Friday, April 15, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Who Cares? (And Why?)

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, April 15, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and is on course to adopt the Paul Ryan budget resolution before 1:30 — after which members will be told they can go home for the next two weeks. A handful of Republicans will shy away from voting for their Budget chairman’s deficit-reduction blueprint, but not a single Democrat is going to vote for it.

The House this morning rejected dramatically different budget alternatives by liberals in the Black Caucus (it got just 103 votes) and the Progressive Caucus (77 “yes” votes). It is about to spurn a more aggressive deficit-reduction proposal from the conservative Republican Study Committee. An alternative from the Democratic leadership will be rebuffed shortly after noon.

THE SENATE: Not in session. Senators got a one-day head start on the longest congressional break until August. They’re aren’t coming back for 17 days, until the evening of Monday, May 2.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama had a rare morning of relative downtime back home in Chicago. He’s expected back at the White House at 2:50, after which his only public event is a meeting with leaders of the National Conference of State Legislators.

MORE THAN A GAMBIT? A much higher percentage of House Republicans will vote for the party’s $4.4 trillion debt reduction budget this afternoon than the 75 percent who voted for the midyear spending shave-and-a-haircut yesterday.

Why? Because they’ve become convinced that it’s smart to stand (at least on the first big test) behind such a bold prescription for the nation’s long-term fiscal crisis — especially because, they think, their most dramatic proposal will not prove as politically poisonous as it first appears.

At first blush, it would seem almost suicidal for Republicans to vote for ending Medicare as we know it so long as they’re facing close re-election fights — especially in newly drawn districts that have Democratic leanings or lots of elderly voters. The Democrats look like they’re licking their chops in excitement about making 30-second commercials that accuse GOP incumbents of wanting to build a “death trap for seniors” — the phrase the party’s new chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, is test-marketing.

And yet, Republicans sure seem sanguine — and ready to respond with their own TV spots promising to save a program for paying seniors’ medical bills that is otherwise headed for insolvency. The details about voucher-like premium support payments will get lost in the rhetoric. But what the GOP is counting on is that they can convince today’s old people they need not worry about the government messing with their status quo. Only people who are 55 or younger today would see a change — and they’re the ones who could be convinced that’s a good thing, because they’ve told pollsters in decent numbers about their shrinking expectations that the current Medicare system will stay above water long enough for them to care.

And besides, if there’s a grand bipartisan bargain on debt reduction that takes a different approach to Medicare, then today’s vote will essentially be forgotten by Election Day 2012.

SIZE MATTERS: The path to that grand bargain is off to a lumbering start. As lawmakers disperse for Easter and Passover, they’re mainly haggling about the metaphorical shape of the table at the next round of negotiations.

Congressional leaders really don’t think it’s a good idea to spend time putting yet another bunch of politicians in a room to talk about the budget — but that’s what Obama wants, and so they’ll likely go grudgingly along at least for a couple of weeks. They won’t name the 16 lawmakers the president originally proposed. Half that number is more likely. Reid yesterday picked just two, Finance Chairman Max Baucus and Appropriations Chairman Dan Inouye. Boehner is likely to reveal his picks (Ryan surely among them) today.

Hill leaders also think it unrealistic for the president to set an end-of-June deadline for a proposal — which he’s done as a way to try to divorce those negotiations from the coming showdown over the debt ceiling. But there’s really have no way to prevent GOP conservatives from holding the debt limit hostage; what’s subject to negotiation is only what level of detailed assurances about fiscal discipline they’re willing to accept as the price for their votes.

And even if these conservatives are assuaged — by June, most likely — by legislation setting binding caps on total federal spending, plenty more debate will still be required over how to curb entitlement costs so they don’t push into that cap right at the start. (The cap that’s under discussion is 21 percent of the size of the economy, which is the 40-year historic average – but a 4-percentage-point drop from today.)

DISSIDENTS: One last look at the “internals” from yesterday’s votes on the midyear appropriations compromise. That one in four Republicans voted against it is being described as signaling worries for Boehner’s base of support as he wades into the bigger budget battles ahead. But the bill was solidly supported by members of the Tea Party Caucus, 35 of whom voted “yes” to 21 who voted “no.”

At the same time, three out of five Democrats voted against the spending cuts (Pelosi among them), which surely suggests Obama’s got a comparable amount of concern about who’s going to have his back in the summertime debt ceiling and deficit-reduction fights. It’s also the case that Democrats in politically vulnerable seats split 2 to 1 in favor of the deal: 30 of them who won last fall with less than 55 percent voted “yes” while 17 of them voted “no.”

BENEDICTION: The Rev. Dan Coughlin offered  his final opening prayer this morning before retiring after 11 years as the first Roman Catholic chaplain of the House. (No successor is likely before the recess ends; the Speaker will invite a series of guest chaplains to the rostrum each morning in the interim.)

Today’s invocation made no reference to the occasion, to the budget debate or to the unusual congregation. “Save your people, Lord, and bless your inheritance,” Coughlin said. “Show us your love and mercy, for we put our trust in you.” But Texas Republican Ted Poe then took the floor and said: “Father Coughlin has been here during troubling days of 9/11, during good times, and times that aren’t so good. ... You have to be in good with the Lord to pray for politicians every day.”

TRAIL TIPS: (1) First-quarter fundraising numbers underscore how Montana is going to have one of the most intensely competitive Senate races of 2012. Democrat Jon Tester reports raising more than $1.1 million for his second-term bid, while challenger Denny Rehberg, the state’s at-large Republican congressman for the past decade, raised more than $580,000 to add to the $500,000 left over after his last House race. Tester had $1.4 million in cash on hand April 1. Rehberg had $900,000.

(2) The early excitement about another potential Senate race barn-buner, in Pennsylavnia, is not going to be egged on by the new fundraising numbers. Democrat Bob Casey raised $1.1 million in January, February and March and has $2.1 million in the bank to get his second-term campaign off the ground. That’s not all that much in a bellwether state with two big media markets, but so far the Republicans haven’t come close to recruiting a top-flight candidate. Marc Scaringi, a former aide to Rick Santorum, and Scranton tea party leader Laureen Cummings are declared but pose no perceptible threat. And Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO Edward Stack may well decline GOP entreaties to run.

(3) Rematches are now on tap for both Republican-held House seats in New Hampshire. Carol Shea-Porter, one of the Capitol’s most unorthodox and liberal lawmakers from 2007 through 2010 — she was unique in refusing to reveal her date of birth, for example — is now officially out to reclaim her old seat. She lost by 12 percentage points last fall to Frank Guinta. Fellow Democrat Annie Kuster, who came within 2 points of winning the seat covering the state’s western half, will run again against Charlie Bass.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “The Oval Office, I always thought I was going to have really cool phones and stuff,” Obama offered at one of his Chicago fundraisers last night when asked by a donor about bottlenecks in technological innovation. “I’m like, c’mon guys, I’m the president of the United States. Where’s the fancy buttons and stuff and the big screen comes up? It doesn’t happen.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democratic Rep. Howard Berman of California turns 70 today, and GOP Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida reaches that milestone tomorrow.

On Monday, the second-youngest House member, the so-often “present” freshman Republican Justin Amash of Michigan, turns 31. Two other House members celebrate then: Wisconsin Democrat Gwen Moore (60) and Ohio Republican Bob Latta (55).

PUBLISHING SCHEDULE: Because both the House and Senate will be in recess, there won’t be a Daily Briefing for the next two weeks — unless highly significant Washington news events warrant it. Regular weekday publication will otherwise resume on Monday, May 2.

— David Hawkings, editor

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