Last week, President Barack Obama returned to Washington early Friday morning from his Asia-Pacific trip, as the U.S. Congress advanced S. 2040, Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), to his desk.  President Obama honored the victims of the 9/11 attack Sunday morning in a ceremony at the Pentagon.

North Korea reportedly conducted its fifth underground nuclear test on Friday, with many global leaders and Members of Congress condemning the latest provocative nuclear proliferation activity. On 9 September, Secretary of State John Kerry announced negotiations with the Russian Federation had resulted in a ceasefire agreement being brokered for Syria.

This week, the 71st session of the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) will convene in New York City.  President Obama will be in New York to host a Leader’s Summit on Refugees on 20 September, which is also the first day of the UNGA General Debate.

The President will meet this afternoon with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) at the White House to discuss priorities for the remainder of the September congressional session.

On Wednesday, President Obama will hold a bilateral meeting with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma at the White House.

U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman will travel today to Mexico for bilateral meetings and to participate in a panel at the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations. Ambassador Froman will participate in the President’s Export Council Meeting on Wednesday in Washington.  On Thursday, Ambassador Froman will travel to Belgium to meet with EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström and discuss the current state of the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) discussions.

Both chambers of Congress are in session this week, focusing on Iran, Syria, the Zika Virus and cyber security matters, while also working to negotiate a possible shot-term Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the Federal Government beyond 30 September.

JASTA – Bill Sent to President

The House voted last Friday to advance by voice vote the Senate-passed JASTA measure to the President’s desk for signature into law. Congress acted on the measure that many Members believe is long-overdue for the victims of the 9/11 attack and ahead of Sunday’s 15th anniversary of the terrorist attack.  JASTA would provide legal recourse for U.S. citizens against those who sponsor or enable terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

The White House has previously signaled the President would likely veto S. 2040, citing sovereign immunity concerns, among other reasons. This sets the stage for the first possible congressional override of a veto, with Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) and Congressman Peter King (R-New York) saying the necessary two-thirds support exists in both chambers.

North Korea – U.S. Condemns New Nuclear Test

North Korea claimed last Friday that it had successfully conducted its fifth, underground nuclear test, estimated to have an explosive power of 10 kilotons that resulted in resounding condemnation from world leaders. Upon his return from the East Asia Summit last week in Laos, President Obama said of the nuclear test:

“To be clear, the United States does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state. … Today’s nuclear test, a flagrant violation of multiple UN Security Council Resolutions, makes clear North Korea’s disregard for international norms and standards for behavior and demonstrates it has no interest in being a responsible member of the international community.”

President Obama also consulted by phone with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, saying:

“We agreed to work with the U.N. Security Council, our other Six-Party partners, and the international community to vigorously implement existing measures imposed in previous resolutions, and to take additional significant steps, including new sanctions, to demonstrate to North Korea that there are consequences to its unlawful and dangerous actions.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) issued a statement after the nuclear test, reminding Congress passed bipartisan sanctions legislation earlier this year and observing:

“While other steps may be necessary, unless the United States, China and the United Nations Security Council are willing to immediately begin stepping up strong enforcement of the sanctions regime already in place, North Korea will ultimately achieve its goal of becoming a full-fledged nuclear power.”

Pyongyang is already subject to the strictest sanctions in the world, leaving some to ponder what new sanctions, if any, can be imposed.

CTBT – Senate Warns Administration Against U.N. Resolution Proposal

Last Wednesday, the SFRC held a hearing on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, with Chairman Corker warning the Obama Administration against its plans to offer a resolution at the U.N. Security Council that could reinforce the objectives of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) as international law without a two-thirds vote of the U.S. Senate. The Senate rejected ratification of the CTBT by a vote of 51 to 48 in October 1999.  In an August letter to President Obama, Chairman Corker wrote:

“By signing onto language declaring avoidance of nuclear weapons testing to be essential to the ‘object and purpose’ of the CTBT, the State Department is in effect submitting the United States to the restrictions of a treaty that has not entered into force. … Regardless of one’s view about the necessity of nuclear testing, seeking to limit a future administration through a customary international law mechanism, when your administration has only four months left in office, is inappropriate.”

At the hearing, Ranking Member Bob Cardin (D-Maryland) countered Chairman Corker, saying a response letter from Secretary Kerry noted:

“We are not proposing and do not support the adoption of the UN Security Council resolution imposing a legally binding prohibition on nuclear testing.”

Iran – Congressional Scrutiny Continues

On 6 September, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) introduced the No Ransom Payments Act (S. 3285), a bill that seeks to stop payments to Iran from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Judgment Fund until Iran:  (1) returns the widely perceived $400 million ransom payment from the United States, and (2) pays U.S. victims of Iranian terrorism “what they are owed.”  Congressman Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) introduced a companion measure (H.R. 5940) in the House on the same day.

At a House Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing last week, some Members questioned the U.S. payments reportedly made to Iran as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was being negotiated and implemented. One panelist suggested Congress should consider legislation to increase transparency and accountability of any such future financial transactions to states designated as sponsors of terrorism.

