Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 2006, pages 20-21

Congress Watch

Congress Recesses for Elections Without Acting on Most Middle East-Related Bills

By Shirl McArthur

The 109th Congress has been widely and justifiably criticized as a “do-nothing Congress” because of its lack of action on most major bills. Accordingly, Congress recessed for the elections without taking action on most Middle East-related bills and resolutions, although there is a slim chance that some of them might be taken up during the “lame duck” session after the elections.

An exception to this generalization was the passage of H.R. 6198, a significantly modified version of the “Iran Freedom Support Act.” The original versions, H.R. 282, introduced in January 2005 by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), and S. 333, introduced the following month by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), would have amended the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 to say that U.S. sanctions, controls and regulations relating to weapons of mass destruction would remain in effect until the president certifies that Iran has dismantled its weapons of mass destruction programs. They also would have eliminated provisions regarding Libya, expanded the sanctions and reporting provisions, eliminated the sunset provision, and authorized the president to provide assistance to support democracy in Iran. H.R. 282 was passed by the House on April 26 and sent to the Senate, where it was never acted on. Similarly, the Senate leadership has also not acted on S. 333, in spite of its having 62 co-sponsors.

The new version, H.R. 6198, was introduced by Ros-Lehtinen on Sept. 27, passed by the House on Sept. 28, passed by the Senate on Sept. 30, and signed by the president the same day. (A companion bill, S.3971, was introduced in the Senate by Santorum on Sept. 28, but never acted upon.) As modified in order to make it more palatable to the administration, the bill eliminates some administration reporting requirements and liberalizes the president’s waiver authority. It also restores the sunset provision, with a new termination date of Dec. 31, 2011.

Interestingly, it also includes two provisions saying that nothing in the act “shall be construed as authorizing the use of force against Iran,” and that “none of the funds authorized under this section shall be used to support the use of force against Iran.”

House Urges International Peace-Keepers on Lebanese-Syrian Border

Another measure that was passed was H.Res. 1017, “affirming support for the sovereignty and security of Lebanon and the Lebanese people.” (Since this is a House resolution, not a joint resolution or a bill, it is neither sent to the Senate nor signed by the president. It merely expresses the sense of the House.) It was introduced Sept. 20 by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), with 15 co-sponsors, including all four Lebanese-American members of the House. It was passed under “suspension of the rules” on Sept. 26, with only Reps. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Jim McDermott (D-WA) and Ron Paul (R-TX) voting no.

Its main focus is on the flow of arms and materiel from Syria to Hezbollah. Among the 13 “resolved” clauses is one calling on all countries “to take every possible measure to prevent the transfer of arms to Hezbollah, so as to contribute to the stability of Lebanon and of the region and to the enforcement of the sovereignty of the government of Lebanon over its own territory.” Another clause “urges the government of Lebanon to request without delay international assistance including, but not limited to, military forces, as needed, on the Lebanese border with Syria so as to prevent the resupply of weapons to Hezbollah.” A clause that was not in Lantos’ original version “urges that such international assistance not impede commercial, non-military trade between civilians on both sides of the border.”

Defense Appropriations Bill Increases Aid to Israel, But Palestinian Punishment Bill Still Languishes

While the foreign affairs and foreign aid appropriations bills were held over until after the elections, Congress did manage to pass the defense appropriations bill. Although the monies for the so-called U.S.-Israel joint defense projects are not specifically earmarked, the right-wing Israeli news service Arutz Sheva reported that the bill includes some $500 million for those projects—nearly double the administration’s $268 million request. All of the money for those projects goes to Israel, in addition to the annual military aid appropriation.

As suggested in the previous issue, there has been no movement to attempt to reconcile the differences between the two versions of the “Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act.” The House passed its version, H.R. 4681, on May 23, and the Senate passed its version, S.2370, on June 23. S. 2370 is less draconian than H.R. 4681 in that it focuses more specifically on Hamas and allows the president more flexibility in getting around the ban on aid. (See the August 2006 “Congress Watch” for a description of the two versions.)

