Friday, April 01, 2011

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CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Jobs Report = Press Releases

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, April 1, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and will be done for the week by 3, after passing legislation to modernize the air-traffic control system, finance airport construction and maintain subsidies for flights to remote towns — thereby setting up negotiations with the Senate on what could become the first important domestic policy bill enacted by this Congress. (An amendment that would strip language designed to make it more difficult for unions to organize airline workers will draw some GOP votes but will come up short of adoption.)

The House will also pass, entirely along party lines, a totally symbolic bill essentially restating the budget-cutting goals of the Republican majority.

THE SENATE: Not in session. Next convenes at 2 on Monday.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is promoting his energy agenda for the second time this week with a 12:20 speech at a a UPS facility in the D.C. suburb of Landover, Md. He’ll be touting that company’s switch to fuel-efficient delivery trucks and unveiling a public-private partnership designed to help large commercial fleets cut their diesel and gasoline use.

The president’s attention will be back on African unrest this afternoon. He’s meeting with Princeton Lyman, his special envoy to Sudan since last summer.

MORE OF THE SAME: Republican leaders didn’t need to see this morning’s employment report for March to know what they wanted to say. Within 10 minutes of the Labor Department’s announcement, both Boehner and Cantor put out statements echoing the traditional GOP call for lower taxes, reduced regulation, spending cuts and freer trade to boost the economy — even though the government’s latest figures were the clearest sign yet that companies are seeing increased demand and are hiring workers to meet it.

While the March figures mostly met expectations, it was plainly the best month for jobs in a very long time: 216,000 total new positions and a drop in unemployment to 8.8 percent. (It was 8.9 percent the month before.) February and March each showed increases of more than 230,000 on private industry payrolls, the first such back-to-back gains since early 2006 — when Bush was still president and the Republicans still ran both houses of Congress.

Other signs of strength in the March report were a drop in the number of people working part-time because they couldn’t find full-time jobs and an increase in the number of temporary workers. That’s a sign employers see rising demand — and may convert those temporary jobs into permanent positions pretty quickly.

Only government payrolls shows a significant decline, the ninth in the last 10 months. Once again, most of the government jobs cuts were local school positions.

LET’S TALK ABOUT POSSIBLY MAKING A DEAL: Conservatives are clinging to Boehner’s statement yesterday that “nothing will be agreed to until everything has been agreed to” in the talks on the six-month spending bill. But it means less than meets the eye.

The Speaker was simply repeating the oldest aphorism in the congressional negotiator’s handbook. It does not mean he’s spurning the overall size of the cut — the $33 billion figure that both sides have signaled they’re working toward. (And, in fact, aides from both parties on the two Appropriations committees have dug in for a weekend of whittling toward one another on that number.)

Still, those GOP lawmakers who aren’t spoiling for a shutdown next weekend have some hope the Speaker can push the total cut a couple of billion dollars higher — in return for formally giving up on some of the defunding riders (Planned Parenthood, the EPA, the health law) that Obama will never accept.

What’s more important is the other thing Boehner said yesterday. He signaled confidence that he can successfully put his young Speakership on the line by embracing the best deal his side can get: “We can’t impose our will on the Senate. All we can do is to fight for all of the spending cuts that we can get an agreement to, and all of the spending limitations as well.”

There’s evidence to support such confidence. The House conservative Republican Study Committee has not stamped its considerable feet against the emerging accord. And the hell-bent-for-leather freshmen — the ones who think that closing the government is the best way to react to the realities of divided government — are left blaming the gloomy weather, and not their fading cause, for holding below 200 the crowd at yesterday’s vaunted Capitol tea party rally.

RYAN TIME: Medicaid cuts will cause the first high-profile partisan shouting match on next year’s budget. Next week the House GOP’s Paul Ryan will propose turning into a block grant (rather than a formula) the federal contribution to the medical insurance program for the poor and disabled. Doing so, and giving the states more latitude to curb coverage and eligibility, could shave as much as $1 trillion from projected federal deficits during the next decade, by the Budget chairman’s reckoning.

But it would also mean the states would have no reason to keep their own contributions, which are already strapping their budgets, at the same level. And so the rolls would surely shrink — when they’re supposed to be expanding significantly under the new health care law. Which is why Chris Van Hollen, the panel’s top Democrat, is already excoriating the block grant proposal as “simply code for slashing health care support for seniors, people with disabilities and others.”

