Congress prepares letters, initiatives ahead of AIPAC confab

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As the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference gets underway in Washington Sunday, Capitol Hill staff contacts said they were tracking at least three initiatives to demonstrate Congressional support for the US-Israel alliance.

Among the efforts staffers were aware of, demonstrations of support for U.S. foreign aid to Israel, as well as to its treaty partners Egypt and Jordan; and for renewal of the U.S-Israel Strategic Partnership.

On Iran, sources said there would likely be a House letter, downgraded from a resolution, which is being drafted by the offices of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and  House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland).

The House letter, according to one source briefed on a draft of it Friday, asks the administration for regular  and serious consultations with Congress as the Iran nuclear negotiations go forward. It does not include demands for zero enrichment. To the extent that extraneous issues are included, they are not linked to the nuclear deal, the source said.  The letter also mentions the administration coming back to Congress for sanctions relief if there is a deal.

Sources said it was unclear but likely that there would also be a similar Senate letter. AIPAC members are also likely, as the Back Channel reported Thursday, to lobby Senators next week to sign on as co-sponsors to the Menendez-Kirk Iran sanctions bill (S1881) that President Obama has vowed to veto. The bill was shelved earlier this month with 59 co-sponsors. AIPAC has called for a delay in the vote, presumably until it has a veto proof 67 co-sponsors signed on, if they are able to reach it.

Sources said they were not sure if Democrats who had to date declined to sign on as co-sponsors might change their mind at the behest of AIPAC lobbying next week.

Meantime, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) announced they would hold a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday afternoon. Netanyahu is also due to meet with President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, and will speak at AIPAC on Tuesday, introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), who , with Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, spearheaded the Iran sanctions bill that the White House warns could scuttle Iran negotiations.

Kerry will address the AIPAC conference Monday evening at 6:15pm ET, the State Department announced. US Treasury Secretary Jacob “Jack” Lew will also represent the Obama administration at AIPAC this year.

Senate Republicans this week tried to attach the Iran sanctions as an amendment to veterans’ benefit legislation, which they voted to defeat after it was stripped out.  The head of the American Legion denounced the Republican vote to defeat the bill, and earlier effort to tie it up with controversial Iran sanctions, as “inexcusable.”

“There was a right way to vote and a wrong way to vote today, and 41 senators chose the wrong way,” American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger said in a press statement Thursday. “That’s inexcusable.”

(Photo from AIPAC of members of Congress, 2010.) 

White House meets Jewish leaders to press for delay in new Iran sanctions

The White House on Tuesday met with a small group of Jewish leaders as part of an intensifying effort to press for a delay in new Iran sanctions it fears could derail negotiations with Iran on a possible nuclear deal.

National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, Deputy National Security Advisors Antony Blinken and Ben Rhodes briefed leaders from the Jewish groups on the Iran negotiations to date.

“Following on the recent P5+1 talks with Iran, and in advance of the next round of talks November 7-8, Senior Administration Officials today briefed the leaders of several Jewish organizations on our progress,” National Security Staff spokesperson Bernadette Meehan told A-Monitor Tuesday.  “The administration officials made clear that the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that our preference is to resolve the issue peacefully through diplomacy.  The meeting was constructive and we look forward to continuing these discussions going forward.”

“We had a constructive and open exchange and agreed to continue the consultation to enhance the prospect of achieving a transparent and effective diplomatic resolution,” a statement from the Jewish leaders who attended the meeting Tuesday said. “We welcome the reaffirmation of the President’s commitment to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear capability and that all options remain viable to assure that end.”

Participants in the off record discussion, which was first reported by JTA, included leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, and AIPAC, the statement said.

The Obama administration has been waging a more vigorous effort to try to push back against new Iran sanctions legislation under consideration by the Senate Banking committee, arguing there should be a pause in new sanctions through the fall, while maintaining existing major oil and banking sanctions, to give momentum to negotiations and test if Iran is serious about making a nuclear compromise. The administration wants a “pause” on new sanctions until January to try to come to closure on a possible confidence building measure, and they feel new sanctions now could derail that effort, sources briefed on the discussions said.

As part of that effort, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Sherman, the lead US negotiator, have been doing classified briefings on the Hill this week, sources said. Lew and Secretary of State John Kerry are due to brief Senators on Iran in closed session on Thursday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently argued that the only acceptable deal with Iran is one that would permit no enrichment and zero centrifuges. Current and former American officials and even some former Israeli officials contend that a zero enrichment deal is unachievable, and wonder if Netanyahu intends to try to spoil a possible deal that could increase the amount of time it would take for Iran to have potential nuclear breakout capability.

A good if imperfect negotiated solution is superior to the alternative options available, former top State Department Iran nonproliferation official Robert Einhorn argued in a paper delivered in Israel last week, noting increased pressure from the US now could fracture the international community and push Iran to escalate by increasing its enrichment activities.

“At a minimum, the Israelis want us to bargain very hard,” Einhorn, now with the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday. “And I think they see their tough position as a way of strengthening our resolve. But whether at the end of the day they would be content with less than [the] maximalist approach is hard to tell at this point.”

The Obama “administration wants to test Iranian willingness to accept significant constraints on its nuclear program in order to get relief from sanctions,” Einhorn said. “And so it’s prepared to [see]… how far they are prepared to go to meet US concerns.”

President Obama “has welcomed an opportunity to try to put to the test whether or not Iran really desires to pursue only a peaceful program,” Secretary Kerry told the Ploughshares Fund  Monday.   Continue reading

Counselor

utgoing US Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon is likely to get tapped to become Counselor to Secretary of State John Kerry, senior US officials tell the Back Channel.

