Friday, May 20, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: On the Borderline

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, May 20, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is in the Oval Office now with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They will take questions during a photo op just after noon, then go back behind closed doors for more tense talks about the Middle East over lunch.

The president then heads to CIA headquarters in suburban Virginia,where at 3:10 he’ll thank workers from there and several other spy agencies for their contributions in tracking down Osama Bin laden.

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

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

BORDER BATTLE: Congressional reaction breaks down this way to Obama’s proposal that Israel’s pre-1967 borders be the starting point for a new round of Middle East peace talks: Republicans are almost universally deriding the idea as “indefensible,” the very word at the heart of Netanyahu’s initial reaction. The president’s fellow Democrats sound split, and many are scratching their heads about why he wants to spend some of his limited political capital reserve on a longshot, high-risk effort that will make many of his big donors and supporters angry — or at best, anxious.

Normally, it wouldn’t be all that important how lawmakers react to another twist in the never-ending and tangled tale of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But their opinions will get extra attention now, because they all have the opportunity to be on television applauding, or sitting on their hands, when Netanyahu claims the podium in the House chamber on Tuesday to offer his side of the argument.

“Giving land to those committed to Israel’s destruction hasn’t furthered peace in the past and will not work in the future,” Jim Jordan, the chairman of the most conservative caucus in the House, the GOP Study Committee, said this morning in a statement that echoed those of other senior Republicans. “We must reclaim our devotion to the strength and protection of Israel. America must always stand with our allies.”

What’s fair to note, though, is that the president didn't say the borders before the Six Day War should simply be restored, but that they be the starting point for adjustments based on subsequent Israeli settlements in the West Bank. And, while Obama said so more explicitly than his predecessors, that’s been a negotiating framework employed by both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — and one accepted by some of the Israeli governments those presidents were dealing with.

A BIN LADEN LEGACY: Next week’s first congressional roll call vote will settle a partisan argument over the future of the Patriot Act that’s lasted more than a year. The Republican leadership won — and their victory was essentially sealed in Abbottabad three weeks ago.

The Senate will vote at 5 on Monday to break a potential filibuster against extending three of the most controversial post-Sept. 11 expansions of law-enforcement powers to combat terrorism. Under a deal worked out yesterday by Boehner, McConnell and Reid (Pelosi was boxed out lest she get in the way), the provisions will be kept alive for four years. That’s a shorter time than most in the GOP wanted. But they got the better end of the deal because there will be none of the new privacy protections or other changes sought by civil libertarians on both the GOP right and the Democratic left.

The provisions, set to expire Memorial Day weekend, permit federal agents to compel businesses to release their records, issue roving wiretaps and monitor so-called lone wolf terror suspects. There have been no public revelation that any of those powers were crucial to the FBI or the CIA in their decade-long pursuit of Bin Laden, but it’s become politically perilous to argue against the virtues of any counterterrorism tools in the days since al Qaeda’s mastermind was killed.
 
STRAINED LABOR: The AFL-CIO will stop donating to congressional Democrats reflexively, Richard Trumka says, and will come up with a list this summer of lawmakers whose past support should be publicly dropped because they aren’t doing enough to push the organized labor agenda.

“It doesn’t matter if candidates and parties are controlling the wrecking ball or simply standing aside; the outcome is the same either way,” the president of the country’s biggest labor federation will say in a National Press Club speech this afternoon. “If leaders aren’t blocking the wrecking ball and advancing working families’ interests, working people will not support them.”

The advance text of his remarks makes clear that the AFL-CIO is ready to use its diminished clout in national politics the best (really the only) way it can — to threaten punishment to its usual friends in the Democratic Party, which would be carried out most importantly by denying the sort of energized stoop-labor that can turn out the vote in close congressional races and bellwether presidential states. (It’s also true that the labor movement may have less to spend in 2012 and has decided to focus on fights in states — Wisconsin and Ohio, especially — where worker rights are most under fire.)

LIMBO: Kent Conrad’s move to bottle up his half of the budget process (unless and until there’s a Blair House deficit-reduction-for-debt-increase swap) means the Senate Democratic majority is ducking a statutory responsibility that the House Republican majority grabbed by the tail. The GOP is wasting no time calling the other side out on it.

“Democrats are desperately trying to avoid having to present a budget to the American people,” said the top Republican on Senate Budget, Jeff Sessions. “They know that the big spenders in their caucus prevent them from bringing forward a credible plan that both their party and the country can support.”

