Congress approved an Omnibus spending measure and tax extenders package last Friday, its final major hurdle before adjourning for the year.  The House is expected to return for the new congressional session on Tuesday, 5 January 2016, with the Senate to follow on Monday, 11 January.

President Barack Obama departed Washington late Friday for his family’s annual holiday in Hawaii, with a stop in San Bernardino where he met with the family of the victims of the terrorist attack in California.  He is expected to return to Washington in early January.

FY 2016 Omnibus Bill & Tax Extenders Measure

In the early hours last Wednesday morning, Congress unveiled a $1.15 trillion Omnibus spending measure to fund the federal government for the remainder of Fiscal Year (FY) 2016.  Prior to the Wednesday midnight deadline, both chambers passed another short-term Continuing Resolution to avert a government shutdown and provide Members with additional time to review the text of the Omnibus.  The House passed the Omnibus on Friday.

Just before releasing the Omnibus text, Congress unveiled a separate measure extending or making permanent certain tax provisions.  The House voted Thursday to pass the tax extenders legislation, and the Senate merged it with the Omnibus before final approval on Friday.  President Obama signed the combined Omnibus and tax extenders measure into law later that day.

The Omnibus provides a total of $52.8 billion for the State-Foreign Operations account, including $14.9 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding for programs related to the war in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq and humanitarian relief for Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon.  The bill provides about $3.4 billion above last year’s enacted level but is slightly less than the President’s budget request.

Visa Waiver Program (VWP)

The Omnibus includes provisions tightening requirements under the VWP to address concerns associated with the travel of foreign fighters.  Last Thursday, Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee questioned Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for International Affairs Alan Bersin on his inability to produce statistics indicating how many individuals may have overstayed the 90-day visa allowed under the program.  Assistant Secretary Bersin confirmed that approximately 400,000 (or two percent) of the 20 million who visit the United States each year under the VWP overstay their visa.

Russia/Ukraine Crisis

Secretary of State John Kerry met last Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, accompanied in his travels by Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland.  A senior State Department official told the press prior to the Secretary’s meetings that the United States has made clear that Ukraine and Syria remain distinct issues, and the former will not be traded for concessions in talks to end the conflict in the Middle Eastern country.

Secretary Kerry emphasized that the United States is not seeking to isolate Russia as a matter of policy and reiterated that the sooner Russia implements the Minsk agreements, the sooner sanctions can be rolled back.  He added that the world is better off when Russia and the United States work together, characterizing Presidents Obama and Putin’s current cooperation a “sign of maturity.”

In reviewing the Omnibus language, SASC Chairman McCain said he was angered that Senate appropriators, particularly Appropriations Committee Member Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) and Ranking Member Richard Durbin (D-Illinois), included a provision that allows U.S. defense contractor United Launch Alliance (ULA) to keep buying Russian-made rocket engines, effectively reversing language Chairman McCain championed in the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) limiting ULA to nine rocket engines.  Senator McCain argued this action “will send hundreds of millions of dollars to Vladimir Putin, his cronies and Russia’s military-industrial base as Russia continues to occupy Crimea and destabilize Ukraine.”  SASC Chairman McCain therefore suggested that he might impose “a complete and indefinite restriction on Putin’s engines” in the FY 2017 NDAA.

Combatting ISIL

Secretary Kerry’s meetings in Moscow cleared the path for world powers to meet Friday in New York City to further discuss a political solution for Syria.  The United States and Russia remain at odds over the future of Syrian President Bashar-al Assad, though Secretary Kerry reportedly accepted Assad can stay “for now.”  He added the United States and its partners are not seeking regime change.

On Friday, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution of a possible plan for a ceasefire and a peace process for Syria.  Secretary Kerry said, “This council is sending a clear message to all concerned that the time is now to stop the killing in Syria and lay the groundwork for a government” that can unify the country.   Secretary Kerry shared with reporters after the Council meeting that steps would have to be taken to form a transitional government within six months.

