Friday, July 29, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: It Only Takes a Few

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, July 29, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: “There are plenty of ways out of this mess but we are about out of time,” Obama said in a brief statement for the cameras this morning, urging McConnell and Reid to find a somewhat bipartisan final solution to the debt limit impasse — and signaling he would sign off on the sort of binding deficit-reduction enforcement mechanisms that Republicans want so badly in return for allowing a year or more of additional borrowing.

The president then headed to the downtown Convention Center to announce that federal fuel economy standards will rise to 54.5 miles a gallon by 2025 and tailpipe emissions will be further limited. In a concession sought by automakers, light trucks will get easier treatment for the fist few years after this round of mileage standards kicks in, in 2017. (His only other scheduled public appearance will be in the Cabinet Room at 3:10, when he gives a pep talk to the presidents of four emerging West African democracies: Benin, Guinea, Niger and Côte d’Ivoire.)

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and then recessed for party caucuses after the majority leader announced his timetable for moving a bill that would raise the debt ceiling into next year — which looks to start with a filibuster-breaking vote in the early hours of Sunday morning and final passage at breakfast time on Monday. Reid said he had asked McConnell to start negotiating on changes to the Democratic bill that Republicans could support.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and immediately recessed “subject to the call of the chair,” which means the lights will stay dimmed until Boehner is ready to announce his next move for trying to advance his own two-step debt increase bill. He was preparing to offer his own bill to condition a debt ceiling increase next year on congressional passage of a balanced-budget constitutional amendment — language GOP leaders expected would pick up a crucial handful of votes.

IT’S ALL ON THEM: The government’s ability to swerve away from the default cliff during the next four days rests with just a handful of Republicans. Boehner began the day perhaps as few as two votes short (but also perhaps as many as 10) of his ability to pass his two-step debt increase and deficit reduction plan. He’s got eight out of nine members in his caucus on his side, for sure. He needs nine out of 10 just to keep the process going.

And unless he finds the votes in the next few hours to get to 216 — the number that guarantees a majority today, because there are two vacancies and two members missing with health problems — Congress will be almost entirely out of time, as a practical procedural matter, to get the same piece of legislation passed by both chambers and onto the president’s desk by Tuesday night.

The markets focused on the approaching deadline with balky anxiety this morning. The major stock indexes (each of which have declined at least 3 percent this week) all initially dropped off sharply — the apprehension about the congressional paralysis magnified, at least initially, by today’s report that the economy slowed in the first six months of the year to its weakest pace since the recession ended. But the Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq had all bounced back and were flirting with slight gains as of 11:30.

The Commerce Department says the economy expanded only 1.3 percent in the second quarter, and it downwardly revised its first quarter estimate of GDP growth to just 0.4 percent. (Consumer spending went up only 0.1 percent in April-June, after 2.1 percent growth in January-March.)

The weak economy and Washington’s abandonment of plans for a bold intervention into the long-term budgetary morass will mean that the credit ratings agencies will be looking especially hard at downgrading the United States’ AAA rating even if there is a last-second, Band-Aid, stopgap, can-kicking “solution” to the current impasse.

THE OLD BULLS’ TURN: If there’s no breakthrough by this afternoon, House Republicans will essentially be forced to stand down, step aside and hope that Reid and McConnell can step into the breach and come up with the magic bullet — something that can secure at least  60 senators’ votes this weekend and then be cleared by the House with support from a reasonable majority of Republicans and a large bloc of Democrats as well.

That scenario would once again give the leverage back, and at the ultimate moment, to the Democrats and the president, who could presumably press enough Republicans to vote for almost anything that would avoid a default.

In the end, the biggest difference between the two plans is when the next debt limit crisis would be: Reid and other Democrats would to raise the debt limit from $14.3 trillion to $16.7 trillion, a ceiling that wouldn’t buckle until after Election Day 2012. Boehner’s would guarantee only a five or six month debt ceiling increase of $900 billion (in return for $17 billion more than that in cuts), but would allow another $1.6 trillion in borrowing if Congress enacted a law by Christmas to slash deficits by $1.8 trillion.

But, unless Boehner can show his leadership mettle today by muscling something through on his side — even if it has no chance at all across the Capitol — he will have almost no political leverage left for the even heavier lifting that awaits him on the second round, when he will have to persuade many of the lawmakers who are just barely with him this time, on an entirely Republican plan, to stand with him on a bill that will of necessity have to be drawn to get some Democratic votes.

WHIP COUNT: The consensus view is that these are the 26 House Republicans who began the day the most irreversibly in the “no” column on the current Boehner bill. Two are presidential candidates, Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas. Ten others are also at least in their second terms: Jason Chaffetz of Utah, Phil Gingrey of Georgia, Jim Jordan of Ohio, Joe Barton and Louie Gohmert of Texas, Jeff Flake and Trent Franks of Arizona, Steve King of Iowa, Tom McClintock of California and Connie Mack of Florida.

And 14 are from the 87-member freshman class: Joe Walsh and Randy Hultgren of Illinois, Andy Harris of Maryland, Dennis Ross of Florida, Chip Cravaack of Minnesota,  Mo Brooks of Alabama, Dave Schweikert of Arizona, David McKinley of West Virginia, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, Scott DesJarlais of Tennesseee, and Trey Gowdy, Mick Mulvaney, Jeff Duncan and Tim Scott of South Carolina.

THE UPSHOT: The Speaker and his team appear to have made a pretty significant tactical blunder during the last day, by essentially adapting a “Field of Dreams” strategy for getting their bill through. Twenty-four hours ago, their public message was that passage with room to spare had become a foregone conclusion; privately, apparently the message was the same to wavering members: We have the votes because we’re counting on you, and it’s too late to back out now. Clearly, the self-fulfilling-prophecy approach came up short, although the leaders didn’t realize it for sure until just before the roll was called last night.

But it’s also true that Boehner (with Cantor at least for now as his indispensable wingman) is getting credit from even the most solid “no” votes for his approach to the current crisis. They praise him for realizing that part of the tea party freshman crusade for “shaking up Washington” has been to do away with the old strong-arm, threat-filled, pork-barrel-greased “hammer” methods of Tom DeLay and so many leaders (of both parties) who have come before. That’s generally true, although it’s also the case that there’s an implied message when leaders ask their recalcitrant troops if they are “on the team” or not: Being off the team means the captains will not feel obliged to help you much, if at all, when it comes to advancing legislation, getting on a better committee or raising money for your next campaign.

THEY CAN DO IT, TOO: The fiscal impasse, prolonged as it now is by internal Republican strife, is sparking a seed of galvanizing excitement on the left — where activists are talking more and more earnestly about using the GOP’s budget policies as a rallying cry for a sort of liberal version of the tea party. At the forefront of this idea is the American Dream Movement, a coalition formed last month and led by MoveOn.org Civic Action that has been a palpably evident force in lobbying House Democrats to line up against the Boehner plan. In a campaign led by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, more than 200,000 Obama donors and volunteers also threatened to abstain from the president’s re-election campaign if Democrats agree to make entitlement cuts.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Colorado’s Diana DeGette (54) and fellow House member Jeff Denham of California (44) today; his Republican freshman colleague Quico Canseco of Texas (62) tomorrow.

— David Hawkings, editor

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