Friday, July 22, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Bargain Shopping

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, July 22, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: “We can’t cut our deficits with spending cuts alone,” Obama declared at the start of a town hall meeting at the University of Maryland shortly after 11 — the latest public appearance he’s arranged so he can frame for the public (on his own “balanced approach, shared sacrifice” terms) the parameters of the debt limit debate. “The wealthiest Americans and the biggest corporations should do their part as well.”

The president will be back in the Oval Office for a 45-minute meeting to discuss the economy and security interests of the Pacific Rim with New Zealand’s prime minister, John Key; the two will take a few questions at 2:20.

After that Obama is meeting with Panetta and Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joints Chiefs. The new Defense secretary is announcing today that he’s officially ending the ban on openly gay servicemembers — by formally certifying that congressional repeal of the 17-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy will not hurt the military’s war-fighting capabilities.

THE SENATE: Convened at 9 and has voted 51-46 (entirely along party lines) to kill off the House-passed “cut, cap and balance” legislation, which represented the outer edge of the congressional Republican bargaining position for deep and lasting spending cuts in return for a higher debt ceiling. (It was the first roll call vote on a Friday in the Senate in 20 months.)

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and is wrapping up for the week right now, passing legislation that would cut the House’s own spending, and the budgets of most legislative branch support agencies, by 7 percent. The vote was 252-159. It’s the sixth fiscal 2012 appropriations bill passed by the House. An amendment to cut 40 percent from the Office of Congressional Ethics account was rejected 102-302.

DEAL OR NO DEAL? The momentum behind the revived “grand bargain” talks between Obama and Boehner continued today. The more the two of them urge the rest of Washington to calm down — “Media accounts are speculating about a ‘deal’ between Republicans and the White House that does not exist,” the Speaker said on his Facebook page this morning — the more it looks like their plan might actually come together in the next day or two.

Reid said this morning that the Obama-Boehner talks sounded serious enough that he and McConnell have decided to put on hold their preparations for moving “Plan B” through the Senate starting this weekend — and he told senators they were free to join the House in being out of town Saturday and Sunday, after all.

Of course, the big deal may well fall apart for a second time, although for the opposite reason of what killed their first approach. Two weekends ago, Cantor and the House GOP rank and file rebelled at talk of making taxes one-quarter of a $4 trillion deal. This weekend, concern is sharpening that a package promising deep entitlement curbs (including changing the measure of inflation used to adjust Social Security benefits, which would mean they’d go down) would account for half of $3 trillion in cuts — while holding out only the promise of a revenue-raising tax overhaul next year — cannot not win over the minimal 13 Democrats necessary to get through the Senate.

The focus of rank-and-file interest today is talk that Obama and Boehner will create dueling poison pills, one that each party would have to take if a tax and entitlement package did not become law in time to start taking effect in 2013. For the GOP penalty, Democrats want to make the Bush tax cuts expire for those making above $250,000. Republicans want Democrats to swallow a scaling-back of the health care law and elimination of the individual mandate.

But even those triggers may not be enough to salve Democrats who see the president as preparing to sacrifice so much of what their party has stood for to get this deal — and also to take away the defining issues they believe could help them take back the House and maybe hold the Senate next fall.

OUT ON A LIMB: If Obama presses ahead and shakes hands with the Speaker, he would be committing himself to something essentially unheard of in the modern era: a president of one party pushing through historic legislation — what they're talking about would change the shape of government more than anything in the last two decades — with congressional help almost entirely from the other party. He would have to decide he would be content to get his signature fiscal policy achievement through the House with no more than a dozen votes from Democrats, those in the dwindling Blue Dog ranks — but with support from nearly all the 240 Republicans. And he would have to then stake his presidency on the proposition that 13 totally loyal, conservative or re-election vulnerable Democrats would bond with the 47 Republicans to break a filibuster staged by members of his own party — and that Reid, Durbin and Schumer wouldn’t all work against him.

After that, he’d have to prepare for a nettlesome but determined challenge to his renomination from the left (Howard Dean or Tom Harkin or Dennis Kucinich, yet again?).

