Wednesday, February 16, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Just Like Those Other Guys

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convenes at 10 for Day 2 of its midyear spending debate. Consideration of more than 700 amendments is theoretically possible, but GOP leaders are working behind the scenes to cull the list to a few dozen so the measure can get a final vote tomorrow. More urgently, they’re working to calm discontent among Republican moderates, who could team with Democrats to defeat the measure if the $61 billion grand total in cuts is increased.

The House also will clear a bill extending for just 90 days three FBI counterterrorism powers set to expire this month. The House originally voted for an extension into December, but Senate Democrats insisted on the shorter period so a more expansive debate about the future of the Patriot Act can occur before Memorial Day.
THE SENATE: Convened at 10 for another day debating legislation to bolster modernization of the nation’s aviation system. Votes to limit the deliberations, which began two weeks ago, come tomorrow morning. The delay is mainly because of a standoff over long-distance flights at Reagan National; senators from far away want many more, but those from states near D.C. want as few as possible.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama will met with Reid, Durbin, Schumer and Murray at 2:20 — three hours after the Senate Democratic leaders announced that their caucus is embracing the president’s call for saving $400 billion through a five-year freeze on domestic discretionary spending.

Jay Carney’s first briefing as presidential press secretary is at 12:30.

THE BIG OFF-SITE: Andrews Air Force Base? Camp David? Dayton? Louisville? Chicago? The momentum for a budget summit is building so fast that water-cooler talk is already turning to the political and climatological advantages of various locations that might host Obama and the bipartisan congressional leadership this summer or fall.

Obama kicked the door wide open yesterday to convening the sort of bipartisan deal-cutting session that worked for Reagan in 1983 on Social Security, the first George Bush in 1990 on deficit reduction and Clinton in 1997 on a budget-balancing plan. And more and more senior lawmakers of both parties are walking through that door by the hour. And there’s evidence that the president’s team has already approached top Republicans, behind the scenes and officially off the record, to gauge their willingness to negotiate ways to rein in tax expenditures and the soaring budgets of Medicare and Medicaid while ensuring Social Security’s long-term solvency.

A growing coalition of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate is working to draft a grand deficit-cutting package, fully aware that it can’t become a reality unless the president and House leaders get on board as well. But top GOP leaders in the House are talking about such negotiations as nearly a fait accompli.

“I’ve been inviting the president to have that conversation since he took office two years ago,” McConnell said yesterday about the prospects for budget summit. “It doesn’t have to be in public. We all understand there are some limitations to negotiating significant agreements in public.”

JET LAG: This week’s House debate was supposed to be all about allowing freshmen Republicans and other conservatives to exercise their antagonism toward domestic social and environmental programs. But so far, the focus has been all about the military and foreign aid.

The first genuinely key vote of the year on spending restraint comes this afternoon. It’s on an amendment that would eliminate $450 million being spent this year on developing an alternative engine for the F-35 fighter jet. It’s a classic battle between defense contractors — who don’t often vie for the same work these days — with seemingly limitless lobbying budgets and deep political connections into every corner of each party’s leadership.

But the two sides in the debate are not what the Republicans had in mind when they arranged this week’s debate to show the nation their commitment to making “tough choices” even if jobs get lost along the way (“So be it. We're broke,” Boehner scoffed yesterday). But the Speaker himself is the most powerful House member in favor of the backup engine — which could secure hundreds of jobs for Ohio, where GE and Rolls-Royce are doing much of the work. And it’s Obama and Gates and top House Democrats who are leading the campaign to drop the extra motor, which could end up costing $3 billion over the next several years. That’s ultimately unaffordable in light of the tight budget and the military’s other needs, the administration says (and particularly because the principal Pratt & Whitney engine has been working just fine).

It’s likely that the $450 million will survive this afternoon — especially in light of what happened on the floor last night. The House rejected the first four amendments to trim the Pentagon budget, including one that would have taken a comparatively paltry $19 million from various advisory boards.

Foreign aid, meanwhile, stands to be cut 16 percent under the bill, unless conservatives win something deeper. The proposal is a sign that international assistance has minimal political support among rank-and-file House members, even at a time when global disquiet is ample, and when high-powered lobbyists for Egypt and other countries are working to use that unrest to their advantage. Those efforts are now turning toward the Senate, which has always been more supportive of foreign aid. And by the time the bill is debated there, the situation in the Middle East could be unavoidably compelling for continued U.S. help. (Protests demanding sweeping political change in Bahrain are now in their third, intensifying day, while some 2,000 police are in the streets of Yemen’s capital to try to put down a sixth day of demonstrations there.)

GIFFORDS UPDATE: Gabby Giffords has not yet been told the details of the Tucson shooting rampage, her congressional chief of staff Pia Carusone said on CBS’s “The Early Show” today. “Doctors have said it’s not really fair, as you can imagine, to tell someone something so tragic and someone that might not have the ability to ask the detailed questions that someone will have when they hear this news,” the aide said.

The congresswoman’s vocabulary, speaking ability and overall mental function are improving daily, Carusone said. “Short phrases, simple thoughts. There’s no doubt that she understands what’s happening around her. She laughs at the appropriate times,” Carusone said. “Every day there’s new progress that you see. So, you know, we feel very hopeful at her recovery.”

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Tim Kaine says he’s willing to be wooed personally by Obama before making up his mind about seeking Virginia’s open Senate seat. The two are supposed to speak by telephone by the end of the week. The former governor, who’s now chairman of the DNC, has sounded reluctant about running — but he’s seen as by far the best shot Democrats have at holding the seat. The Republican establishment is behind George Allen’s effort to get his old job back, but Richmond-area tea party activist Jamie Radtke is also after the nomination.

(2) As he gears up his presidential run, Rick Santorum is trying to get out in front of a challenge that’s sure to dog his efforts to boost his name recognition: How he comes across on Google. The former Pennsylvania senator says he can’t stop sex advice columnist Dan Savage’s crusade to give “santorum” a sexually scatological meaning — but Santorum can try to turn the effort to his advantage, by showing conservative voters the sort of moral crusades that he is willing to take on.

— David Hawkings, editor

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