Friday, April 15, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Who Cares? (And Why?)

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, April 15, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and is on course to adopt the Paul Ryan budget resolution before 1:30 — after which members will be told they can go home for the next two weeks. A handful of Republicans will shy away from voting for their Budget chairman’s deficit-reduction blueprint, but not a single Democrat is going to vote for it.

The House this morning rejected dramatically different budget alternatives by liberals in the Black Caucus (it got just 103 votes) and the Progressive Caucus (77 “yes” votes). It is about to spurn a more aggressive deficit-reduction proposal from the conservative Republican Study Committee. An alternative from the Democratic leadership will be rebuffed shortly after noon.

THE SENATE: Not in session. Senators got a one-day head start on the longest congressional break until August. They’re aren’t coming back for 17 days, until the evening of Monday, May 2.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama had a rare morning of relative downtime back home in Chicago. He’s expected back at the White House at 2:50, after which his only public event is a meeting with leaders of the National Conference of State Legislators.

MORE THAN A GAMBIT? A much higher percentage of House Republicans will vote for the party’s $4.4 trillion debt reduction budget this afternoon than the 75 percent who voted for the midyear spending shave-and-a-haircut yesterday.

Why? Because they’ve become convinced that it’s smart to stand (at least on the first big test) behind such a bold prescription for the nation’s long-term fiscal crisis — especially because, they think, their most dramatic proposal will not prove as politically poisonous as it first appears.

At first blush, it would seem almost suicidal for Republicans to vote for ending Medicare as we know it so long as they’re facing close re-election fights — especially in newly drawn districts that have Democratic leanings or lots of elderly voters. The Democrats look like they’re licking their chops in excitement about making 30-second commercials that accuse GOP incumbents of wanting to build a “death trap for seniors” — the phrase the party’s new chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, is test-marketing.

And yet, Republicans sure seem sanguine — and ready to respond with their own TV spots promising to save a program for paying seniors’ medical bills that is otherwise headed for insolvency. The details about voucher-like premium support payments will get lost in the rhetoric. But what the GOP is counting on is that they can convince today’s old people they need not worry about the government messing with their status quo. Only people who are 55 or younger today would see a change — and they’re the ones who could be convinced that’s a good thing, because they’ve told pollsters in decent numbers about their shrinking expectations that the current Medicare system will stay above water long enough for them to care.

And besides, if there’s a grand bipartisan bargain on debt reduction that takes a different approach to Medicare, then today’s vote will essentially be forgotten by Election Day 2012.

SIZE MATTERS: The path to that grand bargain is off to a lumbering start. As lawmakers disperse for Easter and Passover, they’re mainly haggling about the metaphorical shape of the table at the next round of negotiations.

Congressional leaders really don’t think it’s a good idea to spend time putting yet another bunch of politicians in a room to talk about the budget — but that’s what Obama wants, and so they’ll likely go grudgingly along at least for a couple of weeks. They won’t name the 16 lawmakers the president originally proposed. Half that number is more likely. Reid yesterday picked just two, Finance Chairman Max Baucus and Appropriations Chairman Dan Inouye. Boehner is likely to reveal his picks (Ryan surely among them) today.

Hill leaders also think it unrealistic for the president to set an end-of-June deadline for a proposal — which he’s done as a way to try to divorce those negotiations from the coming showdown over the debt ceiling. But there’s really have no way to prevent GOP conservatives from holding the debt limit hostage; what’s subject to negotiation is only what level of detailed assurances about fiscal discipline they’re willing to accept as the price for their votes.

And even if these conservatives are assuaged — by June, most likely — by legislation setting binding caps on total federal spending, plenty more debate will still be required over how to curb entitlement costs so they don’t push into that cap right at the start. (The cap that’s under discussion is 21 percent of the size of the economy, which is the 40-year historic average – but a 4-percentage-point drop from today.)

DISSIDENTS: One last look at the “internals” from yesterday’s votes on the midyear appropriations compromise. That one in four Republicans voted against it is being described as signaling worries for Boehner’s base of support as he wades into the bigger budget battles ahead. But the bill was solidly supported by members of the Tea Party Caucus, 35 of whom voted “yes” to 21 who voted “no.”

At the same time, three out of five Democrats voted against the spending cuts (Pelosi among them), which surely suggests Obama’s got a comparable amount of concern about who’s going to have his back in the summertime debt ceiling and deficit-reduction fights. It’s also the case that Democrats in politically vulnerable seats split 2 to 1 in favor of the deal: 30 of them who won last fall with less than 55 percent voted “yes” while 17 of them voted “no.”

