Friday, March 18, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Jet Fumes

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, March 18, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama will sign the three-week CR, make a statement on Libya for the cameras and then preview his five-day Latin American trip in interviews with three network TV affiliates — in Charlotte, Miami and Philadelphia — before Marine One leaves from the South Lawn at 10:15 tonight.

The president’s wife, daughters (it’s Sidwell’s spring break) and mother in law are also on the trip — to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador — which is billed as about building job-creating export opportunities for the United States and addressing hemispheric  security issues. They’ll be back on Wednesday

THE SENATE: In recess. Next convenes at 2 on Monday, March 28.

THE HOUSE: In recess. Next convenes for legislative business at 2 on Tuesday, March 29.

QADDAFI BLINKS? The Libyan government is declaring an immediate cease-fire and stopping all military operations against its own people, Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa promised this morning — just as a NATO air assault was about to begin establishing the no-fly zone authorized by the U.N. yesterday.

And in another sign that Qaddafi was scrambling to ward off a global effort to rein him in, one of the dictator’s sons said that the four kidnapped New York Times journalists were about to be released.

The Obama administration was reacting with caution. “Only a first step,” Secretary of State Clinton said. And a leader of the opposition, in Misurata about 130 miles east of Tripoli, asserted that the cease-fire order would soon prove to be a ruse because shelling of his city was continuing.

Ambassador Susan Rice voted in favor of the U.N. measure under intensifying and bipartisan pressure from prominent members of Congress, led by John Kerry and John McCain, for the United States to take the lead in creating a no-fly zone. But opposition to the idea at the Capitol has been almost as emphatic, bipartisan and substantial — and has been led by such prominent foreign policy hawks as Dick Lugar and Jim Webb. They, and the administration, worry that a military commitment in Libya would put too much strain on America’s already stretched armed forces.

And it was unclear this morning, in the hours before Qaddafi’s government promised to stand down, what would be the extent of U.S. involvement in the NATO action. (The French and British governments had declared that their jets would be in the air by this afternoon.)

DEAR MR. PRESIDENT: Nearly two-thirds of the Senate asked Obama today to put the current spending standoff to bed and take the lead in negotiating a sweeping budget deal.

“We urge you to engage in a broader discussion about a comprehensive deficit reduction package,” 32 Republicans and 32 Democrats say in a letter being delivered to the White House. “ Specifically, we hope that the discussion will include discretionary spending cuts, entitlement changes and tax reform. By approaching these negotiations comprehensively, with a strong signal of support from you, we believe that we can achieve consensus on these important fiscal issues.”

The letter, organized by Democrat Michael Bennet of Colorado and Republican Mike Johanns of Nebraska, will serve as an enormous boost in momentum for the “Gang of Six” senators that has been meeting twice every week in search of a grand bargain that could get through Congress with a strong measure of bipartisanship.

Of course, the odds remain long that such a deal would have real and lasting teeth to sink into the deficit anytime soon, because so many Democrats remain dug-in against any effort to curb the ballooning sizes of entitlements, and so many Republicans are dug-in against anything that might be labeled a tax  increase. That is why the Gang of Six’s focus appears to be shifting toward trying to get lawmakers to set long-term goals for reigning in Social Security and Medicare and for raising revenue

TIME TO GET COZY? The letter also underscores how congressional attention is quickly shifting away from the current spending impasse. Which is why there’s a solidifying bipartisan consensus that the sixth stopgap funding law for fiscal 2011 will be the last one.

That the lights have been switched off in the House and Senate chambers for the next week should give Boehner, Reid and the OMB’s Jack Lew some peace and quiet for their talks. (The tempo of behind-the-scenes talks increased on Wednesday, when aides for the Senate leader, the Speaker and the White House got together, and Lew reached out to the GOP staff on House Appropriations.)

Republicans say they are essentially waiting for Democrats to make a full counteroffer to what’s now their proposal for $50 billion in cuts. (That’s the total in the House’s bill, minus the subsequent CR cuts.) But they are unlikely to respond well, at least initially, to the offer that Schumer is taking the lead in cooking up for his side: some additional domestic spending cuts paired with a trim in the defense budget, cuts in agriculture subsidies, and an end to some tax benefits for oil and gas companies — and no language defunding the health care law or Planned Parenthood.

