Monday, December 19, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Ho ho ho? Oh, no!

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, December 19, 2011

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10, has recessed until 4 and will vote at 6:30 on a package of two-month extensions for the 4.2 percent Social Security payroll tax rate, unemployment benefits and the Medicare physician reimbursement schedule. Republican leaders say they are confident they have the votes to defeat the bill — and then to push through their counterproposal (probably tonight), which is a demand for formal conference negotiations on an extensions package lasting through the end of 2012.

THE SENATE: Not in session; what’s supposed to be only a pro forma session convenes at 2 tomorrow.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama convened a senior staff meeting at 10:45 to discuss the extenders impasse and the situation in North Korea. He has no public appearances planned at the moment.

PAYROLL IMPASSE: Now may be the most intractable legislative impasse yet in a year already marked by memorably intense and bitter gridlock.

This morning the House majority leadership and the Senate majority leadership both doubled down on their positions in the surprising standoff over the payroll tax holiday. Boehner insisted he would push his Republican troops to defeat the two-month extension — even if the result was that no bill clears and taxes go up for 160 million workers in a dozen days. “This is a vote about whether Congress will stay and do its work or go on vacation,” he declared before reporters at the Capitol. He spoke about an hour after Schumer, the No. 3 leader for the Senate Democrats, said Reid has no plans to call senators back to Washington before their scheduled return in five weeks — and would only return to the bargaining table on a year-long bill once the House had cleared the short-term measure. “There are no other options,” Schumer declared on MSNBC.

The White House, for its part, sought to stoke the possibility that the deadlock would be broken tonight, after all. Almost all the Democrats in the House are ready to vote for the two-month bill at the president’s urging, his spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said, and “it should be pretty easy” to get about 10 percent of Republicans (those in tough re-election races) to break ranks and go along — out of fear that to do otherwise would subject them to ridicule for allowing a tax hike at the holidays. (If all 192 Democrats vote “yes,” it would require 26 Republicans to do the same to form a majority of 218 .But those aren’t the numbers in play, if for no other reason than a dozen or more members who were sent home for the weekend on Friday — mainly retirees and lawmakers in safe seats — will not be returning to Washington this week, no matter what.)

If the bill clears, it would mean Boehner would have fundamentally misread the sentiment of his rank-and-file for the second time since the weekend began. Although he denied it this morning, the evidence is overwhelming that he had advance word about, and initially supported, the package unveiled Friday night by Reid and McConnell — in large measure because it included the language requiring Obama to make a decision in 60 days on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a major aim of the House GOP. And in a conference call with his troops Saturday afternoon — after the Senate passed the bill with 39 Republican and 50 Democratic caucus “yes” votes — Boehner initially promoted the deal, only to reverse course in the face of significant rank-and-file resentment. House Republicans generally view the stopgap bill as both genuinely bad policy (because it gives businesses no measure of certainty) and bad politics, not only because its tentative quality bolsters the reputation of Congress as inept, but also because it would likely allow Obama to reclaim the upper hand when the debate was rejoined next month.

The year-long bill the House passed a week ago would cost $202 billion. The Senate’s two-month bill would cost $33 billion.

KOREA IN TRANSITION: The government-run North Korean media today is urging citizens to “loyally follow” Kim Jong Un — describing the little-known, 20-something third son of Kim Jong Il as both the “great successor” and at the “forefront of the revolution.” North Korea also test-fired a short-range missile on its eastern coast, but intelligence officials said the launch probably happened before the death of the “dear leader” was announced, was somewhat routine and should not be seen as a bellicose move related to the transition in power.

Obama called South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at midnight and promised that his administration remains committed to stability on the Korean peninsula. (About 28,000 U.S. troops are stationed on the South Korean side of the border.) There had been reports the White House was on course to decide this week whether to try to re-engage North Korea in nuclear negotiations and to spur those efforts along with a significant delivery of food aid, but that decision has now been postponed indefinitely because of Kim Jong Il's death. He was 69 and had been running the world’s most isolated nation with an autocratic and erratic hand for 17 years, starting a nuclear weapons program while allowing as many as 2 million citizens to die from starvation.

PAUL PULLS AHEAD: Ron Paul is now the new favorite to win the Iowa caucuses in two weeks, according to a Public Policy Polling poll of Iowa Republicans released last night. It found the Texas congressman with 23 percent support, Mitt Romney with 20 percent, Newt Gingrich down to 14 percent and Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry at 10 percent each. The pollsters found that Paul’s significant organization in the state, the depth of commitment among his backers (73 percent say they are sure to stick with him) and his support among young voters (33 percent) were all working in his favor.

The poll was taken before Gingrich pushed the button on another one of his trademark rhetorical bombs yesterday, declaring on “Face the Nation” that as president he would force federal judges to defend their unpopular decisions before congressional hearings — even if the Capitol Police or federal marshals had to arrest them to get them to comply with House and Senate subpoenas. It’s that sort of outside-the-box provocative thinking that initially helped drive his surge in the polls — but is now helping to undermine his support the more attention it gets in the mainstream media. The  same sort of scrutiny would almost surely surround Paul’s candidacy if he wins in Iowa, although the effect would be different, because Paul appears to have enough money and support among libertarian Republicans to keep his candidacy going indefinitely, just as he did long after McCain wrapped things up in 2008.

PUBLISHING SCHEDULE: Whenever Congress goes home for good, the Daily Briefing will also take a break for the holidays, with plans to return Tuesday, Jan. 3.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Sen. Ron Portman of Ohio (56) and Rep. Adrian Smith of Nebraska (41) today; a third Republican, Rep. Bill Posey of Florida (64), yesterday.

— David Hawkings, editor

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

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