That rhetorical missile underscores how the entire budget process is now in overt limbo at least until after the July 4 weekend — when the borrowing limit will have less than a month to live. Which is why there’s minimal chance any Republican will step in to take Tom Coburn’s place in negotiating for a grand bargain with the others in the Gang of Six. (Mark Kirk this morning urged fellow freshman Rob Portman to volunteer, citing the Ohioan’s past as an OMB director; it’s unlikely he’ll take the bait.)

TRAIL TIPS: (1) California Secretary of State Debra Bowen has conceded she’s out of the race to succeed Jane Harman in Congress. The now-nearly-final vote count has put her about 700 votes into third place and created a clear-cut ideological showdown July 12 between Republican businessman Craig Huey, who’s got tea party backing, and L.A. City Councilwoman Janice Hahn. Don’t look at the race as any bellwether of right-most GOP strength these days. The beachfront district is so reliably Democratic that Hahn is the prohibitive favorite — even though all the party’s candidates in Tuesday’s 16-person field garnered only 56 percent among them.

(2) The parties can pick their favorites for the Nov. 13 special election in the rural House district of Nevada, state Judge James Russell ruled yesterday. It’s a victory for the GOP, which fears losing the seat Den Heller held before his Senate appointment if tea partiers (meaning Sharron Angle) are allowed to contest the establishment choice in a primary. Unless the ruling is appealed, the parties will have until the end of June to chose nominees. Each side’s field seems wide open.

(3) Mazie Hirono is giving up her House seat after three terms to seek Hawaii’s open Senate seat — a move that further deepens and complicates the already crowded Democratic field. Former Rep. Ed Case is already in, and his rival freshman Rep. Colleen Hanabusa had been expected to announce soon. Also weighing bids are former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann and Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz. Daniel Akaka’s seat is almost certain to stay Democratic unless former Gov. Linda Lingle yields to the entreaties of Republican recruiters; she now says she won’t decide on her candidacy before Labor Day.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Senate Republican Mike Crapo of Idaho (60) and three House members: California Republican Wally Herger (66) and Democrats Nick Rahall of West Virginia (62) and freshman John Carney of Delware (55).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Springing for the Arabs

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is about to take the podium at the State Department and deliver his first comprehensive response to the Arab spring.

Tonight the president and Michelle Obama will appear at a pair of fundraisers — a giant one for Democratic women in the Grand Hyatt and an intimate one at a so-far-undisclosed local heavy hitter’s house.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and at 2 will vote to block the confirmation of Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu to a seat on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears contested cases from nine Western states. That will be the final vote of the week.

THE HOUSE: Not in session this week.

MOVE TO THE MIDDLE: There are plenty of carrots and sticks in Obama’s Middle East policy, as the speech he’s giving at this hour will make clear. It’s designed to show that the United States is eager to help nations modernize their economies if they turn to democracy — and is willing to punish them if they don’t.

The president will forcefully defend and detail the harsh sanctions he placed yesterday by executive order on President Bashar Assad and six other senior Syrian officials for human rights abuses over their crackdown on anti-government protests, in which more than 850 people have died since March. While he won’t quite call for a resignation by Assad — who had been been viewed by Obama’s team as a pragmatist and potential reformer until this spring — he’ll come very close, with shape-up-or-ship-out rhetoric about the need for leaders in Syria to embrace the region’s rising democratic tide.

But Obama will also announce that he’s canceling roughly $1 billion in debt owed by Egypt so that it can invest the money instead in economic development and jobs for young people as a way to combat the runaway unemployment that threatens to stifle the fledgling democracy in the post-Mubarak era. The president will then promise $1 billion more in loan guarantees for Egypt through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a U.S. government institution that mobilizes private capital. And he will reveal new steps to bolster loans, trade and international support for both Egypt and Tunisia, the other country in the region where relatively peaceful protests this year have led to change.

Obama will also use this address to make some sort of renewed pitch for a revival of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in advance of his meeting tomorrow with Benjamin Netanyahu. (Israel’s prime minister will stick around town for the weekend and address a joint session of Congress on Tuesday.) Obama is expected to warn both sides in somewhat vague terms that they face greater risks by not coming together, but will reserve any proposal about the region’s settlement disputes for private talks.