ADDING TO THE RUST: There’s a happy reason why the budget negotiations won’t get too heated before Monday: Many of the most influential House GOP aides are on airplanes to Cincinnati today, headed to the wedding of Tricia Boehner (the younger of the Speaker’s daughters) to Jak Kinney.

Nobody in the Capitol is willing to bet against the prediction that the father of the bride will shed a tear or two tomorrow.

BACK-YARD MESS: Darrell Issa is already facing plenty of whispered criticism from within the House GOP ranks that he’s done far too little, and too slowly, with his enormous power as Oversight Committee chairman. And it will probably only intensify now that Issa is promising a full-on investigation of the quid-pro-quo allegations against D.C. Mayor Vince Gray, whose former campaign rival Sulaimon Brown ended up with a city job.

Gray’s stumbling and ethically suspect administration has not gained any of the national notoriety that prompted the congressional crackdown on Marion Barry’s administration at the start of the last House GOP era. And probing City Hall really holds out no prospect of improving government efficiency or the national economy — which are Issa’s stated priorities for his chairmanship.

THE NEW PESSIMISM: In a poll out this morning from  CNBC (and taken before the Japanese quake), the share of Americans who believe the American economy will get worse in the next year has surged to 37 percent — up 15 points since December. The highest number the poll has ever shown for such pessimism is 43 percent, in June 2008, when a surge in gasoline prices preceded the economic crisis.

In a separate poll out today from Fox News, the congressional approval rating stood at 24 percent this week (calls were made Monday through Wednesday). That’s down 7 points from the network’s last poll, in early February. Obama’s approval rating stood at 49 percent, a 2-point slip in the past month.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY:  Today, GOP Rep. Howard Coble of North Carolina (80). Tomorrow, GOP Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado (56). Monday, Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah (51). Tuesday, GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah (77) and GOP Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas (56).

SCHEDULING NOTE: With both the House and Senate in recess, there won’t be a Daily Briefing next week. We will presume publishing on Monday, March 28.

— David Hawkings, editor

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

-----

Editor's Picks From The CQ Roll Call Newsroom

Senators Say White House Edging Closer to Intervention in Libya (CQ Today)

Lawmakers and senior Senate sources said U.S. diplomats have been reaching out to several Arab nations to assist in the military effort. » View full article

Leaders Disagree Over Scope of Budget Talks (CQ Today)

Reid and Schumer say discussions with House Republicans and the White House will have to target domestic discretionary spending, military spending and entitlement programs. » View full article

Congress Q&A: Government Shutdowns (Congress.org)

A reader asks: Would military personnel get paid? » View full article

Oversight Panel Launches Investigation of D.C. Mayor (Roll Call)

Issa will look into allegations that D.C. Mayor Vince Gray offered a quid pro quo to a former mayoral candidate. » View full article

Medical Waste of a New Type (CQ Weekly)

There are two laws providing incentives for doctors who upgrade their medical records. The AMA says one contradicts the other. » View full article
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Thursday, March 17, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Take Six

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, March 17, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30, will begin debating the CR at noon and will clear the measure at 3. Obama has until tomorrow night (when he’ll be on his way to Latin America) to sign the bill, which will make $6 billion in cuts while keeping the government operating until midnight April 8.

After voting to confirm Amy Jackson (a white-collar D.C. defense attorney and former prosecutor) as a federal judge, senators will be sent home for the next 10 days. Debate on the small-business research legislation (and a collection of spending cut amendments) resumes March 28.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and will be gone for its early spring recess by about 2. The final vote of the week will pass legislation that would bar federal funding of NPR and prohibit local public radio stations from using federal money to buy the network’s programs. (The bill faces very long odds in the Senate.) Before that, the House will reject a measure calling for a pullout of all troops from Afghanistan.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama and Biden are heading to the Rayburn Room in the Capitol for the Speaker’s traditional St. Patrick’s Day lunch at noon. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny is the other guest of honor. Musicians Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill will perform.

As has become custom, the Irish leader gave the president a bowl of shamrocks when he arrived for their meeting this morning.

CLEAR CUT: A version of what happened on Tuesday in the House will happen in the Senate this afternoon: More conservative Republicans will vote against the new CR than opposed the stopgap bill that’s now about to expire, and more liberal Democrats will do likewise. Still, the measure will be cleared by a 3-1 ratio.

