Presidential Trip

Over the weekend, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama departed Washington for India, where the President will be the chief guest in the country’s Republic Day parade. In advance of the trip, U.S. and Indian negotiators met in London to reach an accord over a 2010 Indian nuclear liability law that prohibits U.S. investments. President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Sunday that an agreement, in principle, has been reached. Over the course of the three-day trip, President Obama will give a speech on the future of the bilateral relationship.

State of the Union (SOTU) Address

Last Tuesday, President Obama delivered his annual SOTU address before the 114thCongress. As is usual, the speech focused on domestic priorities – such as the U.S. economy, job creation, healthcare coverage and education opportunities – and also addressed international challenges – such as countering extremism and terrorist organizations, the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan, expanding U.S. exports, and addressing climate change. The White House released an accompanying fact sheet, detailing the President’s priorities for 2015.

Iran

In the SOTU, President Obama threatened to veto any new congressional sanctions bills against Iran, citing it could derail the ongoing P5+1 Talks with Iran over its nuclear program. There is bipartisan support in Congress to mandate that any deal negotiated with Iran would need congressional approval; with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee holding a hearing last Wednesday on such a legislative proposal. This Tuesday, the Senate Banking Committee is expected to hold a hearing on a bill entitled, “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015,” with a markup of the bill scheduled for Thursday (29 January). The House Foreign Affairs Committee will also hold a hearing on Tuesday to examine the ongoing negotiations with Iran. Meanwhile, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced last Wednesday that he has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress.

Russia/Ukraine Crisis

On Saturday, Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko about the deteriorating situation in Ukraine. Both leaders expressed “grave concern over Russia’s blatant disregard for its commitments under the September Minsk agreement and unilateral escalation of the conflict.” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said last week the United States continues to act with its allies to ensure Russia pays “a pretty dramatic price” for its behavior in Ukraine. Last Wednesday, President Obama spoke with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev on bilateral matters. President Obama also encouraged Kazakhstan to continue playing an active role in finding a peaceful outcome to the situation in Ukraine. President Obama also spoke Tuesday with French President François Hollande about the situation in Ukraine and the need to maintain sanctions against Russia. After attending the World Economic Forum  in Davos, Switzerland, Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew travels this week to Ukraine to discuss a U.S. plan to provide up to $2 billion in loan guarantees to Kyiv.

Iraq/Syria Crises

The Senate Armed Services Committee received a closed briefing last week on the Defense Department program to train and equip vetted Syrian rebels to fight ISIL. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) said he expects the White House to soon send Congress a draft for a new Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF).

Cybersecurity & National Interests

President Obama again warned about cybersecurity challenges in last week’s SOTU address: “No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids.” He called on Congress to pass legislation to address “the evolving threat of cyber attacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children’s information.”

This week, former Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Wednesday) and the Senate Armed Services Committee (Thursday) about global challenges, American leadership and national security interests.

North Korea

U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Ambassador Sung Kim is in Japan and China this week for meetings with senior officials on North Korea policy.

Cuba

President Obama mentioned Cuba in the SOTU, urging Congress to “begin the work of ending the embargo.” He cited the shift in U.S. policy could potentially “end a legacy of mistrust in [the Western] hemisphere.”

Africa

President Obama said in the SOTU that U.S. troops, scientists and health care professionals are “rolling back Ebola” in West Africa.  He cautioned the “world needs to use this lesson to build a more effective global effort to prevent the spread of future pandemics, invest in smart development, and eradicate extreme poverty.”

In his Tuesday conversation with President Hollande, President Obama spoke about countering the terrorist group Boko Haram in West and Central Africa and the upcoming Nigerian elections.

Trade

President Obama requested Congress provide him with Trade Promotion Authority (“TPA” or “fast-track authority”) in the SOTU address. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said last Thursday that he is working with Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) to introduce a TPA bill by the end of the month and possibly hold a Committee markup on the bill by the end of February. Many Democratic Members of both chambers have expressed uneasiness over granting fast-track authority, expressing concerns that range from labor and environmental matters to market access for U.S. agriculture exports to currency manipulation.

Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiators are scheduled to meet informally in New York this week. There appears to be consensus among a majority of TPP member states to conclude the TPP negotiations at a ministerial meeting slated to take place in mid-March; which aligns with the Obama Administration’s expectation for congressional movement on TPA.  Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) warned that while a TPA bill could come to the Senate floor in March, this is an ambitious timeline, noting the Senate will be focused on budget issues during that month. President Obama is expected to release his FY 2016 Budget Request on 2 February.

This Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee will hold separate hearings to examine the Administration’s 2015 Trade Agenda. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman is scheduled to testify.

Looking Ahead

Washington will likely focus on the following upcoming matters:

  • 25-27 January: President Obama is in India
  • 26 January – 1 February: Informal round of TPP negotiations to be held in New York City
  • 29-30 January: House Democratic Retreat in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • 1 February: NFL Super Bowl game
  • 2 February: President Obama expected to release his FY 2016 Budget Request
  • 2-6 February: 8th Round of TTIP discussions in Brussels
  • 18 February: White House to host Summit on Countering Violent Extremism