The closet modern parallel to what Obama is contemplating now would be Clinton’s drive to remake the welfare system 15 years ago. That effort enraged the left and passed only because it had almost unanimous Republican support, but it also drew a narrow majority of Senate Democrats and split the House Democrats precisely down the middle.Tactically, Democrats cannot understand why the president would be willing to essentially take off the table what’s one of the biggest weapons the party has next year: the prospect that all the Bush tax cuts will expire at the end of 2012 unless Congress votes to keep them going.

FLIP FLOP FLY: Zero hour for the debt limit remains two weeks away, but it’s at midnight tonight for all non-essential federal aviation programs — in other words, anything that does not involve keeping planes safely in the air. Airlines will still operate as normal and air traffic controllers will remain on the job. But Congress is going to let the rest of the FAA come to a halt, at least until next week. That means furloughs for about 1,000 federal workers in the D.C. area and another 3,000 across the country, the shuttering of about $2.5 billion worth of airport projects that will mean layoffs for an unknown number of contract workers — and the inability of the government to collect about $200 million a week in ticket taxes.

The congressional standoff is about, of all things, whether to make a $16 million trim from about $150 million a year in subsidies for commercial flights to remote and rural areas, by ending payments on unprofitable flights to 13 airports. The Essential Air Service program has survived attacks from budget cutters for two decades, but may not be able to survive at all this year if there’s a deficit reduction package of even as little as $1 trillion.

And the House this week voted to trim the program, right away, as party of a stopgap bill to keep all the FAA operating. But a collection of senators with big rural constituencies is determined to keep the program robust for as long as possible and is steadfastly ignoring entreaties from Obama and refusing to bring that House bill to a vote.

Senators also object to a provision in the House bill, pushed by the airline industry, that would make it more difficult for airline and railroad workers to unionize. But they’re willing to make their goal line stand on that in negotiations over a long-term rewrite of aviation policy.

TIMES A CHANGIN': David Leonhardt, who won the commentary Pulitzer Prize this spring for his “Economic Scene” column, is becoming the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times — at age 38. The surprise choice was announced this morning by the incoming executive editor, Jill Abramson. (Dean Baquet is succeeding Abramson as managing editor for news.) Leonhardt has been at the paper a dozen years and before that worked for Business Week and the Washington Post. He was also the top editor at the Yale Daily News. The perceived front-runners had been four others in the D.C. bureau: David Sanger, Dick Stevenson, Rebecca Corbett and Carl Hulse.

JERSEY UNSURE: The contours of New Jersey’s new congressional map, which will have 12 instead of 13 House seats, should start coming into view now that the two parties have chosen the person who will break any mapmaking deadlock: John Farmer Jr., a former state attorney general and 9/11 Commission counsel who’s now dean of Rutgers law. (He says he’s not registered with either party.)

The GOP’s goal is to take the seat from the white-majority urbanized areas closest to New York, which means they’ll push to make incumbents Bill Pascrell and Steve Rothman fight for a single seat. Democrats want to consolidate the three adjacent, but much more bucolic, suburban districts into two — in a way that gets rid of either Scott Garrett, Leonard Lance or Rodney Frelinghuysen. If neither of those plans gets by Farmer, though, the compromise may be to get rid of a seat by making one House member from each party (probably Lance and Democrat Rush Holt) compete in the same territory.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Former Senate majority leader and 1996 GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole (88), House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson of Connecticut (63), Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas (68) and two fellow Republicans in the House, Steve LaTourette of Ohio (57) and Bob Aderholt of Alabama (46).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Stoppage Time

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and is starting the process for disposing of the Republican “cut, cap, and balance” budget bill passed by the House on Tuesday. The first vote, on whether to stop a Democratic filibuster aimed at keeping the bill off the floor altogether, is likely on Saturday morning.

Senators also might vote on a stopgap extension of FAA programs set to lapse tomorrow night, but the measure has bogged down in a dispute over whether to curb subsidies for commercial flights to small and remote cities.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and shortly after noon will start debating a bill that would do what the financial services industry wants and limit the regulatory reach of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which opened for business this morning on the first anniversary of the Dodd-Frank law’s enactment.