Two weeks ago, the “no” votes came from just five on the right (Mike Crapo, Orrin Hatch, Mike Lee, Rand Paul and Jim Risch) and four on the left (Tom Harkin, Carl Levin, Patty Murray and Bernie Sanders). This time, as many as 10 more Republicans could join the dissenters (starting with Marco Rubio, Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint), and so could as many as half dozen Democrats (starting with Pat Leahy, Frank Lautenberg and Barbara Mikulski).

But this will be the last “free vote” of the fiscal 2011 spending debate, because Reid and Boehner are looking more serious by the hour about reaching a final deal within two (or maybe three) weeks after Congress returns from this coming recess.

What separates them sounds enormous: $50 billion in spending cuts over the next six months, the future of Planned Parenthood and the government’s plans to start carrying out the medical insurance law. What unites them is a shared desire to put this year’s budget behind them — without any government shutdown — so they can confront their even more dramatic differences over how to tackle the deficit (projected to hit a record $1.6 trillion this year) and the debt next year and beyond.

Which is why the odds are in favor of a deal that the two top leaders of Congress will reach more or less by themselves — with some behind-the-scenes input from the White House but without any investment of personal political capital by Obama, who seems ready to brush-off the growing bipartisan congressional criticism about his disengagement on the short-term budget battle.

Instead, the president is going to delegate Biden as his surrogate this time, and then put some of his own presidential skin in the game when it comes time to tackle the bugger budget impasse as soon as this round is over . (For his part, the vice president has put his weight emphatically behind maintaining the government subsidies for Planned Parenthood.)

STORM'S A COMIN': That really big budget fight is really just around the corner. Budget Chairman Paul Ryan plans to roll out the House GOP budget the week of April 4, and he’s promised it will include measures to rein in the cost of Medicaid, slow the growth of Medicaid and do something (like raising the retirement age a year or two over the next two decades) to control Social Security’s costs.

And unless Obama embraces some of those concepts right away (if not the details), the Republcians stand ready to hold the debt limit hostage. John Cornyn is suggesting that fellow Senate Republicans would allow only short-term increases in the debt limit — maybe a week or two at a time — in order to keep the pressure on Obama and Democrats to curb entitlements.

“Strong leadership is needed now to advance possible solutions to ensure that our entitlement programs can serve both current and future generations. Without action to begin addressing the deficit, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for us to support a further increase in the debt ceiling,’” 23 GOP senators told Obama in a separate letter yesterday.

FALLOUT FEARS: The administration is altering slightly the cautious approach it has taken in the past week toward Japan. Following up on yesterday’s congressional testimony from Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, that the Japanese government was dramatically understating the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the State Department today authorized the evacuation of 600 government employees and their families out of the country and warned U.S. citizens to defer all non-essential travel there.

Still, Obama promised Prime Minister Naoto Kan last night that the United States would offer constant support for its close friend and ally, and he “expressed his extraordinary admiration for the character and resolve of the Japanese people,” the White House said. Three more Navy ships arrived to help with the U.S. humanitarian mission, bringing to 17,000 the roster of sailors and Marines afloat on 14 vessels. Several thousand Army and Air Force servicemembers already stationed at U.S. bases in Japan also have been mobilized for the relief efforts.

Earlier Wednesday, the administration urged the evacuation of Americans from a 50-mile radius of the stricken nuclear plant, raising questions about U.S. confidence in Tokyo’s risk assessments. Japan’s government was urging people within 20 miles to stay indoors if they could not evacuate.

And Pelosi — whose constituents in San Francisco could be confronted with small traces of nuclear fallout by tomorrow — described the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan as “beyond biblical in terms of its proportion.”

ALTERED STATE: Hillary Clinton’s declaration yesterday that she won’t be part of any second Obama administration, either by staying in her current job or moving to the Pentagon, has breathed new life into the ambition John Kerry has harbored (ever since he lost the presidency in 2004) of becoming secretary of State.

But if he’s hoping to boost his chances by positioning himself as a team player with the White House, he’s not off to a fast start. The Senate Foreign Relations chairman convened yet another hearing today on the democratic revolutionary drive across the Middle East — a forum for him to press his call for the imposition of a U.S-led “no fly” zone over Libya.

That level of military intervention seems close to off the table for the administration — even as Qaddafi appears to be gaining decisive momentum in quelling the rebellion in his country, and even as the disappearance of four New York Times journalists has put the civil war back on mainstream news media foreign coverage budgets that have been dominated by Japan.

