Historic snowfall levels kept the U.S. Federal Government from officially reopening until Wednesday of last week.  President Barack Obama, however, met the day before with his health and national security teams to discuss the rapid spread of Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses in the Americas and steps being taken to protect U.S. citizens.  The President met Friday with U.S. companies and trade associations to discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, ahead of this week’s TPP signing ceremony in New Zealand.

The House of Representatives (“the House”) opted to delay legislative business until this week, though some House Committees proceeded last week with scheduled hearings.  The Senate reconvened last Wednesday for legislative and Committee work and will be in session this week.

The Iowa Caucuses for Republican and Democratic presidential contenders are scheduled for today and are expected to capture the attention of Washington next week, kicking off the presidential primaries in the United States.

U.S. Mobilizes Against the Zika Virus

Last Tuesday, President Obama was briefed on the potential economic and developmental impacts of the Zika virus spreading in the Western Hemisphere.  The President emphasized the need to accelerate research efforts to make available better diagnostic tests, to develop vaccines and therapeutics, and to ensure that all Americans have information about the Zika virus and steps they can take to better protect themselves from infection.  With the President due to release his Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 Budget request on 9 February, some accounts will likely be bolstered to account for a U.S. response to Zika.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has issued travel advisories for those countries with active Zika virus transmissions and guidance for domestic health care providers caring for pregnant women.  There have been reports that pregnant women infected by Zika may have an increased chance of giving birth to babies with microcephaly, a congenital condition leading to abnormally small brains that causes life-long neurological complications.  Meanwhile, Brazil, which has had a high number of Zika infections, is due to host the 2016 Summer Olympics and may find its tourism industry – as will other countries with active Zika virus transmissions – negatively impacted by this latest global pandemic.  President Obama spoke Friday with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff of shared concerns over the spread of the Zika virus in the Western Hemisphere.  Both agreed collaborative efforts are needed to advance research and accelerate work to develop better vaccines and other technologies to control the virus.

According to the CDC, 31 cases have been confirmed in the continental United States, all individuals who had traveled to affected areas. Another 20 cases were confirmed in U.S. territories – Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Of these confirmed cases, it is unknown how many were pregnant women.

Congress is also taking note of the Zika threat, with the leaders of the Senate Homeland Security Committee writing and asking CDC Director Thomas Frieden and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson last week to examine the threat the Zika virus poses and to share the plan to protect the United States.  Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire), who is a Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also wrote a letter to the Secretaries of State, Health and Human Services and Homeland Security, urging them to quickly notify Congress of what resources they need to combat the spread of Zika and protect U.S. citizens.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is expected to convene an International Health Regulations Emergency Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, today regarding the Zika virus and the observed increase in neurological disorders and neonatal malformations.  The Committee is charged with ascertaining whether the outbreak constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

TPP Developments – Signing Ceremony on Thursday in New Zealand

Last Monday, New Zealand released the final legal text of the TPP deal, replacing the preliminary text released on 5 November.  Ahead of the scheduled TPP signing ceremony in New Zealand this Thursday, Akira Amari, Japan’s Economy Minister and lead TPP negotiator, announced his resignation last week at a press conference in Tokyo, amid corruption allegations.  Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe reiterated that Amari’s resignation would not impact the deal.   On 29 January, President Obama empowered U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman to sign the deal on behalf of the United States.  USTR Froman is scheduled to travel this week to New Zealand.

U.S. companies and trade associations were invited to the White House for a Friday meeting on the TPP deal.  Many expected this meeting was President Obama’s latest effort to rally the U.S. business community’s support to join in advocating for early congressional passage of the agreement.  The business community has instituted a nascent coordinated effort to build support in Congress for the TPP, while also advocating for improvements to the deal.  A full-fledged lobbying effort has not commenced, which many attribute to statements by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and other Republican leaders making clear that they do not want a vote on TPP prior to the November election.  Senate Republicans are seeking to avoid jeopardizing those Senators facing close races and prefer that a TPP vote occur in the “lame duck” congressional session, which begins after the November elections.  Earlier in the week, President Obama met with Democratic congressional leaders at the White House to discuss “shared legislative priorities for the year ahead.”  TPP was not among the priorities discussed.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) announced on Friday the names of those private sector individuals who will testify before the panel’s first 2016 hearing, “Reaching America’s Potential: Delivering Growth and Opportunity for All Americans” on Tuesday, 2 February.  President Obama is scheduled to meet Tuesday with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan to discuss legislative priorities and potential areas for cooperation over the coming months.

Data Privacy – Senate Possibly Complicates Safe Harbor Negotiations

Last Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Judicial Redress Act(H.R. 1428), including a provision not contained in the House-passed version.  The new Senate provision, which could complicate the ongoing Safe Harbor negotiations between the United States and the EU, adds further requirements to the extension of privacy rights to foreign citizens, but also provides U.S. regulators with considerable flexibility to assert that certain commercial data transfers do not accord with U.S. national security interests.

Meanwhile the EU deadline of Sunday, 31 January passed with no final agreement on a new Safe Harbor deal.   EU data authorities are scheduled to publish their own judgment on data transfers between the two regions on Wednesday. 

TTIP Developments

The White House announced last Friday that President Obama will host Italian President Sergio Mattarella on 8 February.  The economic situation in Europe, the migration crisis and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are expected to be on the agenda.  The Obama Administration continues to state its intentions to try and conclude negotiations before the end of this year, an admittedly ambitious timeline.

  • On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to hold a hearing titled, “Strains on the European Union: Implications for American Foreign Policy.”  Individuals from the private sector are scheduled to testify.

