Tuesday, March 01, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: The Qaddafi Corral

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, Mar. 1, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and will start legislative business at noon. Before sunset it will pass the latest stopgap spending bill, which would cut $4 billion from fiscal 2011 appropriations and keep the government open for the next two weeks.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 to continue debating what would be the first substantial patent law rewrite in half a century. The bill — which would switch from a first-to-invent to a first-to-file system of issuing patents — is quickly becoming a magnet for unrelated fiscal policy amendments that could slow its progress. One would offer an early test vote on raising the debt limit; another would endorse the idea of a balanced-budget constitutional amendment.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama has no public events scheduled. He and Biden will meet with Defense Secretary Gates at 4:30.

STRONGMAN POLITICS: Hillary Clinton came to the Capitol this morning to gauge congressional support for a more aggressive American intervention in Libya, beginning with military support for humanitarian relief and rescue missions but potentially including imposition of a no-fly zone.

The Pentagon has confirmed that U.S. naval forces in the Mediterranean and military assets from NATO were being positioned closer to Libya to support possible humanitarian efforts. The secretary of State — who was appearing at House Foreign Relations after an overnight flight from talks with U.S. allies in Geneva — was certain to be questioned about that, and about indications that Obama is moving closer to sending the Air Force into the skies over Libya in order to protect rebel-held areas from attack by Qaddafi forces. (In the most recent skirmish, the rebels holding Zawiya, an oil town near Tripoli, repelled an overnight attack by government troops.)

But the most bellicose trial balloon raised at the Capitol since revolutionary fervor started sweeping over the Middle East — Joe Lieberman’s proposal that the U.S. arm the Libyan rebels — is landing with a quick thud. It’s being rejected by Dick Lugar, the top Republican on Senate Foreign Relations, and by two senior GOP senators on Armed Services, Susan Collins and Lindsey Graham.

Lugar also said he opposes a no-fly zone, but Collins said she likes that idea.

Susan Rice said this morning that the United States is worried about a “real humanitarian disaster” unless Qaddafi surrenders power soon — and she suggested he consider seeking exile as a way to “get off the stage” before revolutionaries take him off. But the U.N. ambassador said that scenario should not prevent him from being  prosecuted “for the crimes that he and those closest to him have committed.”

“One has to question his grip on reality,” she said of Qaddafi on both the CBS’s “Early Show”and NBC’s “Today.”

TWO vs. FIVE: The only suspense left in this week’s anti-climactic budget debate is whether the latest stopgap spending bill will keep the government open until March 18 or until April 8.

After a meeting with Reid in the senator’s office last night, Boehner rejected an unexpected White House request that the coming CR last about a month to buy potentially sufficient time to negotiate a deal lasting until the end of this fiscal year in September. An extension until the second Friday in April would allow five weeks for talks (although during one of them, the week of March 21, Congress will be in recess.) The bill before the House this afternoon provides funding for just two weeks, and no one is under the illusion that’s enough time to bridge the $60 billion gap remaining in the fiscal 2011 budget debate.

With new polling showing the public almost evenly divided about which party deserves blame for the budget brinkmanship, postponing the next potential government shutdown for a month could work to Republicans’ and Democrats’ mutual benefit. Talk about an extension will be Topic A at this afternoon’s weekly Senate caucus lunches. If Senate Democrats decide to press the idea, Reid has arranged for a 60-vote-threshold test vote on it tomorrow.

PLAY MONEY: Republicans, especially the tea-party-backed House freshmen, are sure to resist the idea — because they are keen to keep making cuts to domestic programs at the bill’s current rate of $4 billion every two weeks. And they’re going to be none too pleased if the public comes to view most of the purported cuts in the House’s bill as paper tigers.

More and more independent budget hawks are starting to deride the measure’s $2.7 billion in savings from abandoned earmarks as theoretical, at best, and illusory, at worst. Here’s why: The money was appropriated in fiscal 2010 and hasn’t been actually spent yet — and so by law remained available into this budget year. But, under longstanding practice, it would never get spent unless Congress re-upped its support for those  earmarks in fiscal 2011. And since Democrats and Republicans had already put themselves on a pork-free diet for the year, the measure before the House calls for “cutting” spending that most likely would never have occurred.

GUV LOVE: Obama’s likely to get just what he wants from his endorsement of legislation that would let states opt out of parts of the health care overhaul three years earlier than the law allows.

His backing of the bill gave the nation’s governors a little unexpected love yesterday, just when they were feeling particularly down and out about all the mandates they’re facing from Washington and all the budget anger they’re feeling back home. It allowed him to sound bipartisan and centrist and open to revisiting even his most emphatically argued views.

And yet in the end the president’s most prized legislative achievement (including the mandate that most people buy insurance) will almost certainly stay on the books essentially as-is — at least until the end of the court fight over the mandate’s constitutionality. That’s because there’s almost no chance that Congress will actually advance the legislation, which is known by the names of its Senate sponsors, Ron Wyden and Scott Brown. Cantor made clear yesterday that the House Republican majority is all about ending the law, not mending it — a position that will mean almost no legislative tinkering beyond the effort (now stalled over an offset dispute) to do away with the 1099 tax reporting requirement that small businesses find so odious.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: House GOP freshman Randy Hultgren of Illinois (45).

— David Hawkings, editor

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

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David Hawkings
dailybriefing@cqrollcall.com

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