Friday, July 15, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Plans, Plans and More Plans

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, July 15, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: “We should not even be this close to the deadline,” Obama said in opening his latest news conference on the debt limit impasse. He once again used his nationally televised bully pulpit to urge “my Republican friends” to embrace a grand bargain of entitlement curbs in return for tax increases on the rich — but then said, “Let’s at least try to get a down payment on deficit reduction.”

This afternoon, the president will call to check in on the crews of the space shuttle Atlantis and the International Space Station and then meet with Ruby Bridges Hall, who was the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South. (Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting of her 1960 arrival at William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, “The Problem We All Live With,” is on loan to the government and was recently hung outside the Oval Office.)

This morning the president picked Jill Biden, Chelsea Clinton and Ambassador to Germany Philip Murphy to represent him at Sunday afternoon’s Women’s World Cup final in Frankfurt between the United States and Japan.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and will be done for the week by 1:30, after bringing five days of debate to a close and passing a  $30.6 billion bill dictating energy and water spending next year. A long series of roll calls on amendments is now under way.  The final vote will fall decidedly along party lines, because most Democrats abhor the measure’s proposed cuts in environmental programs.

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

ACTING LIKE GROWNUPS: McConnell’s so-called Plan B — on which he’s now working with Reid to shape into a Plan A that can get through the Senate with at least 60 votes by the end of next week — is “everything that’s wrong with Washington,” the influential fiscally conservative Club for Growth declared this morning. Authors of civics textbooks, and those lawmakers and lobbyists who remember when Congress was a functional institution, will surely agree. But that’s not the reality now. The reality is that calamitous default looms in 18 days that could strip the United States of its title as the world’s only remaining superpower — and some sort of legislation has to start moving through the pipeline now if anything is to emerge in time to forestall disaster the morning of Aug. 3.

Remember the shutdown-averting midyear spending deal, the one reached with 45 minutes to go back in April? It was not enacted for fully another week, because it took that much time to get from handshake to legislative language to debates and votes. And that was for a bill to save $40 billion – or 2 percent the amount of deficit reduction ($2.4 trillion) that's the most ambitious goal now.

The top two senators, products of that older time, understand the limits of their aspirations now because they’ve been through similar (but far less consequential) standoffs so often before. And each has concluded it’s in his side’s best political interest to transform the fiscal standoff, starting right away, into the main stage for the 2012 campaign.

So long as the majority leader doesn’t spoil the mood by calling Republicans “childish” on the floor any more, he and the minority leader shouldn’t have too much trouble assembling a package that combines McConnell’s complex mechanism of this week — Obama gets to borrow what's needed to finance the government until 2013 but fellow Democrats in Congress have to cast at least three politically painful votes to support him — along with some binding limits for the next 10 years of discretionary spending (designed to save about $1 trillion) and the creation of one or maybe even two special military-base-closing-like panels that would propose tax and entitlement changes that Congress could adopt or reject but not amend.

NO GUARANTEES: The reason that package needs to get passed by the Senate in the next seven days is that it faces a very rough time in the House, where Boehner and Cantor — despite their so-awkward abrazo yesterday — are very likely to part company on the measure. The dynamics may change a hundred times between now and then, but for today (especially after this morning’s House caucus) the best bet is the Speaker will get fully on board, the majority leader will come out against it, and opposition by most of the tea-party-influenced junior members will make passage — at least on the first try — highly problematic. Like the TARP votes of three years ago, it may yet take an initial House defeat, and some palpable Wall Street anxiety afterward, to set the parameters for the real endgame starting the week of July 25.

No one (including the president) believes, in other words, that anything will come of his request for the GOP leaders to report back by tomorrow on what proposals can win over their rank-and-file. The elite eight (or maybe just the big four, because that would get Cantor out of the room) have been asked to be on call this weekend, but they should not expect the phone to ring with the president’s scheduler on the line. The Cabinet Room table has been used for the last time in this process. The president is once again going to be leaving it to the lawmakers — as he’s done on health care and so many other issues — to fill in the “details" from here on out.

The latest group thinking in the House GOP ranks is that focusing next week on debating a balanced-budget constitutional amendment will afford the hell-bent-for-leather conservatives an opportunity to vent before the more meaningful measure comes before them — even though there’s almost no chance such an amendment has the necessary two-thirds majorities on either side of the Capitol.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: In a city where the House’s 87 Republican freshmen majority makers have been getting such a disproportionate share of this year’s ink and airtime, it was one of the nine Democratic newcomers who more or less singlehandedly won last night’s 50th annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game. (A gate of more than 7,700 at Nationals Park assured about $150,000 would be donated to charity.)