HAPPY HALF-BIRTHDAY: Fiscal Year 2011.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: A shirts-off salute to the first member of the 112th Congress to resign. His parents surely didn’t anticipate the reach of the April Fool’s Day omen when Chris Lee was born this day in 1964.

— 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

GOP Weighs Budget Compromise Against Risk of Shutdown (CQ Today)

Boehner spent much of Thursday insisting that no deal was imminent. But he didn't dismiss a proposal for $33 billion in cuts. » View full article

Shutdown Threat Doesn't Faze Tea Partyers (Roll Call)

"Cut it or shut it" was the mantra of activists at the rally. The lawmakers who spoke at the event were less cavalier about risking a shutdown. » View full article

Stuart Rothenberg: Odds Against Lugar's Bid for Seventh Term (Roll Call)

The Indiana senator ended 2010 with more than $2.3 million in the bank. But his war chest might be the only reason to think that he has a chance of winning a seventh term next year. » View full article

Cross-Border Violence Complicates ICE Recruitment (CQ Homeland Security)

Attacks by cartels against U.S. law enforcement officials in Mexico have hurt the Department of Homeland Security's ability to recruit agents willing to work across the Southwest border. » View full article

A Not-So-Sweet 16 for Drivers (CQ Weekly)

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand wants all states to set 18 as the minimum age for a driver's license free of restrictions. » View full article
-----

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dailybriefing@cqrollcall.com

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Thursday, March 31, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Runnin' Rebels

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, March 31, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convenes at noon to begin debating legislation to revamp federal aviation programs. The most contentious vote will be on whether to limit union organizing by airline and railway employees. Consideration of amendments will end before 7 and resume tomorrow. Before going home the House will also pass the bill to curb EPA regulation of pesticides.

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 without any road map for tackling the growing pile of amendments to the small-business research bill. Virtually all of them are about party-defining domestic policy disagreements unrelated to small businesses.

Nothing will happen before this afternoon, because a contingent of senators and House members is at the Church of Saint Vincent Ferrer in Manhattan this morning for Geraldine Ferraro’s funeral. (Pelosi is hosting a bicameral, bipartisan reception honoring Ferraro at 5:30 at the Library of Congress.)

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama has no public appearances on his schedule, which mentions only several meetings with senior advisers, including one at 3 with Biden and Clinton.

BATTLE LINES: “Somebody else should do that,” Gates declared this morning when members of House Armed Services asked if Obama was going to order the Pentagon to begin training and equipping the Libyan rebels. The reason, the Defense secretary said, is that other countries can arm the anti-Qaddafi forces just as well as the United States.

Gates’ testimony, at the start of one of five congressional hearings on Libya today, offered a window into the smoldering administration discord on the topic. The president himself said earlier this week that a decision to provide the revolutionaries with arms and other support was on the table. Yesterday his spokesman Jay Carney said, “We’re not ruling it out or ruling it in.”

The hearings also gave lawmakers of both parties ample opportunity to air both their confusion and their grievances about Obama’s rapidly shifting approach to the Libyan civil war — a day after the back-to-back classified briefings for senators and House members (by Gates, Clinton, Mullen and Clapper) did essentially nothing to end the bipartisan broadside from Capitol Hill. Although attitudes toward the American intervention are falling mainly along party lines — with Democrats backing Obama and Republicans critical — there is ample skepticism in the president’s own party as well.

And that seems sure to intensify with the administration’s acknowledgment this morning that the CIA has sent small teams of operatives into Libya — and with plenty of evidence that the rebels’ efforts to take over the country are not benefiting much at all from the cover provided by NATO and American fighter jets.

The CIA agents’ role on the ground would presumably include contacting leaders of the opposition and assessing their trustworthiness and their needs in case Obama decides to help them more directly.

The Pentagon put the cost of the first dozen days of the Libyan operation at $550 million, and lawmakers say they were told at the briefings to expect the effort from now on to cost about $1.3 million every day.

HALFTIME ANALYSIS: The decision by Biden and Reid to accept $33 billion in spending cuts during the next six months — and to do so with 10 long days left on the negotiating clock — means one of two things: (1) They’re terrible bargainers and gave away so much, and so soon, that Republicans will surely be able to shake them down for billions more before the deadline a week from tomorrow; or (2) They’re really shrewd strategists who are gambling that their early concession on the total will allow them to win the next week of haggling on the fine print: which House policy riders will be jettisoned, which domestic programs will get whacked and how much defense spending and mandatory programs will be trimmed.