BENEDICTION: The Rev. Dan Coughlin offered  his final opening prayer this morning before retiring after 11 years as the first Roman Catholic chaplain of the House. (No successor is likely before the recess ends; the Speaker will invite a series of guest chaplains to the rostrum each morning in the interim.)

Today’s invocation made no reference to the occasion, to the budget debate or to the unusual congregation. “Save your people, Lord, and bless your inheritance,” Coughlin said. “Show us your love and mercy, for we put our trust in you.” But Texas Republican Ted Poe then took the floor and said: “Father Coughlin has been here during troubling days of 9/11, during good times, and times that aren’t so good. ... You have to be in good with the Lord to pray for politicians every day.”

TRAIL TIPS: (1) First-quarter fundraising numbers underscore how Montana is going to have one of the most intensely competitive Senate races of 2012. Democrat Jon Tester reports raising more than $1.1 million for his second-term bid, while challenger Denny Rehberg, the state’s at-large Republican congressman for the past decade, raised more than $580,000 to add to the $500,000 left over after his last House race. Tester had $1.4 million in cash on hand April 1. Rehberg had $900,000.

(2) The early excitement about another potential Senate race barn-buner, in Pennsylavnia, is not going to be egged on by the new fundraising numbers. Democrat Bob Casey raised $1.1 million in January, February and March and has $2.1 million in the bank to get his second-term campaign off the ground. That’s not all that much in a bellwether state with two big media markets, but so far the Republicans haven’t come close to recruiting a top-flight candidate. Marc Scaringi, a former aide to Rick Santorum, and Scranton tea party leader Laureen Cummings are declared but pose no perceptible threat. And Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO Edward Stack may well decline GOP entreaties to run.

(3) Rematches are now on tap for both Republican-held House seats in New Hampshire. Carol Shea-Porter, one of the Capitol’s most unorthodox and liberal lawmakers from 2007 through 2010 — she was unique in refusing to reveal her date of birth, for example — is now officially out to reclaim her old seat. She lost by 12 percentage points last fall to Frank Guinta. Fellow Democrat Annie Kuster, who came within 2 points of winning the seat covering the state’s western half, will run again against Charlie Bass.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “The Oval Office, I always thought I was going to have really cool phones and stuff,” Obama offered at one of his Chicago fundraisers last night when asked by a donor about bottlenecks in technological innovation. “I’m like, c’mon guys, I’m the president of the United States. Where’s the fancy buttons and stuff and the big screen comes up? It doesn’t happen.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democratic Rep. Howard Berman of California turns 70 today, and GOP Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida reaches that milestone tomorrow.

On Monday, the second-youngest House member, the so-often “present” freshman Republican Justin Amash of Michigan, turns 31. Two other House members celebrate then: Wisconsin Democrat Gwen Moore (60) and Ohio Republican Bob Latta (55).

PUBLISHING SCHEDULE: Because both the House and Senate will be in recess, there won’t be a Daily Briefing for the next two weeks — unless highly significant Washington news events warrant it. Regular weekday publication will otherwise resume on Monday, May 2.

— David Hawkings, editor

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

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Editor's Picks From The CQ Roll Call Newsroom

GOP Expected to Back Medicare Shift (CQ Today)

House Republicans will adopt a budget resolution that calls for changing Medicare into a voucher program for future seniors — a step many consider political dynamite. » View full article

With Debt Debate Looming, Senators Eye Spending Caps (CQ Today)

A group of senators is advocating for statutory caps on federal spending. And they're using that stance to position themselves as dealmakers. » View full article

Boehner Turns to Democrats to Pass Spending Bill (Roll Call)

He needed many of the 81 Democrats who voted for the measure, and the situation presents a stark political reality that could hurt him in future battles. » View full article

Outlook: Innovation (CQ Roll Call)

Washington plays a big role in supporting innovation. But the politics and the policies vary by industry — and that's getting worse because of the budget divide between Hill Republicans and Obama's "winning the future" drive. » View full article
-----

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Dancing on the Ceiling

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, April 14, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and before 3 will have done its part to bring the short-term budget war to a close, by passing the Obama-Boehner compromise curbing appropriations at $38 billion below the level in place when the year began. The only suspense is how many conservative Republicans vote against their Speaker, and how many liberal Democrats vote against their president.