Cedric Richmond, the new congressman for New Orleans, took a no-hitter into the sixth inning and struck out an astonishing 13 in a complete game, 8-2 Democratic drubbing of the Republicans. The 37-year-old Richmond, who played for Morehouse in the 1990s, also went 4-for-4 and drove in a run. (An official box score won’t be available until next week, giving the players an opportunity to "revise and extend" their statistics.) Still, Richmond’s dominant performance engendered plenty of joking in the stands about how the GOP should have spent more trying to keep underdog one-termer Joseph Cao in the Louisiana seat last fall — and should make sure to start looking to recruit a young and talented pitcher with a good chance of winning a House seat somewhere next year. (John Shimkus of Illinois took the loss for the GOP.)

HAHN’S ARRIVAL: Janice Hahn of Los Angeles will be sworn in on Tuesday as the 193rd House Democrat. She decided to wait until then so she could plan tomorrow’s funeral for her mother, Ramona Hahn — who died at 86 on Monday, only a few hours before voters started going to the polls for the special election.

NABBED AGAIN: A 35-year-old convicted sex offender who was released from prison last week — four months after pleading guilty to threatening to kill one of California’s senators — is back behind bars today on an outstanding warrant. Prosecutors have kept secret whether Barbara Boxer or Dianne Feinstein was the recipient of a February e-mail from Tras Gustav Karlsson Berg threatening to shoot the senator with a high-powered rifle and bomb her house if she did not oppose legislation that would eliminate protections for wolves under the Endangered Species Act.

THE WINNERS ARE: Elected to the White House Correspondents Association board yesterday were Steve Thomma of McClatchy newspapers, who will be president in 2013-14, April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks and photographer Doug Mills of the New York Times.

BEST WISHES: Patrick Kennedy, the longest-serving House member from his family (his 16 years representing Rhode Island ended in January), is marrying New Jersey schoolteacher Amy Petitgout today. Justice Stephen Breyer is officiating at the off-camera ceremony.

HAPPY BIIRTHDAY: House Republicans Mac Thornberry of Texas (53) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida (59), and House Democrats David Cicilline of Rhode Island (50) and Dan Lipinski of Illinois (45).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: How Dark Is the Dark?

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is supposed to lay out what tax increases he’s after when the fifth straight day of Cabinet Room budget negotiations gets started at 4:15. After Reid, Pelosi, Durbin and Hoyer nod politely, the president will ask the Republican congressional leaders what extra revenue they have in mind. Once McConnell, Kyl, Cantor and, yes, Boehner all say “none,” the question will be how long the room falls silent before someone makes an awkward joke about walking out.

The rest of the president’s day also will be all about the budget: He’s taping another round of interviews with local TV stations (including NBC-4 here) at 2 to promote his point of view and will meet with Biden and Geithner at 3 to talk about preparations for a looming default in 20 days.

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and is officially debating whether to debate its first spending bill of the year, which would allocate $59 billion for discretionary VA programs and $14 billion for military construction. Combined, it’s an 8 percent drop from what’s being spent this year. (Once mandatory veterans’ benefits are added in, the bill’s grand total goes up to $142 billion.) Some Republicans say it’s both inappropriate and pointless to deliberate any appropriations measure while the big budget numbers are totally up in the air. A vote to for the formal motion to proceed is nonetheless likely by suppertime.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at 10 and at noon will pick up debate on the energy and water appropriations bill. There’s only an outside chance the last amendment will be disposed of and the measure will be passed by 4 — after which members will be free to leave so they can either suit up for (or get a good seat at) the 50th annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game.

HE WALKED OUT. DID NOT. DID SO: To the viewers at home, that’s the sum and substance of what was accomplished yesterday by the two principal players (the president and the House majority leader) in what’s becoming the biggest fiscal policy crisis of the modern era.

If the usual adage holds true — that it’s always darkest before the dawn — then yesterday’s testy and impolitic confrontation will be remembered as the negotiating nadir. And there can be reason for optimism that moving the momentum-going-the-wrong-way talks to Camp David (and keeping all the leaking aides and the hungry-for-conflict press corps far from the cabins) might produce handshakes all around in only a couple of days. That’s apparently the president’s plan; he’s ready to invite the congressional Elite Eight for the weekend in the Catoctin Mountains so long as they're all still talking tomorrow. There’s also a chance he might ask the three whips to stay behind in order to further focus the talks. (Boehner's office this morning said the Speaker sees "no need" for a trip to Camp David.)

But if the fabled John McCain adage is true — that it’s always darkest before it’s completely black, as he likes to say — then everyone may as well spend what’s supposed to be a sunny and temperate Saturday and Sunday outside. That’s because the final two weekends before the Aug. 2 default deadline are sure to be spent indoors at the Capitol. Even if a genuine impasse arises tomorrow, and even if the tension and anxiety fester for more than a week, leaders and the rank-and-file alike will have little choice but to hunker down July 23 and 24, and again July 30 and 31, in the countdown-to-disaster rituals of crunching numbers, waiting for the quorum call bells to ring in the middle of the night, making predictable speeches and casting votes on measures designed by both parties for posturing.