The better bet is on Option 2. The public — which really only cares about the big number and about avoiding a shutdown — will view the White House and Senate Democrats as praise-worthy compromisers, because they’re now willing to split the difference with the Republicans and actually match the original number put out by the House leadership. The mainstream of the electorate will not support closing the government’s doors because of a dispute about defunding Planned Parenthood or curbing the EPA or not enforcing the health care law for a few months.

Those are the issues that rile up the Republican base — and the tea party faithful rallying at the Capitol at lunchtime today. The average Joe doesn’t care. Like the Democrats, Boehner understands this, which is why those three riders are essentially nonstarters in the next week of negotiations. And the Speaker is sounding more and more eager to get this ultimately minor kerfuffle out of the way so he can focus the country’s attention on the much, much bigger party objective of reining in the debt and deficit over the long haul.

 And he’ll be able to do so much more easily and quickly if the 87-member GOP freshman class concludes that Newt Gingrich gave his successor as Speaker his blessing this morning — and if Boehner can at least claim victory on some of the less-mentioned riders in the House-passed package, which the White House seems willing to accommodate.

BLUE DOG BENCHMARKS: There are only 25 of them left now, but the members of the House Democrats’ Blue Dog Coalition could still prove to be a pivotal force in any truly grand bargain on the budget. Which is why it’s worth noting the targets they suggested yesterday for the budget the House will start debating next week: $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years; discretionary spending returning to 2008 levels by 2013; annual red ink totals shrinking to 2.3 percent of GDP in four years; and the debt reduced to at least 60 percent of the economy by 2024. The Blue Dogs say the formula for getting there is two-thirds spending cuts (even from defense and entitlements) and one-third tax “reform” (which means increases).

OBAMA’S BILL: The president was not on the ballot in 2010, but last year Obama for America spent more than any other presidential campaign ever on lawyers, refunds to contributors and payments to the Treasury for unusable donations. The campaign organization has spent more than $2.8 million on legal fees alone since the 2008 election — and has spent three times more on lawyers since the president’s election than in the two years preceding it.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Two venerable liberals from New England turn 71: Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont and Rep. Barney Frank. Two other Democrats also celebrate today, House members Steve Lynch of Massachusetts (56) and Dennis Cardoza of California (52).

— 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

Negotiators Close to Working Out Target Level for Cuts (CQ Today)

It appears that $33 billion will be the top-line number for spending cuts. Powerful conservative groups are urging GOP lawmakers to hold the line against any spending compromise. » View full article

Kondracke's Farewell: To Save the Country, We Need 'Grand Bargains' (Roll Call)

In his final column for the paper, Kondracke says he's "leaving it to others to bang the gong for centrist problem-solving." » View full article

Libya Briefings Don't Sway Congressional Skeptics (CQ Today)

After the closed-door meetings, members said they still have questions for the officials who will be testifying at hearings and briefings on the war in the coming days. » View full article

AARP Is Next on GOP Target List (Roll Call)

House Republicans accused the influential senior citizens organization of having a conflict of interest in lobbying for last year's health care overhaul. » View full article

For Lobbyists, the Revolving Door Keeps Spinning (CQ Weekly)

The path from Congress to K Street is as well worn as any in Washington. The path back is becoming nearly as popular. » View full article

Obama Campaign Racks Up Large Legal Fees (Roll Call)

A Democratic spokesman said the expenses were expected and not extraordinary considering that Obama's White House run was the largest campaign in history. » View full article
-----

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David Hawkings
dailybriefing@cqrollcall.com

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: A Cantor and a Maneuver

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 for another day debating the small-business research bill. After a total standoff yesterday, senators are on course to vote on three competing versions of plans to limit EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. (None of them will be approved.)

There’s no deal yet to have votes on other unrelated proposals, including a bid to end ethanol subsidies and an effort to block funding to carry out the health care law. But there is a chance that, rather than debating a repeal of the health law’s 1099 tax reporting rules as an amendment, senators will move to clear the House-passed 1099 bill.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and at noon will begin debating two bills, with the day’s last votes expected by 5. One would weaken EPA authority to regulate pesticides. The other would revive the D.C. school voucher system — a top Boehner legislative priority. A White House statement yesterday made clear the president opposes using federal money to pay tuition at parochial and private schools, but it did not threaten a veto. (The GOP’s next move to shape policy in the nation’s capital will be to force a repeal referendum on the city’s gay marriage law.)

