Congressional Update – Week Ending August 24, 2018

I. Congress

The House remains on recess, but the Senate worked its first full week since taking a brief recess earlier in August. The upper chamber is looking to pass appropriations bills and confirm more of President Donald Trump’s political appointees.

1) Legislation

Defense Spending. Senators debated and passed H.R. 6157 (as amended by S. Amdt. 3695, which substitutes the House language for the Senate’s). This bill packages the fiscal year 2019 budget for the Defense Department with funding for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. Senators proposed 235 amendments, but only a select few were considered eligible and received a vote. Among the amendments that failed to be considered was one offered by Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) which aimed to cut off funding used to support the Saudi-led coalition’s fight against Yemen’s Houthis. Oddly, one amendment offered by Sen. John Kennedy (R-Louisiana) was adopted unanimously; it prohibits any use of funds to assist Iran. The United States spends no funds on Tehran, so the amendment basically served as a symbolic gesture.

Anwar Sadat Centennial Celebration Act. The Senate passed S. 266 in an effort to award former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal nearly 100 years after his birth. Sadat was respected by foreign policy officials on both sides of the aisle for what they considered his steady leadership of Egypt at a time when it dominated the Middle East politically and culturally, as well as his trailblazing—though controversial—decision to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Seventy-one senators cosponsored the bill and it passed via voice vote, meaning there was near-unanimous support.

Resolution Seeking a Report on Saudi Human Rights. Amid the ongoing row between Saudi Arabia and Canada over the former’s human rights record, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and six of his colleagues who caucus with the Democrats offered a resolution that calls for a report on Riyadh’s observance of human rights standards. The resolution also commits support for Canada and calls on President Trump to speak out on Ottawa’s behalf by calling on Saudi Arabia to release the dissidents and activists it has imprisoned. Given Trump’s affinity for the Saudi royal family, and even if the resolution passes, it is not expected that the president will raise the issue too forcefully.

2) Confirmations

SFRC Holds Hearing for Morocco Ambassador, Recommends Political Affairs Director. The Senate took steps to fill more vacancies in the State Department. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) held a confirmation hearing for David Fischer, who has been tapped to serve as ambassador to Morocco. In all likelihood, Fischer’s case will move out of committee favorably and get a full vote before the Senate in the following weeks. Additionally, the SFRC voted to push through the nomination of David Hale to be undersecretary of state for political affairs, which is the position responsible for overseeing all of the individual bureaus, including the Bureau for Near Eastern Affairs.

3) Correspondence

Engel, Cummings Write to Pompeo Regarding Brian Hook.  On August 22, the ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs and House Oversight Committees, Eliot Engel (D-New York) and Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland), respectively, wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asking for answers regarding the alleged internal retaliatory activities by Brian Hook. Hook recently changed positions from directing the department’s policy planning to heading the Iran Action Group. The congressmen have accused him of retaliating against a number of career State Department staffers for being considered by the Trump Administration as insufficiently loyal. Because Hook is now tasked with overseeing the State Department’s Iran policies, he will need the knowledge of career Iran staffers, but some of them have had to change positions because of his very political retaliation.

SFRC Calls on Pompeo to Forego Refugee Reductions. Democrats on the SFRC also wrote to Secretary Pompeo this week, aiming to address the fate of refugees. Every year, with guidance from the State Department, the president issues a “Presidential Determination” that establishes the cap for refugee admissions into the United States for the fiscal year. It was reported earlier this month that the administration is looking to cap refugee admission numbers at a figure even lower than the historically low fiscal year 2018 level of 45,000. As the deadline nears, Senate Democrats are calling on Pompeo to ensure that the administration does not further decrease the limit, but rather increase it.

Senate GOP Calls on Mnuchin to Ban Iran from SWIFT. Sixteen Republican Senators signed on to a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin this week, calling on him to ban Iran from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) system. SWIFT is crucial in modern day banking and finance because it allows banks to “talk” to one another to coordinate payments. If Iran’s Central Bank or other large Iranian banks are severed from SWIFT, Iranians or visitors to Iran with bank accounts set up outside the country would not be able to use debit cards to make purchases or withdraw money from ATMs.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Bolton Touches on Israel, Palestine, Iran, and Syria While in Jerusalem. This week, President Trump’s chief advisor for national security issues John Bolton was in Israel for multiple days of meetings with top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. After the second day of meetings, Bolton gave wide-ranging interviews with Reuters and AP in which he outlined US positions on issues involving Iran, Syria, and defunding the UN Human Rights Council and questions involving Israeli security and the peace process between Israel and Palestine.