Qaddafi’s air force bombed the Benina airport in the Libyan opposition’s main stronghold of Benghazi today, one day after the administration extended its Libya sanctions to more of the dictator’s family members and close advisers.

RAISING EYEBROWS: One area where Obama has for sure been engaged is his re-election fundraising. While water cooler talk nationwide is all about the miasmic field of potential Republican challengers, the president has been shaking the money tree for himself and his party, appearing at a trio of big-ticket fundraisers this month. And he’s having so much immediate success that Republicans are ... declaring they’re delighted. “The fact that the Democrats are bragging about wanting to spend $1 billion is causing our own donors to get excited and send us checks,” says RNC chief Reince Priebus. “Spending a lot of money and winning don’t always go hand in hand. ... It’s possible that it could backfire.”

INFLATION FIGURES: Inflation stayed tame in February, albeit with a pair of caveats to which millions of Americans can immediately relate. Gasoline prices jumped another 4.7 percent, even more than in January, while food costs increased 0.6 percent, the most in two and a half years, the Labor Department announced this morning. As a result, the Consumer Price Index rose 0.5 percent in February, the largest increase since June 2009. But excluding food and energy costs, core prices rose 0.2 percent, the same as in January.

— David Hawkings, editor

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

-----

Editor's Picks From The CQ Roll Call Newsroom

Leaders Look to End Spending Impasse (CQ Today)

Boehner and Reid signaled optimism about a fiscal 2011 deal Wednesday, though conservatives seem increasingly surly. » View full article

Frustration With Obama Builds (Roll Call)

Both parties wonder why the White House hasn't done more to end the protracted budget battle. » View full article

Window Closing on Libya Action? (CQ Today)

Key senators want U.S. assistance for anti-Qaddafi rebels -- before it's too late. » View full article

A Billion-Dollar Problem (Roll Call)

Obama's opponents see some negative consequences for the president as he moves toward obliterating fundraising records. » View full article

NPR: Where the Money Comes From (CQ Weekly)

A graphic breakdown of public broadcasting funding streams. » View full article
-----

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Chu, Day Two

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and later voted 98-1 to commit to a 5 percent reduction in its own overhead this year. Senators also will vote on half a dozen other amendments to the small-business research bill before passing it, probably before the end of the day. One would put implementation of the health overhaul on hold until its constitutionality is reviewed by the Supreme Court. Another, by freshman Rand Paul, would make the tea party movement’s wishes come true by cutting $200 billion from federal spending.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at noon and before 6 will pass legislation ending a program (created during the 2008 mortgage crisis) that helps governments and nonprofit groups buy and redevelop foreclosed and abandoned houses. But the bill stands no chance of enactment before the next $1 billion round of grants goes out the door in two weeks.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama will discuss options for assisting Japan this afternoon with USAID chief Raj Shah; the two will also review American humanitarian aid efforts in Haiti, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East and Africa. He’ll also receive an award from a coalition of groups that advocate government transparency before giving a pep talk at 5 to the DNC national finance committee.

At noon, ESPN will reveal all the details of the president’s NCAA men’s tournament bracket. (He’s playing it safe and predicting top seeds Duke, Kansas, Ohio State and Pittsburgh as the Final Four.)

PLANT LIFE: Energy Secretary Chu was back on Capitol Hill this morning for a second day of defending the Obama administration’s support for the expansion of U.S. nuclear energy production. The barrage of skepticism is coming mostly from fellow Democrats; Republicans, meanwhile, are eager to hear that the president has not lost confidence in nuclear power. The United States already gets 20 percent of its electricity from nukes.

Chu told the Energy and Power Subcommittee that the administration would continue to press Congress to provide $36 billion for loan guarantees to support construction of at least six new plants. “We need to apply any lessons that can and will be learned from the situation in Japan,” he promised.

Members of Congress have expressed deepening worry this week that several American plants would be vulnerable in the same way as the stricken facility in Japan. The 50 emergency workers who are the last line of defense against a comprehensive meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant were ready to go back inside the tsunami-stricken facility today. They were pulled out for several hours overnight when radiation levels soared at the reactors 140 miles north of Tokyo, one of which was emitting a plume of presumably radioactive steam.