HIS GAME TO LOSE: For today, though, the dynamic is that Obama has clearly got the upper hand — and the top Republicans are realizing as much, even if their idealistic and ideological rank-and-file are surely not there yet.

There can be no other reason why Cantor issued his statement lamenting that “nothing can pass the House,” then violated the presumed cone of silence among the big talkers by rushing back to the Capitol and offering reporters his melodramatic version of how yesterday’s talks ended. (In his telling, the president stormed out after warning, “Eric, don’t call my bluff.” In the White House’s version, leaked in response, Cantor interrupts the president three times.) And there can be little other interpretation for McConnell’s warning to the right (on Laura Ingraham’s radio show yesterday) that they’ll suffer the same fate as Gingrich did against Clinton in the 1995-96 government shutdowns if they try to persuade the public of the rightness of their cause after allowing a default: "You know, it's an argument he has a good chance of winning, and all of a sudden we have co-ownership of a bad economy," he said. "That is a very bad position going into an election."

If that’s the leadership consensus, then, they have just three options for cutting their losses and getting the budget battle behind them: They can reverse course on taxes and rush to accept the 4-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to revenue increases that Obama had been offering, before he raises the pressure by pressing for a 3-to-1 ratio that would mean much less pain for Democratic priorities. They can reverse course on the 1-to-1 ratio of deficit reduction to debt ceiling increase, accept only the 10 years worth of promised cuts both sides say they more or less agree on (assuming they can fine-tune that agreement so the price tag doesn’t keep oscillating between $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion) while allowing the debt ceiling to rise from $14.3 trillion to $16.7 trillion.  Or they can rally behind the McConnell plan to give Obama that $2.4 trillion in borrowing power before the next election — and hope to come up with some way (and quickly) to pair it with an expedited, up-or-down process for moving legislation in the next year on deep spending cuts, tight enforcement caps and limited entitlement curbs.

CANTOR’S CALL: McConnell has already made clear his preference, and his idea continues to gain bipartisan momentum. Absent a miracle in the next 48 hours, Boehner will probably sign on (at least behind the scenes) by the start of next week. But the key will be Cantor. He will soon be pressed to decide for good how he wants to put his own career on the line. He can either keep taking the tea party’s side, and hope that makes him Speaker someday, or he can find a way to blink and hope his odds are better for remaining in the leadership indefinitely (meaning he’ll have to survive conservatives’ recriminations) than they are for being sacrificed in the next couple of months. Because if there’s a “huge financial calamity” after a default, the construct Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke used yesterday, then Cantor is positioned for now to be the principal political face of it — which either means his elevation within or his elimination from the GOP pantheon.

PART OF A BALANCED REGULATORY DIET: General Mills, ConAgra, Kellogg and several other big food companies are announcing an agreement today to limit their marketing and advertising of hundreds of sugary, salty, fatty and otherwise unhealthy products to children. The new industry standards are designed to replace stricter government-suggested guidelines spurned by the industry. (On the orders of Congress, earlier this year the Federal Trade Commission and several other agencies proposed a system for marketing junk food to kids, but the companies rejected them as too broad and limiting.)

Iowa’s Tom Harkin, the Democratic senator who wrote the language directing the government to develop the standards, labeled the industry alternative as inadequate. But they look to be the only viable option for now. The GOP majority in the House has rallied behind language in the FTC spending bill that would delay the government standards by ordering a cost-benefit study

PLAY BALL: After several weeks of early-morning practices, tonight’s Roll Call baseball game should feature some surprisingly decent play from the lawmakers — and some not-so-surprising partisan intensity (good natured, at least on the surface) both on the left side of the park (predictably, where the Democratic fans congregate behind their guys in the third-base dugout) and on the right side (where else but there for the GOP?). The first pitch is at Nationals Park at 7:05, and the forecast is for a beautifully cloudless and low-humidity evening. Proceeds from the $10 tickets ($134,000 last year) will benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington and the Washington Literacy Council.

The GOP leads the series, 33-16-1, and has captured 10 Roll Call trophies to the Democrats’ two. (A trophy goes to the party that wins three out of five annual games.) But the Democrats have won the past two and so have every incentive tonight, although one of last year’s stars, Anthony Weiner, is no longer available.

The starting pitchers haven’t been announced by the managers — Democrat Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania and Republican Joe Barton of Texas — but for the last few years they’ve been Illinois’ John Shimkus for the GOP and California’s Joe Baca for the Democrats. But lots of attention is being paid to a pair of freshman hurlers: Louisiana Democrat Cedric Richmond and Pennsylvania Republican Lou Barletta.