    • Bolton reiterated the details of the White House’s plan to place maximum economic pressure on Tehran. He said the administration is unlikely to offer many waivers to companies looking to operate in Iran but fear being caught up in the sanctions. Although he and others, like Secretary Pompeo, have advocated for pressuring Iran economically, Bolton told Reuters that while the sanctions were having an effect on Iran’s malign activity, the United States’ policy goal is not regime change in Iran.
    • Bolton’s comments on Syria mostly focused on concerns for Israel’s security—mainly that Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah must leave Syria as the fighting winds down. Russia, which has tried to fashion itself as the security guarantor in Syria, is “stuck” there, Bolton opined, and he seemed to be skeptical of Moscow’s ability or willingness to force Iran or Hezbollah out of Syria after the war.
    • Much of Bolton’s discussions with Israeli officials focused on threats emanating from Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its growing presence in neighboring Syria. Afterward, though, Bolton did clarify a point regarding US policy toward Israel: he told Reuters that the administration is not currently entertaining the idea of recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. This idea has been floated by conservatives in Israel and the United States and it was even the topic of a Congressional hearing only weeks ago; perhaps not coincidentally, Bolton appeared before the same subcommittee with most of the same panelists nearly a year prior to argue for the administration to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US embassy in accordance. Long-standing US policy has acknowledged Israel’s control over the Golan Heights that it captured from Syria in 1967; however, Washington has refrained from recognizing the Golan as sovereign Israeli territory. According to Bolton, there are currently no plans for the administration to stray from this position.
    • Peace Plan for Israelis and Palestinians. When asked about the White House’s long anticipated, but heretofore unknown, peace plan for an “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians, Bolton said that there is no deadline for the plan’s release. According to Bolton, the plan is comprehensive and has progressed substantially, but he made no attempt to describe any particulars of the proposal. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the White House’s release of the peace plan, the team producing the draft—namely presidential advisors Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt—has been bringing in more staffers, preparing for a major campaign to sell the deal to all sides.

Bolton did find himself clarifying remarks made by his boss at a campaign-style rally in West Virginia, however. President Trump, in explaining his reasoning for why the deal will be successful, told the crowd that because he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and took one of the thorniest issues “off of the table,” Israel will have to “pay a higher price” in negotiations—implying that the Israelis would have to cede something important to the Palestinians. Bolton, however, brushed this aside, saying that there “never was a quid pro quo” for the move. He stated that Washington was simply recognizing facts on the ground and bringing “reality to a negotiation … that has been conducted in an air of unreality” under past administrations.

2) State Department

Pompeo Fills Out State Department’s Syria Team. Late on August 17, the State Department announced that Secretary Pompeo installed a former ambassador and a retired military officer to key positions within the State Department’s Syria team. The former ambassador, James Jeffrey, will now serve as a special envoy for Syria engagement, and retired general and former National Security Council official, Joel Rayburn, will join State’s Syria team as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs and Syria special envoy. The two bring decades of badly needed experience to the State Department, and Jeffrey could prove especially valuable for balancing US policy toward Syria with the concerns of Turkey. Jeffrey served as ambassador to Ankara during his long career, so he could help ease the simmering tensions between the United States and Turkey.

Qatari, Jordanian Foreign Ministers Visit Pompeo in Washington. Pompeo continued his outreach with key US partners this week, welcoming Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi. Pompeo spoke with both ministers about issues of mutual interest, including discussing Syria with Safadi and Iraq and Afghanistan with Al Thani.

3) Defense Department

Military Increasingly Worried about Trump’s Refugee Policies. According to a report published by Reuters, high ranking US military officials are growing increasingly worried about the current administration’s immigration policies, particularly when it comes to Iraqis. The military calculates that if Iraqi citizens are barred from relocating to the United States, these civilians would be less willing to aid US military forces; such a policy would deprive American troops of crucial translation and intelligence assistance.

Pentagon Names New CENTCOM Commander. General Joseph Votel is expected to step down from his post as leader of the US Military’s Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees operations in the Middle East and North Africa. President Trump has nominated Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, Jr. to replace Votel. If confirmed, McKenzie would take the position as the Defense Department pivots away from nearly two decades of counterinsurgency fighting and prepares for more conventional conflicts with powers like Russia or China. However, McKenzie would still be commanding the troops that are fighting or assisting local forces in places like Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and further east in Afghanistan.