Thursday, December 16, 2010

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Workin' for the Weekend

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010

 Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and has set aside three hours for speeches this afternoon before the climactic votes that will clear the tax bill.

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and is expected to spend the whole day debating the New Start arms control treaty and voting on GOP amendments.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Before noon Obama is expected to describe his administration’s annual assessment on Afghanistan and Pakistan. The summary released this morning concludes that the past year’s surge is having enough success to allow troops to begin withdrawing on schedule in July, although the war will need to keep going until 2014. “Momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas, although these gains remain fragile and reversible,” it says.

SPENDING IMPASSE: House Democratic leaders, frustrated with the deepening senatorial standoff over spending, are signaling they will pass a several-day stopgap spending bill today and then send their members home for the weekend to see if the Senate can get off the dime.

The current stopgap law, or CR, expires Saturday at midnight, although as a practical matter Congress has until the start of the workday Monday to make its next move avoiding any government shutdown. The House’s idea is to keep the bureaucracy running in place until perhaps Tuesday, in hopes that by then there’s a bipartisan, bicameral  agreement on an appropriations path lasting into 2011. And, in the end, that path may prove to be what McConnell proposed this morning: a CR holding agency spending patterns just as they are (meaning at fiscal 2010 levels) until Feb. 18, the start of the Presidents Day congressional recess.

Earmarks, for sure, are the main reason that talk of a policy-altering, project-packed omnibus appropriations package will soon collapse — unless Reid is sure he has the votes to push such a package through relatively quickly. He doesn’t have the votes yet, which is why he hasn’t used his “dual track” powers to set up simultaneous debate on both the arms control treaty and the Senate’s $1.1 trillion spending legislation. That bill is laced with 6,600 pet projects worth $8.1 billion — with plenty of them sought by some of the package’s most vituperative Republican critics. (And that doesn’t include some of the more remarkable parochial rewards, which are threatening to hold up other bills, too, such as the customary year-end measure extending a long list of trade provisions.)

Even if the 60 votes are secured, senators may well have to wait around for 12 hours or so before casting them while the clerk reads the entire package at the insistence of Jim DeMint and other GOP critics. (They’d probably give up on that dilatory tactic if they’re sure of prevailing on John McCain’s get-rid-of-all-the earmarks amendment). Still, it seems guaranteed that  substantive debate will be this weekend, if it happens at all — with no time for the House to clear whatever the Senate does before the government’s doors open Monday morning.

Whatever the case, it appears there will be another week in an already-long 111th Congress.

THE SKINNY BILL: The Senate omnibus got a boost yesterday when it was endorsed by Defense Secretary Gates, even though the measure goes against Obama’s wishes and would fund a second, backup engine for F-35 jets.

That was the second big boost in a day for the manufacturers of the alternate Joint Strike Fighter engine. That’s because there’s no mention of it at all (and in legislation, silence means assent) in the latest version of the defense budget bill, which has been stripped of its most controversial elements in hopes of cruising through Congress by next week. All four of the top military policy lawmakers — Carl Levin and John McCain of Senate Armed Services and Ike Skelton and Buck McKeon of House Armed Services — are on board with the package, even though McKeon was dealt out as the others finalized several weeks of negotiations.

WHAT AMERICA WANTS: When the House sends Obama the tax cut and jobless benefits package this afternoon, it will be doing what the public wants. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, out today, offers these numbers: 59 percent approve of the legislation and only 36 percent disapprove — a solid, 23-point margin. In addition, 61 percent view the measure as a fair compromise between Obama and Republican leaders, while 23 percent say the president gave away too much and 10 percent say that of the GOP.

The vote to clear the bill, which was endorsed overwhelmingly in the Senate yesterday, will come after liberal Democrats make their one, now clearly futile attempt to shape the package a little more to their liking. The vote will be on altering the deal to make the estate tax a little bit tougher on the rich for the next two years: a 45 percent rate (instead of the bill’s 35 percent) on inheritances above $3.5 million for individuals and $7 million for couples (instead of the bill’s $5 million and $10 million.) Doing what the Democrats want would make only a relatively minimal difference, subjecting another 6,600 estates to some taxation and raising $26 billion — thereby reducing by 3 percent the overall cost of the package, which is mainly about extending all the Bush tax cuts.

TIME WILL TELL: There are clearly 60 votes in the Senate to cut off a filibuster and clear the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law that the House passed yesterday. Now all supporters of gay civil rights need is one day before the end of next week to devote to outlasting their opponents’ delaying tactics. And Reid is willing to set aside the time, and keep the Senate in session, as long as the spending impasse continues.

It’s safe to assume at least 56 votes from the Democratic Caucus, with West Virginia’s Joe Manchin the only sure defector and Virginia’s Jim Webb the only other one who’s left himself somewhat on the fence. And four Republicans are already locked in: Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, Massachusetts’ Scott Brown, and Maine’s Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. Advocates of allowing “out” gays and lesbians in uniform also think they can put at least two more GOP senators (Indiana’s Dick Lugar and Ohio’s George Voinovich) in their column.

BACKWARD FLY THE BEES: Republicans are starting to refine their procedures for budget-cutting next year.

Today they are expected to reveal a package of House rules changes, which they’ll be able top push through on a party-line vote on opening day next month, that will include a new budgetary mechanism to be known as the “cut-go” rule, mandating that any legislation creating a new spending program also include the elimination of an existing program of equal or greater value. It’s a conservative twist on the “pay-as-you-go rule” now in effect, because it would not allow spending increases to be offset with new taxes or fees. (And tax cuts would not have to be offset with spending reductions.)

In addition, new Chairman Harold Rogers is putting a conservative twist on the annual allocation of spending ceilings for his House Appropriations subcommittee cardinals. Those totals, known as the 302(b) numbers, will be replaced by “reverse 302(b)” figures, which will tell each subcommittee how much it has to cut.

CORRECTION: Yesterday’s listing of  CEO summit participants wrongly combined the descriptions of two of the  attendees, Jeff Immelt of GE and Dave Cote of Honeywell.

— David Hawkings, editor

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

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