Now that Jim Bunning and John Ensign are gone, the senatorial contributions to the game are likely to be minimal. (Rand Paul is the only senator on either roster, and he’s in a suit in his program picture.)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Republican Rep. Tom Latham of Iowa (63).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: The Art of Mitch

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: The top eight Hill leaders are due back in the Cabinet Room at 4 for their fifth budget negotiating session of the past week. Obama and Biden plan to spend much of the day meeting with senior administration officials to prepare for the bargaining, which is supposed to be focused for the next couple of days on assembling the roster of spending cuts with the broadest bipartisan support.

The president met this morning with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and is in a session now with the White House’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and is getting off the dime it’s been stuck on for a week. After voting against an effort to bring the millionaires-should-do-more-for-deficit-reduction measure to a final vote (the cloture motion came up 9 votes short of the 60 required) senators then were voting to choke off any initial filibuster of the annual VA and military construction spending package. It’s the first of the fiscal 2012 spending bills to make it to the Senate floor.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and at noon will begin debating a measure that would give states much more authority to determine water quality standards and thereby limit the EPA’s powers. The bill should pass easily because it's supported by almost all Republicans as well as Democrats from Appalachia, where the coal industry has been pushing hard to get more regulatory power to the states. But the margin won’t be big enough to signal that Obama’s threatened veto could be overridden.

Wide-open debate will resume on amendments to the $31 billion energy and water spending bill (that’s 19 percent below what Obama wants), but the final roll call of the night is promised by 7 and passage won’t come before tomorrow at the earliest.

WHY NOT: For all of its dismissive nicknames — “last-ditch option,” “Hail Mary punt” and “Pass the Buck Act” seem to be the most popular — McConnell’s idea really could be just the sort of surprising, bold and complicated maneuver needed to get around the coming budgetary calamity.

Yesterday’s initial reaction was all about head-scratching bewilderment. But the longer people in both parties, inside and outside government, spent boiling the Rube Goldberg parliamentary procedure down to its essence, the more they started marveling that such a wacky-seeming idea could in fact be vintage McConnell — a canny conservative using his formidable skills as a back-room dealer and cagey parliamentarian to full effect. It could be a way for both parties to extract themselves from short-term political peril, but with the long-term edge presumably (but not certainly) tilted toward his fellow Republicans. At his worst, McConnell comes across as conniving and Machiavellian; at his best, he comes across as capable of harnessing the art of the possible, and at just the right time, better than anyone else in Washington.

On the surface, the Senate minority leader seemed to be proposing a really complex method for total GOP capitulation to Obama and the Democrats. And that’s the way many if not most House Republicans, and plenty of conservative activists, are describing it today. And they’ll continue to view it that way unless they’re convinced it’s their best option for looking good 18 months from now, when the 2012 election may well turn on the question of which party managed the government’s finances more prudently.

There’s absolutely no way there’s going to be a $4 trillion grand bargain, and time is running out very fast for getting a $2.4 trillion, 10-year deficit reduction deal hatched, written and passed in the next 20 days. By this weekend, there will be essentially no time left for anything except breaking the glass and pulling out the McConnell option. Which is why no one in the White House negotiations spoke out against it yesterday, and why the group feels free to spend this afternoon talking about low-hanging-fruit spending cuts. Spurred on by the backing of Grover Norquist and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, all sides could decide after only another couple of meetings that it’s time to grab McConnell’s Faustian bargain: Republicans let Obama raise the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion on his own authority, and in return the president lets the GOP hammer him for it for the next year and a half.

Going with the McConnell option will forestall the sort of panicked Wall Street sell-off that might have been needed in the next three weeks to pressure the most liberal and most conservative lawmakers to acquiesce in an actual deal. It gives Obama fiscal stability on which to run the government and on which to run for re-election. It gives Boehner a way to avoid either capitulating on his call for a 1-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to debt ceiling increases — or reversing his fealty to the no-new-taxes position he’s been forced into by Cantor and the GOP caucus’s tea party majority. And (without choking on the details) it would still give every congressional Republican at least three and maybe six chances to cast a politically potent but ultimately meaningless vote before Election Day 2012 against raising the debt limit, while forcing Democrats to cast just as many votes in favor of the extra borrowing.

The biggest potential downside, and it’s a significant one, is that the people who voted for a Republican House so that it could make bold and politically risky decisions will view this as a too-clever-by-half cave-in. That’s the sentiment that most worries (and at the same time bucks up) the 87 freshmen, who sound like they want the next three weeks to be filled with all the brinkmanship, high drama and confrontation with a president they distrust as they imagined as candidates. And so they may yet insist with their “no” votes on any compromise that the moribund talks keep going up to, or even beyond, the appointed hour for falling into the budgetary abyss.