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is calling for a one-third reduction in American oil imports during the next decade in a speech he’s giving now at Georgetown University.

To enhance the nation’s energy security — and to try to win a domestic-policy headline at a time of escalating gas prices — he’s outlining proposals for boosting domestic energy production, creating new incentives for the use of biofuels and natural gas, and making cars and trucks more efficient. He’s urging companies to make use of their existing leases for offshore oil and gas exploration and production and is reaffirming his support for nuclear power.

READING THE LEADERS: The first clear dissonance in the budget battle has emerged between Boehner and Cantor — the Speaker and the man who so dearly wants to be the next Speaker and would be willing to get the job by capitalizing on an uprising if the freshmen and other House conservatives conclude they’ve been done wrong by the big boss in the spending talks.

More than 30 GOP freshmen were ramping up the rhetoric this morning, announcing plans to rally on the Senate steps every day until Reid endorses a spending-cut package that the first-termers can live with.

Cantor staked out his ground in the tea party camp yesterday (and publicly undercut Boehner) by taking the conservative hard line in professing disdain for any additional stopgap spending this year. “Time is up here,” Cantor declared — even as the Speaker himself was telling reporters that he would not rule out another short-term spending measure. “I’m not going to put any options on the table or take any options off the table,” Boehner said.

As a practical matter, a CR of a few days will be needed unless the grand bargain is struck before the weekend, because the final deal is complex enough that it will take several days to turn into legislative language — and it is supposed to be available for review 72 hours before it’s put on the House floor (meaning the middle of next week at the earliest). And that timetable means there would be no way to choke off debate before next Friday’s deadline for avoiding a shutdown.

SO CLOSE, SO FAR: Reid’s office says last week's negotiations broke down at a point when the GOP was talking about a $36 billion cut and the Democrats were talking about a $30 billion cut. Republicans contend that’s an overly simplistic description of where the impasse occurred. But it remains clear that, on the money front, the two Hill leaderships are within a whisker of one another — because $6 billion is about half of 1 percent of the $1 trillion in discretionary spending that’s on course for the last half of this fiscal year – and an even tinier rounding error, given $1.4 trillion deficit that’s in store for this year.

The big question, then, is how the final number will be tweaked as a result of tradeoffs on policy riders. House Republicans will essentially have to pay, in the billions, for maintaining the funding restrictions in their bill. If they want to hold out for many of the most contentious ones that the Democrats might allow (because they’ll be good only for the next six months), the Democrats will insist that the spending cut be close to $30 billion. If the GOP scuttles all the riders — such as the proposals to stop money for Planned Parenthood, EPA regulations or the health care law — it can probably push the cut toward $40 billion.

CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTION: All 47 Senate Republicans are expected to sign on as original cosponsors of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution that’s being unveiled tomorrow.

The proposal, mainly the handiwork of freshman Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, would require the president to submit a balanced budget annually and require two-thirds majorities in Congress to approve unbalanced budgets, except in times of declared war. A two-thirds vote would also be required to raise taxes, and a three-fifths vote to raise the debt limit. Federal spending would be capped at 18 percent of GDP, slightly less than the historic average.

Toomey is designing it with the hope of getting significant support from Senate Democrats, especially those in tough 2012 political trouble, but it’s a long way from the two-thirds majority of support it would need to get through the Senate.

Down-to-earth House Democrats, meanwhile, are paying little attention to the pie-in-the-sky talk about balancing the budget someday. Instead, they’re engaged in their own internal debate about whether to produce an alternative to the GOP budget resolution coming out next week. Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, has been holding talks for the last six weeks about the party’s budget priorities in search of a so-far elusive unified message. Every feint that he makes toward the electorally vulnerable centrists in his caucus, of course, is drawing disapproval from the base on the left.

Whether he and the caucus leadership put out a budget or not, an alternative to the GOP plan is sure to be put forward by the Congressional Black Caucus, which is celebrating its 40th birthday in a lavish Statuary Hall reception this evening.

LIBYA TIME: Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen are spending the afternoon behind close doors on Capitol Hill — as the headliners at a classified briefing on Libya for House members at 2:30 and at a separate session for senators at 5.