Party-line passage will come late in the afternoon, after which debate will get started on a bill to cut 7 percent from current spending levels on the operations of the House and most of its support agencies — except the Capitol Police, which would see its budget frozen. The bill won’t be done when the last amendment vote is taken at about 7:30.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama has a collection of meetings on his schedule, but none so far with congressional leaders. In addition to a lunch with Biden and a 2:30 with Geithner, he’s got Oval Office sessions with the Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman, Marine Gen. Hoss Cartwright, and the presidents of the Urban League and the NAACP, Marc Morial and Ben Jealous.

THE END IS NEARISH: When friends back home ask lobbyists, lawmakers and journalists inside the Beltway to predict how this summer’s historic budget showdown will turn out, the only responsible answer remains, “Who the hell knows?”

There’s a more certain answer, however, to the question of when the endgame will end. It’s not going to be in a dozen days, on Aug. 2, even though the Treasury has labeled that Default Day for months. But there’s not going to be an economic cataclysm that Tuesday night, either. That’s because the White House yesterday essentially granted Congress an extension of a few days to get whatever deal gets cut turned into law — by saying Obama would support the shortest of short-term increases in the debt limit. So already this morning, negotiators and rank and file alike are breathing a tiny sigh of relief and looking to an effective deadline of the weekend starting Aug. 5 — coincidentally (or not) when the four-week congressional summer recess has been scheduled to get started since the beginning of the year.

Washington won’t be allowed to kick the can down the road, but just being allowed to roll it over a couple of times might be all that’s necessary to focus the collective mind — because summer vacations and campaign commitments remain almost as important to many lawmakers as saving the nation from drowning in red ink.

LIVING FOR THE WEEKEND: The new breathing room also prompted the House leadership to call off tentative plans for a weekend session. Boehner and Cantor realized that, with nothing substantive and essential to do about the budget before next week at the earliest, it was more important to send members back home to gauge support for the various alternatives — none of which commands a majority of the House's support (or a majority of support within either caucus) at the moment. The change of plans was in part influenced by the GOP freshmen who were summoned for a pizza dinner with the Speaker last night.

“Untoward, that’s the kindest words I can use,” Reid said about the House’s decision — with just a hint of jealously — in his comments on the floor this morning. He said the weekend off would prove to be terrible public relations for a Congress that’s already in minimally high regard among the electorate. He noted that he has already canceled one week of recess this summer (and got nothing done legislatively to show for it) and is holding his colleagues in town this weekend for debating a GOP budget bill that has “less than 1 in a million” chance of passage.

PLAN B: Kent Conrad, who only a few weeks ago vowed to campaign against any bill that raised the debt limit without cutting at least $4 trillion from projected deficits over a decade, conceded today that it will be impossible to write the $3.7 trillion Gang of Six plan into legislation and get it enacted in the next two weeks.

That is in large measure because, despite all the initial hoopla when it was released two days ago, only 40 or so senators (and only about 15 of them Republicans) have pledged in writing their support for the group’s outline, with many others saying they’re holding back until they see the detailed language. It’s also because the furious reaction from organized labor and other liberal interest groups is quicklytamping down Democratic enthusiasm.

The Senate Budget chairman’s concession underscores that whatever McConnell and Reid decide to do is undeniably Plan A with a bullet — the default setting being that their evolving package of between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion in spending cuts can be pushed through the Senate by next weekend and then essentially forced on the recalcitrant House as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. And if they “leave it,” the theory goes, those extra days Obama has created and a potentially dramatic signal of Wall Street anxiety will prompt enough tea party Republicans (more than 80 have signed a letter vowing to oppose the deal) and the liberal Democratic critics who emerged publicly yesterday to change their minds to get a slightly modified bill through on the second try — when the time-is-leverage maxim will no longer apply.

GROVER’S GAMBIT: Despite the new talk of a grand bargain that even Cantor is involved in (along with the president and the Speaker), it still seems highly unlikely that a sufficient number of GOP conservatives will agree to closing so many tax breaks and expenditures, and so quickly, in order to get a net revenue increase in the neighborhood of $1 trillion — even if there’s a broad income tax cut for most people as part of the package.