HERS, AT LEAST FOR NOW: Janice Hahn will become the newest member of Congress. The Los Angeles city councilwoman took a solid if not overwhelming 55 percent in yesterday’s special election and could be sworn in as soon as tomorrow. When that happens, the Democrats will hold 193 seats, the Republicans will still have 240 and the other two will remain vacant until special elections on Sept. 13 in both New York and Nevada.

The territory that Hahn will represent until the end of next year, which hugs the ocean west and south of L.A., is solidly Democratic now, but the congressional map drawn by an independent redistricting commission will make it more viable for the GOP. And this morning the National Republican Congressional Committee made plain how much it wants to win the district next fall — with or without GOP marketing executive Craig Huey as its candidate. “Between her pattern of unethical behavior and close ties to L.A.’s most dangerous gang members, Hahn is adding to the pollution in the swamp of Washington corruption built by Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats,” NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay said.

Hahn was the successor hoped for by Jane Harman, who gave up the seat in February, and was the front-runner from the start. But tea party and other conservative groups turned it into a competitive and highly contentious contest with a series of ads questioning Hahn’s efforts to curb gang violence.

Hahn is the member of a prominent Southern California political family. Her father, Ken, was an L.A. County supervisor for 40 years. Her brother, James, is the only person to serve as the city’s mayor, city controller and city attorney. But she lost her first bid for the House seat in 1998, when Harman vacated it for two years to run for governor, and also lost a 2008 primary for lieutenant governor.

SHINY GUNS: The NRCC this morning also announced the first five candidates who will be getting special fundraising and organizational attention under the organization’s “Young Guns” program: wealthy businessman Randy Altschuler, who’s out for a rematch after a razor-thin loss to Tim Bishop on Long Island; Lexington attorney Andy Barr, who’s trying to reverse a similarly slim 2010 loss to Ben Chandler in Kentucky; Steve Daines, the 2008 lieutenant governor nominee who’s out for the seat Denny Rehberg is leaving open to run for senator in Montana; former state Rep. Jackie Walorski, who’s been recruited to run again now that Joe Donnelly is leaving the House to run for the Senate in Indiana; and former state police chief Brendan Doherty, who’s been recruited to take on freshman David Cicilline in Rhode Island.

INCREASED REVENUES: Obama raised $47 million for his re-election in the second quarter and another $38 million for the Democratic National Committee — a combined 42 percent more than his stated $60 million goal for April, May and June, campaign manager Jim Messina said today.

The presidential team’s totals also are more than double the total raised so far ($35 million) by the out-in-the-open Republican hopefuls. (That number is a deep swoon from what the GOP field was doing at this point in the last campaign: $118 million raked in during the second quarter of 2007.) Most of that money has been raised for Mitt Romney; his own campaign brought in $18 million during the past three months and an independent fundraising group supporting him raised $12 million more. Tim Pawlenty and Jon Hunstman each have raised $4 million — although the former Utah governor has given his campaign half that total. Michele Bachmann has not yet released her fundraising totals; the deadline for doing so is Friday.

“We have reason to be proud of what we’ve built so far but it’s going to get tougher from here,” Messina said in a campaign video posted online. He boasted that  more than 550,000 people have made donations so far and that 98 percent of the money has been raised in increments of $250 or less — “more grass-roots support at this point in the process than any campaign in political history.”

CONGRESS AND CLEMENS: Opening arguments began this morning in the trial of Roger Clemens, the legendary pitcher accused of lying to Congress three years ago when he denied using steroids and human growth hormones.

Clemens maintains he didn’t use performance-boosters during his record-setting 24 seasons in the big leagues. But his defense is taking a different tack: Attorney Michael Attanasio is arguing that his client’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee in 2008 wasn’t part of a legitimate legislative inquiry but was instead no more than a credibility contest between Clemens and his trainer, Brian McNamee, who said he injected the pitcher with the drugs. Federal prosecutor Daniel Butler maintains that the panel’s oversight responsibility gives it broad powers to take sworn testimony even if no legislation is pending.

Retired House Parliamentarian Charles Johnson and Phil Barnett, who was chief counsel for the committee at the time it investigated Clemens, are the first two witnesses the prosecution is calling to make that case to the jury of 10 women and two men.

LOUGHNER WATCH: A three-judge federal appeals panel ruled yesterday that Jared Loughner may refuse the anti-psychotic medication that federal prosecutors want to give him so that he might some day be mentally well enough to stand trial for the attempted assassination of Gabby Giffords and the killing of six innocent bystanders.

