Monday, November 28, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Frank Out

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, November 28, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is starting two hours of meetings on the European debt crisis in the West Wing with three top EU officials: European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. The president, Van Rompuy and Barroso will deliver statements and maybe take questions at 1:40; Obama’s public schedule is empty for the rest of the day.

THE SENATE: Convenes at 1 for speechmaking and behind-the-scenes dealmaking on the defense authorization bill — and for a vote at 5 promoting Christopher Droney, a federal trial judge in Connecticut since 1997, to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

THE HOUSE: Not in session; returns from the recess at 2 tomorrow.

ONE LAST YEAR OF BARNEY: Barney Frank will announce his retirement this afternoon, deciding to end after 32 years an extraordinary run as one of the most verbally agile, tart-tongued, parliamentarily adept and legislatively wide-ranging congressional liberals of the past half-century. The decision amounts to a tacit acknowledgment that he and other Democrats have concluded they have no real shot at reclaiming the House majority next fall, when Frank will be 72. (He is the ninth House Democrat this year to announce retirement plans.)

During his 16 terms, Frank rose to be chairman for four years of the Financial Services Committee, where he wrote the financial services regulatory overhaul that bears his name — and where he’s now the ranking Democrat. (His retirement leaves Californian Maxine Waters next in seniority for that post.) He also wielded considerable influence for years on the broad range of issues before the Judiciary Committee. And in 1987 he became the first-ever incumbent member of Congress to announce his homosexuality.

Frank won his current term with a record-low 54 percent. But, under the new congressional map for the state, the contours of the district have been significantly redrawn — meandering from his longtime base of support in the liberal town of Newton and the city of Brookline down to a portion of Fall River — and the new territory should be about as reliably Democratic as the one before. Some possible Democratic candidates include City Year co-founder Alan Khazei and Newton Mayor Setti Warren, who both considered but then dropped plans to run for the Senate next year; former Brookline Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Deborah Goldberg; and a range of  state legislators including James Vallee, Marc Pacheco, Mike Rodrigues and James Timilty.

The eighth House Democrat to retire, Charlie Gonzalez of San Antonio, did so over the weekend, and it looks like there will be little question who will succeed him in the city-center seat, which he and his father have represented in Congress for half a century. State Rep. Joaquin Castro, twin brother of the mayor, had been planning on running a more hotly contested race in a neighboring district but should have no trouble claiming the seat — and at the same time creating an opening for Ciro Rodriguez, who lost last fall, to wage a credible comeback bid for Congress from adjacent territory.

ALL MIXED UP: Just how much of a muddled mess will the rest of the year in Congress be? The contours of the morass will become clear two days from now, when senators will cast a vote signaling a lasting standoff over extending the year-old payroll tax break — with the impasse centered in the Republican caucus.

The situation is just one of several that will play out in the next month with enough balkiness and ponderousness to drive almost every lawmaker, aide, lobbyist and journalist to distraction. Very little legislative achievement will be heralded — but it’s going to take until a couple of days before Christmas to not get there. All the happy talk about wrapping up for the year in just three weeks, on Dec. 16, will soon yield to the parliamentary and political reality of what lawmaking is going to be like now that the supercommittee has squandered its opportunity to wrap a collection of big and contentious policy changes into one take-it-or-leave-it-and-then-get-out-of-town bill.

PAYROLL PLAY: Jon Kyl (who’s decided to make his last two years in Congress a tour de force of conservative resistance to almost every attempt at bipartisan compromise) revealed yesterday that he’ll fight to defeat an extension of the 2-percentage-point cut in the Social Security payroll tax, on the grounds that it’s too expensive (about $100 billion a year), it would jeopardize the retirement program’s longterm solvency, and it hasn’t proved to be much of an economic stimulant. He and others on the right, in the Senate and the House, would probably relent only if the tax cut was paired with some additional spending cuts taken from the menu assembled by the supercommittee but thrown into limbo by that panel’s collapse.

Plenty of Republicans — including Arizona’s other senator, John McCain (not to mention Eric Cantor in the House) — are wide open to extending the break even without a full offset, in part because they realize the potential political damage they’d do to themselves by engineering — in the weeks before Christmas — what Obama and the Democrats could fairly label a $1,000 tax increase on the typical American family. The Democrats, meanwhile, essentially will be united once again behind the idea of raising income tax rates for millionaires to pay for a popular proposal — but that will of course be opposed by all the Republicans, even those hoping to see the payroll tax holiday lengthened.