Seven hours of debate will then begin on the Republican blueprint for cutting $4.4 trillion from projected deficits in the next decade. The vote to adopt the non-binding plan (formally the budget resolution for next year) will come tomorrow — along with the rejection of four Democratic alternatives and one even-more-conservative GOP proposal.

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and is waiting for the House to send over the spending bill along with two other measures that would reopen the deal to take out its funding for Planned Parenthood and for implementing the health care overhaul. Those sidebar amendments will get party-line support in the House but will not get the necessary 60 votes in the Senate. But the appropriations package will be cleared with a bipartisan majority that’s comfortably above that 60-vote threshhold.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is talking over his own debt-reduction sketch (which seeks $4 trillion in red ink reduction over a dozen years) with Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson — the chairmen of the fiscal commission he named last year, and the recommendations from which he’s steered clear of until this week.

After a meeting at 2 with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani (an ally in the effort to topple Qaddafi), the president is flying to Chicago to speak at a trio of fundraisers that are expected to yield at least $13.7 million for the Democratic National Committee.

SUDDENLY, THIS SUMMER: Although by day’s end government shutdowns will have been averted for the next five months, there’s another deadline in only 10 weeks that’s far more important — and could be far more difficult to avoid.

Calendars should be circled on Friday, June 24. That’s the last day both halves of Congress will be in session before July 8, which the Treasury’s describing as the absolute last, all-accounting-maneuvers-have-been-exhausted moment when the debt ceiling is hit. (The House is supposed to be off the last week in June, then return the day after Independence Day to find the Senate chamber darkened for the week.)

Legislation to raise the ceiling, by increasing the government’s borrowing limit above $14.29 trillion, is absolutely going to be held hostage by the Republicans to an agreement on a plan for slowing the debt’s growth in the next decade. The frustration many GOP conservatives feel about the end result of the half-year spending bill assures they’ll dig in even harder on the next big fiscal policy showdown — even though they know full well how nervous the ultimate job-creators on Wall Street are going to get about a potential government default the closer Congress pushes toward the deadline.

Obama’s speech yesterday outlining his long-term budget vision and tomorrow’s House vote for a vastly different approach both make clear there’s no way actual deficit reduction legislatiopn will get done by the end of June. The best the champions of compromise can hope for is another Obama-Boehner-Reid handshake, one that’s written down but adopted by Congress only as a non-binding budget resolution — and which the House GOP freshmen and others sensitive to tea party sentiment are willing to accept as the price of their debt-limit votes. (Senate Republicans, though, may decide to just get out of the way and allow the debt increase bill to pass entirely on the backs of the Democrats.)

LONGER RAMP NEEDED: But even getting to a non-binding accord will prove a phenomenally tall order. Two months is hardly enough time for Democrats to abandon their four-decade commitment to Medicare as we know it — especially when the president said yesterday that he would never let it go. Nor is it enough time for Republicans to abandon “no new taxes” as the No. 1 item in their articles of ideological faith — especially when Boehner says he’ll never let that happen.

The president’s unusually accusatory rhetoric, which questioned the patriotism of the House GOP budget even with its author Paul Ryan in the front row, will surely buck up his own liberal base as much as it steels the conservatives.

And threatening to slow the pace even more is the White House’s idea of turning the negotiating over, at last at the outset, to a group of 16 lawmakers with Biden at the  head of the table. That’s about three times as many people as practical, especially when the timetable’s so short. And it would seem to cut out the group that was presumed to represent the best hope for a way forward: Chambliss, Coburn, Conrad, Crapo, Durbin and Warner.

That bipartisan Gang of Six will need at least the entire two-week congressional recess to get a deal that they can confidently predict will get through the Senate. But if that happens, then one way to get the higher-level negotiations to a make-or-break moment would be for one gang member from each party to sit down with Ryan and the president.

BEST/WORST: In the best scenario, all of this would get the budget talks to a place where the debt ceiling is raised before there’s any panic in the markets — and with plenty of time to debate the actual reconciliation legislation that would be needed to push through the tax increases and entitlement curbs that would be at the core of any meaningful bipartisan.

But in the worst scenario, the grand bargain budget talks collapse and then Republicans condition their debt-ceiling vote on something else entirely: legislation that could dictate across-the-board spending cuts perhaps starting as soon as in two years, if deficit reduction doesn’t hit specified targets.