LOSING GOODWIN: Obama will suffer his first outright judicial defeat because only a couple of Republicans will vote to break their leadership’s filibuster against Goodwin Liu, and seven will be required to join the Democrats to advance the nomination to a straightforward up-or-down vote.

Reid has decided to force today’s roll call without any hope of winning — but with high hopes it will help his side if the judicial wars are revived for the 2012 presidential campaign. At a minimum, the Democrats should be able to raise a few million dollars from fundraising letters lamenting the defeat of Liu, who’s just the sort of person the party’s base wants on the federal bench: he’s young (just 40), liberal on social issues and an undeniably brilliant and persuasive legal scholar.

Of course, it’s for all those reasons that Republicans have been out to stop Liu since his nomination got through the Judiciary Committee a year ago. They also fear he’d have an activist judicial temperament and think he had best be stopped before he gets a step closer to being a top-tier potential Supreme Court nominee — especially because he’s been pungently critical of both the justices (Roberts and Alito) Bush got on the court.

The most recent Senate “gang” that gained fame for reaching an important bipartisan breakthrough was the Gang of 14 that brokered a compromise in 2005 designed to stop judicial filibusters except under “extraordinary circumstances.” Only four GOP senators from that group are still in office. John McCain says Liu is so outside the mainstream that he meets that test and deserves to be blocked. Lindsey Graham, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe have so far held their tongues.

TAKE FIVE: What’s left of this year’s Gang of Six, meanwhile, will probably be renamed Five for Fighting by the end of the day.

“It is not realistic to expect six members to pull the Senate out of its dysfunction and lethargy,” former gang member Tom Coburn writes in a Washington Post op-ed today. “Working groups have their place — but they should support, not replace, the open work of the full Senate. The truth is that we already have a permanent standing debt commission. It’s called Congress.”

The two remaining Republicans and the three Democrats are ready to join the Oklahoman in going on an indefinite “sabbatical” after one more get-together. That’s because there is no way they can hope to form a unified front behind some grand bargain — not with Reid now firmly out in front against any trims in Social Security (the most important concession of the old gang’s Democrats) and McConnell still firmly out in front against revenue increases of any kind (the most important concession of the old gang’s Republicans).

Those positions will only harden next week when the Senate takes its symbolic votes on a pair of proposals that frame two extremes of the current deficit reduction debate: The budget Obama sent to Congress in February will be opposed by all 47 Republicans, and the budget the Republican House adopted in April will be opposed by all 53 Democrats. So neither will get the 60 votes needed to get out of the starting gate, and all the senators can scurry back to their respective partisan corners.

NO RESOLUTION: Those offsetting rejections will render temporarily meaningless anything Kent Conrad might be able to get through his Budget Committee, and so he’s likely to announce this afternoon that he’ll wait on a budget resolution until it’s time to carry out whatever deal gets reached at the Blair House summit — or by Obama, Boehner and Reid sitting around a table — in the days before the debt ceiling gets hit.

Two GOP leaders, four Democrats and Biden will be back at the table Tuesday. All sides say they still aspire to trillions of dollars in deficit reduction, but so far they’ve only got to $150 billion in cuts — mostly from consolidating duplicative programs, selling surplus government property, curbing farm subsidies and reining in federal worker and retiree benefits (by imposing higher Tricare premiums for military retirees in civilian jobs, for example).

GIFFORDS RECOVERY: “Everything went as planned. Her neurosurgeons are very happy. She’s recuperating and she’s actually getting back to therapy today. It went really, really well,” Mark Kelly said this morning, updating the world on his wife, Gabby Giffords, while he circled the globe aboard the International Space Station.

The space shuttle Endeavor’s commander said he’d been in frequent contact with the congresswoman’s doctors yesterday, when they placed a piece of custom-molded plastic into the part of her skull removed to relieve brain swelling after she was shot 18 weeks ago. “She was ready and doctors wanted to do it then, and it didn’t make sense to wait a couple weeks until I got back,” he said. And he suspended Giffords’ wedding ring, which he’s wearing around his neck, in weightlessness for a second before the cameras.

FRENCH TWIST: Now that Dominique Strauss-Kahn has resigned to spend more time with his lawyers, the fight between Europe and the developing world over who should get the great IMF corner office on Pennsylvania Avenue will break into the open.

