Thursday, November 17, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Give It Up Or Turn It Loose

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10, will begin legislating at noon but won’t be done for the day until late in the evening — after giving its reluctant blessing to the “minibus” appropriations package. (Lawmakers also will start their five hours of debate on whether the Constitution should be amended to require a balanced federal budget.)

The vote in favor of the $181 billion spending bill — which also would maintain spending levels for the rest of the government until Dec. 16 — will be as close as the party whips conclude they can get away with. Several dozen Republicans want to vote “no,” because they think the bill allows too much spending on the five domestic Cabinet departments and several agencies covered and object to the higher limit it would allow for mortgages guaranteed by the FHA. About as many Democrats are unenthusiastic about the bill because they think it would spend too little and deregulate too much.

Secretary Steven Chu is defending the Energy Department’s handling of the Solyndra affair before the Energy and Commerce Committee’s investigations panel.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and is spending all day in the opening round of debate on the annual defense authorization bill. (Its vote to clear the spending bill — and by a much more lopsided result than in the House — probably won’t be until tomorrow, when the current CR lapses at midnight.)

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama has arrived in Bali and has turned in for the night. (It’s almost 1 on Friday morning in Indonesia.) When he wakes up he’ll announce a sale of Boeing 737s and General Electric engines to Lion Air and then have separate meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Philippine President Benigno Aquino and Malaysian Premier Najib Razak. The rest of his day will be spent at the annual East Asian Summit, which no previous president has attended.

NEW HABITS DIE HARD: The visible work of the supercommittee has turned away from deal-drafting and toward name-calling. The shift from legislating to blamespotting looks in every way like the most definitive signal yet that the panel’s impasse is for real and forever. But at the same time, almost all of the panel’s members (and many in the leadership) say they have not given up — and the history of this year’s budget wars is that all the deals have been cut at close to the very last minute. So a weekend of bated breath likely lies ahead — because even if there’s not going to be a deal, no one will admit the process has failed until the last possible deadline has passed.

The latest in the maneuvering came last night, when the Democrats leaked the outlines of an offer their co-chairman, Sen. Patty Murray, had made on Veterans Day to the Republican co-chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling. At first blush, it seemed like a breakthrough — because on the surface it looked as though the two parties were suddenly only $100 billion apart on taxes. (Democrats said their offer was $401 billion in new revenue and $876 billion in spending cuts, with a third of it from health entitlements — and the GOP has had an offer with about $300 billion taxes on the table for a week. But Republicans said the offer was as misleading as it was laughable, because it didn’t really reflect the notion that, beyond the stated tax number, the Democrats were also insisting on generating another $800 billion or so from sunsetting the Bush tax cuts on the rich.

The current consensus view is that there are fast-fading prospects for both of the vaunted fallback options from earlier in the week — a proposal from the supercommittee that’s worth less than its $1.2 trillion target, or a proposal like that combined with legislated instructions for Congress to come up with a tax code overhaul and entitlement cuts early next year.

What the current state of play means is that the across-the-board cuts are likely to be triggered — albeit to take effect more than a year from now, leaving plenty of time for Congress to come up with some way to protect itself from the punishment it promised to live by. But how the two parties would come up with a shared solution to that problem — when they haven’t been able to come up with any other meaningful budgetary discipline — is hard to imagine. Even the enormous lobbying power of the defense contractors, who perhaps have the most to lose in a sequester, would be unlikely to change that dynamic in an election year.

THE SUM OF ALL BILLS: The return to the new normal when it comes to the routine business of governing — delay, discord and then last-minute deal-cutting on an unwieldy package that cobbles together most of the one-year-at-a-time discretionary spending bills — is now a sure thing. Reid’s decision yesterday to set aside the Energy Department and water projects measure means that, about a month from now, Congress will cast a take-it-or-leave it vote on just one more appropriations measure.