BACKLASH FROM THE RIGHT: At least two out of three Republicans will vote for the spending bill today, meaning no more than 80 “no” votes in the House and 15 in the Senate. But that number of dissenters is probably 20 more in the House and five more in the Senate than it was yesterday, now that two prominent voices on the right have derided the package.

“There’s realism and then there’s cynicism. This deal — oversold and dependent on classic Washington budget trickery — comes too close to the latter. John Boehner has repeatedly said he’s going to reject ‘business as usual,’ but that’s what he’s offered,” the National Review declared this morning in an editorial, which termed the deal “strike one” of his Speakership.

Erick Erickson of Redstate.com, meanwhile, declared that Republicans who vote for the bill “should be driven into the street by the tea party movement and horsewhipped — metaphorically speaking. In reality, they should be primaried.”

FAA SHAKEUP: The official who oversees the nation’s air traffic system resigned today. House Transportation Chairman John Mica said Hank Krakowski was forced out in hopes of ending “a very bad week” for the FAA, in which there have been disclosures of controllers falling asleep in towers beyond the instance at Reagan National. The agency’s counsel, David Grizzle, will temporarily take over Krakowski’s duties while the FAA searches for a replacement.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Mike Haridopolos is living up to his reputation as a strong fund-raiser. The Florida state Senate president, who’s after next year’s Republican Senate nomination, raised $2.6 million in the first three months this year and still has almost all of it in the bank, he'll tell the FEC today. Incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson reported yesterday that he raised a little bit less in the first quarter, $2 million, but had at least $4.5 million in cash on hand at the start of this month.

(2) “I have no interest in that,” Jim DeMmint told National Review Online when asked if he was positioning himself to be the Republican vice presidential candidate next year. “I would recommend against it. I am more of a change agent than a support actor,” said the South Carolina senator, who remains one of the tea patry movement’s favorite members of Congress. “Somebody would have to be pretty desperate to do that,” he said of the 2012 nominee choosing him as a running mate.

(3) Alan Grayson is showing signs that he wants to bring his over-the-top rhetorical style back to Congress — probably by running for one of the two new seats Florida has been awarded under reapportionment or trying to get back the Orlando-based seat he lost last fall, after one term, to Republican Daniel Webster. Grayson has been keeping in frequent e-mail contact with donors and supporters and yesterday framed his opposition to the spending-cut compromise in characteristic terms: He said it would”kill” 70,000 children by cutting immunization programs — a strong echo of his famous claim that the GOP prescription for the health care overhaul was for the elderly  to “die quickly.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democratic Rep. Laura Richardson of California (49).

— David Hawkings, editor

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

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Editor's Picks From The CQ Roll Call Newsroom

Deficit Politics Now Moves to Congress (Roll Call)

The president's speech merely sets an opening bid for negotiations with the GOP over the next two months. » View full article

Rearguing the Social Contract (CQ Weekly)

Democrats are determined not to abandon the expansionist safety net for the elderly, the poor and the sick. Centrists tend to be more interested in solutions than ideology. And Republicans want to change the national conversation about what people get from their government. » View full article

Planned Parenthood Once Had GOP Pals (Roll Call)

Richard Nixon, Peggy Goldwater and the elder George Bush were among the supporters of family planning programs. » View full article

McConnell Faces Debt Limit Test (Roll Call)

Members of his leadership team acknowledged that Republicans have begun to strategize privately about whether and how to employ a filibuster on the legislation. » View full article

Quick Finish Sought for Fiscal 2011 Fight (CQ Today)

The bill could head to Obama by the end of the day. But as of Wednesday evening, Boehner was still selling the deal to his caucus. » View full article

Spending Deal Takes a Razor To Mohair Price Supports (CQ Today)

The subsidy has been a target of budget hawks for years. » View full article
-----

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dailybriefing@cqrollcall.com

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Taxes, Again

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama’s speech on his framework for combating deficits and curbing the growth of the debt begins at 1:35 at George Washington University.

He welcomed the bipartisan congressional leadership into the Cabinet Room at 10:40 to preview his proposal. Invited were Boehner, McConnell, Cantor and Kyl from the GOP and Reid, Pelosi, Durbin and Hoyer for the Democrats.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at noon and is expected to have its last vote by 7. Debate on the 24-week spending cut package will get started, but the vote on passage will come tomorrow.

