Sunday, November 1, 2015

Tom Fina's Letter from Washington, October 2015

To Democrats Abroad
30 October 2015
Tom Fina
Executive Director Emeritus

Another boring report from Washington!

Establishment Republican House members defeated their ultras to raise the debt ceiling, fund government to 2017 and re-authorize the Ex-Im Bank, all with Democratic votes. Paul Ryan was elected Speaker by the Republican majority with just nine ultras opposed. Iran joined the Vienna II talks to end the war in Syria. Pro-deficit Canadian Liberal JustinTrudeau won a landslide election. Rubio and Cruz begin to overtake Carson and Trump. Hillary pretty much sewed up the Democratic nomination with a boost from lynchers on the Benghazi Committee.

Out going Speaker Boehner opted to use his liberation from appeasing his ultra faction to clean the barn with Democratic support. Only 79 Republicans joined all 187 Democrats on October 28 to approve a bill lifting the debt limit until March 2017 and approving a two year budget with increased spending for both military and domestic programs. (The Senate concurred the next day and Obama will sign before default or government shut-down.) The day before, the ultras lost 392 to 37, as the House re-authorized the Ex-Im Bank and the long stalled federal transportation infrastructure bill was given a three week extension.

Boehner thereby did both Ryan and the nation a great favor. While Ryan will still have to find a solution to the transportation bill, he will have 11 days to do so. And there are other tough issues before him. The other beneficiary is Senate Majority Leader McConnell and the Republican Party which has wanted to use its majority in both houses to demonstrate that, after years of obstruction, it could govern.

The big question for all the players and spectators is whether Ryan will be a captive of the ultras, as was Boehner, or whether he will be able to compromise with them or the Democrats to govern. Ryan starts with the embrace of almost his entire Republican Conference (236 of 247) and a chorus of praise from his members. But, it remains to be seen whether to get the support of so many ultras he has swallowed a poison pill. One would be the Hastert Rule: no legislation will be brought to the full House unless it is approved by a majority of Republican members. That gives the ultras a veto. Boehner followed the rule sometimes and was paralyzed. The only time that he was able to move controversial issues (as in his barn cleaning) was by ignoring it to allow Democrats to vote. The ultras pushed Ryan to stick to the Hastert Rule. We don’t know how much he promised.

The removal of the debt ceiling crisis and the budget authorization for two years also frees Obama to concentrate on his unfinished business: climate change, income disparity, justice reform and the Middle East blood bath.

The agreement by the US, after fierce objection by Sunni Saudi Arabia, to include Shiite Iran in the on-going negotiations with Russia, the EU and other Middle East states, to find a political solution to the war in Syria, became reality on October 28 when Iran agreed to participate. That appears to have been forced on both the US and Iran by Russia’s direct military intervention in Syria to support Assad.

We had to acknowledge that Russia could keep Assad in power - or at least continue a civil war driving hundreds of thousands of refugees to Western Europe with all the terrible human and political consequences paraded before our eyes daily. And, we had to acknowledge that Iran and Russia were the decisive factors in determining how the war could be ended.

Iran, whose Supreme Leader had previously insisted that it would not expand its nuclear negotiations with the US to anything else (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei 9 October 2015), appears to have feared that the US and Russia might cut a deal on Syria at its expense. It is good news that Foreign Minister Zarif will represent Iran since he and Kerry have apparently established very good personal relations in the course of the long nuclear negotiations in Vienna.

It is worth noting that Kerry is the main mover and shaker in this long emerging negotiation to find a political settlement in Syria. The years of patient negotiation to achieve the nuclear deal with Iran were always seen by Obama as a first step in restoring more normal relations with Iran. The inclusion of Iran in the Vienna II negotiations is one of the first fruits of that vision. Kerry has said that the US and Russia had already agreed that the status quo was unacceptable and the conflict must end, that a victory by ISIS must be prevented and the institutions of a united secular Syria preserved. There must be conditions for the return of refugees and transparent, free elections with a new constitution and protections for all minorities. That sounds like the right formula if the Syrian combatants will buy it. Neither Assad nor his opponents are likely to be happy that outside powers are ready to cut a deal. But, if the US, the EU, Russia and Iran can agree, they may have no choice. Are the odds of a deal greater than those for a nuclear deal with Iran?

In the 27 March 2015 Letter from Washington, I wrote that:

❝ Obama wants a reset in our bankrupt relations with Iran as he has wanted one with Russia and Cuba. The Russian reset has flamed out. Cuba looks promising but no sure thing. 
❝ The goal of a reset with Iran would be to mid-wife a general accommodation between it and Saudi Arabia. That is the only hope of restoring lasting peace to the Middle East. Our armed intervention has been futile. The diplomatic task would be to convince both that a negotiated bargain over spheres of influence is more productive than their continuing proxy wars. ❞

The negotiations in Vienna, I believe, are in furtherance of that long term goal for relations with Iran.

The US revealed on October 30 that it would be sending some 50 Special Operations forces (boots on the ground) into Syria to help the Kurds fighting ISIS. That looks very much like part of the price paid to Saudi Arabia for its agreement to include Iran as well as a demonstration that the US is prepared to begin to match Russian involvement to help convince the Syrian combatants to come to the table.

Here at home, Democratic liberals were thrilled when Justin Trudeau, running on an explicit platform of deficit spending to modernize Canadian infrastructure, won a landslide victory over the right wing tax cutting deficit hawk Conservatives who had ruled for nearly 10 years. Could that be a portent for Canada’s big neighbor to the south whose president has long pushed the same Trudeau economic agenda?

The third Republican presidential debate on October 28 certainly encourages that kind of liberal optimism. The front runners, Carson and Trump, held their ground with the anti-government primary voters who love their lack of a governing track record as proud outsiders. Coming up from the rear were Senators Rubio and Cruz equally disdainful of Washington and their own party but able to point to their governing chops. The establishment favorite, Jeb Bush, slipped farther to the rear while the other 9 are ever less serious contenders. As the dust settles, Rubio seems to have the best chance of getting the nomination.

The Democratic contest is a lot more predictable. Hillary aced the first Democratic candidate debate on October 13, got a big boost from the Republican run Benghazi Committee hearing on October 22 when she breezed through Republican attacks. That was easier to do since House Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy had spilled the beans that the committee had been set up to discredit her. (He lost the Speakership for his unintended candor.) She got a further boost from the third Republican debate when the competitors there all agreed that she was the Democrat they would have to beat. Now, her poll rating in Iowa, the first primary, shows her with a lead of about 40 points (PA +34, TX +29, OK +9, SC +37) over Bernie Sanders. The second Democratic debate will be on November 14.

The next big news here is that we go off Daylight Saving Time on November 1.

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