While in Geneva, the Secretary will also meet with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov to discuss Ukraine and regional issues of common interest. The Secretary travels next to Montreux, Switzerland, to met with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif as part of the ongoing P5+1 Talks with Iran over its nuclear program. Secretary Kerry will travel on to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to meet with King Salman and other senior Saudi officials to discuss the situation in Yemen, ISIL, and other issues of shared concern. The Secretary will then travel to London, United Kingdom, where he will meet with Gulf foreign ministers to discuss shared regional priorities. He will conclude his trip abroad with a stop in Paris, France, on Saturday, 7 March, to meet with French Foreign Minister Fabius. They will discuss a wide range of topics, including Ukraine, ISIL, and Iran nuclear negotiations.

Russia/Ukraine Crisis

This Wednesday, 4 March, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing titled, “Ukraine Under Siege.”  Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland is scheduled to testify.

Testifying last Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee, NATO Supreme Allied Commander and U.S. European Command (EUCOM) Commander General Breedlove said, “EUCOM must be able to assure, deter, and defend against Russian aggression.” He noted that despite U.S. and European overtures of partnership, “Russia has continued to view its own security from a zero-sum point of view.” In light of Russia’s aggression in the region, General Breedlove suggested potentially stationing U.S. forces in Eastern Europe permanently.

Late on Friday and Saturday, several Members of Congress condemned the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Mosocow. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (Republican) observed that Nemtsov’s murder “occurred in a secure part of the Russian capital raises legitimate questions about the circumstances of his killing and who was responsible.” Similar to President Barack Obama, Senator McCain called for the Russian government to investigate and hold accountable those responsible for Nemtsov’s death.

With a focus on the Ukraine crisis, on Wednesday, 25 February, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on Serbia’s leadership in 2015 of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Secretary Kerry met last Thursday with Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, who testified before the Helsinki Commission. The OSCE has the lead on monitoring the implementation of the Minsk agreements in eastern Ukraine.

Syria/Iraq

Last week, the House Armed Services Committee began congressional debate of President’s proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against ISIL. On Tuesday, 3 March, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a closed hearing on the campaign against ISIL.

Africa

President Obama hosted Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on Friday, 27 February. Both discussed the ongoing efforts to combat Ebola, the bilateral relationship and broader regional issues.

State Department FY 2016 Budget

Secretary Kerry appeared last Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Appropriations State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee, and on Wednesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Appropriations State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee. Secretary Kerry spoke about the State Department’s requested budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016. As in years past, Members took the opportunity to question – and sometimes criticize – the Administration’s responses to global crises, including Ukraine.

Trade Developments

While many anticipated Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) would release a bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill last week and hold a hearing last Thursday on the measure, Chairman Hatch was unable to reach an agreement with the top Democrat on the panel – Senator Ron Wyden (Oregon). Both appear to still be at odds over the terms and conditions under which a resolution to strip a negotiated trade agreement of fast-track protection could proceed to the Senate floor. Frustrated that bipartisan consensus could not be reached, Senator Hatch has now called on President Barack Obama to “get cooperation” from Democrats for TPA, as he indefinitely postponed Thursday’s hearing. Meanwhile, Senate Finance Committee Member Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) introduced a bill last week to expand the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, insisting the bill move as part of a package with TPA. Chairman Hatch has expressed reluctant support for moving a TAA bill in tandem with TPA, but not as a part of the legislation.

With the charter of the Export-Import Bank due to expire at the end of June, Democratic Representatives Maxine Waters (California), Gwen Moore (Wisconsin), Denny Heck (Washington) and Steny Hoyer (Maryland) introduced a reauthorization measure last Wednesday that would renew the Bank’s charter until 2022 and increase its lending cap by $20 billion. The measure has more than 160 Democratic cosponsors. In January, Republican Stephen Fincher (Tennessee) unveiled a bill, backed by 57 fellow Republicans, which would give the bank five more years but also cut its lending cap to $130 billion from $140 billion. Senators Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) and Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) announced last week that they will soon introduce a bill with other Senators to reauthorize the Bank, adding they believe their measure would pass the Senate and also meet demands by House Republicans to reform the agency.

At the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last week on the State Department’s Fiscal Year 2016 Budget request, Secretary Kerry touted the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) as establishing landmark labor and environmental standards that will help U.S. manufacturers, farmers, ranchers, and service providers to increase what they are able to sell abroad. The Secretary was stressing the importance of foreign policy and its impact on the U.S. economy.

With the Obama Administration seeking to conclude the TPP negotiations within the first half of this year, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and other Democrats are stepping up their criticism of the Administration’s proposed TPP. Senator Warren expressed concern this week over the investor-state dispute settlement component of the TPP, saying it would tilt the playing field in favor of big multinational corporations and undermine U.S. regulations. Acting Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler signaled on Thursday that a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) ministerial meeting possibly in the works for mid-April has not been finalized. She noted the ministerial meeting’s timing will depend on how much progress negotiators make at an informal round taking place 9-15 March in Hawaii. At a Tuesday Senate Banking Committee hearing last week, Federal Reserve Board Chairwoman Janet Yellen publicly objected to the idea of inserting measures to combat currency manipulation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) or other trade deals, warning such action could “hamper or even hobble” monetary policy by the Federal Reserve.

Speaking last week before German socialist leaders, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said that Europe has a vested interest in finding a balanced approach to addressing the investor-state dispute settlement provision in the ongoing Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations. Last Tuesday, the European Commission posted its report on the 8th round of TTIP negotiations, observing the United States remains noncommittal on geographical indications (GIs). The next round of negotiations will be in Washington on 20 April. President Obama will host European Council President Donald Tusk at the White House on Monday, 9 March, where both will discuss TTIP, among other topics.

Last Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its latest report on the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a trade beneficiary program due to expire on 30 September 2015. GAO was asked to examine a range of issues relating to AGOA’s effectiveness in promoting trade expansion and economic development, as well as factors affecting sub-Saharan Africa trade with the United States and other countries.

Trade-related Congressional Hearings This Week:

  • Wednesday, 4 March: The House Foreign Affairs Asia and the Pacific Subcommittee will hold a hearing titled, “The Trans-Pacific Partnership: Prospects for Greater U.S. Trade.”
  • Thursday, 5 March: The House Intelligence Committee will hold a hearing titled, “The Growing Cyber Threat and its Impact on American Business.”

New Special Envoy Named

Last week, Secretary Kerry announced Randy Berry as the first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons. Berry will be responsible for advancing efforts underway to move towards a world free from violence and discrimination against LGBT persons.

Keystone XL Pipeline

As promised, last Tuesday, President Obama exercised his veto authority on the bipartisan supported Keystone XL pipeline bill (S. 1). In a statement, the President claimed the bill would “circumvent” the existing process for reviewing the pipeline, which would extend from Canada to Texas. While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Kentucky) office indicated the Senate plans to vote on overriding the veto before 3 March, neither the Senate nor the House if Representatives appears to have the necessary votes.

Looking Ahead

Washington will likely focus on the following upcoming matters:

  • 3 March: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress
  • 9 March: President Obama to host European Council President Donald Tusk
  • 19 March: President Obama to host the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall
  • 24 March: President Obama to host Afgthan President Ashraf Ghani
  • 24 March: Framework deal with Iran due
  • 7-8 June: G-7 Summit in Schloss Elmau, Germany
  • 30 June: U.S. Export-Import Bank charter expires
  • 15 September: 70th Session of the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) opens in New York City
  • 24 September: Pope Francis to address Congress
  • 28 September: General debate of the UNGA begins