The big question now is whether that get-out-of-town vote days before Christmas will do nothing more than extend the spending standoff into the new year — meaning that lawmakers will enact another across-the-board stopgap spending measure of a few weeks or months — or whether it will be an actual omnibus spending package (combining the nine bills that are not a part of the minibus set to clear in the next day) that makes line-by-line spending and policy decisions on thousands of federal programs and dictates  how about $840 billion will be spent in the first nine months of the new year. Norm Dicks and Hal Rogers, the leaders of House Appropriations, are already signaling that it will be a tall order to get a bipartisan, bicameral agreement on the other nine bills in the five weeks they have available. Their best weapon — just as it is in the supercommittee deliberations – is to remind the other players that the alternative to a big deal is worse, because postponing the final decisions on fiscal 2012 beyond the first three months of fiscal 2012 essentially guarantees that the campaign-season appropriations process (for fiscal 2013, which starts a month before Election Day) will be even worse.

MISSING DOGS: There are nowhere close to enough votes for House passage of a balanced-budget constitutional amendment. Even if all 242 Republicans vote for it tomorrow (and a handful will not, for a variety of quirky reasons) that would mean four dozen Democrats would have to go along to reach 290 — the two-thirds majority (if all lawmakers vote) required for changing the Constitution. At best, however, there are only about 25 votes among Democrats for the measure — a reflection of how much more to the left the party caucus has shifted in recent years.

There are only about 24 members left in the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, which only a few years ago was big enough to band together with the GOP to drive the House budget policies. (The last time the House voted on the amendment, in 1995, it won 300 votes — 72 of them from Democrats.) But most of those lawmakers are gone, many of them driven out by members of the tea-party-infused GOP freshman class. And, of those who are left, many have now turned against the amendment because they fear calamity in the current era of polarization and partisanship. Among them are two of the top caucus leaders Hoyer and Clyburn, as well as  Marcy Kaptur, Jim Moran, Rob Andrews and Frank Pallone.

A WEALTH OF MATERIAL: Newt Gingrich’s arrival at the top of the Republican presidential pack is confirmed by the Fox News survey taken Sunday through Thursday and released last night. The poll showed his support at 23 percent (double what it was a month earlier) with Mitt Romney holding steady at a statistically the same 22 percent and Herman Cain sagging 9 points in the month, to 15 percent. (Romney’s steady standing as the front runner without any momentum is reflected in the fact that, while he’s been first or second in every Fox poll since July, his number has not been higher than 26 percent or lower than 20 percent.)

And so the feeding frenzy into Gingrich’s life and work will only intensify. Today, for example, the New York Daily News (which famously lampooned the Speaker as a cartoon crybaby on one 1995 front page) resurrected a 2008 interview in which Gingrich (who at the time had taken more than $1.5 million from Freddie Mac) urged presidential candidate Obama to return whatever contributions he had received from the then-politically-besieged mortgage giant. If this year’s roller-coaster GOP campaign pattern continues, Gingrich has maybe three weeks to either succumb to the scrutiny and be swept aside (the highly likely outcome) or weather everything that he’s said and written in the past three decades and head into the holidays in the campaign co-pilot’s seat.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “The fact is, quitting smoking is hard. Believe me, I know,” Obama says on a video released by the American Cancer Society today to mark its 36th “Great American Smokeout.” He touts the virtues of a 2009 law designed to keep young people from taking up cigarettes, in part by ordering the FDA to issue graphic new warning labels. “Some big tobacco companies are trying to block these labels because they don’t want to be honest about the consequences using their products,” Obama says. “Unfortunately, this isn’t surprising.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Supercommittee tax compromise spearhead Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania (50), fellow senator and no-new-taxes stalwart Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma (77) — and the Republican with the most titular power to bridge their divide, the Speaker of the House (62).

— David Hawkings, editor

Become a Facebook fan at facebook.com/DavidHawkingsDC. Or follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/davidhawkings.

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