The Senate was in session last week, while the House of Representatives remained in recess in observance of the Martin Luther King holiday.  On 16 January, Implementation Day of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran took effect, as did a prisoner swap.  Washington’s attention then quickly shifted to an impending historic blizzard that dropped about two feet of snow on the region over the weekend, bringing the city to a standstill and keeping the federal government closed today.  Both chambers of Congress are expected to reconvene on Tuesday.

President Barack Obama hosted Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the White House last week; the two discussed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), among other topics.  Vice President Joe Biden travelled to Davos, Switzerland, to attend the World Economic Forum and held meetings on the margins with several foreign officials.  Secretary of State John Kerry was also at Davos, where he optimistically suggested sanctions against Russia could be lifted this year, if Russia implements the Minsk Agreements.

Iran – Implementation Day

On 16 January, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its report verifying that Iran has fulfilled its obligations under the JCPOA, triggering Implementation Day and the lifting of some sanctions.  President Obama addressed the nation the next day, explaining why it is important to move forward with the terms of the JCPOA.  That same day, the Treasury Department announced the imposition of new sanctions on 11 individuals and entities allegedly involved in ballistic missile procurement for Iran.

The media reported last week that the United States paid $1.7 billion to Iran just after Implementation Day and the release of five U.S. citizens detained there, while Iran claimed it was a ransom payment.  In exchange, the Obama Administration freed seven Iranians and dropped extradition proceedings against another 14.  While lawmakers welcomed the news of the freed Americans, Republicans are calling for an inquiry into the payment and the imbalance in the prisoner exchange.  Congressional hearings on these topics with Administration officials called to testify are likely to follow.

On Tuesday, the House is scheduled vote again on H.R. 3662, a bill that would block the Obama Administration from lifting sanctions against certain individuals or banks without certification that they do not support terrorism, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or Iran’s alleged proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Russia/Ukraine

Vice President Biden met last Thursday with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko on the margins of the World Economic Forum in Davos, with the two leaders agreeing on the critical importance of the continued implementation of Minsk by all sides of the Ukraine conflict. In a speech to the Forum, Secretary Kerry said, “I believe that, with effort and with bona-fide legitimate intent to solve the problem on both sides, it is possible in these next months to find those Minsk agreements implemented and to get to a place where sanctions can be appropriately, because of the full implementation, removed.”  His optimistic statement sharply contrasts with the Administration’s December imposition of new sanctions, which were viewed as ensuring sanctions were not being circumvented and sending a message to Russia that it must takes the steps necessary to comply with its obligations under the Minsk Agreements.

  • On Wednesday, 27 January, the Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to hold a hearing titled, “Military Space Launch and the Use of Russian-made Rocket Engines.”

TPP Developments

New Zealand announced last week that it will host the TPP signing ceremony on 4 February in Auckland.  Liberal Democrats who oppose to the Trans-Pacific Partnership are now objecting to the omission of a footnote typically added to U.S. free trade agreements that reinforces participants of an agreement have authority to decide when another nation’s investment threatens their national security.  Some Members have suggested that the lack of the standard footnote may open the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which reviews foreign investments that may have potential security implications, to legal challenges.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman told the press on Wednesday that the Administration is looking to address congressional and business industry concerns related to the TPP deal through implementation plans and the way the agreement is enforced.

Customs Bill – Senate Votes Secured?

After increased uncertainty over whether there existed enough votes to overcome Senator Richard Durbin’s (D-Illinois) objections in order to pass the reconciled customs bill, it was reported last Thursday that an aide to Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) confirmed 60 votes has been obtained to invoke cloture and/or block any point of order by Senator Durbin.

Visa Waiver Program – Enforcement Guidance Issued

Last Thursday, the State Department issued guidance on how the recently-passed changes to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) will be enforced.  Notably, the changes include categories of travelers who may be eligible for a waiver from the new law’s restrictions – and thus be eligible for visa-free travel to the United States under the VWP – including: “Individuals who traveled to Iran for legitimate business-related purposes following the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (July 14, 2015).”

Cybersecurity – Safe Harbor Deadline Looms

U.S. and EU officials are meeting early this week in Brussels to secure a new Safe Harbor deal before a 31 January deadline set by European authorities.  Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and European Commission Vice-President Andrus Ansip met in Davos last week to discuss the ongoing negotiations.

On 28 January, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to mark-up the Judicial Redress Act (S.1600) and the Defend Trade Secrets Act (S.1890).  The EU has been urging Congress to approve the Judicial Redress Act, which would provide EU citizens with some legal recourse.  The Defend Trade Secrets Act would allow companies to go after alleged trade secret thieves in federal court.

Electrify Africa Bill Advances

Before concluding last year, the Senate unanimously passed a bill (S. 2152) titled,Electrify Africa.  On Tuesday, the House is expected to take up and pass the Senate bill, sending the measure forward to President Obama for signature into law.

Congressional Hearings This Week

  • On Tuesday, 26 January, the House Financial Services Committee is expected to hold a hearing titled, “Trading with the Enemy: Trade-Based Money Laundering is the Growth Industry in Terror Finance.”
  • On Tuesday, 26 January, the Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to hold a hearing titled, “The Role of the Service Chiefs in Defense Acquisition in Review of the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2017 and the Future Years Defense Program.”
  • On Tuesday, 26 January, the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces is expected to hold a hearing titled, “Future Nuclear Posture of the United States.”
  • On Tuesday, 26 January, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and Africa is expected to hold a hearing titled, “Jordan: A Key U.S. Partner.”
  • On Tuesday, 26 January, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to hold a closed briefing where the Obama Administration will provide an update on its strategy for Syria and Iraq.
  • On Wednesday, 27 January, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism is expected to hold a hearing titled, “After San Bernardino: The Future of ISIS-Inspired Attacks.”
  • On Wednesday, 27 January, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Global Health is expected to hold a hearing titled, “The Growing Threat of Cholera and Other Diseases in the Middle East.”
  • On Wednesday, 27 January, the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats is expected to hold a hearing titled, “Counterterrorism Strategy: Understanding ISIL.”

Looking Ahead

Washington is expected to focus on the following upcoming events:

  • 9 February 2016:   President Obama releases the FY 2017 Budget Request
  • 4 February 2016:   President Obama hosts Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos
  • 15-16 February 2016:  President Obama hosts the ASEAN leaders in California
  • 10 March 2016:  President Obama hosts Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
  • 31 March – 1 April 1:   United States hosts the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington
  • Late April 2016:   President Obama attends the Hannover Messe in Germany
  • 8-9 July 2016:   NATO Summit in Warsaw, Poland