The Monetary Fund’s governing board said last night that John Lipsky would remain acting managing director until someone is elected to serve the final three years of Strauss-Kahn’s term . Europeans have led the IMF since its inception after World War II and appear to be uniting behind French Foreign Minster Christine Lagarde to take the helm. But China, Brazil and South Africa are leading an effort to install someone from the developing world.

At a hearing this afternoon, Strauss-Kahn is likely to be told he can leave his Rikers Island cell as soon as he posts $1 million in bail, surrenders his passport and puts on an ankle bracelet monitor. His lawyers say he’s willing to do all three.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democratic Rep. Brad Miller of North Carolina (58).

— David Hawkings, editor

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

Copyright 2011 CQ Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved | Privacy Policy

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: With or Without You

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and at 2:30 will vote to block the heart of the Republicans’ energy plan — legislation (similar to the package of bills passed by the House) that would increase the domestic oil supply by speeding up offshore lease sales the approval of drilling permit requests.

The bill needs 60 votes to advance, but the outcome will look very similar to yesterday’s 52-48 vote that blocked the Democrats’ top priority for changing energy policy, which is ending tax breaks for big oil companies. GOP centrists Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe may join the Democrats in opposing the “drill baby, drill” bill (as they did yesterday to support the tax break repeal). And Democrats Mary Landrieu, Mark Begich and Ben Nelson may side with the GOP for a second straight day.

THE HOUSE: Not in session this week.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is delivering his final commencement address of the year, to the 229 graduates who will be commissioned as ensigns by the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. He’s then off to Boston for a pair of fundraisers: He’ll speak to about 900 donors at the Boston Center for the Arts, then have dinner with 30 high-rollers in a private home (owner not yet revealed) before returning to the White House at 11:30.

THE EMPTY SEAT: Tom Coburn had always been the indispensable man in the Gang of Six. Had he signed on to raising revenue as part of a tough-love deficit deal, he’d have given cover to perhaps dozens of other anti-tax Republicans to do the same. So unless he’s persuaded to come back to the table (which looks only mildly possible, even though his office insists he’s only “taking a break”), there won’t be any any multitrillion-dollar, tax-hikes-for-entitlement-cuts grand bargain this summer.

Instead, all the attention will be focused anew on the Blair House summit, where Biden, four congressional Democrats and two GOP leaders appear to be looking only for as much deficit reduction ($1 trillion, maybe) as would be needed to get the GOP to vote to raise the debt ceiling high enough to allow borrowing to continue uninterrupted until after the 2012 election.

Their next session will be next week, when Obama will also press his fiscal policy case in separate meetings with all House Republicans and all House Democrats. (The newly named Table for Five, meanwhile, plans to meet today to decide what, if anything, they might accomplish without Coburn.)

What’s most likely is that, if the Biden group can reach a downpayment deal before the Aug. 2 debt-default deadline, then Coburn would be open to getting back into discussions on a long-term solution in the fall with fellow Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Mike Crapo and Democrats Dick Durbin, Mark Warner and Kent Conrad.

Coburn was a member of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission and voted in December in favor of the panel’s plan, which called for $995 billion in tax increases over a decade. And ever since he has faced intensifying pressure to reverse course and say a hard “no” on taxes from Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, and from his supporters back home in Oklahoma, where he won his second term last year with 70 percent of the vote. The word being spread by Democratic aides overnight is that a deal got awfully close just before the April recess. But it fell apart when Coburn came back to Washington with demands that in return for supporting some higher taxes the Medicare cut would have to be $530 billion,  or one-third more than what the group tentatively agreed to accept.

YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS STUFF UP: Newt Gingrich’s supernova implosion as a presidential candidate is as predictable as it is disappointing for those in the Capitol press corps who remember how fun it was to have him as Speaker: his Falstaffian self-confidence, over-the-top bombast, Baroque mood swings, limitless store of crazy ideas, soap-operatic personal life and total lack of message discipline were as wonderful to cover as they were infuriating to the fellow Republicans who ultimately pushed him out of Congress — and as useful in raising his public profile as they are disastrous for a national campaign.

Apologizing to Paul Ryan on TV last night for terming the House Medicare plan “right-wing social engineering” was totally predictable and will prove to be far too little and far too late. Today’s coverage has focused instead on the footage of the (unidentified) man in Dubuque who grasped Gingrich’s hand yesterday and wouldn’t let go until he’d called the candidate “an embarrassment to our party” and then pleaded, “Get out now before you make a bigger fool of yourself.”