“Preserving the dignity and bodily integrity of an individual who has not been convicted of a crime” is more important, the judges said, especially because the staff at the federal mental hospital prison in Missouri “has demonstrated that it is able to prevent that individual from harming himself or others.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah (60).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Three Weeks to Go

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and at noon will begin debating legislation that would limit the reach and the financial exposure of the federal flood insurance program. It’s on course for passage by a comfortable margin late in the afternoon.

GOP leaders have postponed until this evening a vote on whether to repeal a law demanding more efficiency from the old-fashioned incandescent bulb – which conservatives have seized on as a maddening infringement on their personal freedom. But the extra day for whipping isn’t likely to get them the two-thirds majority required for passage, because most Democrats are on the side of environmentalists who want to push out Edison’s invention in favor of high-efficiency, low-cost fluorescents.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and is still marking time on the non-binding resolution about the rich doing more for deficit reduction, which has been the pending business since last Wednesday. (The usual caucus lunches are this afternoon.) Senators will move on tomorrow to a bill with more teeth: the military construction and VA spending package.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Today’s budget negotiating session between Obama, Biden and the top eight congressional leaders is at 3:45 in the Cabinet Room.

Ninety minutes earlier, the president will present Sgt. Leroy Petry with the Medal of Honor in the East Room. He will be only the second living veteran of Afghanistan or Iraq thus honored for conspicuous gallantry “above and beyond the call of duty.” Petry lost his right hand while throwing a live grenade away from his fellow Army Rangers during a rare daylight raid on a Taliban compound in eastern Afghanistan’s Paktia Province three years ago.

JUST $700 BILLION TO GO: Precisely three weeks from a default, the most powerful 10 people in the American policy-making system remain stuck – at two-thirds of the way toward a deal that will slow but not really stanch the flow of budgetary red ink, while keeping the Treasury’s credit card active for at most 20 months.

Yesterday’s breakthrough, such as it was, was that Obama and the Hill leaders nailed down the size of the gap they need to bridge. The all nodded at 10 years’ worth of cuts, totaling $1.7 trillion, that were identified by the Biden summit – meaning a majority of congressional Republicans and probably a decent-sized minority of Democrats would swallow them. Second, they all agreed they have to get the deficit reduction grand total up to $2.4 trillion (assuming the Republicans hold to their insistence on a 1-to-1 ratio of budget cuts and debt ceiling extension), because that amount of new borrowing buys the next Congress and the winner of the presidency next year at least a month before the next budget showdown.

There’s still no discernible daylight, however, on new taxes. Republicans are dug in on the position that they can’t live with any. Democrats are just as dug in on the position that they can’t live without any. And therein lies the bulk of the $700 billion gap that is supposed to be closed by negotiators, and locked down in law, in the next 21 days.

It’s an enormous divide, of course, and one that won’t narrow so long as the zeitgeist in the room remains as testy as it was during yesterday’s third meeting (if the leaks from both sides are to be believed). “Where’s the shared sacrifice?” Obama reportedly asked after Cantor laid out the GOP priorities for the talks. “Excuse us for trying to lead,” Boehner snapped after the president raised his eyebrows at the Ryan budget’s Medicare cuts. “C’mon, man, let’s get real!” Biden crowed after Cantor made his talking point about tax hikes “crushing job creators.”

A LA CARTE: Cantor briefed the House GOP caucus today on the same menu of Biden options he explained at the White House yesterday. He says the group identified more than $1.1 trillion (maybe $200 billion more) in discretionary spending savings, starting with programs targeted by both the GOP and the administration. Documents leaked last night showed that the group pegged the Medicare and Medicaid savings at $330 billion (or maybe $20 billion more) and marked off savings from other entitlements of at least $260 billion (or as much as $70 billion more) – including by increasing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac premiums, cutting farm subsidies, limiting civilian and military retirement benefits, raising the airport security ticket fee and limiting the reach of Pell grants. (The package also assumes at least $200 billion and maybe as much as $300 billion in savings on debt interest payments because of the shaved spending.)

CANTOR ON THE SPOT: The House majority leader has undeniably become the indispensable man in the talks. Now that Boehner’s push for a grand bargain has come to naught, the Speaker has little choice but to elevate Cantor to his equal in the negotiations. (That was sure the way it looked when the two of them faced the microphones after this morning’s Republican Conference session.)

It’s a classic example of the old adage of holding your friends close but your enemies closer. If it’s true (as the people around him say) that the No. 2 in the caucus much better understands the political will and the compromising limits of the rank and file – and the tea party freshmen especially – better than the No. 1, then the guy at the top may as well put his lieutenant out front and see how well he can steer the ship. That way, if the deal gets done, Boehner can claim credit for being a magnanimous teamworker who listened when he needed to and got the job done. And if the talks founder, Boehner will have the option of pointing at Cantor as the guy who claimed he knew what was best, but then couldn’t deliver.