Police say 3,700 people are officially listed as dead and another 452,000 have been displaced because of the earthquake and tsunami. “It is important that each of us shares the difficult days that lie ahead,” Emperor Akihito said in a rare TV address to the nation.

Chu said his department has assembled a team of 34 people and sent 7,200 pounds of equipment to Japan to help monitor and assess the situation. But the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo has told Americans to avoid traveling to Japan.

TIRING OF TURF TOE: Because only 186 Republicans voted for the CR yesterday, that means from now on Boehner will need the support of at least 30 Democrats (and probably many more) to get any more fiscal 2011 spending measures through the House. And the Democrats are less and less likely to produce those votes.

Which means that the debate over the half-over budget year really will need to come to a climax by April 8 — or maybe one week later if there’s genuinely significant progress to report in the interim. Kicking the proverbial can down the road beyond the start of the big spring recess on April 15 is no longer in anyone’s interest.

Reid and McConnell were close to an agreement this morning that would assure the sixth CR for this year clears by tomorrow night.

The 54 Republicans (including a quarter of the freshmen) who voted against the three-week measure can be counted on to vote against almost any spending deal that’s negotiated between Congress and Obama. If they didn’t like cutting $6 billion over three weeks, they’re surely not going to like a final bill that almost certainly will promise reductions at a shallower depth — and that has very little chance of including both of the policy riders (defunding the health care law and Planned Parenthood) they say are required to win their support.

And the roster of 104 Democrats who opposed yesterday’s bill is certain to get bigger the next time around, as well, because even the few remaining centrists in the caucus are starting to feel like they’ve gone more than halfway toward meeting the GOP demands.

“We know the agreement is going to be someplace in between where you are and where we are,” Hoyer told GOP leaders yesterday. “But what we don’t know is what you can pass. What you don’t know is what you can pass. You don’t know what your caucus will do.”

The dilemma, a nutshell, is this: GOP leaders will alienate many more conservatives if they try to chart a middle course. But if they make a bid to mollify those conservatives by insisting on a final deal that includes the House-passed spending cuts and policy provisions, the Democrats and the president won't agree.

GROSS ESTIMATE: A pair of prominent House GOP fiscal hawks wants some help from an unusual source: Pimco bond fund boss Bill Gross. The two, Budget Chairman Paul Ryan and Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, want Gross to explain to as many people on the Hill as possible — not only receptive Republicans but Democrats even more importantly — his rationale for ditching his holdings in Treasury bonds. (Gross says the growth of the federal debt heralds the prospect of higher interest rates, which in turn would mean a drop in the value of bond holdings.)

The Republicans say they want Gross to explain his bearish outlook himself, so as not to cause any panic. But top Democrats say that’s exactly what could happen, and that the better course is to focus on the market experts who view Treasury bills as a safe investment.

BUCKEYE BIG SHOTS: Their state will once again be indispensable to both sides in their 2012 electoral-vote counts. And to that end one of the most prominent Ohioans from each party is getting ready to play a high-profile role in the upcoming presidential campaign.

Rob Portman — who won a lopsided victory last fall in the perennially bellwether, legendarily tossup state — insists that he’s just trying to be the best freshman senator he can be for now. But he’s been wooed for months by virtually every Republican presidential candidate, and the national party, to lend his organizational skill and personal prestige. He’s promised not to endorse anyone for the nomination — a move that will only enhance his appeal as a potential running mate for whoever ends up claiming the nomination in Tampa next summer.

And, while Ted Strickland may have lost the governorship last fall, his name is at the top of almost every list of possibilities to be the next chairman of the Democratic Party. (The job will come open as soon as Tim Kaine officially announces that he’s ready for his clash-of-the-Virginia-political-titans Senate campaign against George Allen.) Although Strickland hitched his wagon to Hillary Clinton in 2008, he became a full-throated Obama loyalist even as his support for the president diminished his own prospects for a second term.

BLUMENTHAL TIME: Pay close attention to the clock in the Senate at exactly noon, to see if Dick Blumenthal shows up on time to deliver his maiden speech. Having spent the past two decades as more or less his own boss, as Connecticut’s attorney general, Blumenthal had grown used to running on his own time table, with people more than willing to wait for him. And so he’s already developing a reputation for untoward tardiness on the Hill. In one widely observed incident, he showed up 7 minutes late a few weeks ago to preside over the opening of the Senate  — a breach of decorum that drew a tongue-lashing from Reid on the Senate floor.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democratic House members Joe Crowley of New York (49) and Ron Kind of Wisconsin (48).

