Wednesday, August 03, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Plane Truths

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is convening a Cabinet meeting at 2, followed by one-on-ones with Clinton and Holder. He’s leaving at 5 for an evening of 50th-birthday-themed fundraising at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago: First at a dinner for high-rollers willing to pay $35,800 a plate, then with a huge, $50-a-head crowd and hometown A-list musical acts including Jennifer Hudson and Herbie Hancock. (He’ll also “appear” by video conference at 50-person house parties across the country.) They are the first DNC fundraisers the president has been a part of since the end of June, when the debt standoff kicked into high gear. He will be back in the residence by about 1 in the morning on his big day.

THE SENATE: Not in session. The August recess began at 6:45 yesterday evening. There will be pro forma meetings every few days (so Obama won’t be able to make recess appointments) but the next real session starts at 2 on Tuesday, Sept. 6 — when Reid wants to see if there are 60 votes to pass the House’s version of the patent overhaul.

THE HOUSE: Not in session; the next substantive meeting is five weeks from today: Wednesday, Sept. 7.

WAITING FOR CLEARANCE: As part of their party’s efforts to turn the national policy debate toward jobs and away from debt, three top Senate Democrats are convening a press conference at this hour to explain why they don’t think they’re responsible for the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration that started 12 days ago and now will last at least a month more.

Their decision not to clear legislation yesterday that would have ended a standoff with House Republicans means furloughs of 4,000 federal employees will continue until Congress returns — and so will the suspension of about 200 airport improvement projects, meaning nothing to do for tens of thousands of construction workers. The impasse also means that — just a day after Obama signed a debt increase bill designed to pare deficits at least $2 trillion in the next decade — the government will lose more than $1 billion in airline ticket tax revenue.

The senators — Reid, Schumer and Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller — say they decided to stop even a temporary re-opening of the FAA because it would have denied them leverage in a dispute with Republicans over union-organizing rules. That’s even more important over the long term to the health of the American labor force, they say.

But the provision they’re out to stop isn’t even part of the temporary bill; it’s in a long-term FAA measure that’s hung up in final negotiations. (House Republicans — with a big push from Delta Airlines, the only big non-unionized carrier — want to block a National Mediation Board ruling last year that would allow airline and railroad employees to organize by simple majority vote.) And beyond that, the senators are facing withering criticism that what they really don’t like is that the bill they spurned would have cut subsidies to 13 rural airports, including one each in West Virginia and Nevada.

HELP WANTED: Kyl (who ought to know, since he was the only Senate Republican at the seemingly-so-long-ago Biden summit) is suggesting these qualifications for people on the “supercommittee” that will be named by the end of next week to come up with another $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction before Thanksgiving: “A. Be a glutton for punishment; B. Have a real good bladder; and C. Be able to spend some time in August at this job, which none of us want to do.”

If that sounds like the ultimate thankless job, consider how low the expectations are already sinking that the six members from each party will be able to break the Gordian knot of entitlement cuts and tax increases. And for the next three months, these six senators and six House members will be the singular focus of the entire multimillion-dollar universe of K Street lobbyists. The pressure of their entreaties — both in person and through the barrage of grass-roots campaigns, social media blitzes and old-fashioned TV and print campaigns that will soon get off the ground — should test the mettle of even the steeliest lawmakers.

It sounds like the leaders will not name themselves to the panel, after all, but instead will look for loyalists who are seen as serious players and represent segments of their caucuses. (No Gang of Six rebels need apply, in other words.) Former White House budget director Rob Portman is seen as the model for the type of person McConnell would pick. Pelosi is likely to do the typical Democratic thing and pick factional candidates from her inner circle such as Jim Clyburn and Xavier Becerra. Reid may well pick Baucus — even though he has a reputation (health care being the exception) of straying a little too far off the reservation in search of deals with the Republicans.

Even before learning whether he will get the call, the Finance chairman is weighing whether his committee should write a tax code overhaul plan this fall and send it over to the supercommittee.

AUTOMATIC WEAPON: The reason for pessimism was underscored by Reid yesterday when he declared, without any wiggle room at all, that the panel will come up double zeros for sure unless at least one of the Republicans votes for higher taxes. “They will have no legislation coming out of that committee unless revenues are a part of the mix,” he said on NPR. “It’s a fact of life. And if they don’t like that, then they can look forward to the huge cuts that will take place in sequestration.”

The only thing in the panel’s favor, in other words, is that the prospect of the new law’s "trigger" was even less palatable than whatever the committee cooks up. The prospect of across-the-board cuts to defense spending that Obama and Biden got McConnell and Boehner to sign off on as their “consequence” for no November deal would so rock the Defense Department that it’s tough to imagine them actually being carried out.

VOTES OF NOTE: This week’s debt deal votes will frame some sharp contrasts in some of the hottest Senate races of 2102 — and will muddy the waters in some others. Dick Lugar was one of the 28 Senate Republicans who voted “yes” yesterday; his tea party primary opponent, Indiana Treasurer Dick Mourdock, says he would have voted against the bill because it “merely sets the stage for an even bigger crisis.” But Utah’s Orrin Hatch was among the 19 Republican “no” votes one day after his highly likely primary challenger, Jason Chaffetz, cast the same vote in the House. Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada voted “no” while his principal Democratic challenger, Rep. Shelley Berkley, voted “yes.” And Claire McCaskill and Jon Tester were among the 45 Senate Democrats who voted “yes” a day after two of the Republicans who want their seats, Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri and Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana, each voted “no.”

NOT WITH A BANG: Sometimes, little nuggets of legislative gold get through the Senate in the hours after the last big vote but before the start of a recess. Last night, not so much. Other than declaring Campus Fire Safety Month and National Chess Day, senators confined themselves to confirming a relatively short list of mostly small-bore nominees. The big three were Army Gen. Martin Dempsey to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs in September, when Adm. Mike Mullen steps down; Matt Olsen to head the National Counterterrorism Center; and Deborah Hersman to chair the National Transportation Safety Board. Six federal trial court vacancies were also filled, and new ambassadors were dispatched to a geography bee’s worth of countries: Vietnam, the Fiji Islands, Nauru, Tonga, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Macedonia, Moldova, Guatemala and Mexico.

BEEHIVE BUZZ: Maybe the most unusual thing Obama has done this week was to nominate a Republican to be the top federal prosecutor in Utah — and not only that, a top lieutenant to one of his most ardent tea party critics on Capitol Hill. The president’s choice is David Barlow, who for the past seven months has been the top Judiciary Committee counsel for freshman Sen. Mike Lee. (The two have been friends since they were undergraduates at BYU.) Democratic lawyers and politicos in Utah says they’re frustrated and miffed that the president passed them by for one of the plum patronage jobs in the government, but Republicans were putting intense pressure on the White House to fill a post that had been vacant for 18 months.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “I don’t see any momentum for more compromise after this deal than there was before. Maybe less,” Mark Halperin said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” this morning — reinstated a month after being dropped indefinitely for calling the president “kind of a dick” on the air.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democratic House member (and Senate candidate) Chris Murphy of Connecticut (38).

— David Hawkings, editor

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