  • On Wednesday, 14 September, the House Foreign Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a mark-up of H.R. 5931, Prohibiting Future Ransom Payments to Iran Act – a measure introduced by Chairman Ed Royce (R-California) on 6 September.

This fall, Congress is also expected to debate renewing the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA), which expires at the end of this year.  Prior to recessing for the summer, SFRC Chairman Corker and Senators Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia.) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) introduced a Senate bill that would renew ISA and limit the White House’s ability to waive new mandatory sanctions included in the measure (S.3267).  A group of Senate Democrats, led by Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), countered with their own proposal (S. 3281) extending ISA but containing no additional sanctions provisions.  The White House opposes any legislation that it believes could threaten the JCPOA.

Syria – Obama Administration Announces a Ceasefire Deal with Russia

On 9 September, the Obama Administration announced after weeks of negotiations, the United States and Russia had reached an agreement to broker a ceasefire in Syria. The new ceasefire agreement reportedly calls on the Syrian regime and opposition to respect a nationwide ceasefire that should go into effect at sundown on Monday. According to Secretary Kerry, the accord should prevent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from deploying air force combat missions anywhere the opposition is present. Secretary Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have also said that once hostilities have ceased for seven days, the United States and Russia would begin to work on military coordination to target Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, previously known as al Nusra Front.

SFRC Chairman Corker issued a statement on 10 September, calling for more transparency and details on the terms of the ceasefire agreement:

“We have inquired with the Administration about the details of the ceasefire agreement in Syria and have been referred to the public comments made by Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov. …  We think it is appropriate for the details to be made fully available to all parties involved, including the United States Senate.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) Chairman Ed Royce (R-California) questioned the durability of the ceasefire agreement, saying:

“Given the unlikelihood of success, I will continue to advocate for new bipartisan legislation to cut off the Assad regime’s access to the resources it uses to annihilate its own people. This legislation will impose stiff new sanctions on Syrian human rights abuses and those – like Iran and Russia – who enable the regime’s atrocities.  It will ensure accountability for all those who’ve committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

HFAC Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-New York) welcomed the announcement in a statement, while cautioning:

“[I] remain wary of Russian intentions in Syria. The governments of Russia and Syria do not have a strong history of abiding by ceasefires or protecting civilians.”

Congressman Engel further noted that he and Chairman Royce have introduced a bipartisan measure, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act (H.R. 5732), that would give the Obama Administration “additional tools to compel Syria and its sponsors to stop the violence and begin the transition to Syria’s future.”

East Asia Summits – Readout

At the conclusion of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit last week, in Vientiane, Laos, the President reinforced engagement with Southeast Asia remains a central pillar of the U.S. Rebalance to Asia. The White House noted in a fact sheet that the United States has partnered with ASEAN for nearly 40 years, working together on shared goals for Southeast Asia. The White House also released a fact sheet on the United States’ next steps for further economic engagement with ASEAN and member states.

East Asia Summit (EAS) Leaders responded to President Obama’s call for strengthened cooperation to combat human trafficking by endorsing the EAS Leaders’ “Declaration on Strengthening Responses to Migrants in Crisis and Trafficking in Persons.” President Obama further announced USAID’s comprehensive, five-year plan of action toward combatting human trafficking, which commits nearly $12 million in the first year.  The White House also released a fact sheet on U.S. efforts to address human trafficking and irregular migration in East Asia and the Pacific.

Gabon – Political Crisis

HFAC Chairman Royce issued a statement last week after the 27 August presidential election results erupted in protests that included reports of the parliamentary building being set afire in Libreville and thousands being detained in Gabon.  The Chairman called for an investigation of reported election irregularities and urged the Obama Administration to join France in pushing for an election recount in Gabon.

NDAA Conferencing Update

The leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees met last Thursday on reconciling the differences between the Senate and House Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). While progress was noted, the Committee leaders have yet to provide a clear timeline for resolving the outstanding differences.  They have expressed intentions to try and finish the reconciliation process before the start of FY 2017, which begins on 1 October.  Time is short and there is reportedly much work yet to done, among competing congressional priorities.  Congress typically passes an NDAA compromise report by the end of the year.

Cyber Security – Safeguarding U.S. Elections from Hackers

After several reported cyber-attacks – including against the Democratic Party, U.S. presidential candidates, certain media entities, and state voter registration rolls – Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson offered state election officials DHS’ assistance in shoring up the voting machine security ahead of the November elections.  He also pledged to “leave no stone unturned” to ensure the integrity of the U.S. electoral process.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is investigating the recent cyber-attacks, with initial reports alleging Russian involvement. FBI Director James Comey has argued that the decentralized electoral system across 50 states makes the election process “wonderfully resilient” against cyber hacks, suggesting this could minimize the cyber threat to the upcoming November elections.

