Congressional Update – Week Ending March 3, 2017

I. Muslim and Refugee Ban Executive Order

On Monday, March 6, President Trump announced a new travel ban Executive Order, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.”  The more carefully written Executive Order hopes to avoid another legal challenge from US courts. The new Executive Order will (1) exempt existing visa holders from travel limits; (2) remove Iraq from the original list of seven Muslim-majority countries whose citizens were barred from travel; (3) put a 90-day hold on the issuance of visas to citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen; (4) halts refugee admissions worldwide for 120 days; and (5) removes language that gave priority to Christian refugees from predominantly Muslim countries.

II. Designating the Muslim Brotherhood a Foreign Terrorist Organization

Despite all the media attention on this issue, President Trump’s anticipated Executive Order designating the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization appears to have been postponed indefinitely.

III. President Trump’s Proposed Budget Request

The reaction to Trump’s proposed budget, which would add $54 billion to the defense budget while cutting the same amount from other programs, including foreign assistance and the State Department, has created a strong backlash from pro-foreign aid members of Congress. Trump’s first budget proposal, scheduled to be released March 16, lacks key details but is already stoking bipartisan concern.

On February 28, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) said that the president’s budget was “dead on arrival” and would not make it through Congress. Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have also expressed this concern over the proposed budget. Representative Ed Royce (R-California), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed his concern over the proposed cuts.

It is not clear if President Trump’s budget proposal will stand as submitted. The budget will be submitted to the House and Senate Budget Committees, which will make recommendations. Those recommendations may not mirror what the president wants and could increase or decrease the president’s request. Following the rumored changes, 120 retired US military generals wrote congressional leaders to criticize the reported cuts in the State Department’s budget.

IV. Iran

Designate IRGC a Foreign Terrorist Organization: According to press reports, President Trump is considering issuing an Executive Order that would designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization. If implemented, the Executive Order would add to the measure the US has already imposed on individuals and entities linked to the IRGC. It is unclear when, or if, President Trump will announce the order.

AIPAC is pushing for the designation and has issued a policy memo justifying reasons for designating the IRGC a foreign terrorist organization. If the Trump Administration follows through with the designation it risks further exacerbating tensions in the US-Iran relationship and possibly complicates the US fight against ISIL, where Shiite militias supported by Iran are fighting against ISIL

Preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA): On February 27, Representative Bill Foster (D-Illinois) and 59 Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to President Trump regarding the JCPOA.  A scan of the letter is included at the end of this report. 1

Signers included 60 Democratic Representatives: Pete Aguilar (California), Donald Beyer (Virginia), Earl Blumenauer (Oregon), G.K. Butterfield (North Carolina), Salud Carbajal (California), Andre Carson (Indiana), Judy Chu (California), David Cicilline (Rhode Island), Katherine Clark (Massachusetts), Steve Cohen (Tennessee), Gerry Connolly (Virginia), Peter DeFazio (Oregon), Suzan DelBene (Washington), Lloyd Doggett (Texas),  Keith Ellison (Minnesota), Anna Eshoo (California), Bill Foster (Illinois), John Garamendi (California), Raul Grijalva (Arizona), Luis Gutiérrez (Illinois), Jim Himes (Connecticut), Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), Marcy Kaptur (Ohio), Dale Kildee (Michigan), Ron Kind (Wisconsin), Ann Kuster (New Hampshire), Jim Langevin (Rhode Island), John Larsen (Connecticut), Rick Larson (Washington), Barbara Lee (California), Sandy Levin (Michigan), Zoe Lofgren (California), Alan Lowenthal (California), Stephen Lynch (Massachusetts), Doris Matsui (California), Betty McCollum (Minnesota),  Jim McGovern, (Massachusetts), Gwen Moore (Wisconsin), Seth Moulton (Massachusetts), Eleanor Holmes Norton (District of Columbia), Beto O’Rourke (Texas), Chellie Pingree (Maine), Mark Pocan (Wisconsin), Jared Polis (Colorado), David Price (North Carolina), Mike Quigley (Illinois), Jamie Raskin (Maryland), Lucille Roybal-Allard (California), Bobby Rush (Illinois), Jan Schakowsky (Illinois), Adam Schiff (California), Adam Smith (Washington), Carol Shea-Porter (New Hampshire), David Scott (Georgia), Jackie Speier (California), Mark Takano (California), Mike Thompson (California), Paul Tonko (New York), Peter Welch (Vermont), and John Yarmuth (Kentucky).

In addition to the Foster letter, on March 2, Representative Lee Zeldin (R-New York) and 45 Republican members sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, regarding the JCPOA, asking several questions related to the JCPOA’s implementation.

