America's lawmakers skipped town last week for a five-week
recess, leaving several important national security agenda items on the table.
Most, if not all of them, are expected to be ignored until
after the election, meaning it could be months before Congress takes action.
Some of the stalled agenda items could be tacked in the
short September session, aides say, but most will be left until the lame-duck
session in December. And depending on who wins the presidency and which party
controls the Senate, several items could be scuttled from the congressional calendar
Here are the top five foreign-policy issues Congress punted
on before leaving Washington:
Russia trade and
The House didn't even try to take up two time-sensitive
Russia-related bills before leaving town: a bill to grant Russia Permanent
Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status and a bill to sanction Russian human
rights violators, named after dead Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
The trade bill is particularly time-sensitive because Russia
is set to join the World Trade Organization later this month. Unless Congress
grants Russia PNTR status, advocates of the bill warn, U.S. businesses won't be
able to take advantage. House Republicans are leery of passing a bill that
seems to some like a gift to Russia, although Democrats and the administration
argue that the bill does more for the U.S. economy than it does for Russia.
The human rights bill, which would replace an antiquated
1974 law called Jackson-Vanik, is meant to be the sugar that makes the medicine
go down sweet for Republicans. But due to GOP anger about Russian actions in
Syria and the opposition of House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), House leaders
are having trouble corralling the votes for the trade bill, even if the human
rights bill is attached.
Look for the business community to ratchet up pressure on
Congress to act on the trade bill throughout August. Senate aides, noting that
the House must go first on the PNTR bill, predict that House leaders' interest
in not offending the business community will trump the awkwardness of passing a
trade bill with Russia just before the election. The Senate Finance and Foreign
Relations Committees have already approved both bills, so if the House does its
part, Senate passage is sure to follow.
One kink in the works could be that the House version of the
Magnitsky bill applies only to Russia, whereas the Senate version was broadened
to apply to human rights violators throughout the world. The administration
supports the Senate version because it is less provocative to the Russians. But
for House leaders like Ros-Lehtinen, that defeats the purpose.
The Senate managed to clear a bunch of national security
nominations before leaving town, but left a few top jobs behind. Unless
Congress acts in September, the United States will have no ambassador in Iraq
or Pakistan until after the elections. If
Mitt Romney wins in November, all U.S. ambassadors will be given their pink
slips and replaced, so it may seem trivial to appoint envoys who might only
serve a few months. But the situations in Iraq and Pakistan could not be more
sensitive, and most experts agree that U.S. national security interests are
harmed by not having an ambassador at the helm of those huge and important
For Iraq, the administration is not likely to nominate
anyone before the election, having learned a brutal lesson when several GOP
senators successfully worked to scuttle the confirmation of Obama's original
choice for the post, former NSC staffer Brett
McGurk. McGurk's nomination was dead in the water when his e-mail exchange with
a reporter in Baghdad (who later became his wife) was made public, but senators
expressed other concerns about his qualifications for the post as well.
Some in the State Department tell The Cable that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants to appoint Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford to the post, but the White
House doesn't want to take him off of the Syria account just yet. Other rumored
candidates include the DCM in Baghdad Robert
Beecroft and the current U.S. ambassador in Jordan Stu Jones. But there's no time to vet and confirm someone in the
six legislative days in September, so the world's largest embassy will probably
remain leaderless until 2013.
Obama's nominee to be envoy to Pakistan, Richard Olson, has a fair chance of
getting confirmed in September. His nomination is currently held up by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who wants Pakistan to
release the doctor who helped the CIA get Osama bin Laden. There's little
chance the Pakistani courts will respond to Paul, so his hold will prove
useless and will probably be lifted under pressure next month.
The Senate also failed to confirm Carlos Pasqual to be an assistant secretary of state in the energy
bureau. That hold relates to congressional angst over the "Fast and Furious
scandal," which unfolded while Pasqual was ambassador to Mexico. That issue
isn't going away any time soon, so Pascqual will probably have to hold on to
his "acting assistant secretary" title for a while.
Law of the Sea Treaty
Republicans senators boasted last month that they had
collected enough votes to kill the Law of the Sea Treaty, an international
convention that sets rules of the road for navigation, mineral, oil, and mining
disputes in international waters. The drive to ratify the treaty is a major pet
project of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), some say as a quasi-audition for the Secretary
of State job. But the treaty remains opposed by entrenched senators in the GOP
caucus, led by Sen. James Inhofe
(R-OK), who sees the treaty as yielding American sovereignty.
The Navy supports the treaty because it codifies
international navigation practices it is already observing, and business leaders
are pushing for ratification because they believe it gives them added leverage
to bargain for rights to resources under the oceans. The plan had been to push
for ratification in the lame-duck session, as was done in 2010 for the New
START treaty with Russia. But this treaty is still a long way from being fully
vetted, Republican opponents are confident they have enough votes to stop
ratification, and the lame-duck session is already jammed full of urgent tax
and economic bills. Moreover, if Democrats hold the Senate, Inhofe is likely to
succeed Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as
the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, dealing LOST
another perhaps fatal blow.
Defense and State
The defense authorization is the perennial and
quintessential "must-pass" bill, as no Congress wants to stand accused of
failing to support the troops during wartime, so there's a healthy confidence
on Capitol Hill that the legislation will get done this calendar year. But the
bill won't get done this fiscal year,
which ends Sept. 30, because unlike most legislation these days, senators
usually get to offer amendments to the defense authorization and thus the bill
requires days of precious floor time. Last year, Congress cleared the bill in
late December and that looks like the plan for this year as well.
The bill recommends but does not set funding levels for the
military -- the money is actually allocated by the appropriations bill -- but
there are still controversial issues in the authorization bill that will
require attention. Last year's debate focused on the bill's language
authorizing the president to indefinitely detain terror suspects, a fight that
is still ongoing in the courts. Last year's bill also included new sanctions on
Iran. This year, the fight will be over provisions of the version the House
passed in May that provide for indefinite detention, reject some administration
cuts to weapons programs, and seek to prevent same-sex marriage ceremonies in
The impending cuts to both defense and entitlement spending
mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 have become a hot-button issue in
the presidential campaign. And we know what that means: no compromises before
the election. For Republicans, the administration's reluctance to negotiate to
avoid approximately $54 billion in cuts to the Pentagon's budget that are set
to go into effect in January feeds into in their argument that the president is
weak on national defense. Democrats, meanwhile, argue that the cuts can only be
avoided if Republicans agree to increase revenues.
After the election, three possible scenarios will likely emerge.
If Obama wins and the Democrats hold the Senate, they will be able to claim a
mandate and popular support for a deal that includes revenues as well as
spending cuts to avoid sequestration. If Romney wins, having promised to hold
the line on cuts, the Senate will be hard pressed to implement the
sequestration bargain no matter which party holds the gavel. If Obama wins and
the Republicans take over the Senate, no deal is likely and the cuts could
actually go into effect, beginning what would surely be a period of increased
and even more acrimonious gridlock regarding national security on Capitol Hill.
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