— David Hawkings, editor

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

-----

Editor's Picks From The CQ Roll Call Newsroom

Portman is GOP's Ohio Point Man (Roll Call)

The senator will remain neutral in the GOP presidential primary. » View full article

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The realities of the Senate are weighing heavily on the Speaker. » View full article

No Quiet Beginning for N.Y.'s Grimm (Roll Call)

The Republican freshman says that tea party opposition to a second short-term CR is "irrational." » View full article

Members Tiring of Short-Term Spending Bills (Roll Call)

House GOP leaders are hearing strong talk from the rank-and-file. » View full article

John Cranford's Political Economy: The Party's Over (CQ Weekly)

The decision by bond trader Bill Gross to dump his holdings of Treasury securities was surely a canary-in-the-coal-mine moment. But not exactly in the way that some observers have said. » View full article

Lawmakers Question U.S. Nuclear Safety Standards (CQ Today)

The earthquake resistance of California's plants, in particular, is raising concerns. » View full article
-----

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Reactor Reaction

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convenes at noon to begin debating the three-week CR. Passage will come before 4; the only suspense is how many conservative Republicans will cast protest votes against the bill.

Energy and Commerce will endorse legislation barring the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and is debating small-business research legislation, with a break from 12:30 to 2:15 for the weekly caucus lunches. McConnell says Republicans will seek to use the bill as a vehicle for more spending cuts.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is selling his ideas for rewriting the No Child Left Behind law in interviews this morning with TV stations in Albuquerque, Pittsburgh and Hampton Roads, and then in remarks this afternoon to student finalists in a science competition. The president and the first lady are hosting a Blue Room dinner party for his top military commanders.

CORE ISSUE: While dangerously high levels of radiation continued spewing today from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant — prompting the Japanese government to order 140,000 to seal themselves inside their homes — the American nuclear power industry continued its door-to-door effort to convince Congress that U.S. atomic energy plants are built to withstand even the most dramatic natural disaster, that the people who run (and oversee) them know what they’re doing, and that new regulations are unwarranted.

The initial congressional reaction to the lobbying campaign, which appears to be concentrated in the House, is falling along party lines. Majority Republicans are cautiously coming to the industry’s defense, urging a go-slow approach to congressional intervention and stressing instead their interest in providing humanitarian relief to the Japanese.

But the two most influential Democrats on Energy and Commerce, Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, want a full-scale congressional investigation. They say the U.S. nuclear power industry and its federal regulators are wrongly downplaying the significance of the events in Japan, and they assert that Congress “should not accept the industry’s assurances without conducting our own independent evaluation of the risks posed by nuclear reactors in the United States and the preparedness of industry and regulators to respond to those risks.”

Japan is the world’s third-biggest economy, and the major stock indexes were tumbling this morning — the Dow, the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq were all down about 1.75 percent as of 11:30 — after Prime Minister Naoto Kan went on national TV and warned that radiation was spreading fast from four stricken reactors along the country’s northeastern coast, which took the full force of last week’s magnitude 9 earthquake and the subsequent tsunami.

That wave caused tens of millions of dollars in damages to government facilities, private businesses and residential property in Hawaii — far more than the initial $3 million estimate, Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s office says, and the calculations from state civil defense crews in Maui and Molokai are not yet complete.

ARRESTED AND REVERSED: Taliban momentum “has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas,” Petraeus told Senate Armed Services this morning in his first formal assessment to Congress since taking over as the top general in Afghanistan nine months ago, and that “fragile” success means the U.S. and NATO should begin shifting control of several provinces to the Afghan security forces this spring.

But the general warned that the deep foreign aid spending cuts being contemplated by Congress would put those gains at risk. “I am concerned that levels of funding for our State Department and USAID partners will not sufficiently enable them to build on the hard-fought security achievements of our men and women in uniform,” he said.

McCain, the committee’s ranking Republican, said he is encouraged by progress in the war but worries the fighting will become more intense this spring and summer.

DAY OF DEFECTIONS: Many more members of both parties will vote against today’s CR than opposed the current stopgap spending measure, which the House passed two weeks ago with only six “no” votes from Republicans and only 85 dissenting votes from Democrats.