Just maybe, Gingrich could have survived his budget flip-flop and eventually  won back Rush Limbaugh and others in the conservative commentariat — and maybe even a few House Republicans other than Jack Kingston, the fellow Georgian who tossed him a lifeline endorsement yesterday. But the right is also angry that Gingrich has been confusing in trying to walk back his previous support for the sort of mandatory health insurance coverage that the Obama law requires. And now they are beside themselves with pique at revelations that he once was more than $250,000 in debt to Tiffanys. It's a story that will remind everyone not only about his mistress-turned-third-wife Callista, but also will raise “$400 haircut”-like questions about how well he understands the lives of regular people. (Conservatives don't care much that he got doused with glitter by a gay rights activist yesterday.)

LIFE AFTER DSK: Dominique Strauss-Kahn is tabloid catnip in both New York, where he’s now on suicide watch in his Rikers Island jail cell, and Paris, where he was until the weekend the clear frontrunner to become the next president of France. But Strauss-Kahn’s lurid downfall will become a story for the much more sober Washington media scrum soon enough.
 
That’s because, as Geithner put as delicately as possible yesterday, “He is obviously not in a position to run the IMF,” which along with the World Bank is the premier global financial institution within a cab ride of the Capitol.

No corporate executive or congressman could stay on the job while in the dock on charges that he sexually assaulted and tried to rape a chambermaid in his lavish hotel suite. But so far Strauss-Kahn (who may be out on bail by week’s end so long as he wears a GPS as an ankle cuff) has hung on, presumably realizing that resignation would be perceived as an admission of guilt. (He says he’s innocent.) Still, the jockeying to replace him for the last three years of his term is clearly under way.

The main debate is whether the next IMF head — who would have the opportunity to become a major political and social presence in Washington — should come from a developing country or the more customary Europe. Possible candidates who would fit the former scenario include a governor of Mexico’s central bank, Singapore’s top financial official, former finance ministers from Turkey and South Africa, an Indian economist , a former Brazilian central bank president and a top aide to Strauss-Kahn who’s Chinese. The four European candidates being mentioned most often are the French finance minister, a  former head of the German central bank, a former German finance minister and the head of the European Union bailout fund.

WASN’T EXPECTING THAT: The Los Angeles County Clerk’s office today will begin hand-counting 9,800 or so absentee, provisional and damaged ballots to see who the second candidate will be (to face labor-backed Democratic City Councilwoman Janice Hahn of L.A.) in the July 12 runoff for Jane Harman’s former congressional seat.

With all precincts reporting overnight, Republican businessman Craig Huey had a surprising but tiny 206-vote lead for the second spot on the ballot over California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, the Democratic favorite of environmentalists. If Huey’s lead holds, Hahn would become the overwhelming favorite to win the seat, which takes in some of California’s most fabulous beaches and aerospace firms and which Obama carried by 30 points three years ago.) There were 16 candidates on the ballot, and under a new state law the top two finishers advance in a special election when no one wins an outright majority.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY:  Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico (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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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Some Friend

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and at about 6:15 will reject Democratic legislation to repeal $21 billion in tax breaks during the next decade for ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Royal Dutch Shell and ConocoPhillips. Both sides have agreed the bill will need 60 votes to advance, and none of the 47 Republicans will help that effort. (Tomorrow the Democrats will return the favor by blocking the GOP legislative vehicle for combating rising fuel prices by encouraging offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, Virginia, and Alaska. But the contours of a bipartisan consensus on drilling may emerge at a hearing this morning.)

Just before the weekly caucus lunches, Susan Carney (who’s been Yale’s deputy general counsel for a decade) will be confirmed as a judge on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

THE HOUSE: Not in session this week.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II about the recent democratic uprisings across the Mideast and North Africa; the two will conduct a joint news conference just after noon.

The president will host an East Room reception at 2:50 in honor of Jewish American Heritage month.

OOPS: Lambasting the House’s “radical” Medicare plan will go down as the first big backfire in this chapter of Newt Gingrich’s career, which is already replete with plenty of big backfires.

