On 2 January, President Barack Obama ordered new sanctions on three (3) entities and 10 individuals connected with the North Korean government. This action is in response to a December cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment. In announcing the new U.S. sanctions, White House Press Secretary Joshua Earnest said,

“We take seriously North Korea’s attack that aimed to create destructive financial effects on a U.S. company and to threaten artists and other individuals with the goal of restricting their right to free expression.”

Presumptive Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) welcomed the Administration’s actions, while also calling for a review of U.S. policy toward North Korea.

Russia/Ukraine Crisis

In December, the 113th Congress passed S. 2828/H.R. 5859 (Ukraine Freedom Support Act) a bill that contains new sanctions against Russia and authorizes the provision of lethal support to Ukraine. President Obama signed the bill into law on 20 December, noting his signature does not signal a change in the Administration’s sanctions policy. Rather, he explained that the new law “gives the Administration additional authorities that could be utilized, if circumstances warranted.” German Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel warned this past weekend against destabilizing Russia through too severe sanctions over the Ukraine crisis.

Cuba

Last month, the Obama Administration and Cuban government announced the two countries would attempt to normalize relations – which have been strained for 60 years. While Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-California) welcomed the release of American citizen Alan Gross in December, he warned,

“Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom – and not one second sooner.”

Similarly, presumptive Senate Appropriations State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) warned he will mount an effort to prevent the use of funds for a U.S. embassy to open in Havana. Cuban-American and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) has also spoken out against the easing of U.S. sanctions.

Iraq/Syria Crises

Over the weekend, U.S. Special Forces reportedly attempted to recover the Jordanian Air Force pilot – Muaz Yossef El Kasasba – captured by ISIL and held inside Syria after he was forced to abandon his F-16 over Iraq on 24 December. The mission was apparently aborted after U.S. helicopters came under heavy artillery fire. The 114th Congress is expected to revisit the issue of a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against ISIL early in 2015.

Ebola Crisis

On Sunday, an American health worker exposed (but not exhibiting symptoms) to Ebola in Sierra Leone arrived in Omaha, Nebraska, for observation. On Sunday, Senator Chris Coons (D-Delaware) – who traveled to Liberia in December, making him the first Member of Congress to visit Liberia since the outbreak – called for the Pentagon to avoid prematurely withdrawing U.S. military personnel who are fighting the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Ebola has killed more than 8,000 people out of more than 20,000 cases.

Trade

Concluding an informal round of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations in Washington last month, TPP countries reported they plan to hold another informal round of talks in late January in the United States; followed by a ministerial meeting in February or March. There is a strong push to conclude the TPP negotiations in the first or, more likely, second quarter of 2015. Presumptive Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has said advancing Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) is a 2015 trade priority; TPA is closely linked to concluding the TPP negotiations.

In December, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom announced plans to advance the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) discussions by holding meetings in January to prepare for the eighth negotiating round in early February.

Congressional debate over lifting a federal ban on U.S. crude exports is expected in 2015; although bipartisan concerns remain that lifting the ban could result in increased domestic gas prices. U.S. crude production levels are currently at their highest since 1986. The EU has identified as a key objective in the TTIP negotiations its desire to secure greater access to U.S. energy resources. The 114th Congress – a notably more conservative Republican Congress – will also debate whether to renew the U.S. Export-Import Bank charter before it expires on 30 June 2015.

Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA)

After retiring Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) blocked the reauthorization of TRIA in December – allowing the program to expire on 31 December 2014 – Representative Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) recently indicated TRIA will be on the 114th Congressional agenda and could be renewed in the first quarter of 2015. TRIA establishes a risk-sharing partnership between the federal government and the insurance industry to provide terrorism insurance to U.S. businesses – among them, organizers of sporting events, such as the upcoming National Football League (NFL) Super Bowl game. Continued threats from terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda and ISIL, provide impetus for renewing the program.

Congressional Committee Assignments

With Republicans in the majority, the GOP will have a 54-46 advantage in the Senate, thereby providing them with extra seats on each Committee. Though committee membership and leadership have yet to be approved, Senator Corker is expected to take the Chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) is expected to become Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Administration Nominations/Confirmations & Departures

The Obama Administration will have to resubmit those nominations that failed to advance during the 113th Congress for consideration by the 114th Congress, which convenes this week. Prior to the adjournment of the 113th Congress in December, the Senate confirmed Anthony Blinken as the next Deputy Secretary of State. President Obama accepted USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah’s resignation in December. The President has yet to name Shah’s replacement.

Looking Ahead

Washington will likely focus on the following upcoming matters:

  • 6 January: The 114th Congress convenes in Washington.
  • 6 January: President Obama will host Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto
  • 20 January: President Obama gives the State of the Union Address
  • [TBD] January: President Obama to travel to India
  • 26 January – 1 February: Informal round of TPP negotiations in the United States
  • 1 February: NFL’s Super Bowl game