U.S. Cuba Sanctions – New Restrictions Eased

Last Tuesday, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) announced new amendments to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR) andExport Administration Regulations (EAR), respectively.  Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the latest action “sends a clear message to the world: the United States is committed to empowering and enabling economic advancements for the Cuban people.”  The announcement includes the removal on some restrictions, such as on payment and financing terms for authorized exports and re-exports, except for agricultural commodities and agricultural items.  U.S. depository institutions are also authorized to provide financing.

Iran – Tension Remains

Despite the rolling back of sanctions, in accordance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), tension between the United States and Iran remains intact.  The State Department issued a new travel warning on Friday, reiterating the risk of arrest and detention of U.S. citizens, particularly dual national Iranian-Americans, in Iran.  The warning notes that “various elements” in Iran remain hostile to the United States.  Iranian state-run television reported last week that an unarmed drone flew over a U.S. aircraft carrier on 12 January and took photographs during a naval drill in the Gulf.  The incident apparently occurred the same day that Iran briefly detained 10 U.S. soldiers and was just before Implementation Day.

The House is scheduled to complete consideration of H.R. 3662 on Tuesday.  The bill seeks to 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.

Syria – Combatting ISIL

Last Thursday, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-California) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-New York) issued a statement ahead of the Geneva talks on Syria, saying:

“The Syrian High Negotiating Committee represents the long-silenced voice of the Syrian people, and it deserves our full and unqualified support.  This crisis has cost far too many innocent lives.  … That’s why it’s so important Russia support implementation of the U.N. resolution – for which it voted – to achieve a ceasefire.”

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have reportedly agreed to evaluate progress in the Geneva talks during the next meeting of the International Syria Support Group on 11 February.

  • On Wednesday, 3 February, the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats is scheduled to receive a closed briefing titled, “Counterterrorism Strategy: Understanding ISIL.”
  • Also on Wednesday, the House Homeland Security Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Crisis of Confidence: Preventing Terrorist Infiltration through U.S. Refugee and Visa Programs.”

Russia/Ukraine

According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, France and Germany may hold talks with Russia and Ukraine on 8 February, yet another attempt to find a path forward to resolving the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.  Many have speculated that Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements at Davos hinted at a softening of the U.S. position toward Russia, particularly in light of the spread of ISIL to Libya, beyond Syria.  Some also expect the EU unity needed for maintaining sanctions is weakening.

North Korea – Sanctions Legislation Advances to the Senate Floor

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) marked up a bill last week related to new U.S. sanctions against North Korea. The SFRC passed a bipartisan Gardner-Menendez bill that would expand and tighten enforcement of sanctions for North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile development and other destructive activities of the Kim regime. The legislation was offered as a substitute amendment to North Korea legislation (H.R.757) approved by the House of Representatives earlier this year.

Africa – Electrify Africa Bill Expected to Pass House

On Monday, 1 February, the House is scheduled to take up and pass the Senate-passed Electrify Africa bill (S. 2152) when it reconvenes, sending the measure forward to President Obama for signature into law.

Last week, Ambassador Froman chaired a USTR-sponsored hearing on policy recommendations for deepening the U.S.-Africa trade and investment relationship.  Ambassador Froman observed,

“The United States has FTAs with 20 countries today, compared to 3 in 2000; though none with sub-Saharan Africa.”

He further recognized that African countries are advancing regional integration through regional economic communities and the Tripartite and African Continental Free Trade Area initiatives.  Ambassador Froman ultimately noted that beyondAfrican Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) the U.S. Congress is looking for a path to more permanent, reciprocal trade arrangement.   Senators Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia) and Chris Coons (D-Delaware) also provided remarks.

  • On Wednesday, 3 February, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State-Foreign Operations is scheduled to hold an oversight hearing on U.S. assistance in combatting wildlife trafficking.

FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act

Unnamed sources reported last week that the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) plans to mark up its FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act on Wednesday, 27 April.  This lengthy annual measure authorizing defense programming will likely be considered by the HASC’s six subcommittee one week prior, with consideration by the full chamber to follow in mid-May.

Heritage Foundation to Release Economic Freedom Report

Also today, the Heritage Foundation will release its annual Index of Economic Freedom   House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brady is expected to provide the keynote remarks at the public release of the report.

Other Congressional Hearings This Week:

  • On Tuesday, 2 February, the Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Implementation of the Decision to Open All Ground Combat Units to Women.”
  • On Tuesday, 2 February, the House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Afghanistan in 2016: The Evolving Security Situation and U.S. Policy, Strategy, and Posture.”
  • On Tuesday, 2 February, the Senate Homeland Security Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Frontline Response to Terrorism in America.”
  • On Wednesday, 3 February, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Turkey: Political Trends in 2016.”
  • On Wednesday, 3 February, the Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “An Independent Perspective of U.S. Defense Policy in the Asia-Pacific Region.”
  • On Wednesday, 3 February, the House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Acquisition Reform: Starting Programs Well.”
  • On Wednesday, 3 February, the Senate Homeland Security Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Canada’s Fast-Track Refugee Plan: Unanswered Questions and Implications for U.S. National Security.”
  • On Wednesday, 3 February, the House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Military Treatment Facilities.”
  • On Wednesday, 3 February, the House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Outside Views on Biodefense for the Department of Defense.”
  • On Thursday, 4 February, the Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to examine the situation in Afghanistan.
  • On Thursday, 4 February, the House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Naval Strike Fighters: Issues and Concerns.”

Looking Ahead

Washington is expected to focus on the following upcoming events:

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