Bipartisan lawmakers in Congress have called for a “cyber war strategy,” with some advocating for an international agreement similar to the Geneva Conventions to define what is considered “an act of war” with respect to cyber-attacks.  Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton echoed this sentiment in a campaign foreign policy speech in Cincinnati two weeks ago, saying:

“As president, I will make it clear that the United States will treat cyberattacks just like any other attack.  We will be ready with serious political, economic and military responses.”

Last week, the White House announced Greg Touhill, a top cyber security official at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), will serve as the first Federal Chief Information Security Officer (CISO).

  • On Tuesday, 13 September, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Protecting the 2016 Elections from Cyber and Coting Machine Attacks.”
  • On Tuesday, 13 September, the Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Encryption and Cyber Matters.”
  • On Wednesday, 14 September, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Oversight, Agency Action, Federal Rights and Federal Courts is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Protecting Internet Freedom: Implications of Ending U.S. Oversight of the Internet.”

TPP – Speaker Ryan Says Congressional Support Lacking

In a blunt assessment, Speaker Ryan said of the lack of congressional support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal last week:

“If you bring it [TPP implementing legislation] up, it’s going to go down. … I don’t think we should bring up a bill that goes down.”

TTIP – USTR Froman Travels to Belgium

Despite recent statements by representatives of some EU member states (including France and Germany) saying they oppose continuing the TTIP negotiations, Sweden, the Netherland, and Finland are reportedly going to advocate for the deal at an informal meeting of EU Trade Ministers scheduled for 22-23 September in Bratislava, Slovakia.

EU Trade Commissioner Malmström recently signaled a willingness to work with the United States toward ensuring the EU’s end goal of protecting specialty food names. She will meet later this week with Ambassador Froman to discuss the current state of the TTIP negotiations.

EB-5 Visa Program – Set to Expire This Month

Ahead of the EB-5 foreign investor visa program’s expiration at the end of the month, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) sent a letter to the Senate leadership, calling for reform of the perceived flawed program or to allow the program to expire. The EB-5 program currently allows foreign nationals to invest $1 million (or $500,000 in rural or high unemployment areas) in a commercial enterprise in exchange for green cards and eventually U.S. citizenship.  Congress has previously held hearings on fraud, abuse and national security vulnerabilities related to the program.

Zika Virus – Senate Democrats Stymie Bill Again

Senate Democrats voted for the third time  to block the $1.1 billion Zika funding bill last week, a bill that would direct federal funds toward Zika treatment and prevention. Democratic Members have expressed concerns that Republicans will harm women’s health by excluding Planned Parenthood from the measure’s funding. Senators are now reportedly considering attaching the $1.1 billion measure to the must-pass CR being negotiated to prevent a Federal Government shutdown on 1 October.

Congressional Hearings This Week

Congress is expected to also hold the following hearings:

  • On Tuesday, 13 September, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Examining Preservation of State Department Records.”
  • On Wednesday, 14 September, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled hold a hearing titled, “NATO Expansion: Examining the Accession of Montenegro.”
  • On Wednesday, 14 September, the House Agriculture Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “American Agriculture Trade with Cuba.”
  • On Wednesday, 14 September, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Protecting Girls: Global Efforts to End Child Marriage.”
  • On Wednesday, 14 September, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Turkey after the July Coup.”
  • On Wednesday, 14 September, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Eritrea: A Neglected Regional Threat.”
  • On Wednesday, 14 September, the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security and Subcommittee on Government Operations are scheduled to hold a joint hearing titled, “Radicalization in the U.S. and the Rise of Terrorism.”
  • On Wednesday, 14 September, the House Homeland Security Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Shutting Down Terrorist Pathways into America.”
  • On Thursday, 15 September, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Afghanistan: U.S. Policy and International Commitments.”
  • On Thursday, 15 September, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Reviewing the Civil Nuclear Agreement with Norway.”
  • On Thursday, 15 September, The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere is scheduled to markup two bills: (1) H. Res. 851, Expressing profound concern about the ongoing political, economic, social and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, urging the release of political prisoners, and calling for respect of constitutional and democratic processes; and (2) H.R. 5708, Nicaragua Investment Conditionality Act (NICA) of 2016.
  • On Thursday, 15 September, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Nicaragua’s Democratic Collapse.”
  • On Thursday, 15 September, the Senate Armed Services committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Long-term Budgetary Challenges Facing the Military Services and Innovative Solutions for Maintaining our Military Superiority.”

Looking Ahead

Washington is expected to focus on the following upcoming events:

  • 13 September: 71st Session of the U.N. General Assembly begins in New York City
  • 20 September: UNGA General Debate commences
  • 20 September: Leader’s Summit on Refugees in New York City
  • 21 September: U.S.-Africa Business Forum in New York City
  • 26 September: AGOA Forum in Washington
  • 30 September: FY 2016 Concludes – U.S. Federal Government Funding Deadline
  • By 15 October: ITC to publish a Federal Register notice related to Miscellaneous Tariff Bills (MTB) petitions
  • 8 November: U.S. Elections
  • 10 November: Squire Patton Boggs Hosts Post-Election Analysis Events
  • 19-20 November: Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Peru