TPA Update

Last Wednesday, 6 May, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) filed a motion to proceed to a “shell” House-passed bill (H.R. 1314) for Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), a procedural tactic used since TPA is a revenue measure and must originate in the House. The next day, the Majority Leader filed cloture on a motion to proceed to a bill to renew TPA. A vote on the motion to proceed is scheduled for Tuesday 12 May.

Procedural hurdles in the Senate became more apparent last week, with some speculating passage of a TPA bill before Congress recesses on 22 May is increasingly unlikely. The Senate must secure 60 votes to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed to the TPA bill and will also need to address a demand by Senate Democrats that TPA be bundled with other trade measures passed by the Senate Finance Committee – (1) Trade Adjustment Assistance, (2) AGOA/GSP/Haiti, and (3) the customs/enforcement measure. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) last week threatened that Senate Democrats would block Majority Leader McConnell from trying to bring the bills up separately.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is planning to introduce legislation this week that would lift the federal ban on exports of crude oil. She is also considering attaching the measure as an amendment to the TPA bill. The Environmental Policy and Conservation Act instituted the crude oil export ban in 1975; U.S. trading partners and businesses have been calling for Congress to lift the ban.

While the bill looks to have decent prospects in the Senate, the House is expected to decide the issue by a thin margin. Representative Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon) signaled her support for TPA last Monday. Her statement came just days before President Barack Obama visited the Congresswoman’s district to stump for the bill. By Friday, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson’s (D-Texas) spokesperson said the Congresswoman will vote for TPA. This brings the total number of House Democrats publicly supporting TPA to 17. According to The Hill’s Whip List, 45 House Democrat members oppose TPA.

NDAA

In advance of the upcoming House floor debate this week, over 300 amendments were filed last week for the House Armed Services Committee-passed FY 2016 NDAA (H.R. 1735). The Senate Armed Services Committee will markup its respective Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Russia/Ukraine Crisis

In a press briefing on Thursday, 7 May, OSCE monitors reported that on 2 May, fire from ‘Grads’ was heard in Donetsk, leading to civilian casualties. The OSCE noted that it was the first time they heard ‘Grads’ fire since the adoption of the latest February Minsk agreement.

With the House of Representatives in recess last week, a congressional delegation traveled to Ukraine. Colonel General Stepan Poltorak, Ukraine’s Minister of Defense, met last Thursday with Representative Fred Upton (R-Michigan), who led the group to Kyiv to discuss the situation in, and U.S. support for, Ukraine.

In his testimony before the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee last week, Secretary Carter said that Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine appear to be preparing for further military action in violation of the February ceasefire agreement. Vice President Joe Biden spoke last Wednesday with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades about the Russia-Ukraine conflict, among other things. The two leaders agreed on the importance of maintaining transatlantic solidarity and support for the full implementation of the Minsk agreements.

Iran

After a lengthy debate, on Thursday, 7 May, the Senate passed The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (S. 615) by a vote of 98-1, with Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) as the lone dissenter. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) did not vote. The measure would deny President Barack Obama the authority to waive or suspend sanctions if at least two-thirds of lawmakers from both chambers reject the terms of the final deal negotiated between the P5+1 nations and Iran. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) applauded the Senate’s passage of S. 615, pledging that his chamber would quickly take up the measure, possibly as early as next week.

U.S. tensions with Iran in the Strait of Hormuz decreased last week after Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps released the Marshall Islands-flagged container ship Maersk Tigris on Wednesday. The seizure, and an earlier incident in which the Revolutionary Guard harassed a U.S.-flagged container ship, prompted the U.S. Navy to begin accompanying U.S. and British-flagged merchant vessels into and out of the Persian Gulf. The Navy determined on Tuesday, 5 May, that the security situation had calmed and therefore stopped offering accompaniment.

Syria/Iraq Crises

The Obama Administration is pushing back on a provision in the House Armed Services Committee-passed FY 2016 NDAA (H.R. 1735) that would require the Pentagon to set aside at least a quarter of up to $715 million in military assistance to Iraq for support to Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Sunni tribal fighters.

TPP

Reports last week indicate TPP countries are now tentatively planning to hold a ministerial gathering in Guam following a meeting of chief negotiators that will take place there 15-25 May, not in the Philippines as previously reported by Under Secretary of State for Energy, Economic Growth and Energy Catherine Novelli. Some report the meeting location/date is dependent on whether the U.S. Congress passes a TPA bill prior to the proposed date time. TPP countries have indicated they are aiming to conclude an agreement at the next ministerial, but that TPA must be passed in order for that to happen.

TTIP

On Tuesday, 5 May, the EU released a 12-page concept paper that expands upon four general areas that EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström previously said the Commission wanted to focus on in improving the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) system. The paper lays out in detail – though not in legal language – what this would mean in practice in a Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) deal. The proposal is facing criticism both from advocates of investor rights who say it would undermine the utility of ISDS and critics who say it does not go far enough.

Ex-Im Bank

As of last Friday, 179 Members of Congress had signed the discharge petition (#0001) for a bill (H.R. 1031) that would renew the Ex-Im Bank for seven years. The petition requires signatures from an absolute majority of the House (218 Members) to bring the measure directly to the floor for consideration.

Global Food Security

Last week, Senators Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) and Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia) introduced a global food security bill. The legislation would authorize the administration’s Feed the Future initiative for another five years.

Appropriations

Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee last Wednesday along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said that he does not support lawmakers’ efforts to circumvent spending caps by increasing war spending in the Overseas Contingency Operations account.

Nomination

On Tuesday, 5 May, President Barack Obama announced that he will nominate General Joe Dunford, U.S. Marine Corps Commandant and previously top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, to serve as the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after Gen. Dempsey’s term concludes. General Dunford will face a nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee and is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate.

Looking Ahead

Washington will likely focus on the following upcoming matters:

  • 21 May: President Obama will host Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi
  • 7-8 June: G-7 Summit in Schloss Elmau, Germany
  • 30 June: US Export-Import Bank charter expires
  • [TBD] July: President Obama to travel to Kenya and attend the Global Entrepreneurship Summit
  • 15 September: 70th Session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) opens in New York City
  • 24 September: Pope Francis to address Congress and meet with President Obama
  • 28 September: General debate of the UNGA begins