Monday, October 24, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: 'No Podemos Esperar'

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, October 24, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama left this morning for a three-day trip out West, where he’ll roll out a new I-can-do-it-all-by-myself strategy for advancing his economic prescriptions. He’ll also raise millions for his re-election campaign. After a fundraiser at the Bellagio in Las Vegas this afternoon, he’s off to L.A. for a pair of top-dollar dinners — first at the home of producer James Lassiter and then at the home of actors Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at 2 to debate seven bills the GOP leadership views as noncontroversial, including one to prevent U.S. airlines from participating in the European Union’s emissions reduction plan. (The only votes will be after 6:30 to give lawmakers a full travel day.)

THE SENATE: Convenes at 3:45 for a pro forma session but is effectively gone until next Monday. (It’s the ninth week this year when the lights have been off in one chamber but on in the other.)

NEW CATCHPHRASE: The White House announced new federal rules this morning to make refinancing easier for as many as one million people who have minimal equity in their homes or who are underwater on their mortgages. The regulations are the first maneuver in a new Obama effort to jump-start the economy on his own authority — meaning without any legislative help from a Congress where Republicans have dug in against his ideas.

The president will promote his latest strategy, with a focus on the refinancing rules, when he arrives this afternoon in Nevada, the state with the highest foreclosure rate for 56 straight months. At a 5:30 photo op arranged with struggling Las Vegas homeowners, he will quite literally abandon his “pass my jobs bill” mantra of the past month and replace it with a different slogan: “We can’t wait.” The catchphrase is designed both to underscore his decision to leverage his presidential powers in the absence of congressional action — with the hope that voters will embrace his assertiveness — and to poke anew at Republicans for their decision to oppose his $447 billion economic stimulus plan, both as package and broken into pieces. (Overtly or not, the president will also be able to draw a sharp contrast with Mitt Romney, who told said last week that the foreclosure wave should be allowed to “run its course and hit the bottom.”)

The Federal Housing Finance Agency says the new rules will permit some borrowers to refinance no matter how much their home’s value has dropped. The process will be made simpler and cheaper by eliminating appraisals and extensive underwriting requirements for most borrowers — so long as they are current on their mortgage payments. Fannie and Freddie also have agreed to waive some fees.

The president has already used his own power to advance his “race to the top” ideas for changing the No Child Left Behind education policies and to reduce the time it takes for small businesses to get paid on their federal contracts — and in both cases Congress subsequently began moving similar legislation. But it's unlikely the mortgage maneuvers will be turned into a bill anytime soon, if ever.

BIG OR SMALL? With its deadline now one month away, the supercommittee has publicly succeeded at nothing beyond keeping its aspirations to itself. Even the deficit reduction grand total the 12 lawmakers are aiming for is undeclared: This summer’s debt ceiling deal set $1.2 trillion over 10 years as the floor for avoiding politically painful across-the-board cuts to defense and domestic programs, but there are plenty of tea leaves suggesting the group is shooting for something maybe four times as big (the proverbial grand bargain) and almost as many tea leaves pointing to a below-a-trillion end result. That would offer some measure of face-saving for the six Republicans and six Democrats while at least minimizing the dour consequences of the resulting sequester.

There’s no overt evidence at all, though, that the supers have broken their central partisan impasse: Republicans remain steadfastly against trading tax increases for cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. And Democrats remain steadfastly committed to shielding those entitlement programs unless such reductions are paired with revenue increases.

The committee will continue meeting privately this week, while holding only its third public hearing — a Wednesday showpiece focused on discretionary spending. (Behind the scenes, the panelists have been feeding a steady stream of options to the CBO so that those budgetary scorekeepers can work ahead on the tough math assignments and not be left holding the bag on an enormous accounting project in the final hours before the committees’ Thanksgiving-eve due date.)

THEY'RE STILL THERE: House leaders are working just offstage — and with a bit of unsolicited encouragement from the White House — to prevent the most conservative Republicans from staging any more budgetary revolts before the year is out.

Tea party freshmen and their elder allies in the GOP caucus haven’t given up on their hopes of reopening this summer’s debt ceiling agreement so they can drive down (by about $23 billion) the grand total of discretionary spending the deal permits in this new fiscal year. Top appropriators and the House leadership team say that the total negotiated with Obama this summer should stand — not only for keeping-our-word reasons but also because the extra money is essential for making spending-bill agreements with the Senate. And OMB chief Jack Lew sent Congress a letter last week saying he and the president couldn’t agree more — and that a veto is possible if any spending bill cuts below the agreed-upon big number.

The next test of the conservatives’ resolve could come as soon as next week, after the Senate passes the “minibus” $128 billion domestic package it debated all of last week. If, after a quick behind-closed-doors conference with the House, Boehner & Co. concede they do not have the muscle to clear that measure with its current price tag, it will be solid evidence that the revolutionaries have won their final battle of the year. What that means is that a straightforward bill to maintain the spending status quo through next September — the so-called yearlong CR — will be the only viable alternative. But if that’s the course the GOP takes, they will have to give up their efforts to use the appropriations bills to carry the sort of socially conservative policy riders that have been almost as important to them as driving down the budget.

REPORT CARD: The quality of congressional websites has soared in the past two years — but too many of them still lack such educational and transparency features as member voting records, links to the text of legislation they’ve cosponsored and basic how-a-bill-becomes-law explanations. That’s the central conclusion of a report out today from independent, non-partisan Congressional Management Foundation, which has been studying Hill web sites for a decade.

After looking at 618 sites, the best-in-show awards went to Alaska Democrat Mark Begich (best senator's site), Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan (best House member’s site), House Education and Workforce (best committee site) and the House minority leader’s office (best leadership site). Another 98 personal-office, committee and leadership websites were given A’s under a complex formula for assessing a site’s usability, timeliness,  breadth and depth of information, constituent service offerings and legislative self-accountability. Since the last assessment, two years ago, the most common changed grade was from an F to a B.

As in the past, Democrats and House members tend to have better sites than Republicans and senators; 61 percent of freshmen House members received A or B grades from the foundation and only 17 percent got an F, while 31 percent of new senators got top marks and 46 percent got a failing grade.

GIFFORDS UPDATE: Gabby Giffords has moved to North Carolina to begin two weeks of what her office calls “intensive” rehabilitation starting today. The trip, to an unidentified facility in Asheville, was arranged so that the congresswoman could spend more time with a therapist who had been treating her in Houston.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Sen. Jeff  Merkley of Oregon (55), fellow Democrats in the House José Serrano of New York (68) and Brad Sherman of California (57), and Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack of California (50).

— David Hawkings, editor

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