Tuesday, November 30, 2010

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010

 Today In Washington

The White House. Obama is meeting behind the closed doors of the Roosevelt Room with the top eight congressional leaders: Pelosi and Hoyer from the House Democrats, Boehner and Cantor from the House GOP, Reid and Durbin from the Senate Democrats, and McConnell and Kyl from the Senate Republicans. Also in the room: Biden, Geithner and new OMB chief Jack Lew.

The Senate. Convened at 9 and has passed the most significant overhaul of federal food safety regulations in seven decades. The legislation, which would expand the FDA’s power over the food supply, passed 73-25. Before the week is out, the House will send the measure to Obama for his promised signature.

This morning, senators effectively killed any further talk about a binding three-year ban on congressional earmarks. GOP deficit hawks had wanted such language to catch a ride on the FDA bill, in the belief that Republican promises to back away from the pork buffet will prove short-lived. But since pet projects have nothing to do with food safety, and amendments to a bill are supposed to be germane after cloture is invoked, two-thirds of the Senate would have had to agree to even allow an up-or-down vote on the proposed earmark curb. Instead, the tally was a decisive 39-56 against allowing a vote.

The House. Convened at 10 and will clear legislation approving the settlement of two longstanding class-action suits. Once Obama signs the bill, several thousand American Indians will share $3.4 billion in compensation for mismanagement of their royalty trust accounts at the Interior Department. And a group of African-American farmers will be paid $1.2 billion for alleged discrimination by Agriculture Department officials.

Tomorrow is the deadline for the departing 90 or so lawmakers to move out of their offices so that the biennial wave of redecorating and relocating can be completed before the start of the next Congress 36 days from now.

More Coffee Talk Than Slurpee Summit. Even before the bipartisan congressional caravan rolled into the West Wing driveway this morning for the first post-election meeting with Obama, expectations had dropped through the floor. The wondering at this hour is how all the players will spin the discussion. Will Obama and GOP leaders describe one another as serious about making the concessions necessary to reach any big deals, either now or next year? Or will they shake their heads and wonder aloud how the other side could remain so stubborn?

The president plans to face reporters at the White House at about 12:30, while the Republican leaders have arranged to take to the microphones back at the Capitol at exactly the same time — not a good omen for those hoping for happy, collaborative talk. (The four senators will also brief their comrades at the weekly party caucus lunches, with an emphasis on what might get accomplished in the rest of the lame duck.)

The Biggest Impasse. The future of the Bush tax cuts (and associated tax issues such as another Alternative Minimum Tax “patch”) remains the most politically potent issue — and it will take something much stronger than a Slurpee (or even the merlot that Boehner suggested as an alternative) to get all the players singing the same tune. Republicans are unlikely to yield ground before the lame duck’s last possible moment on their push for a full extension of the Bush cuts, despite Obama’s stated willingness to compromise and the Democrats’ new push to take away the cuts only on income above $1 million.

Before the meeting, Cantor asserted that his party's bargaining posiiton was to "make sure no one gets a tax hike while we're trying to create jobs in the private sector." And McConnell said taking the Bush tax cuts away from millionaires has "no economic justification whatsoever."

Still, both parties have made clear they are willing to say goodbye to many billions of dollars in potential revenue during the next few years — a point that’s sure to be noted, with some dismay, by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson when they hold a 3:30 news conference. After a series of one-on-one meetings with their fellow members of the president’s fiscal commission, they’re expected to announce that they have not reached the required 14-member (out of 18) supermajority for any fiscal austerity plan.

More Than One Issue for Pentagon Bill. Defense Department officials are briefing lawmakers this morning about the Pentagon’s report on the consequence of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Word is leaking that the “top line” of the 10-month study, as they say at the Pentagon, is that lopsided majority of men and women in uniform don’t care if gays serve openly, with 70 percent predicting that an end to the 17-year-old prohibition would have either a positive or a mixed result, or none at all.

How the report will shape the final version of the annual defense bill has drawn all the lame-duck buzz, but at least four other issues are viewed as equally contentious — National Guard troops on the Mexican border, funding for Iraqi security forces, an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and abortion in military hospitals.

Low-Hanging Fruit. Obama’s proposal to freeze federal pay through September 2012 (as a small but significant first step toward austerity) was widely described as an “announcement” yesterday, because of the view that Congress will quickly go along without hardly and debate or dissent. But don’t bet on it — at least until next year. Two of the most powerful Democrats in the lame-duck House, Maryland’s Hoyer and Chis Van Hollen, represent tens of thousands of civil servants  in the D.C. suburbs and don’t like the budget-cutting move one bit. Hoyer wants to tie any freeze for civilians to a similar freeze for the troops — which would be a political kiss of death. Labor unions also will fight any freeze, believing it would harm the economy because similar pay restraint would then be widely applied in the private sector.

Obama wants to ditch a 1.4 percent across-the-board raise due in fiscal 2011 for 2.1 million federal civilian employees, including those at the Defense Department, while allowing bonuses and so-called step increases. Language to do that would be part of the year’s final spending package, which is now on course to clear within a week of Christmas.

Senate Democrats, especially, are persisting in the belief they can advance a comprehensive omnibus appropriations package replete with policy decisions — and, yes, earmarks. And they may get some help from the five Republican senators on Appropriations who are leaving at the end of the year. But the Republican leadership almost certainly has enough muscle to insist that the lame duck produce only a stopgap continuing resolution to keep the government running more or less in place into the new year. A CR to keep the lights on until Dec. 17 will be cleared in the next three days.

A Silver Sliver. The Conference Board reported this morning that its Consumer Confidence Index, which had improved in October, increased a little bit more this month. It’s now at 54.1, a gain in the past month of 4.2 points. Add that sliver of good news to the growing holiday-season view that the economy may be staging a more robust recovery than had been the conventional wisdom. (Maybe that’s why talk continues to fade about an additional extension of the long-term jobless benefits that expire tomorrow.)

Steve Solarz, RIP. The life of the former congressman, who died yesterday at 70, intersected with an unusually broad range of the era’s top political, and geopolitical, stories: Elected in the Watergate wave of 1974. Gained prominence as the House’s premier Democratic foreign policy hawk, first focused on the Middle East but shifting  to Asia just in time for the rise of the Pacific Rim. Revealed that Imelda Marcos owned 3,000 pairs of shoes. Author of the law authorizing the Persian Gulf War. Wrote 743 overdrafts at the House bank. Tossed out in 1992 after his district was dismantled because of a surging Latino population. All that — and a dogged, aggressive, media-savvy style that left fellow Brooklyn congressman Chuck Schumer looking like a relative milquetoast — made Solarz one of the Capitol’s most memorable figures of the past four decades.

Become a Facebook fan at facebook.com/DavidHawkingsDC. Or follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/davidhawkings.

               — David Hawkings, editor


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