Ron Kampeas, writing for the Jewish Telegraph Agency on Sept. 19, quoted Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) as saying, “I don’t see there’s enough time [during the remainder of the 109th Congress] to resolve the differences,” and “I see a discussion taking place as soon as the new Congress is formed.” Anything done in the new Congress, however, will have to be a new measure, since both H.R. 4681 and S. 2370 will expire with the end of the 109th Congress.

19 Representatives Urge Direct Diplomatic Dialogue With Iran

On Sept. 29, 19 representatives signed a letter to President George W. Bush urging him to “open up direct diplomatic channels with Iran.” While acknowledging “the inflammatory rhetoric of President Ahmadinejad,” the letter, originated by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD), points out that nearly 26 years of not having formal diplomatic dialogue with Iran “has not yielded positive results.” Its strongest paragraph argues, “there are seldom occasions in history where a great country should fear dialogue with a potential adversary. On the contrary, dialogue is needed to explain clearly the compelling nature of America’s objectives in the Middle East. More than 25 years of isolating Iran has moved us farther from, not closer to, achieving these goals.”

The letter’s signers, in addition to Gilchrest, were Reps. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), John Duncan (R-TN), Phil English (R-PA), Gil Gutknecht (R-MN), Hinchey, Walter Jones (R-NC), Jim Kolbe (R-AZ), Randy Kuhl (R-NY), Jim Leach (R-IA), John Olver (D-MA), Butch Otter (R-ID), Ron Paul (R-TX), David Price (D-NC), Joe Schwarz (R-MI), and Vic Snyder (D-AR).

Reflecting the increasing congressional unease over the possibility that the Bush administration might be goaded into ill-advised military action against Iran, two previously described House resolutions have gained co-sponsors, although neither is likely to be passed. H.Con.Res. 391, introduced by DeFazio in April, saying that “the president should not initiate military action against Iran with respect to its nuclear program without first obtaining authorization from Congress,” now has 45 co-sponsors, including DeFazio. H.Con.Res. 425, introduced by Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL) in June, saying that “the crisis regarding Iran’s nuclear program should be resolved primarily through diplomatic means,” now has 11 co-sponsors, including Kirk.

Two New Pro-Israel Resolutions Introduced...

In the final week before recess, two new resolutions promoting Israel were introduced. The first, H.Res. 1044, introduced Sept. 27 by Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), with Reps. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) and Lantos as co-sponsors, calls for the release of Israeli soldiers “held captive by Hamas and Hezbollah.” H.Res. 1077, introduced Sept. 29 by Ros-Lehtinen with no co-sponsors, expresses “deep concern over the use of civilians as ”˜human shields’...including Hezbollah’s tactic of embedding its forces among civilians.”

...But They and Other Mideast Bills Will Likely Die With 109th Congress

The above two measures were likely introduced as pre-election favors to the sponsors’ Jewish constituents. However, it is highly unlikely that they and the many other pro-Israel measures will be passed during Congress’ lame duck session. But the caveat must be added that Ros-Lehtinen has been remarkably adept at getting her pet measures raised and passed by the House under suspension of the rules, as she did in June with the less-than-earth-shaking H.Con.Res. 338, decrying “the activities of Islamist terrorist organizations in the Western Hemisphere.”

Some of the measures gaining co-sponsors but likely to die include H.R. 5278, Kirk’s attempt to curtail the activities of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA); H.Con.Res. 412 and S.Con.Res. 98, the two measures sponsored by Ros-Lehtinen and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), respectively, stating a “matter of policy that Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of Israel,” and that the president should “begin the process of relocating the U.S. Embassy in Israel;” and H.Res. 848 and S.Res. 494, also authored by Ros-Lehtinen and Brownback, concerning “the creation of refugee populations in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf as a result of human rights violations,” whose focus is on Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries. 

Shirl McArthur is a retired foreign service officer based in the Washington, DC area.

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