The Senate is in session this week, while the House of Representatives is in recess.

Russia/Ukraine Crisis

During a Wednesday hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland said Russia would face new consequences should it: (1) continue “fueling the fire” in any part of Ukraine, including the east; (2) fail to implement the recent ceasefire; or (3) engage in a “further land grab.” She called for a full ceasefire, uninhibited access for the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) monitors, and the complete withdrawal of heavy weapons “in the coming days, not weeks or months.” The Assistant Secretary also confirmed U.S. officials are in intensive consultations with European leaders regarding possible new sanctions, explaining the next range of sectoral sanctions would either deepen current sectoral sanctions, or widen their scope to cover new sectors of the Russian economy.

On 4 March, the OSCE reported 39 ceasefire violations in the area Donetsk alone. A bipartisan group of House leaders and committee chairs announced Thursday that they had sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to approve lethal aid for Ukraine. The U.N. Security Council discussed the situation in eastern Ukraine on Friday, with U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic and Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman providing briefings.

The EU governments began two weeks of debate on the bloc’s policy toward Russia and Ukraine last Friday, while also scaling back its sanctions on four Ukrainians and renewing its sanctions against 18 Ukrainians. EU leaders are scheduled to discuss the situation in Ukraine at a Summit on 19-20 March.  The Swiss Government added 19 individuals and nine organizations to its sanctions list on Friday, a move that aligns with the EU and prevents the country from being used as an avenue for circumventing Western sanctions against Russia.

This Tuesday, 10 March, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “U.S. Policy In Ukraine: Countering Russia and Driving Reform.” Assistant Secretary Nuland is scheduled to testify for the Administration.

Iran/Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a special joint session of Congress on Tuesday, 3 March, where he suggested the current framework of negotiation would result in a bad deal with Iran. Shortly after the Prime Minister’s address, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said he will allow the Iran sanctions legislation sponsored by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and Ranking Member Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) – The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 – to advance to the Senate floor. Senator Menendez immediately indicated he and other Democrats would vote against the measure if it comes up for a floor vote without having first gone through committee consideration and if it is before 24 March – the date the P5+1 negotiators have set for reaching a framework agreement with Tehran on its nuclear program. Facing a certain Democratic filibuster, late on Thursday, Majority Leader McConnell said he would not fast track the bill. Meanwhile, in an attempt to gain congressional approval for the agreement being negotiated, Bloomberg reported on Sunday that 47 Republican Senators wrote an open letter to Iran’s leaders warning that any nuclear deal signed with President Obama’s Administration could be modified by future Congresses or the next U.S. President.

DOJ Reportedly Prepares Charges Against A Democratic Senator

Last week, the media reported after a year-long investigation the Department of Justice is preparing corruption charges – and a formal announcment is expected within weeks – against Democratic Senator Menendez. Republican Senators Ted Cruz (Texas) and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) suggested there may be political motivations by the Obama Administration, noting the leak on the pending charges came just after Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress.  Senate Majority Leader McConnell said,

“Well, apparently no charges have been brought yet. But typically when these kinds of charges are brought, people step aside from their leadership positions for a pendency of time. But that will be up to the Democratic leader, Senator Reid, to make that call.”

Syria/Iraq Crises

The dissolution of a moderate Syrian opposition group, Hazzm, is being viewed as a set-back for the moderate opposition’s capabilities in northern Syria and will likely impact the U.S. strategy to train and equip program. An onslaught by al Qaeda’s Syria wing, the Nusra Front, forced Hazzm into dissolution. This is the second time in four months that Nusra has forced the dissolution of a Western-backed rebel group.

This Wednesday, 11 March, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey are scheduled to testify before the SFRC on the President’s request for Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against ISIL and ongoing U.S. military and diplomatic efforts.

Trade

Last week, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) confirmed negotiations continue with the top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), on a Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill. Accordingly, Chairman Hatch indicated he is not likely to introduce a TPA bill before April. The Chairman also observed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations likely will not be concluded until Congress passes TPA.