V. Members Relaunch Bipartisan Task Force for Combatting Anti-Semitism

Representatives Nita Lowey (D-New York), Chris Smith (R-New Jersey), Eliot Engel (D-New York), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), Ted Deutch (D-Florida), Kay Granger (R-Texas), Marc Veasey (D-Texas), and Peter Roskam (R-Illinois) announced this week the relaunch of the Bipartisan Task Force for Combatting Anti-Semitism in the House of Representatives for the 115th Congress. On March 2 all eight representatives sent a letter to President Trump urging him to create a strategy to combat anti-Semitism acts.

VI. Legislation of Interest

(1) Israel-Palestine

Condition Assistance to the West Bank and Gaza (S474): Introduced on February 28 by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), Roy Blunt (R-Missouri), Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), John Thune (R-South Dakota), Marco Rubio (R-Florida), and John Boozman (R-Arkansas), the bill would condition assistance to the West Bank and Gaza on steps by the Palestinian Authority to end violence and terrorism against Israeli citizens. The bill has been referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC). As of March 3 the text of S474 was not available.

International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace (HR1221): Introduced on February 27 by Representatives Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska) and Joseph Crowley (D-New York), the bill “seeks the establishment of and contributions to an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.” The bill has been referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

(2) Repeal Previous Authorizations for the Use of Military Force

Authorization for the Use of US Military Force (SJRes31): Introduced on March 3 by Senator Todd Young (R-Indiana), the joint resolution would authorize the use of US Armed Forces against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, successor organizations, and associated forces. The resolution has been referred to the SFRC. As of March 3 the text of SJRes31 was not available.

Repeal of Public Law 107-40 (HR1229): Introduced on February 27 by Representatives Barbara Lee (D-California) and Walter Jones (R-North Carolina), the bill would repeal Public Law 107-40. The bill has been referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC).

Public Law 107-40 is the authorization for the use of military force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks against the United States (SJRes23). The bill was enacted by Congress on September 14, 2001 and signed into law by former President George W. Bush on September 18, 2001. The bill has been referred to the HFAC.

Repeal of Iraq Resolution of 2002 (HR1230): Introduced on February 27 by Representatives Barbara Lee and Walter Jones, the bill would repeal the 2002 authorization for the use of military force against Iraq. The bill has been referred to the HFAC.

(3) Immigration

Exempt Certain Iraqi and Afghan Refugees from Travel Ban (HR1263): Introduced on February 28 by Representative Peter Welch (D-Vermont), the bill would exclude from the application of Executive Order 13796 certain Iraqi and Afghan immigrants and refugees, and to render certain Afghans eligible for Priority 2 process under the refugee resettlement system. The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee. As of March 3 the text of HR1263 was not available.

VII. Hearings

(1) Mosul After Iraq: On February 28, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on “Mosul After Iraq” with Dr. Michael Knights, Lafer Fellow, the Washington Institute and Hardin Lang, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress.

In his testimony on the future of Iraq after Mosul, Knights’ focus was to establish how to stop ISIL or any imitation organization from forming. While he expressed that ISIL’s ability to hold territory is coming to an end, he cautioned against any declaration of victory or formal plans to initiate a new phase, as this could spark fears of a premature withdrawal similar to actions taken in 2011. Rather, the United States must keep continuity with the current mission to reassure its Iraqi partners and continue to rely on a strong coalition of partners with a dedication to burden sharing. He argues that this strong multinational presence will not only legitimize the efforts of an extended US presence, but will also provide the mission with the expertise and resources required to pursue small cells, weaken organized criminal networks, and prevent the sectarian attacks that all fed into the rise of ISIL.

In his opening statement, SFRC Chair Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) expressed guarded optimism about Iraq while other senators were concerned by the threat posed by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias operating alongside the Iraqi Security Force (ISF), as well as policies undertaken by the Trump Administration such as funding cuts and unfilled positions at the State Department, the travel ban, and talk of taking oil from Iraq. Both Lang and Knights agreed that PMF forces must be incorporated into the ISF, whether directly or as reservists; otherwise they could pose an existential, counterweight threat similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon. They also both agreed that Trump’s travel ban and rhetoric served only to legitimize claims made by ISIL while also fueling mistrust among Iraqi security partners. A continuation down this path will not only continue to undermine Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, but will also provide an opening for Iran to increase its influence.

As for funding cuts to the State Department and USAID, both expressed concern that without the proper resources, the United States is looking at a mismanaged reconstruction at best, or an indefinite involvement. However, both witnesses were emphatic that the most critical issue (and the one currently most appreciated by the Iraqis) was providing security, as the rapid spread of ISIL was due to the absence of an effective security apparatus rather than a widespread feeling of disenfranchisement. With Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) still hesitant to return to “liberated areas,” it is clear that there must be a proven security structure before significant investments can be made in reconstruction and governance reform.