By labeling as “right-wing social engineering” the budget that 235 House Republicans voted for, the former Speaker was presumably trying to make a crassly calculated flip-flop appeal to the elderly people of Iowa, who will be crucial to deciding the next GOP presidential nominee. (Remember, a few weeks ago Gingrich marveled at the “scale and courage” of the budget.) Instead, he so flabbergasted and infuriated his former congressional colleagues that they made clear yesterday that they’ll work to make him an afterthought long before the Iowa caucuses. (None of the other GOP presidential aspirants has actually endorsed the House plan, but none of them has showered it with brickbats, either.)

And, if Gingrich was hoping his overheated rhetoric would incinerate Paul Ryan’s budget, he got that totally wrong. Instead, the past two days have seen a revival of thoughts for the Budget chairman’s plans. Reacting to Gingrich’s “Meet the Press” remarks afforded Ryan an opportunity to sell his entititlements vision anew.

In particular, he’s been able to refocus attention on facets that Democrats had been succeeding in obscuring: For people 55 and younger, Medicare would become a subsidized voucher system (so benefits of current recipients wouldn’t be touched). And the market-based system would have a chance to get “health-care spending under control by empowering Americans to fight back against skyrocketing costs,” he said in Chicago yesterday.

All this is having the effect of helping to keep reduction in Medicare spending on the big deficit-reduction negotiating table, although not very likely in the form Ryan has in mind. Even Pelosi said yesterday that some non-House-GOP changes in the system should be part of the talks.

It’s also having the effect of elevating Ryan’s profile even more, so that one of his other crusades — to give the president more powers to reject some discretionary spending decisions by Congress — is sure to have more life than it might have otherwise. Ryan says he and Chris Van Hollen, House Budget’s top Democrat, will get a House vote this summer on this “enhanced rescission” idea, which would replace the line-item veto struck down by the Supreme Court in the 1990s.

TAIL GUNNER: Sure, he’s chairman of Senate Foreign Relations. But that isn’t the reason Pakistan chose to give John Kerry the privilege of scooping the White House on yesterday’s big announcement out of Islamabad: The Pakistani government will be returning the secretly stealthy tail of the helicopter that crash-landed at Osama bin Laden’s house two weeks ago — in what Kerry promises will be only the first step in Pakistan’s effort to get back on the good side of lawmakers who control the foreign aid faucets.

The real reason Kerry got to make the announcement is that the president (who surely knew in advance) decided that now might be a good time to audition the senator for the role he’s wanted since losing his bid for the presidency seven years ago: secretary of State, a job that Hillary Clinton says she’d relinquish if Obama wins another term. Kerry will by 69 at the next inauguration, and if he doesn’t get the keys to Foggy Bottom then he’ll probably decide to get out of public life for good when his fifth term ends in 2014.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Paul Ryan will announce today that he’s making the obvious political choice for next year: He won’t run for the Senate in Wisconsin because he wants to remain chairman of House Budget, the bully pulpit that makes him the most prominent voice among Republicans on fiscal policy. The decision makes 69-year-old Tommy Thompson, who was governor from 1987 through 2000 and then was HHS secretary for four years, the early Republican front-runner for Herb Kohl’s unexpectedly open seat — and just hours after he revealed he wants to make another stab at a  political comeback. (He briefly ran for president in 2008.) Joining the getting-very-crowded Democratic field, meanwhile, will be Steve Kagan, who lost his bid for a third House term last fall representing the Green Bay area.

(2) Today’s special congressional election in Southern California will not produce a freshman Democratic member just yet. With the help of strong backing from labor unions, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn will get the most votes among the 16 candidates — but she won’t win an outright majority and so will move on to a July 12 runoff against the certain runner up, Secretary of State Debra Bowen, whose base lies in the more liberal environmental movement. (Three Republicans will divide the area’s relatively modest GOP vote, so none of them has a chance to move on to the second round.) The House seat had been held by fellow Democrat Jane Harman, now president of the Woodrow Wilson Center.

(3) Two more Republicans yesterday made unambiguous their plans to give up their House seats to run for the Senate. One has a much straighter shot at moving across the Capitol than the other. Freshman Rick Berg, who was previously statehouse majority leader for six years, becomes the clear frontrunner for the party’s nomination to succeed Kent Conrad in GOP-leaning North Dakota. But Todd Akin, who’s represented the St. Louis suburbs for a decade, looks to face an intense primary against both state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and wealthy St. Louis businessman John Brunner. And even if he wins that, there’s plenty of reason to believe Democrat Claire McCaskill can overcome her recent spate of missteps and secure a second term in perennial tossup Missouri.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “He is in a more solid position than ever for his show, he got publicity from the campaign and he probably got a better deal with NBC,” Fred Thompson — the former senator who briefly suspended his return to acting to run for the GOP nomination in 2008 — said about Donald Trump’s presidential flirtation in Variety. “I think he played it beautifully.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: One of the most conservative Democratic senators, Ben Nelson of Nebraska (70), and one of the most liberal Democratic House members, George Miller of California (66).