At a House Democratic Caucus meeting last week, U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman committed to holding a series of briefings for the Caucus on the ongoing TPP negotiations. Topics of particular concern to House Democrats will likely be the focus of the briefings – labor and environmental provisions, agriculture and food safety, intellectual property (IP), and investment. This week, TPP countries will seek to use the informal round of negotiations in Hawaii to complete technical work and discuss state-owned enterprises, IP and rules of origin. With the U.S. Congress’ inaction on TPA and the still ongoing U.S.-Japan parallel negotiations on market access, skepticism abounds on whether major progress will be achieved in Hawaii. Meanwhile, acting Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler was in Tokyo this week to lead the U.S. talks with Japanese officials on agriculture and auto market access, before heading to South Korea to discuss Seoul’s interest in joining TPP.

Last Wednesday, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative released President Obama’s 2015 Trade Policy Agenda. The report outlines the Administration’s economic and national security arguments for trade agreements, including the TPP and the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP). We expect Congress will schedule congressional oversight hearings regarding the annual report, where USTR Froman will likely testify on the Administration’s trade priorities for 2015.

The EU agreed last Wednesday to set up a new oversight body to ensure that the various arms of the EU’s executive branch take a coordinated approach to the TTIP negotiations. EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman will meet later this month to assess progress from the eighth round of negotiations and provide direction before the next round, to be held in April.

The next round of negotiations for the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA) will take place 16-20 March in Geneva, Switzerland. This round will focus on product nominations for: (1) environmental monitoring and analysis equipment; (2) resource efficiency products; and (3) environmentally preferable products (for example, bicycles). Product nominations from all discussed categories will be accepted only until 1 April. Next, negotiators will begin “Phase 2” discussions – to assess the products tabled so far – in rounds scheduled for the weeks of 4 May, 15 June, and 27 July.

South Korea

U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert was attacked last Wednesday in Seoul by a razor blade wielding assailant. The Ambassador received a serious cut to his face and hand and is being treated in a hospital in South Korea. The State Department affirmed Thursday that a suspect is in the custody of the Korean National Police, who is closely coordinating with U.S. law enforcement. The Department also noted the bilateral relationship is strong and would not be deterred by senseless acts of violence.

State Department

The media revealed last week that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had used a personal e-mail account for official business, intimating this practice may be in violation of federal records laws. In response, the State Department said, “there is not now a prohibition on using a personal email for official business, and at the time she was in office.” The Department also said she turned over 55,000 pages of communication for federal recordkeeping. Meanwhile, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-California) said last Wednesday the allegations that Secretary Clinton sought to sidestep the law merit robust scrutiny.

Visa Waiver Program Scrutinized

This Thursday, 12 March, the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the Visa Waiver Program and implications for U.S. national security.

Keystone XL Pipeline

As promised, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) called for a veto override vote last Wednesday, which failed by a vote of 62 to 37 (66 votes are needed). Some in the Senate have suggested supporters of the bill may next attempt to attach Keystone legislation to a “must pass” legislative measure.

Edward Snowden

Last Tuesday, the State Department welcomed news that former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden was considering returning to the United States from Russia, saying he would face charges in connection to leaks of classified information and would receive a fair trial upon his return.

Congressional Retirement Announcements

The longest serving female Senator and Senate Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) announced on Monday, 2 March, that she will not run for re-election at the end of her term in 2016. Similarly, Rep. Candice Miller (R-Michigan) said last week that she too will not seek re-election in 2016.

Looking Ahead

Washington will likely focus on the following upcoming matters:

  • 19 March: President Obama to host the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall
  • 24 March: Deadline for framework deal with Iran
  • 24 March: President Obama to host Afghan President Ashraf Ghani
  • 17-19 April: 2015 Spring Meetings of the World Bank Group and the IMF in Washington
  • 7-8 June: G-7 Summit in Schloss Elmau, Germany
  • 30 June: U.S. Export-Import Bank charter expire
  • 15 September: 70th Session of the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) opens in New York City
  • 24 September: Pope Francis to address Congress
  • 28 September: General debate of the UNGA begins