The House will also pass Republican legislation to kill the Prevention and Public Health Fund created in the health care overhaul law to help improve primary care at community-based and other local health centers. Doing so would save $16 billion over a decade. There’s minimal chance the Senate will go along.

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 to return, once again, to the small-business research legislation. Reid is pushing for a deal he can announce this afternoon that would wind down the unrelated amendment bazaar, but now senators who didn’t get their way on the spending bill may want to try to get something on this bill instead.

DEBATE IN THE BALANCE: Nobody’s got a plan that would actually balance the budget anytime in the foreseeable future, but Obama is going to assert this afternoon that he’s got a more “balanced” approach than the Republicans for shrinking annual deficits and slowing the growth of the federal debt.

That, of course, is the president’s way of framing his profound and about-to-get-deeper fiscal policy differences with the GOP. And the biggest disconnect of all isn’t shaping up to be about the future of health care entitlements, or Social Security, or the ballooning defense budget. At least at the outset, it’s going to be about taxes.

The president will make clear this afternoon that raising them is part of his recipe for shedding $4 trillion in cumulative red ink during the next decade. He’ll almost certainly dig in and say that his acceptance in December of an extension of all the Bush tax cuts won’t be repeated; while he’ll be vague about the current tax rates for the vast majority of Americans, he’ll draw a bright line against continuing the 35 percent top tax rate for families making more than $250,000, which is set to become 39.6 percent a month after the 2012 election.

Beyond that, he’ll promise “tax reform that reduces spending in our tax code,” which means he wants to raise a lot of revenue by curtailing the roster of credits, deductions and other breaks that cost the Treasury $1.2 trillion a year.

REVENUE REVIEW: Even before heading to the White House this morning, the top two House Republicans held firm against those ideas. “Tax increases are unacceptable and are a non-starter,” Boehner declared in a statement. “We can’t raise taxes,” Cantor said this morning on CBS. “That was settled last November during the elections.”

But a glimmer of an opening for compromise was offered by Paul Ryan, even though he’s the author of the tax-cutting budget Republicans are getting ready to push through the House on a party-line vote Friday afternoon. While that budget would do the opposite of what Obama wants and drop the top tax rate to 25 percent from 35 percent after next year, it would reduce some of the same tax expenditures the president also has on his hit list. And on ABC this morning, Ryan emphasized that he was a supporter of “tax reform.” That may well mean that, while he’ll fight raising income tax rates, he could sign on to a budget that raises revenue by closing loopholes.

The three biggest tax expenditures, though, are presumably politically untouchable: The exclusion for employer-paid medical insurance, the exclusion for retirement savings and the deduction for mortgage interest. Combined, they result in almost $500 billion a year in lost IRS revenue.

LET THEM WORRY ABOUT THE DETAILS: Beyond the tax standoff, the president is going to talk about continuing the sort of domestic spending restraint embodied in last week’s midyear appropriations-bill deal, trimming the defense budget and holding down health care entitlement spending. He will specifically reject the House budget plan’s call for creating an insurance subsidy system for the elderly to replace Medicare. But he’s unlikely to offer specifics of what he’d like instead — once again leaving it up to Congress (as he most famously did on the health care bill) to come up with the details first.

And to that end, he continues to look for the Senate’s Gang of Six to unveil a bipartisan package two weeks from now that would be largely along the lines of what he wants. In recent days, the personal marketing skills of one of the group's three Republicans, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, have emerged as a strong key to reaching a grand bargain.

LINGERING DISSENT: Suspense is fading by the hour over whether the spending cut bill will get done before the deadline, which is once again just 60 hours away. The deal is cooked, and it will be embraced by decently-sized (and arguably bipartisan) majorities in the House tomorrow and in the Senate with a few hours to spare on Friday.

There’s no need to get anxious about the parliamentary maneuvering that might look, at least at first blush, like Republicans are going to pry open the deal by adding language to block funds for Planned Parenthood or carrying out the health care law. Even if that happens in the House, the required 60 senators won’t go for it.

Still, a decent number of old-line liberals and even some Democratic centrists are agitated, believing Obama gave away more than he had to — especially on spending for environment and Justice programs. And they may even enlist Hoyer as the highest-profile Democratic “no” vote in the House tomorrow.