Either way, the move has the effect of freezing Cantor’s thinly veiled ambition to be Speaker, probably at least until the 2012 election – which will either show that Boehner is vulnerable or cement his hold on the Speakership.

The move also works to the benefit of Obama, whose remarks yesterday suggested he was more than content to have Boehner (whom he’s portraying as the other adult in the room) as the GOP "good cop"’ and Cantor (who is happy to play the role of the Republican hard-liner despised by the sort of independent voters on whom the president is relying for support) as the “bad cop.”

ALL SPENT: The deficit impasse is starting to take its predictable toll on the annual congressional budget process.

House appropriators today essentially gave up on plans to get all but one of the bills through before the start of the summer recess, when they canceled plans for a markup of the draft transporation and housing measure. It was slated for some of the largest cuts (14 percent) as part of the Republican effort at the start of the year to cut $30 billion in overall fiscal 2012 spending. GOP leaders, however, want room to maneuver as negotiations continue over a deficit  deal. The other bills slated for the deepest cuts, State-Foreign Operations and Labor-HHS-Education — are also on the shelf.

Meanwhile, a fight over revamping the Endangered Species Act could be among the more contentious topics at a markup of the fiscal 2012 Interior-Environment spending bill that got under way this morning.

Debate on GOP amendments to cut money for fuel efficiency and renewables research have been put off until tomorrow, and House passage of the Energy-Water spending bill won’t come until Thursday.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) The polls don’t close until 11 eastern time tonight in the special congressional election in California to replace Jane Harman, who resigned this winter to run the Woodrow Wilson Center think tank. Republicans see the chance for an upset, because marketing executive Craig Huey has spent more than $1.1 million (about 90 percent of it his own money) trying to boost what’s normally very low turnout in such contests – mainly from tea party activists and people angry at the balky economy in Los Angeles County’s South Bay area. But Democrats are probably safe in their confidence in L.A. City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who has sought to tie her opponent to Sarah Palin and the House GOP plan to remake Medicare. A last-minute robocall from Bill Clinton should help boost her turnout in a district where Harman prevailed with ease and which Obama carried by 30 points.

(2) Elizabeth Warren is looking likelier by the day to be the Democratic recruit to take on Republican Scott Brown, who wants a full term in 2012 as a senator from Massachusetts. Almost certainly unable to win confirmation as the first chairwoman of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, she has met in recent weeks with DSCC Chairwoman Patty Murray, Chuck Schumer (Murray’s predecessor in that post), David Axelrod, Sen. John Kerry and at least three of the state’s Democratic House members.

(3) The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign are already gearing up significant fundraising efforts on the assumption that Tammy Baldwin will give up her Madison-area House seat and seek to become the first openly gay person elected to the Senate. The retirement of fellow Democrat Herb Kohl has placed Wisconsin in the 2012 spotlight of states that could decide Senate control. What’s unclear is whether that financial support will keep other potential Democratic contenders out of the race. Rep. Ron Kind and former Sen. Russ Feingold plan to decide on the race before Labor Day. The Republican field seems wide open, as well.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota (57).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Monday, July 11, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Neckties Back On

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, July 11, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: "It's time to pull off the Band-Aid, eat our peas," Obama said at the start of an 11:15 news conference on the budget talks.

The president plans to resume negotiations at 2 with the elite eight of the congressional leadership: Boehner and Cantor for the House majority, Reid and Durbin for the Senate majority, Pelosi and Hoyer for the House minority, and McConnell and Kyl for the Senate minority.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at noon and at 2 will begin debating amendments to its fifth spending bill of the year, which would allocate $30.6 billion (a 3 percent cut) for energy and water projects.

The only votes of the day will come after 6:30. Republicans will have to whip hard to come up with the two-thirds majority they need to pass legislation repealing lightbulb efficiency standards enacted four years ago with the goal of phasing out the traditional incandescent bulb.

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 to resume debating a measure endorsing the notion that millionaires should shoulder a bigger burden of deficit reduction. A procedural vote is set for 5:30 on the bill, which may become a vehicle for more substantive budget legislation: a proposal to establish an expedited presidential rescission process — an apparently constitutional version of a “line item veto.”

THE SHORT TERM: It's remarkable that talk of the grand bargain lasted as long as four days. In the current political dynamic — where even doing something so seemingly obvious as modernizing the antiquated patent and air traffic control systems has been bogged down for half a year — it was essentially impossible to imagine that a $4 trillion deficit reduction deal could come together in only a couple of weeks.

The boomlet for the big deal lasted long enough, though, to add significantly to the extraordinary pressure that's already on the negotiators. As a practical matter, they need to declare agreement on a $2.5 trillion, 10-year framework by this weekend — or else there won't be enough time to write the deal into legislative language, and then sell it to all four increasingly wary and grumpy congressional caucuses, before the Treasury's Aug. 2 deadline for raising the debt ceiling.