— David Hawkings, editor

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

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The legislation mirrors some of the initiatives for boosting domestic offshore oil production that Obama embraced over the weekend. » View full article

Pickens' New Plan: No Wind (Roll Call)

In an interview, the Texas billionaire defended his new focus as the only practical way forward. » View full article

John Cranford's Political Economy: Boehner vs. Bernanke (CQ Weekly)

The Fed chairman isn't saying that the Speaker is blowing smoke. But he's coming as close to saying it as any official — especially any central banker — ever would. » View full article

Bill Would Create Greater Rescission Power (CQ Today)

Ryan says the Budget panel wants to revive a proposal to give presidents more power to challenge discretionary spending approved by Congress. » View full article

Hahn, Bowen Expected to Move On in Special Election (Roll Call)

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn and California Secretary of State Debra Bowen are expected to advance to the July 12 runoff in the 36th District. » View full article
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dailybriefing@cqrollcall.com

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Monday, May 16, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: 78 Days in the Desert

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, May 16, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: After meeting with families affected by Mississippi River flooding, Obama is delivering the commencement address at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, the winner of his 2011 Race to the Top Commencement Challenge.

He’ll be back in town in time to welcome the NCAA champion UConn men’s basketball team in the East Room at 5:35. After that, he’s speaking at a pair of DNC fundraisers — in the St. Regis at 6:55 and in the Capital Hilton at 9:25.

Biden is in Chicago to represent the administration at Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral inauguration.

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 for an afternoon devoted to speechmaking.

THE HOUSE: Not in session until next Monday, May 23.

THEY GOT AN EXTENSION: Today’s the day when the federal government “officially” reaches the current legal limit on its debt. It’s $14 trillion plus $294 billion, to be precise. But nothing’s all that precise when the numbers get that big, which is why the Treasury has several options for postponing a default by the most powerful government in the world — for the next 78 days.

Which means 11 weeks from tomorrow is the last day for Congress to not only negotiate, but clear, legislation setting budget-cutting conditions for an extension of federal borrowing power. The more projected deficits get trimmed, the higher the debt ceiling will be allowed to rise.

The most optimistic hope is that Obama and the Republicans can find a way to claim $2 trillion or so in reduced red ink during the next 10 years (with some sort of enforcement mechanism) and a boost in the debt ceiling by a comparable amount, which would keep the Treasury solvent only for a few months longer than a single year. More realistically, a standoff over revenues will mean the best that can be accomplished by August is a downpayment on the next decade’s spending cuts in the $100 billion range — and in return there will be only a stopgap debt ceiling increase, maybe lasting a month or two.

The Congress-is-like-high-school truism, in this case, is that lawmakers tend to wait until just before a big deadline to do what they’ve got to do, just as so many teenagers don’t start pounding away at their term papers and cracking their textbooks until the run-up to finals. That’s why the last three weeks of July look to be the first and only time at last a preliminary budget deal will really gel. If it’s just a stopgap, then the last few weeks before Thanksgiving will become the real let’s-make-a-deal time.

OH SO QUIET: Biden insisted last week that the contours of an agreement were taking shape in his Blair House talks, but Boehner said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” yesterday, “I’m not seeing any real action.”

And he’s not going to see any action at all before next  week. For starters, the House is in recess, so all the negotiators are out of own and the GOP whips have minimal ability to try to gauge their most rebellious lawmakers about what they want.

At the same time, Obama is turning his public face elsewhere for the week — to the Middle East, mainly, but also to a search for compromise with the GOP on offshore drilling policy, with the hope of calming public anxiety about gas prices.

And Kent Conrad is postponing his budget markup indefinitely because he remains unable to sketch a plan that can unite all Democrats on his Senate Budget Committee. (His latest plan, designed to win over the liberal Bernie Sanders, has turned off centrists because it would use revenue increases to claim half its $4 trillion in reduced deficits over the next decade.)

