As Congress returns to session after a two-week break and President Barack Obama returns from his trip to Asia, the leaders face new and ongoing challenges domestically and overseas. While new sanctions to punish Russia for continued aggression in eastern Ukraine are expected, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is adamant that he will not negotiate with a unity Palestinian government.
If you missed the Sunday political talk shows, we’ll get you up to speed on the latest events and opinion in Washington with this comprehensive round up of all things political.
Obama’s foreign policy: During his trip to Asia, Obama has been criticized on a host of issues, including failing to seal the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. While some members of the President’s own party were skeptical of another trade pact, Republican critics say that Obama’s empty hands are another instance of a failed foreign policy priority.
One of those critics is U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, who said on CNN’s “State of the Union”: “Right now worldwide our enemies don't fear us. Our friends don't trust us, and when we show weakness, it emboldens people around the world who are our enemies, whether they're in Iran, Syria, Russia or North Korea.”
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U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, defended the President. “I think President Obama has been very strong,” Cardin said on CNN.
And the White House defended itself: Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said the United States is “stronger now than we were five years ago” in “every single line of effort” in Asia.
And he pointed out that the President was handling a crisis simultaneously.
“The President was advancing his agenda in Asia at the same time … we had Ukraine,” Blinken added on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Blinken said that while in Asia, Obama secured agreement with European nations to move forward on another round of sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine. While he didn’t say specifically what the sanctions would entail, he said it would “have an impact” on the people closest to Russian President Vladimir Putin and their businesses.
Blinken, also appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said that new sanctions would hurt Putin but that he wouldn’t be directly targeted.
“It's a rare thing to actually go after the leader of a country,” Blinken said, adding that he’s not ruling out sanctions against Putin directly in the future.
The New York Times reported that while Putin’s personal wealth is not known, it’s considered vast, as much as $40 billion to $70 billion. The choice of sanction targets indicates who the United States suspects holds Putin’s wealth, the report said.
Blinken insists the current sanctions are working and that the “economic isolation of Russia is growing every single day.”
Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that he hopes the new round of sanctions targets Russia’s banks and “send shockwaves into the economy.”
“All we’re doing is tweaking folks,” he said.
Blinken said Putin will soon lose the support of Russians. “He had a compact with his people,” Blinken said of Putin. “And the compact is this: ‘I will deliver economic growth for you if you remain politically compliant.’ Right now, he’s not delivering growth.”
He said Crimea is going to become an issue of contention in Russia because Putin must spend significant resources there.
The debate over how to help Ukraine continues as the international community has pledged $37 billion to the country over the next two years. But Ukraine continues to ask for aid to rebuild its military, which pales in comparison to Russia’s.
Some Republicans, including Barrasso, are also calling for military assistance. Barrasso said on “State of the Union” that Ukraine “need(s) weapons, and I think we should supply them with anti-tank, anti-missile weapons.”
Blinken, however, said sanctions “wouldn’t make a difference in terms of their ability to stand up to the Russians.”
“But what would make a difference … is professionalizing their military,” Blinken said. “We have been working on that since before the crisis.”
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said last week that Russia wants a third World War. Blinken said that although Putin has the ability to invade Ukraine, he doesn’t think he’ll go through with it because the international community would respond and because he would “inherit in Ukraine a lot of people who have no desire to have the Russians on their backs.”
Middle East Peace: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the rounds of the Sunday political shows to reinforce his position that he will not enter into peace talks with a new Palestinian alliance between the Hamas and Fatah.
Netanyahu dismissed the proposed unity government, even though Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said it would be under his control.
“In the back office, the mafia sits. In the front office, you have respectable lawyers,” Netanyahu said, comparing Hamas to the mafia who calls the shots. “We’re not going to buy that trick.”
“We will not negotiate with a government backed by Hamas, unless Hamas had changed its position or unless Hamas said, ‘Oh, I'm willing to recognize Israel.’”
Netanyahu said he and Secretary of State John Kerry recently applauded that some progress was being made toward a peace agreement.
“And then the next day, we were both shocked - there's no other word - we were absolutely stupefied that President Abbas embraced the terrorist organization Hamas that seeks Israel's destruction,” he said on “Face the Nation.”
On “State of the Union,” Netanyahu said Abbas “can’t have it both ways” by saying on Holocaust Remembrance day that the Holocaust was "the most heinous crime in the modern era.”
“I think probably what he's trying to do is damage control,” Netanyahu said. “I think what President Abbas is trying to do is to placate Western public opinion that understands that he delivered a terrible blow to the peace process by embracing these Hamas terrorists. And I think he's trying to wiggle his way out of it.”
Blinken cautioned against rushing to judgment and advised waiting to see if the reconciliation agreement stands.
However, on CNN, Blinken threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinians if they don’t recognize Israel, renounce terrorism or respect past agreements.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said there is still hope for peace.
“Look, if I'd given up when the Northern Ireland peace process looked as if it was going nowhere, we would never have got there,” Blair said on “Meet the Press.”
Homeland Security: Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson revealed the ongoing threats and attacks his agency faces, and they encompass just about everything.
“The cybersecurity threat is not just a threat, it's a series of ongoing, daily attacks,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
He also said he’s concerned about Syrian foreign fighters being recruited and trained, and entering the United States.
“We are continually monitoring the situation and we are concerned, yes,” he said.
“We also have to be concerned about the lone wolf, about the independent actor. And we've seen a lot of that. The Boston Marathon bombing a year ago is a perfect example of that,” Johnson added.
Elizabeth Warren on Hillary Clinton: U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D- Massachusetts, is promoting her new book, “A Fighting Chance,” and what she views is the outsized influence of business and financial institutions.
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On “This Week,” Warren was not asked whether she would run for president, but whether she would support Hillary Clinton.
“I hope she does” run, Warren said, referring to a letter she and all of the female Democratic senators sent to Clinton. But she refused to say whether Clinton would be her choice in 2016.
“Hillary is terrific,” Warren said.
Warren also refused to say if she thinks a President Clinton would stand strong against powerful and influential financial institutions. Clearly deflecting the question, the not-so-novice politician said, “I’m going to keep talking about this issue, and I’m going to keep pushing on this issue.”
It’s not exactly an endorsement, but it is not a criticism like the one she lobbed in a previous book where she said Clinton caved to Wall Street as a senator for New York.
GOP 2016: In a softball interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Indiana Gov. Mike Pence promoted his conservative record as head of the Hoosier State.
He also refused to say if he was plotting a run for president in 2016. “I'll take the compliment to heart, but I will defer it to the progress the people of Indiana have made, and we'll stay focused here at home,” he said.
Kicker: The firestorm around Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and his alleged racist remarks has grown. While President Obama weighed in, calling him “ignorant,” the NAACP announced on “Meet the Press” that it has decided against giving the wealthy real estate mogul its lifetime achievement award.
“He is not receiving a lifetime achievement award from the NAACP that's coming up in the next few weeks,” said Lorraine Miller, interim president of the NAACP.