And some pieces of the tea party movement are furious for the opposite reason: They’re concluding Boehner cut a deal that used so much accounting wizardry to get to the claim of $38 billion in domestic and foreign aid spending reductions. Others are annoyed that lawmakers gave their own overhead a relatively modest haircut along the way. But at least as many prominent fiscal conservatives are coming out in favor of the deal (Tom Price, Jeb Hensarling, for example) as are opposed (Jim Jordan, Mike Pence, etc.). And, while her presidential water-testing continues to draw a lot of attention in Iowa and in some national polls, very, very few of her colleagues in the GOP Conference care what Michelle Bachmann has to say about the deal.

Rand Paul may yet give voice to that discontent with an old-fashioned Senate filibuster that pushes a little too close for comfort to the deadline – which also marks the start of the two-week congressional recess.

R.I.P.: Sidney Harman, the audio equipment mogul who bought Newsweek last year and oversaw its merger with The Daily Beast, died in Washington late last night. He was 92 and learned that he had  leukemia only about a month ago — shortly after his wife, Jane Harman, resigned her California congressional seat to take the reins of the Woodrow Wilson Center, a foreign policy think tank.

THE OTHER DAILY BRIEFING: The only major league team in Washington that’s worthy of the postseason opens its first round playoff series against the New York Rangers at 7:30 in the Verizon Center. One great way to follow the Capitals’ run for the Stanley Cup is to read the particularly crisp and insightful blog Caps 'Round the Clock. (The author’s also a great guy.)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Three Democrats: Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania (51), California House members Susan Davis (67) and Jim Costa (59).

— David Hawkings, editor

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

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Editor's Picks From The CQ Roll Call Newsroom

Democrats Seek to Avoid Nasty Fight Over Debt Ceiling (CQ Today)

Baucus and Durbin stressed that a drawn-out debt debate — like the spending negotiation that led to a near-shutdown of the government last week — poses substantial risks. » View full article

Chambliss Holds the Cards as Bipartisan Warrior In 'Gang of Six' (Roll Call)

Can the folksy Georgian persuade his fellow Republicans to embrace a tax package that lowers rates but raises revenue? » View full article

Library of Congress Gets Hit Hardest With Cuts (Roll Call)

The institution would be forced to absorb a $13.4 million cut and would likely have to reduce staff. » View full article

CFPB's Future in Flux (CQ Weekly)

Industry opposition to the new consumer financial watchdog agency has been so strong that even its director is temporary. » View full article

Rail Safety Program Switched Off in Final Package (CQ Today)

Freight railroads scored a quiet victory in the negotiations that produced the fiscal 2011 spending package. It would cut off funding for a safety program that the freight carriers say provides too little benefit at too great a cost. » View full article
-----

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David Hawkings
dailybriefing@cqrollcall.com

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Reading the Fine Print

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and will recess from 12:30 to 2:15 for the weekly caucus lunches, which should yield a strong sense of how easily the midyear spending cut bill will move through Congress.

The only real business will be votes this afternoon confirming white-collar defense lawyer Vincent L. Briccetti as a federal judge in New York and state trial judge John A. Kronstadt as a federal judge in Los Angeles.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at noon to debate extending the life of the Reagan Centennial Commission for eight months and naming a West Virginia federal courthouse for a former judge there. Votes to pass those bills — and, more important, to give the whips an opportunity to gauge support for the spending bill — will be at 6:30.

THE WHITE HOUSE: At noon Obama and Biden will launch a national initiative headed by their wives to support and honor military families. The White House has asked Stanley McChrystal, who was fired last June as the top general in Afghanistan, to chair the program’s three-member advisory board.

The president has separate meetings during the afternoon with Clinton, Gates and OPM head John Berry.

This morning the vice president dedicated a plaque honoring Bob Dole at the World War II Memorial.

SPEED READING: After nine hours in the sunshine, so far nothing in the fine print of the midyear spending bill is being labeled a deal-breaker that could blow the compromise off course.

Even though the bill wasn’t actually introduced until about 2 this morning, GOP leaders say they still plan a House vote tomorrow evening — a clear violation of their oft-stated promise to put 72 hours between the unveiling of any legislation and the roll call. If that timetable holds, Democratic Senate leaders say there’s a solid chance they can get the bill cleared by Thursday night. (That’s because, if the outcome is clear, then senatorial opponents will want to get a head start on their two-week recess, and perhaps a bit of campaigning, more than they’ll want to make dilatory speeches.)