The Republican Study Committee, the most fiscally conservative organization in the House, counts 170 members. But Chairman Jim Jordan, veteran budget hawk Jeff Flake and Tea Party Caucus chairwoman Michele Bachmann will not get more than a third of the GOP caucus (which would be 80) to oppose the legislation, which they say represents too-timid a bargaining position by their party’s leadership in the continuing budget standoff with Obama and the Democrats.

Mostly through excising unspent earmarks, the bill would cut $6 billion over the next three weeks — a level that will probably prompt about half the Democrats (which would be 96) to vote against he bill as well. The conservatives not only want deeper spending cuts locked down for the rest of this fiscal year, but they also want success on a pair of confrontational policy riders: ending subsidies for Planned Parenthood and barring any spending to carry out the health care law.

Even if today’s vote is in the seemingly lopsided 250-to-175 range, however, it would signal that patience is running thin in both parties and that — in order to avoid a stalemate and then a shutdown — the deal to close-out fiscal 2011 (and raise the curtain on a new budget year in October) will need to happen before the scheduled start of the two-week congressional spring recess one month from today.

But it remains essentially impossible to reach a compromise that could be cleared unless it’s got the hold-your-nose-and-vote-for-it blessings of Obama, Reid and Boehner. And even if that happens, its likely to squeak through both the House and Senate despite plenty of “no” votes from both ends of the ideological spectrum.

TRAIL TIPS:  (1) The odds look good for the GOP in the first special congressional election of the year, for the suburban-Rochester-to-suburban-Buffalo seat vacated by disgraced Craigslist flirt Chris Lee. By securing the Conservative and Independent lines on the May 24 ballot, Republican nominee Jane Corwin is working to avoid a repeat of the GOP debacle in the last New York special election. But Jack Davis, a former Democrat and independently wealthy businessman who tried for the GOP nomination, has since hired a company to mount a petition drive so he can run as the Tea Party candidate.

(2) The dates are set for the year's second special election to fill (almost certainly with another Democrat) Jane Harman’s old congressional seat covering much of southern Los Angeles County: California’s new jungle primary process will be put to its first test May 17. Unless someone gets an outright majority then, the top two finishers will square off July 12. The frontrunners are L.A. Councilwoman Janice Hahn and Secretary of State Debra Bowen.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Freshman GOP Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia (53).

— David Hawkings, editor

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

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dailybriefing@cqrollcall.com

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Monday, March 14, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Summer School

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, March 14, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama unveiled his proposal for revamping federal aid to public schools this morning and called on Congress to send him a No Child Left Behind law rewrite before the next academic year begins in September. “In the 21st century, it’s not enough to leave no child behind,” he said at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Va. “We need to help every child get ahead.”

This afternoon, the president has Oval Office meetings with Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen and David Petraeus, the top general in Afghanistan, before attending a DNC fundraiser.

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 and about four hours later will vote on whether to rebuff a potential filibuster on legislation reauthorizing small-business research and development programs. The bill itself isn’t controversial, but a group of GOP conservatives is threatening to try to block anything that’s not related to deficit and debt reduction.

Senators also will confirm D.C. Superior Court Judge James Boasberg for a seat on the federal bench.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at 2 and will vote to affirm Michigan’s decision to make Gerald Ford one of its two favorite sons honored with a statue in the Capitol. (That means the bust of Zachariah Chandler, a 19th century senator and early leader of the Republican Party, will have to go.)

FIRST BELL: It sounds at first like an unrealistically ambitious goal: writing in just 21 weeks a new law guiding federal influence over elementary and secondary education. But if there’s any top-shelf domestic goal that could bring the parties together by this summer, it’s overhauling No Child Left Behind.

Mainstream Republicans (the ones who don’t want to shutter the Department of Education) give Obama more credibility and rhetorical support on education than any other policy. Given the profoundly weak political position that public-employee unions are in these days, there’s every reason to believe the GOP and the administration will be able to brush back the teachers’ unions at the margins. The deadline for rewriting the law is fast approaching. And last week both the GOP chairman of the House’s education committee, Jon Kline, and his Senate Democratic counterpart, Tom Harkin, agreed to the accelerated timetable.

So it’s very reasonable to bet that the president will be granted today’s wish to put his pen down, after signing such a law, before the new school year begins.