In a floor speech this week, Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Chairman John McCain (R-Arizona) lambasted the Administration’s strategy to defeat ISIL, observing that ISIL is not contained regionally and is actually expanding its global reach.  Chairman McCain also commented on other foreign policy and defense-related concerns, such as the situation in Ukraine and China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and broader Asia-Pacific region.

Iran – JCPOA and Missile Test Concerns

Despite the primary focus last week on funding the U.S. Government before adjourning, Congress also focused on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and concerns regarding Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests.  Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) addressed the Senate twice last week, highlighting concerns over Iran’s behavior and the U.N. Security Council panel of experts’ findings that Iran had violated U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929 when it tested a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead in October.  Senator Sullivan also said that he is working to get support for a bill that would prevent the President from lifting sanctions until Iran is no longer designated a state sponsor of terrorism and until Iran releases the five imprisoned U.S. citizens.

Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) also convened a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week on the Iran Nuclear Deal.  While acknowledging some of the concerns being raised are not covered by the JCPOA, Chairman Corker suggested there should be recourse for addressing them.  The bipartisan hearing initially focused on Iran’s two recent ballistic missile launches (October and November), especially centering on the fact that long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles are typically only used for delivering nuclear or being capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

The Obama Administration official testifying before the Committee, Stephen Mull, who is responsible for Iran Nuclear Implementation, said the Administration has been swift in condemning the missile tests in the Security Council.  He added the U.S. Government is actively considering additional measures at this moment, but he did not elaborate.  Chairman Corker concluded the hearing by observing that if the U.N. Security Council fails to sanction Iran for its missile tests, he hopes the Administration will implement “surgical and directed sanctions” against Iran.  The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to hold additional oversight hearings throughout 2016 on Iran and the implementation of the JCPOA.

Global Magnitsky Act Advances in the Senate

On Thursday, the Senate passed the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (S. 284) by Unanimous Consent (with an amendment).  Notably, Section 3 of the bill details the sanctions that the President may impose against persons determined to be responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights committed against individuals in any foreign country.  The House has a related measure (H.R. 624) that is pending before the House Foreign Affairs and Judiciary Committees.

President Obama Recaps 2015 and Looks Ahead to 2016 in a Year-End Press Conference

Prior to departing Washington on Friday, President Obama spoke on his achievements in 2015 and outlined some goals for 2016.  With respect to demonstrating American leadership at a global level, the President said:  “Around the world – from reaching the deal to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, to reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, to concluding a landmark trade agreement that will make sure that American workers and American businesses are operating on a level playing field and that we, rather than China or other countries, are setting the rules for global trade – we have shown what is possible when America leads.”

TPP – Latest Developments

President Obama also expressed optimism for advancing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal in 2016.  He noted the agreement is consistent with what he promised and “is the most pro-labor, pro-environment, progressive trade deal in history, that eliminates just about every tariff on American manufacturing goods in countries that up until this point have charged a tax, essentially, on anything that American workers and American businesses sell in these areas.”  He added the deal “brings those taxes down to zero on basically all American-manufactured products – a huge win for agriculture, because now the people of Japan are going to be in a better position to enjoy American beef and American pork, which up until this point, even though we’re much more efficient producers, has been tagged with a tax that makes our products uncompetitive in Japanese markets.”

Despite the bipartisan efforts to complete the Omnibus/tax extender package, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) reiterated his belief last week that the political environment in 2016 is not conducive for the TPP deal.  While House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) was guarded about 2016 prospects for the TPP deal, saying, “I think it’s very possible, I just don’t know when.”

Customs Bill Update

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) acknowledged last Tuesday that the customs conference report will not be considered by the Senate until next year.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) suggested a vote early in 2016 remains possible.

Looking Ahead

Washington will likely focus on the following upcoming matters:

  • 2 January 2016: President Obama returns to Washington
  • 5 January 2016: House of Representatives reconvenes in Washington
  • 11 January 2016: Senate reconvenes in Washington
  • 12 January 2016: State of the Union Address
  • February 2016: President to release FY 2017 Budget
  • 8-9 July 2016: NATO Summit in Warsaw, Poland