Congress reconvened last Monday to work on advancing several priority measures – such as an Omnibus spending measure to fund the federal government, a tax extenders package, and the customs bill, among others – in anticipation of adjourning later this week for the year.

San Bernardino Shooting

The Federal Bureau of Investigation continues to investigate the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California.  Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump issued a call last week to ban Muslims from entering the country, a moved condemned by many in both parties as un-American.  In his third address to the nation last Sunday, President Barack Obama sought to reassure Americans that proper security measures have been implemented to safeguard the homeland after the attack in California.  In an attempt to broaden the discussion, the President outlined steps the Administration has taken to combat the threat of terrorism, including ISIL.

Combating ISIL

Testifying last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) about the U.S. strategy to combat ISIL, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said that the United States is “building momentum against ISIL.”  He also agreed with SASC Chairman John McCain’s (R-Arizona) assessment that the terrorist group had not been contained.

Pentagon officials have also reportedly said the Administration is likely to provide Apache helicopters to Iraqi forces looking to retake Ramadi from ISIL and that regional allies are considering deploying special forces to Iraq.  Secretary Carter further suggested that U.S. military advisers could accompany Iraqi forces on the ground in the effort to regain control of Ramadi.  On Friday, the White House released a supplemental consolidated report in accordance with the War Powers Resolution (Pub. L. 93-148), which provides some insight into the Administration’s global military objectives with respect to troop deployments, including countering terrorist groups such as ISIL.

Syrian opposition forces met in Saudi Arabia last week to discuss forming a unified front before proposed peace talks with Assad’s government in Vienna.  Gulf leaders, who were meeting for the annual Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Riyadh, also urged the Syrian opposition to find common ground.  The GCC leaders said they “support a political settlement … that guarantees the territorial integrity and independence of Syria.”  Last Thursday, the Syrian opposition groups reportedly agreed to set up a body to lead preparations for the talks with the Syrian government.

On the sidelines of the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) last Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that he will travel to Moscow this week.  Secretary Kerry is expected to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 15 December to discuss a political settlement in Syria and the situation in Ukraine.

Russia/Ukraine Crisis

In a speech last Tuesday before the Rada in Kyiv, Vice President Joe Biden focused on the continuing economic reforms in the country and the need to address corruption.  He also reiterated the United States will maintain sanctions on Russia until the Minsk agreements are fully implemented.  The Vice President added, “If Russian aggression persists, the cost imposed on Moscow will continue to rise.”  Meanwhile, the EU postponed a vote on extending EU sanctions to this week.

Iran and the JCPOA Scrutinized

Last Tuesday, Senator Robert Corker (R-Tennessee), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized the lack of a U.S. response to repeated Iranian ballistic missile tests that violate existing U.N. Security Council Resolutions.  Representative Ed Royce (R-California), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also responded to news reports last week that the P5+1 has delivered a draft resolution to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors to close the investigation into possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program ahead of a vote early next week.  He said the Obama Administration is attempting to “whitewash” Iran’s history of nuclear bomb research by pressuring the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to formally end its probe into the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear activities.

  • On Thursday, 17 December, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing titled, “The Status of JCPOA Implementation and Related Issues.”

Visa Waiver Program (VWP)

Lawmakers have also increased scrutiny on the VWP, a program that permits citizens from approved countries to enter the United States visa-free for 90 days.  Last Tuesday, the House passed the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act (H.R. 158), a measure aimed at tightening the program, by a vote of 407 to 19.  The Senate has yet to act on H.R. 158, though it could be folded into the broader omnibus funding bill currently under negotiation.  Meanwhile, at a roundtable discussion convened by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Senators examined data gaps and sought to determine how much information is being shared by 38 countries that currently participate in the VWP.

COP21 – Agreement Reached

In an attempt to bridge gaps for an international climate change deal, U.S. negotiators reportedly met last week with their Chinese and Indian counterparts in an attempt to find a compromise over remaining disagreements.  A deal was reached on Saturday, with President Obama issuing a statement heralding the international achievement.

Customs Bill Update

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) issued a press release last Thursday in support of passing the customs bill conference report that was released earlier in the week.  The National Retail Federation objected to the conference report over the inclusion of a provision to permanently extend prohibitions on taxing certain Internet-based activities.  House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Sander Levin (D-Michigan) is also encouraging his fellow Democratic colleagues to vote no, in part due to the conferees’ decision to not include a Senate-approved provision on currency.  The House passed the customs bill conference report on Friday afternoon by a vote of 256 to 158.

Senate Democrats, however, have reportedly expressed reservations over the inclusion of the Internet tax ban provision in the conference report.  This may complicate any Senate action this week on passing the conference report.

TPP Developments

In an exclusive interview with The Washington Post, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) suggested the Obama Administration should not expect Congress to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) before the November 2016 elections.  While Republicans strongly supported the Trade Promotion Act’s passage in June, Republican Leadership has offered little support since the Obama Administration announced the TPP deal had been reached in October.  Majority Leader McConnell reminded in the interview that the trade authority provided by Congress provides the next president fast-track authority throughout the first term of that Administration.

Meanwhile many interest groups in the United States are remaining silent on their position toward the TPP agreement.  The U.S. Council for International Business (USCIB) and the Emergency Committee for American Trade (ECAT) became the first U.S. business associations to formally express support for the TPP agreement last week, while also acknowledging the need for improvements before Congress can vote on the deal.  The U.S. dairy industry is formally taking a neutral position on the deal; however, it has expressed discontentment with the market access outcome with Japan and Canada.

TTIP Developments

In London last week, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman called for accelerated progress in the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) discussions, adding that the current focus is to work with the European Commission and key member states to advance the negotiations.  In a statement issued last Friday, Ambassador Froman and European Union Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said the two sides have made “considerable progress” over the last six months and pledged to work expeditiously to reach an “ambitious, comprehensive agreement.”

After news that the EU Parliament had been granted access by the European Commission to confidential TTIP documents, U.S. Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut), Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), Dan Kildee (D-Michigan) and Louise Slaughter (D-New York) issued a statement condemning the lack of access by the Obama Administration to the same documents.  The Members also criticized the “secret negotiations” that resulted in the TPP deal, calling for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to be more transparent with Congress on the TTIP negotiations and to provide access to the confidential documents.

Looking Ahead

Washington will also likely focus on the following upcoming matters:

  • Next week: Congress adjourns
  • 15 December: Secretary Kerry’s Trip to Moscow
  • 15-18 December: 10th WTO Ministerial Conference to be held in Nairobi, Kenya
  • 12 January 2016:  State of the Union Address
  • 8-9 July 2016: NATO Summit in Warsaw, Poland