Thursday, March 10, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Budgetary Baby Steps

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, March 10, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and at noon will begin debating legislation ending the FHA Refinance Program. Passage by 7 is a sure thing, but the majority probably won’t be big enough to override Obama’s threatened veto. The program offers low-interest government loans to people who are “underwater” on their mortgages, meaning they owe more to the bank than the home is worth. Ending it is supposed to save $175 million during the next decade.

An Energy and Commerce subcommittee approved a measure blocking the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The Oversight and Government Reform Committee will approve a bill keeping the D.C. school vouchers program alive.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and is expected to be done for the week by 2:30, after voting to confirm Asheville attorney and former federal magistrate Max Cogburn Jr. as a federal judge in North Carolina.

THE WHITE HOUSE: “If there’s one goal of this conference, it’s to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. It’s not,” Obama said this morning as he and his wife opened a five-hour administration gathering at the White House on the perils of such abuse and what schools and communities can do to stop it.

The president will meet with advisers and lawmakers at 2 to discuss his strategy for pushing a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind education law.

THIS IS A TEST: Yesterday’s 10 Democratic votes against the Senate majority’s own opening bid for midyear spending cuts means party leaders (starting with Obama) will have to propose much more than $5 billion if they want to accomplish three things: forming a united front against the full depth and breadth of the GOP’s aspirations; getting the House Republicans to take their bargaining opponents seriously; and giving their most vulnerable incumbents a fiscal platform on which to campaign next year.

Five of the 10 plan to run for re-election in 2012, and each is at least potentially vulnerable: Herb Kohl in Wisconsin, Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Bill Nelson in Florida and Ben Nelson in Nebraska. (The 11th caucus member to vote “no” was independent Bernie Sanders, who’s a lock for another term in Vermont.)

What would be best of all for these Democrats is claiming a part in a grand deficit-reduction bargain combining spending cuts, both domestic and military, with reductions in tax expenditures and limits on the growth in Medicare and Medicaid. That’s why Schumer, the party’s congressional message guru, pushed hard yesterday to intensify talks toward such a deal. But within hours of his call, he was more or less rebuffed by the White House spokesman Jay Carney, who said that while such negotiations may eventually occur, they were unlikely in the context of funding the government for the rest of this fiscal year.

Still, Biden gets back from Europe tomorrow night and is expecting to revive face to face talks with congressional leaders of both parties before the weekend is over.

WAR CHEST: McCain is positioning himself as the main obstacle to quick enactment of the next CR, which will be the sixth since fiscal 2011 began in October.

The stopgap bill House Appropriations will unveil tomorrow will keep the government going until either April 8 or April 15 and will dictate cuts of about $2 billion a week along the way. The House will pass that along party lines early next week, because the Republican freshmen and other conservatives are willing to postpone their drive for big social policy changes along with their spending cuts (ending subsidies for Planned Parenthood, first of all).

But then the measure will run headlong into McCain, who will use the threat of a government shutdown next Friday night as leverage to get a comprehensive, six-month defense spending package attached to the CR. The top Republican on Senate Armed Services, he says the military spending levels in the House-passed, rest-of-the-year appropriations package are inadequate. His alternative would provide $535 billion in non-war spending through the end of September. It would provide $500 million to support the Iraqi army and police — funding the House would eliminate. And to pay for that, McCain would eliminate $300 million in medical research and $250 million in school construction money.

FUMBLED HANDOFF? McCain’s move is supposed to give a bit of help to the administration, where senior officials at both State and Defense are lamenting that the balky appropriations process is hampering their already challenged efforts to manage the transition from a U.S. military to civilian lead in Iraq.

But McCain’s efforts are all about the military aspects of Obama’s plan, not the foreign aid part. For that, the president will be able to look to an even less likely ally than his 2008 Republican opponent. Former first lady Laura Bush, in an interview with Bloomberg TV, said she will soon start telephoning lawmakers to lobby them to abandon the House’s 16 percent cut in foreign aid.

The spending is “worth it because of our own moral interest to be generous and to help other people, but it’s also worth it both for our national security and for economic interests,” she said.

ISLAM HEARINGS: “To back down would be a craven surrender to political correctness,” Peter King said this morning as he convened his House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Islamic radicalization in America. “There is nothing radical or un-American about conducting these hearings,” the chairman said, because “homegrown radicalization is part of al Qaeda’s strategy to continue attacking the United States.”

The Long Island Republican has faced withering criticism, and threats to his safety, from critics contending that the proceedings amount to an anti-Muslim witch hunt or modern-day McCarthyism. Securtity in the Cannon hearing room was exceptionally tight. To help rebut his critics, King called as his first witness John Dingell, whose career as a vigorous investigator is without peer in the modern Congress. The Michigan Democrat said he kept a picture of Joe McCarthy on his wall to remind him how not to use his power, and he asserted that King’s hearings were in the best tradition of congressional oversight.

The next witness, Keith Ellison, the Minnesota Democrat who was the first Muslim elected to Congress, broke down in tears recalling the story of a Muslim first-responder at Ground Zero whose patriotism was questioned after Sept. 11.

OFF THE GRID: The president of the Gridiron Club, USA Today’s Susan Page, is getting ready today to formally reject C-Span’s annual request to broadcast the elite journalist group’s annual (and only officially off the record) white-tie dinner on Saturday night, where Obama will appear for his first time as president.

“The public clamors for openness and transparency in Washington,” Brian Lamb said yesterday in his request. “Televised coverage will permit the public to see the Gridiron Club’s 125-year-old demonstration of a Washington, D.C., establishment that can laugh together for an evening while preserving the important watchdog role of the Fourth Estate.”

DAVID BRODER: Twenty-seven years later, I still remember the time David Broder took me to breakfast as one of the highlights of my career. I learned an enormous amount from him in that hour, about both reporting technique and electoral politics, even though he did nothing in the least bit didactic. Instead, he simply listened, and encouraged me with his gentle questions to say more, about a sliver of national news that I happened to be covering pretty closely as a cub newspaper reporter. (It was the rise of Henry Cisneros, then San Antonio’s mayor and later HUD secretary). He was extraordinarily gracious, polite, curious and insightful — and his effect that morning cemented my interest in working to become a good enough journalist to be in his company again. Thank you, sir. RIP.


— David Hawkings, editor

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