The president’s plan is essentially a revival of the package Education Secretary Arne Duncan released almost exactly a year ago. It calls for shifting the federal emphasis from proficiency testing in math and reading to measures that gauge gains in student achievement. It would expand formula funding but also boost spending on competitive grants such as the Race to the Top program. It would increase local control by providing greater flexibility for teachers and principals, support the nation’s better teacher-preparation programs and offer incentives for the best teachers to serve in the neediest districts.

RELATIVELY QUIET: Congressional leaders have every reason to sound confident about their ability to brush past a pair of Republican obstacles and clear the three-week, $6 billion-in-cuts CR by the end of this week. Obama is confident enough in the outcome that he’s planning to start a trip to South America on Friday, just hours before the government will shut down in the absence of another stopgap spending law.

In the House, GOP conservatives  are annoyed that the bill they’ll be called to pass tomorrow has no policy riders. They’re especially keen to prevent funding of the health care overhaul, but few of them are likely to vote against the bill because that language is missing. And in the Senate, John McCain’s drive to attach a comprehensive Defense appropriations bill to the CR will slow the debate, but it won’t attract enough support to alter the legislation. That effort will likely be supported by many Republicans, and could slow down consideration of the CR extension in the Senate.

The call to use this CR to end all federal spending on public broadcasting appears to be fading, meanwhile, as many Republicans from rural areas are realizing that their constituents genuinely like the signals they get from PBS and NPR.

NOISE ON THE HORIZON: Conservative advocacy groups are worrying that their cause is losing momentum by allowing government operations to continue, more or less as is, for a few weeks at a time. And so a handful of them are pressing for “no” votes this week by declaring that they’ll count the CR roll calls in their 2011 scorecards.

But the delay until April 8 pushes the budget debate ever-closer to the time when conservatives think they have their best leverage — the six-week-or-so window, which the Treasury says could open as early as April 15, when the Treasury will reach its $14.3 trillion borrowing limit.

McConnell asserted on “Fox News Sunday” that no Senate Republicans would vote for a stand-alone bill to raise the debt ceiling. Instead, it’s “going to have to carry something with it that the markets, foreign countries, the American people believe is a credible effort to begin to get a handle on spending and debt,” he said, although he declined to offer specifics.

But on the same show, “Gang of Six” deficit-reduction package negotiator Mark Warner said it was wrong to hold the debt hostage to a grand bargain on deficit reduction, which he suggested had no chance of being reached in a month or two. “I think we want to make sure we get it right more than some arbitrary timeline,” he said.

OLD RELIABLES: Even as the mind-boggling dollar figures of the budget battle continue dominate their ideological interest, Republicans are working hard to bring their rhetorical focus down to a couple of familiar, politically ripe places that most voters can readily comprehend: job creation and energy prices.

Although the unemployment rate has slipped below 9 percent, anxiety about jobs remains high, which is a main reason why GOP leaders are trying a new round of message modification — by framing their agenda for fiscal discipline as a way to assure economic prosperity over the long haul. They’re also linking job security to gas prices by intensifying their drive for additional domestic energy production.

The focus has been on offshore oil drilling; an increase in nuclear energy production won’t be part of the conversation now that post-earthquake Japan is in a nuclear plant crisis. One longtime leader of the pro-nuke side of the debate in the Senate, independent Joe Lieberman, called yesterday for a halt in nuclear power plant construction “until we understand the ramifications of what’s happened in Japan.” The most powerful pro-nuke Republican in the House, Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, said he would summon the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to a heating this week to press him for assurances about the safety of American nuclear sites.

SOFT SELL: The Democratic base was a little bit annoyed when the president said nothing about gun control during his speech two months ago in Tucson after the Gabby Giffords shooting. In response, the White House signaled that the president would make a high-profile speech on the topic in the spring.

So it’s unclear whether Obama’s op-ed in yesterday’s Arizona Daily Star will be substituting for that speech, or will mollify those who say the president remains too timid on the subject — lest he incite the wrath of cultural conservatives. The piece (which drew relatively little coverage in part because of all the focus on Japan) called for an “instant, accurate, comprehensive and consistent system for background checks” in order to “keep those irresponsible, law-breaking few from getting their hands on a gun in the first place.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: GOP Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma (63).

— David Hawkings, editor

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

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David Hawkings
dailybriefing@cqrollcall.com

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