They will be under expanding pressure from lawmakers of both parties not only to spell out an exit strategy for the U.S. military, but also to clarify the administration’s view on whether the ouster of Qaddafi is part of the U.S. objective — and to detail the internal administration deliberations on the merits of arming the Libyan rebels.

Today’s briefing comes after the release of an Associated Press poll, taken before Obama’s nationally televised speech, found  48 percent approving and 50 percent disapproving of the Libya intervention. The poll also found 55 percent in favor of an intensified military action to remove Qaddafi from power, but only 13 percent favor of deploying ground troops.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) The congressional campaign headquarters of both parties, as well as dozens of Capitol Hill row houses and restaurants, are throbbing with 2012 House and Senate fundraising activity through tomorrow night, when the all-important first-quarter fundraising period comes to an end. Perhaps the most interesting event of them all: a Heath Shuler lunch at the National Democratic Club with Steny Hoyer as the guest of honor. If this really is Pelosi’s last term in the leadership, and if Hoyer is ever to realize his dream of being the top Democrat in the House, he’ll have to round up the stray Blue Dogs as quickly as possible.

(2) Marco Rubio of Florida, who arrived in January as the hottest property among all the congressional Republican freshmen, has spent the past three months trying to tamp down all the attention — turning aside dozens of speaking invitations, fundraising opportunities and national press appearances in the name of learning how to be a good senator. But this week he’s exploded out of his shell: talking to Laura Ingraham on her national conservative radio show, vowing in a Wall Street Journal  op-ed that he’s going to fight a debt ceiling increase, and then promising that he is not maneuvering to become the GOP candidate for vice president next year, which is all the more possible because he’s also announced he won’t endorse anyone for the top job.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Rep. Gerry Connolly of Northern Virginia (61) and fellow Democrat Mark Begich, Alaska’s junior sentor (49).

— 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

At 40, the CBC Marks a Milestone (Roll Call)

Twelve men and one woman made up the first Congressional Black Caucus in 1971. Congress would never look the same. » View full article

Levin Pushes Libya Resolution (CQ Today)

The Senate Armed Services chairman says that if all goes well, a resolution could be brought to the floor by next week. » View full article

Democrats in Budget Dilemma (Roll Call)

Van Hollen says his party needs a unified message on spending. But so far one hasn't taken shape. » View full article

Ethanol Subsidy May Split Senate Republicans (Roll Call)

The debate over the $6 billion program is exposing an intraparty schism that could muddy the party's message on fiscal discipline. » View full article

GOP Sees D.C. Marriage Law as Chance to Renew Social Agenda (CQ Today)

The move comes as conservatives express a desire to move beyond the recent focus on spending cuts. » View full article

Federal Employee Unions Push for Contingency Plans (CQ Weekly)

The labor groups say the administration needs to be more clear about what will happen to workers if there's a government shutdown. » View full article
-----

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David Hawkings
dailybriefing@cqrollcall.com

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Lauding Libya

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and is (at least officially) debating the small-business research legislation — although in reality the bill has become a forum for an array of unrelated issues, from the EPA’s plans to regulate greenhouse gases to the health care law’s 1099 rules. Test votes on whether to block the regulations and repeal the tax reporting requirement are likely by day’s end. (There will be the usual 12:30 to 2:15 Tuesday break for the caucus lunches.)

THE HOUSE: Convenes at 2 and after 6:30 will pass a pair of measures: a two-month extension of current aviation programs (to buy time for enacting a long-term FAA package) and a bill ending the Home Affordable Modification Program, which has been given $30 billion in TARP money to assist strapped homeowners in keeping their mortgage payments below 31 percent of their income. The White House threatened a veto of the bill this morning.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is heading to New York at 1 and will follow up last night’s speech by explaining his Libya reasoning during interviews with three broadcast TV network anchors.

At 4:45 he’ll dedicate the new, 26-story U.S. mission to the United Nations, which has been named for late Commerce secretary Ron Brown, and tonight he’ll appear at Democratic fundraisers at both the Red Rooster Restaurant and the Studio Museum in Harlem. He’s due home by 11:10.

LIBYA LEEWAY: Obama’s decision to intervene in the Libyan civil war won endorsements this morning from the two most prominent senators in shaping congressional military policy, as Chairman Carl Levin joined the Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, John McCain, in praising the U.S. air strikes and the president’s rationale for ordering them.