The one hope for a genuine revival of a big deal is that Chuck Schumer is correct (as he’s asserting on the Senate floor at this hour) that Grover Norquist chose this morning’s Washington Post editorial page to send a “coded message” to House Republicans. In the editorial, the head of Americans for Tax Reform says the group would not consider it a violation of its “no taxes” pledge (which almost all Republicans have signed) to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire next year. “Not continuing a tax cut is not technically a tax increase,” he said.

POLL POSITION: Gallup says 46.8 is the average of daily tracking polls of presidential approval in the three months ending Tuesday — the 10th quarter of the Obama administration. (The firm calculates a three-day rolling average, which was as high as 53 percent and as low as 42 percent during that time.) But there’s reason for the president’s camp to say “So what?” to that seemingly downbeat number. Clinton, Nixon and Reagan all had Gallup approval averages below 50 percent during the same period in their first terms — and easily won re-election anyway. (Carter’s was also below 50 percent, and he lost.) Among the recent presidents with the best 10th quarter numbers, Eisenhower and George W. Bush won second terms, but the elder Bush lost.

BACK TO ABNORMAL: House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers is abandoning attempts to keep an aura of normality around this year’s process for apportioning federal spending. He’d hoped to get all but one of his dozen bills through the House before the summer recess, but the down-to-the-wire standoff over the debt ceiling and deficit reduction has made that impossible — not only because it has used up almost all the logistical and political oxygen at the Capitol, but also because any budget deal is going to mean a level of cuts in discretionary accounts (maybe a bit shallower, maybe not) different from the collective $30 billion the House GOP has been pushing to this point.

And so committee markups scheduled for next week on the Labor-HHS-Education and State-Foreign Operations bills are off until at least September. The panel’s debate on the Transportation-HUD bill was called off last week. (Those three bills are now set to absorb the bulk of the proposed spending limits.) And it’s unclear when or even whether the House will take up the Interior-Environment bill — because a coalition of conservative Republicans who want to deny the EPA any money at all and Democrats who think the bill is already starving the agency plenty could form to defeat the legislation.

JEOPARDY QUESTION: The answer is: Allen Iverson, fellow NBA star Jayson Williams, Monica Lewinsky’s mother, Chandra Levy’s parents, dogfighting quarterback Michael Vick and airport men’s room habitué Larry Craig all employed this Washington lawyer. Who is Billy Martin, the outside counsel named by the House Ethics Committee yesterday to investigate the panel’s own troubled operations and decide whether all the partisan infighting and apparent legal ethical lapses have irreversibly tainted the investigation of California Democrat Maxine Waters.

WHO'S SORRY NOW? The great south Florida congressional rhetorical war continues between GOP freshman Allen West and Democratic national chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The fight now is over whether who’s apologized to whom.

He initially told reporters yesterday afternoon that he’d told her he was sorry for calling her “vile, unprofessional and despicable” (and, beside all that, not “a Lady”) in an e-mail tirade to her the day before. She then said she’d never heard from him. And his office then denied the congressman had said he was sorry (even though it’s on tape) and was in fact demanding an apology from her — for the criticisms of GOP budget priorities in a floor speech that only referred to him obliquely.

The bottom line is the rhetorical dustup means Wasserman Schultz can count on one fewer vote next fall, assuming the state’s redistricting doesn’t alter too much the part of the Miami area she represents; for now West is a constituent, even though he represents an adjacent district. (The Republican, meanwhile, sent out a fundraising e-mail yesterday touting the incident and asking for $25 donations to his second-term bid.)

HEADSTRONG: Now that Michele Bachmann has turned over a note from her doctor (House physician Brian Monahan) declaring her “overall good health” despite migraines for which she takes medication, the first semi-sexist dustup of the GOP presidential campaign should have about run its course. But for those keeping score at home — and wondering how much the headaches have limited her congressional work — some good evidence lies in how often she has showed on the House floor when the roll is called. The answer is more often than most of the House in three of her first four years in office: 98 percent in both years of her first term (overall participation was 96 percent in 2007 and 94 percent in 2008) and a 1-point-above-average 95 percent last year. The exception was 2009, when she missed 11 percent of the votes.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn of South Carolina (71); fellow House Democrat Ed Towns of New York (77); GOP Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming (59); two House Republicans from Tennessee, Jimmy Duncan (64) and Phil Roe (66); and GOP freshman Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina (44)

— David Hawkings, editor

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Timing Is Everything

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama says he wants to “start talking turkey” with congressional leaders on the final budget deal as early as today, but so far no meeting has been announced. (The group is likely to shrink down to only Boehner, Reid and McConnell.)