And so the first debate of the mop-up month will result in predictable gridlock, and the payroll tax will likely return to 6.2 percent on New Year’s Day. Reviving the debate next year is possible, but retroactively cutting a tax that’s taken out of millions of weekly paychecks would be mind-numbingly complex. A range of other narrowly targeted tax breaks that are about to expire — the so-called “extenders,” including the one for makers of green energy hardware — could get completed next year and be made retroactive to Jan. 1. Same with the annual effort to limit the reach of the alternative minimum tax.

DEFAUTH DANCE: The tax debate will complicate and extend the Senate’s deliberations on the defense authorization bill, which faces a rocky future on its own. The bipartisan leaders of Armed Services, McCain and Carl Levin, remain unable to assemble a veto-proof majority behind their current efforts to codify policies for the detention of suspected terrorists. (The main dispute is over the circumstances under which a terrorist detainee should be held in military, rather than civilian, custody.) And they have been unable to come up with a compromise that they and the White House would sign on to.

But the other big budget-related debate that’s catching a ride on the defense bill does have to do with defense policy. Once again, McCain will be leading an uphill fight — with an amendment that seeks to limit, or maybe undo altogether, the $55 billion in each of the next nine years in Pentagon spending cuts that have been triggered by the supercommittee’s stalemate. But he won’t have the votes to get his way, if for no other reason than a majority of senators are loath to wriggle out — at least this soon, and with the cuts not due to take effect for another 13 months — from the punishment Congress imposed on itself for failing to make affirmative deficit reduction decisions.

BENEFITS HORIZON: The extension of unemployment insurance — the shorthand here is “UI” — will run into the same dynamic as the payroll tax. Current benefits lapse at the end of next month and (even though the jobless rate looks to be at or very near 9 percent for a while to come) there’s no reason to think the usual partisan fight over how, if at all, to provide federal help to the long-term jobless (generally those who have already used up six months of state benefits) won’t resurface. Perhaps 2 million people could lose their jobless benefits this winter if Congress doesn’t act in December.

The fight about how to help people without jobs probably will box out any substantive debate about how the federal government might create more jobs for those people to take. There’s no sign the Democratic Senate (which is obligated to spend a couple of days this month on the non-starter balanced budget constitutional amendment) has any interest in advancing any of the bills the House has passed in the name of job creation — what Republicans like to call their “forgotten 15,” which they plan to grow to 20 or more with several more deregulatory efforts in the coming weeks. And there’s no chance the House will bend to any more of Obama’s job-creating ideas.

DOC FIX: Congress also will be pressed to make time in the next four weeks for its annual fight over the rate at which doctors are paid for treating medicare patients — the “doc fix.” Curbing those reimbursement rates was one of the big budget disciplines Congress imposed in the 1990s — and has been backing away from almost every since. The patch created last year added $19 billion to the deficit, and lasted only one year. Absent another paper-over, rates are expected to be cut by 27 percent in January.

CR TOWN: On top of all that, more than $800 billion in one-year spending decisions are in limbo, and the current stopgap spending authority lapses in three weeks. This will probably prove to be the thorniest issue of all — and maybe the last one on which Congress gives up before going home for the holidays. It seems essentially impossible to imagine that the appropriators, the leadership and the rank and file can agree on all the details of a single package that would combine all nine of the unfinished annual budget bills. But they will probably put an inordinate amount of effort into the project anyway, passing a one-week CR that keeps the government going until Dec. 23 — and then, as their turn-out-the-light move — passing another one that extends the impasse beyond the State of the Union address in late January.

The question without a clear answer is the same as it’s been all year: What is just the right amount of spending to avoid revolts by GOP conservatives and the vast majority of Democrats against the package? (Remember, the debt-limit increase deal from the summer allows Congress to spend $20 billion more on discretionary programs this year than the House’s Ryan budget would, and conservatives say that equals $20 billion too much.) And that simple math is only the biggest problem. Also looming are intractable differences over how (if at all) to fund the federal bureaucracies that are supposed to be carrying out the health care and financial regulatory overhauls, whether to cut off or limit aid to Pakistan, whether to ban funds for international organizations that promote abortion, and whether to stop paying dues to the U.N.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Today, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado (47); yesterday, House GOP freshmen Paul Gosar of Arizona (53) and Jon Runyan of New Jersey (38); on Saturday, GOP Rep. Shelly Capito (58).

— David Hawkings, editor

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