The basic whipping formula is that the deal will only be enacted if it gets a majority of the Republican majority in the House and a majority of the Democratic majority in the Senate. The House remains the much tougher sell, because perhaps a third of the GOP caucus will vote against almost anything at this point — either on the grounds that a mid-sized deal is too timid or that the inevitable revenue-raiser will be too much. And so one very important logistical consideration is allowing time for the package to be rejected on its first pass through the House (which will almost certainly vote first), so that the leadership can have time to fine-tune it in search of the votes needed to win on the second try — and to be aided, in a perverse sort of way, by a lawmaker-scaring swoon by the markets if the bill loses the first time. (The model here: the two tries it took to get the TARP package passed in 2008.)

NO DEFAULT: The deadline, which is three weeks from tomorrow, remains immovable. Geithner said yesterday that the administration is not considering any claim of constitutional authority to borrow more money without congressional permission.

That's why it's important to note the three things that Obama and the Hill leaders did agree to in their past pair of meetings. All have promised to spurn a do-nothing option that would lead to a default and economic calamity. All have vowed to spurn a stopgap deal that puts the debt limit back on the table before the election. And all of them have agreed to meet every day until they have a plan for keeping promises 1 and 2. (None of them, in other words, wants to risk being labeled responsible for engineering a budgetary “banana republic,” a phrase the president reportedly used in his scolding speech at the start of last night's testy 75-minute meeting.)

BIDEN STATE OF PLAY: Negotiators in both parties say they're ready to to use the results of the Biden negotiations as their starting point. But there's no public consensus yet on what those six lawmakers and the vice president agreed to. In part, that's because of the old adage of negotiators that nothing's agreed to until everything's agreed to.

What appears to be the case is that the Biden group agreed to about $1 trillion over 10 years in discretionary spending reductions plus another $400 billion to $500 billion in cuts to mandatory spending programs such as farm subsidies. Beyond that, there is a willingness by the Democrats to accept another $500 billion or so in cuts to the bedrock health care entitlements, Medicare and Medicaid — but only if the Republicans would be willing to accept an equivalent amount in additional revenues, starting by ending several corporate tax breaks.

Beyond that, there was also a partisan standoff about whether a “firewall” should be established between defense and domestic spending — with Republicans opposing the idea (saying Congress should come up with the formula each year) but Democrats wanting to ensure that military spending would take a good amount of the hit in the next decade so that a certain level of domestic spending is protected.

In essence, then, dropping back from $4 trillion to $2.5 trillion as the bottom line did not change the core political or budgetary dynamics at all. Democrats are still going to have to accept some politically painful new limits on Medicare, which means they will have to abandon plans to hammer the Paul Ryan budget quite as hard as they wanted to as a 2012 campaign issue. And Republicans are still going to have to accept some “enhanced revenue” (or some other euphemism) from businesses and wealthy people, which means they will have to abandon plans to position themselves for 2012 as the absolutely-no-new-taxes-no-matter-what party.

For today, the impasse remains this simple: Democrats are insisting on a deal with more revenue, and the Republicans are insisting on a deal without more revenue.

JOHN AND ERIC: The Democratic talking point of the day is to label Boehner the latest in a long line of Republicans who's chickened out and stalled a historic budget deal near the eleventh hour. (They also note that the congressional Republicans on the Simpson-Bowles commission voted against its recommendations, that it was Tom Coburn who blew up the Gang of Six, and that it was Cantor who pulled the plug on the Biden talks.)

That roster may be undeniable — but the Speaker's motives for blinking on the big deal on Saturday night are also clear. He realized that he had suddenly gotten way too far out in front of the House GOP mainstream with his talk of a tax code overhaul and that in the interest of his own political self-preservation he had little choice but to get much closer to the rank-and-file — and particularly to Cantor, who continues to buttress his standing as the leader much more ideologically in tune with the tea party-infused caucus. (This new dynamic was underscored by the word from inside the Cabinet room last evening that the majority leader, not the Speaker, did almost all the talking for the House GOP.)

Cantor is not openly challenging Boehner yet, but in the cloakroom there is every expectation that challenge will come sooner rather than later if a majority in the House GOP turns up its nose at the eventual deal. So that leaves Boehner with little choice but to try to settle for convincing his colleagues that, whatever details they don't like, they should join him in declaring an enormous victory — just for getting the president to agree to spending cuts measured in the trillions and to make Medicare and Social Security part of that discussion.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Ed Markey of Massachusetts is 65 today, and threeother House members celebrated yesterday: fellow Democrat Russ Carnahan of Missouri (53) and Republicans Phil Gingrey of Georgia (69) and Tom McClintock of California (55).

— David Hawkings, editor

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