The job, currently held by Heather Higginbottom, is expected to open up if she is nominated to become Deputy Secretary of State for management and resources. The Back Channel previously reported that Higginbottom, former deputy OMB chief and White House deputy domestic policy advisor, is being strongly considered for the second Deputy Secretary post, previously held by Tom Nides and Jack Lew, and she appears to be the lead candidate.

Shannon declined to comment. The Back Channel previously reported that he was under consideration to be the next US Ambassador to Turkey, but plans have since changed, officials said this week.

US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone, Jr. is expected to stay on in Ankara for another year.

Secretary Kerry is expected to travel to Brazil this month

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Shortlists: Higginbottom mulled for 2nd DepSecState; Tom Shannon after Brazil

The White House and Secretary of State John Kerry are considering nominating State Department counselor and former OMB deputy director Heather Higginbottom as the next Deputy Secretary of State for management and resources, several current and former U.S. officials say. The second Deputy Secretary slot, currently vacant, was previously held by Tom Nides and Jack Lew, now Treasury Secretary.

“Kerry recruited Heather from OMB with an eye towards putting her in a confirm-able position soon, but he didn’t want to delay her arrival by several months during his transition period,” an administration official, speaking not for attribution, told the Back Channel Wednesday.

“She started out with the confidence of the Secretary and the President and hit the ground running as Counselor, engaging with senior leaders at the State Department,” the official said. “I think it’s safe to say that this would be a hit across the board given her budget experience and relationships and her understanding now of the Department.”

Higginbottom served in the Obama White House as deputy director of OMB from 2011 to 2013, and as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 2009-2010. She previously served as legislative director for then Senator Kerry from 1999 until 2007, and on Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. She didn’t respond to a query Wednesday.

Tom Shannon After Brazil

With his successor nominated, US Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon is heading back to Washington soon. While his next interim assignment is unclear, some current and former U.S. officials tell the Back Channel that the Obama administration is considering nominating Shannon to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey, possibly in the fall or in 2014. Sources cautioned however that plans could change depending on other moves afoot in the upper ranks of the State Department bureaucracy.

Shannon said he expects to head next to Washington, but couldn’t comment beyond that. President Obama recently nominated Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Liliana Ayalde, a former ambassador to Paraguay and senior USAID official, to succeed him in Brazil.

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Opposition to Hagel may be softening


As President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense Monday, opposition to the choice appeared to be receding somewhat.

“Chuck knows war is not an abstraction,” Obama said in a ceremony in the White House East Room. “He understands that sending young American to fight and bleed in the dirt and the mud is something we only do when absolutely necessary.”

Several groups and political leaders said Monday they would not formally oppose the choice, though some admitted to being lukewarm. Among them, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League, and former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who earlier said he opposed the choice. Continue reading

Why John Kerry may have to cool his heels on Secretary of State

Conventional wisdom has rapidly taken hold in the wake of President Obama’s reelection victory that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) is first in line of candidates to succeed Hillary Clinton as US Secretary of State.

But Obama administration officials tell the Back Channel that there are several reasons Kerry may have to cool his heels a while–having nothing to do with Kerry not being held in high esteem by the White House. Among them:

1) Secretary Clinton, who met with Obama and Vice President Biden at the White House Friday, feels an obligation to see the Benghazi investigation through and not leave any taint from that investigation to be faced by her successor. This could have her staying on til February or March, one administration source, who requested anonymity, told Al-Monitor Friday.

2) Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has told the White House that he will be “furious” if he loses Kerry from the Senate, to leave the Massachusetts Democratic Senate seat vulnerable in a special election race against Republican Scott Brown, who has millions of dollars in the bank left over from his unsuccessful Senate run against Democrat Elizabeth Warren. The White House may feel especially obliged to listen to Reid, because he is a key reason the Democrats held onto their Senate majority, and because “they have to keep Reid happy as a clam” on the fiscal cliff negotiations, the official said. (Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and his wife are due to have a ‘social’ dinner with President and Michelle Obama at the White House Friday night. But while some thought Patrick might be in position to run against Brown if a Kerry nomination leaves the Senate seat open, other sources say Patrick has his eye on the AG job.)

3) While there are important constituencies in and out of his administration pushing for Kerry, including reportedly Vice President Biden, Kerry’s predecessor as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, “Obama loves” Susan Rice, his US Ambassador to the United Nations, the official noted. If Clinton stays on through the Benghazi investigation, that may blunt and defuse Congressional Republican wrath (and political opportunism) over the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attacks that has heretofore targeted Rice, among others, and that has raised concerns about whether a Rice confirmation hearing would become a huge, ugly partisan food fight. (There are also reports of CIA Director David Petraeus being at the White House Friday, and murmurs that some Hill Republicans believe the CIA has not been forthcoming about the CIA role in Benghazi. Update: Petraeus offered his resignation, citing an affair, which Obama accepted Friday. The affair, with his biographer Paula Broadwell, was uncovered by an FBI investigation, apparently of emails sent by Broadwell to a female friend of Petraeus‘ whom Broadwell perceived as a romantic rival.)

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Elissa Slotkin named top advisor to Pentagon’s Derek Chollet

Iraq expert Elissa Slotkin has been named Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, effective immediately, defense sources tell Al-Monitor. Slotkin, most recently chief of staff for the Defense Department International Security Affairs bureau, will become the top advisor to Assistant Secretary of Defense for ISA Derek Chollet, in the team reporting to Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller.

Colleagues describe Slotkin as a very strong choice, who brings substantial on the ground experience in Iraq and the Middle East to the Defense policy team. Slotkin spent nearly 20 months on the ground in Iraq over several deployments, both as an intelligence analyst and NSC staffer.

She was a key member of the status of forces agreement (SOFA) negotiating team in 2008 while working on the NSC staff. She stayed on in the Obama NSC for the first several months to help run the president’s strategic review on Iraq. Continue reading