THOSE OTHER TALKS: That markup will become meaningless, of course, if the Gang of Six (of which Conrad is one) defies the conventional wisdom and comes to an agreement on a grand bargain like the one espoused by Obama’s fiscal commission — one that enrages both parties equally by relying on both big tax increases and deep entitlement cuts. Conrad, Dick Durbin, Mark Warner, Saxby Chambliss, Tom Coburn and Mike Crapo are sending signals that they’re getting really, really close.

But we’ve heard that before. And this push toward accord comes not only at a time when McConnell is tacitly dismissing the Gang’s efforts (by drawing such a firm line against raising revenue), but also at a time when the boldest possible move to rein in entitlements — Paul Ryan’s Medicare privatization plan — is being derided by none other than Newt Gingrich. “I’m against Obamacare, which is imposing radical change,” he said on NBC’s “Meet The Press” yesterday. “And I would be against a conservative imposing radical change.”

How long Gingrich sticks with that criticism is an open question; he said just a couple of weeks ago that he would have voted for the House’s budget. Betting odds are he’ll complicate his health care views with another over-the-top declaration by the end of the week — which is also when Ryan is promising to announce whether he’ll give up his enormous power as House Budget chairman to go after Wisconsin’s open Senate seat in 2012.

The betting odds on that one? Ryan will decide to stand pat — especially because several other Republicans with plenty of their own money to spend (businessman Tim Michaels, former Rep. Mark Neumann) wouldn’t clear the field for him. But at least two members of the state’s House delegation are likely to run: Ron Kind and Tammy Baldwin.

NO SURE THING: That unexpectedly and suddenly fluid situation (Democrats really thought Herb Kohl was going to run for a fifth term) is a reminder that, for all the talk about the never-ending nature of the federal campaign cycle, the parameters of a big race can stay in flux for a long while.

Arizona’s open Senate seat, for example, looks for now to stay in Republican hands — but the betting line would become totally different if Gabby Giffords gets well enough to run for the seat. And her presence would so transform that campaign (which would be flooded with millions of dollars in donations almost immediately because of the situation’s movie-of-the-week storyline) that Giffords and the Democrats can afford to wait maybe as long as the end of the year to decide if her mental and physical states make the race feasible.

Four months after being shot in the head, she was in Florida this morning (albeit completely shielded from the cameras) to watch her husband Michael Kelly pilot Endeavor on a flawless beginning of its final mission (and the penultimate shuttle mission before what will probably be a decade or more without any space flight at all with people on board.)

SUDDENLY MORE SOLID: Fluid Political Situation No. 1, of course, has been the forming of the Republican presidential field. But now that’s almost done, as the ground game begins in Iowa and New Hampshire. After Donald Trump announces  his plans today — and the fact that NBC’s signed up for another “Apprentice” season means he’s unlikely to get in — then Mitch Daniels will be the only question mark. (His genuinely enigmatic approach makes the likelihood of his candidacy a true tossup.)

And Mike Huckabee’s demurral, though totally expected, has breathed new life into two of the three candidacies with ties to Congress. The preacher and former Arkansas governor would have based his candidacy on an appeal to social conservatives, who will now be looking for an alternative. And both Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Sen. Rick Santorum have every right to claim they’re true-believer crusaders for the social conservatives’ cause. (Rep. Ron “Legalize It” Paul of Texas, not so much.)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Republican Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana (68), Democratic House veterans John Conyers of Michigan (82) and Jim Moran of Virginia ( 66).

— David Hawkings, editor

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

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Kohl Exit Makes Map Tougher for Democrats (Roll Call)

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Means Testing for Medicare, Once Shunned, Is Now Being Embraced (CQ Today)

Momentum is again building to link Medicare premiums to income. » View full article

Advocates Invade Iowa, New Hampshire (Roll Call)

Early primary and caucus states not only offer access to candidates themselves, they also provide a valuable audience that includes a tuned-in electorate and swarms of reporters. » View full article

Grounding an American Dream (CQ Weekly)

The U.S. space program has long inspired curiosity and patriotism. But dreams don't pay the bills, and spaceflight could be on permanent hiatus. » View full article
-----

Contact The Editor

David Hawkings
dailybriefing@cqrollcall.com

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» CQ Today   » CQ HealthBeat   » See all CQ Roll Call
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