All that speed is designed to create the minimum window for opposition to build, especially in the House. Boehner knows he’ll be unable to achieve his goal of getting 218 Republican “yes” votes (which would show he could triumph without Democrats lifting a finger), but the GOP whip team isn’t really looking around in earnest for Democrats, because the backing of Obama and Reid will surely bring a decent supply of them along.

COMPLEX ACCOUNTING: All told, the bill would allocate $1.05 trillion for fiscal 2011, but only 24 weeks of that budget year will remain by the time Obama signs the deal into law. There’s still some argument about the best way to precisely measure how much of a cut that represents, but all the negotiators agree it’s between $38.5 billion and $39.9 billion — and that about $12 billion of that has already been dictated in the three most recent stopgap spending laws.

At least $12 billion more in purported savings would come from decisions that critics will describe as “accounting gimmicks,” and which would not actually count on official deficit reduction scorecards. This includes not spending on already-mothballed earmarks, not using some leftover or previously frozen highway construction money, not allocating more funds that had been set aside for the 2010 census, not spending all the money set aside in a rarely used crime victims compensation fund, not continuing a special dairy subsidy program that had already lapsed and not spending money that turned out to be more than necessary to subsidize medical care of poor children.

WHAT’S CUT, WHAT’S NOT: The Pentagon will get $513 billion, which is $5 billion more than last year but $2 billion less than what Republicans wanted. And there’s nothing for continued development of an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, suggesting that one of the most intensely lobbied procurement fights in memory is coming to an end.

The Homeland Security Department will see a 2 percent cut, mostly from grants to local first-responders — the first spending reduction since the department’s creation nine years ago. There’s also a $414 million cut from Justice Department grants to state and local police.

The EPA’s budget will be cut 16 percent, or $1.6 billion, mostly from suspending clean-water grants to cities. That’s about half what the House initially proposed.

Renewable-energy programs will be cut 20 percent, or $407 million.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees flood control and river dredging, will be cut 10 percent, or $578 million.

The maximum Pell grant will remain at the current $5,550; Republicans had proposed a 15 percent trim. (Pell grants for summer school will be cut, though.)

The National Institutes of Health will take a 1 percent cut of $260 million, one-sixth of what the House GOP proposed. But $600 million will be cut from a separate community health center program.

The National Science Foundation will get $6.9 billion, $307 million more than the House voted for back in February.

Family planning aid will be cut 5 percent, not totally ended as Republicans wanted.

Obama’s “Race to the Top” competitive education grants will be given a $700 million boost. The president also will get a combined $110 million more to help the SEC and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission start implementing the financial services regulatory changes enacted last year. And the FDA will get the money it needs to begin implementing last fall’s overhaul of food safety law. The House had voted against all of that.

That legislation also would have ended funding for AmeriCorps and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But both will survive under the bill.

ENTITLEMENT ENTANGLEMENTS: McConnell signaled in blunt terms today that Republicans aren’t going to simply and graciously take “yes” for an answer if Obama embraces the cause of curbing the growth of health care entitlements.

“Hopefully the president will put forward a plan that doesn’t just pay lip service to the commitments we’ve made to seniors and the poor, but which acknowledges the unique problems that this generation and a rising generation of Americans face,” the Republican leader said on the Senate floor. “But at least the president is joining in the conversation. Hopefully that conversation is an adult one and doesn’t devolve into the kind of unhelpful scripted, and frankly juvenile, name-calling that we saw in the closing hours of the debate over the continuing resolution.”

McConnell fired his warning shot as word spread that the president is ready to reverse course and endorse the approach advocated by his own bipartisan fiscal commission. The Simpson-Bowles panel in December advocated reducing cumulative deficits by $4 trillion in the next decade through controls on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security as well as from new taxes and reduction in defense as well as domestic spending.

Obama didn’t mention the commission in his own budget or his State of the Union address. Doing so now — in a speech tomorrow afternoon before an invited audience at George Washington University — is designed to set the president apart (but within compromising reach) of the Paul Ryan budget the House is going to adopt Friday, which would achieve a similar amount of deficit reduction mainly by privatizing Medicare and block-granting Medicaid — and without defense spending cuts or new taxes.

It will also add enormously to the pressure building on the bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators to come up with a proposal that would tackle all those fiscal policy sacred cows at once. Republicans in that group said yesterday that, while a deal is very close, any announcement will be postponed until after Congress returns May 2 from its two-week recess.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY:  GOP Rep. Tim Walberg of Michigan (60)



— David Hawkings, editor

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

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