(2) Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: On February 28, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence convened to hold both open and closed meetings for the purpose of hearing former Senator Dan Coats (R-Indiana) testify to his qualifications to be the fifth Director of National Intelligence (DNI). The committee members, who are privy to more classified information and sources than are their colleagues, were rather enthusiastic about this particular nominee, as he served alongside them on the very same Select Committee for a number of his years in the Senate. He is a very well respected individual among his former congressional colleagues and his confirmation will likely pass the committee quickly and face little resistance from the Senate as a whole.

Members from both parties received him as a potentially calming force to an otherwise chaotic White House. However, he was not spared from an opening round of tough questions. Committee members inquired about his potential role in the Trump Administration, particularly in the context of the National Security Council (NSC), which was reorganized through a Presidential Memorandum shortly after the president’s inauguration. Senator Coats informed the committee that he had been assured a place on the Principals Committee of the NSC by the administration—contrary to the memorandum’s language neglecting the DNI. The other contentious topic brought up to Senator Coats was whether or not he would provide the members with the appropriate information they desire regarding the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which is set to expire later this year. Under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, with appropriate judicial review, non-US and US citizens abroad can be targeted for surveillance as part of the intelligence community’s counterterrorism campaign. A number of members said any reauthorization vote should take into account the number of citizens in the United States unintentionally collected through FISA targeting.

VIII. At the Think Tanks

The Trump Administration and the Future of the Kurds: On February 27, the Woodrow Wilson Center held a panel discussion on “The Trump Administration and the Future of the Kurds” with Gareth Stansfield, Professor, University of Exeter and Global Fellow at the Wilson Center; Aaron Stein, Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council; and Amberin Zaman, Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center.

The discussion was warily optimistic regarding the future of the Kurds under the current administration. The two nodes of discourse centered around the tenuous Turkish-American alliance and the geographical necessity of supporting the Kurds in relation to the war in Syria. The US is in a difficult position wherein it needs to arm the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in order the drive back ISIL, but risks angering its NATO ally, Turkey. There is no easy way to create a safe zone between the borders of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey to prevent Kurdish clashes with various armed forces in each region. This border issue also draws attention to the question of where a potential Kurdistan could exist.

Complicating these issues are the Russians, with whom Trump may try to form a working alliance in eradicating ISIL. Russia, in its draft of a potential Syrian constitution, creates favorable conditions for the Kurds but lacks the enforcement necessary to preserve Kurdish freedoms. Theoretically, if the United States stays in Raqqa long enough to help establish a governing body, this would give Syrian Kurds enough time to organize an autonomous region. This would still be a difficult proposition however, as it is impossible now to determine how potential Kurdistan authorities would manage a population that could be mixed with Kurds and Arabs.

A potential Russian-American coalition could be damaging to both US-Turkey relations and Russia-Turkey relations, especially at a time when US-Turkey relations are already sliding downhill. With the stalling of the peace process in Turkey between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), it remains to be seen how Trump will manage this delicate alliance to preserve Turkish relations and continue to champion Kurdish autonomy.

Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain: On March 1, Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) held a panel discussion titled “Voices for Reform: Work of Saudi Arabia’s Civil and Human Rights Activists.” ADHRB was founded in an effort to promote democracy in Bahrain and the broader Middle East. This panel discussion brought together four advocates of human rights to offer insight into the continued struggle for human rights advancements in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the institutional barriers to reform, and to discuss prescriptions for resolving longstanding human rights abuses. While a number of civil institutions and activist groups were mentioned, the panelists paid particular attention to the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA; often referred to by its Arabic acronym, HASM) which represented a critical development in the Saudi reform movement. ACPRA was founded in 2009 and quickly mobilized support through its use of social media and revived discourse of democratic reform among Saudi citizens. The group was disbanded in 2013 and many of its founders and supporters jailed.

For this discussion, ADHRB brought together academics and professionals with a variety of experiences pertaining to human rights in Arab and Muslim society. Shadi Mokhtari, a professor at American University, specializes in human rights in conjunction with Middle East politics. Hala Aldosari is a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute and has experience teaching and practicing in the medical field in Saudi Arabia and has long been an advocate for women’s rights in KSA. Abdulaziz Al Hussan is a visiting scholar at Indiana University’s Center for the Study of the Middle East and a Senior Legal Advisor in Saudi Arabia. As a lawyer, Al Hussan undertook a number of pro bono human rights cases for Saudi citizens in the wake of the “Arab Spring.” ADHRB’s own Advocacy Fellow, Leah Schulz, rounded out the panel by contributing the background information for ADHRB and its observations of civil institutions in Saudi Arabia.

1 Scan of the “Preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” letter.


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Roxanne Perugino is a Resident Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Roxanne and read her previous publications click here