Their remarks at the start of a defense budget hearing were the most important early signs that Obama’s nationally televised speech last night is starting to tamp down the bipartisan congressional skepticism (that the we’re-not-calling-it-war will prove too little, too late to topple Qaddafi), the bipartisan congressional worry (that the public won’t back intervention in the name of humanitarian relief — even if there are no boots on the ground, and even if NATO is in charge of a multinational task force in which American planes are playing the leading but not the only role), and the bipartisan congressional annoyance (that lawmakers were minimally consulted before the Tomahawk missiles started flying 10 days ago).

In other words, Obama seems to have bought his policies some time, during which he’ll wish fervently that the situation on the ground swings in favor of the revolutionaries — and long before any talk can germinate that the United States should go a step further and provide arms to the rebels, whose trustworthiness has yet to be comprehensively nailed down.

Regime change is still not one of the president’s stated objectives. But U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said this morning that there are plenty of “non-military means at our disposal” to oust Qaddafi and that the president believes his 42-year dictatorship must come to an end. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at the start of a NATO conference in London, urged continued military action along with “political and diplomatic pressure that makes clear to Qaddafi that he must go.” Their comments were clearly aimed at addressing one of the main GOP talking points — that Qaddafi’s ouster should be an essential, and stated-up-front, part of the president’s plan.

CAN WE TALK? There are formal negotiations, and then there are talks, and then there are back-channel talks, and then there are staff conversations, and then there are off-the-record staff conversations. The first two permutations have broken off in the midyear spending debate, which only sort of justifies all the melodramatic talk about an impending shutdown. But the other three continue on, which is why next Friday night shouldn’t be viewed just yet as a budgetary nuclear midnight.

In public, each party is complaining that a deal is proving impossible entirely because the other side can’t (or won’t) get its story straight.

The Democrats lament that a potentially reasonable GOP leadership has been unable to talk some political sense into the tea party wing on the size of cuts that can win enactment. The Republicans lament that the White House and Senate Democrats — House Democrats essentially have been dealt out as superfluous — are not speaking with a unified, consistent and detailed voice about what cuts they’re ready to accept.

That may change, however, after a meeting today between Biden and OMB chief Jack Lew. If they decide that Obama can go along with what the senators have in mind — which includes some savings from farm subsidies and other mandatory programs, in order to keep the discretionary spending baseline propped up — then a unified bargaining position for the Democrats will be in hand.

Despite all that, a few things are becoming clear. The top line in savings for the final half of this fiscal year will be about $30 billion below current levels of spending — a classic “split the difference” between the status quo and what the House GOP has voted for. And a deal will get done without a meaningful government shutdown (in other words, one that last longer than the weekend of April 9 and 10), because neither party is confident the other would bear a disproportionate share of the public’s anger if the gates to national parks and the doors to Social Security processing offices get locked.

WINDOW DRESSING: Beyond those reasons, it’s in the interest of both sides to save some ammunition for the much more important budget battles ahead — and to try to separate the relatively minor dispute about this year from the more consequential fights over entitlements and the debt ceiling.

Either Friday or Monday, the government will announce a new window during which the $14.3 trillion debt limit will be reached. The good news will probably be that the window will open a bit later than the current April 15 estimate. No matter what the new date, however, the reality is that the wizards at Treasury will be able to use numerous accounting and other mechanisms to postpone the actual closing of the window — the true deadline for raising the debt ceiling — until the second half of June.

GOD IN THE DETAILS: A sharp divide along religious lines is emerging in the GOP presidential electorate. Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney are leading the field, with each named as the top choice by one in five Republicans who were asked to volunteer their preference two weeks ago by the Pew Research Center. But while 29 percent of white evangelicals and 27 percent of Roman Catholics favored Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor, only 15 percent of evangelicals and 16 percent of Catholics picked Romney, whose Mormonism appears to give the GOP base some pause.

Romney, though, bested Huckabee among mainline Protestants, 22 percent to 15 percent. And one-third of those who are not religious or belong to a smaller faith group want Romney — far outdistancing Sarah Palin (14 percent) , Ron Paul (8 percent) and Huckabee (7 percent).

Palin also did well among evangelicals, with 16 percent voicing support for her. She also got backing from 13 percent of mainline Protestants.

Newt Gingrich was named by around one in 10 of the people Pew talked to. Finishing below him were Tim Pawlenty, Paul, Mitch Daniels, Rick Santorum, Haley Barbour and Chris Christie.”

— David Hawkings, editor

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

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