Instead, the president’s making his “balanced approach” pitch at this hour in interview with TV stations in Los Angeles, Kansas City and Columbus, Ohio. At 1 he and Biden are having their first face-to-face with Panetta since he took over the Pentagon three weeks ago.

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 with Reid declaring he’s confident of passage by tonight of the VA and military construction spending bill. The first vote, at about noon, will block a GOP effort to put all the appropriations bills on hold until there’s a budget deal.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and after noon will start debating two non-controversial, stopgap measures: a fourth temporary extension of aviation programs (the long-term FAA policy rewrite has been stuck in conference since April) and a bill sustaining economic sanctions against Myanmar. The votes to pass both will be done before 4.

Foreign Affairs is debating a bill that would block all aid to Pakistan until the State Department promises Congress that Islamabad is pursuing terrorists and explaining how Osama bin Laden managed to live unexposed in the country for so long.

SO, WHICH ONE IS IT? The Gang of Six proposal is either too much, too late — or too much at just the right moment.

Or, more likely, it’s sort of both — and sorting it all out will mean that in 13 days there will be the kind of stopgap, short-term increase in the debt ceiling of a couple of hundred billion dollars (accompanied by an equivalent amount of spending cuts) that all aides have said for weeks is not an option. In the end, it’s probably Plan C, which buys time for genuine tough-choice legislating this fall to reduce deficits during the next decade. The day after tomorrow, after all, was the agreed-upon deadline for a handshake deal. That's not close yet.

The Gang of Six calls for only $500 billion in deficit reduction (mainly by capping discretionary spending and slowly switching to “chained” CPI as the government’s inflation measure, which would have the effect of curbing Social Security benefits and raising taxes) right away — i.e. before the debt ceiling is raised. And that alone makes it a non-starter unless the GOP drops its insistence on a 1-to-1 ratio of budget savings to new borrowing power, or unless Obama drops his insistence on getting enough new borrowing power now to last past the election.

OPTION ONE: The best evidence for the too-much, too-late argument is the cold water Reid’s tossed on the proposal, by declaring that the 13 days before the default deadline would not be nearly enough time to turn into legislation (let alone clear) the five pages of bullet points put out by Chambliss, Coburn, Conrad, Crapo, Durbin and Warner.

Some of that was understandable annoyance, because the Gang did violate the “no surprises” rule of managing up when it announced its own dramatic revival yesterday morning. But mostly Reid was just reflecting the straightforward reality of the Senate, which is that any small but determined minority — the tea party Republicans, in this case — have the power to run down (maybe even run out) the clock and prevent action on all but the most broadly bipartisan and legislatively locked-in-place plan. And while the Gang plan may have the former requirement sewed up, it’s nowhere close on the latter.

Van Hollen, the top Democrat on House Budget and a former Biden summit negotiator, agreed this morning that’s there’s not enough time to finalize the Gang of Six deal and sell it to his caucus either, because it remains skittish about any plan that has such a significant amount of conservative GOP support.

There’s also another anxiety building among the Democrats: that giving in to entitlement curbs, even in return for an end to the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, will rob them of their best defining campaign issue for next fall — that they’re sticking up for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries and the Republicans are not. That has been the view of Schumer, for example, who has been working furiously — and in an uncharacteristically off-camera way — to get the top  Democrats and the White House to back away from their talk of such a big swap. (It was deeper health care spending cuts than initially planned that got Coburn back into the Gang of Six fold in recent days.)

OPTION TWO: The best evidence for the second argument (too much at just the right time) is that Reid and McConnell’s Plan B remains a work in progress – so there’s still an opportunity to include plenty of the Gang’s best ideas in the final deal.

That’s what Obama was signaling when he rushed into the press room yesterday to praise a Senate surprise, one engineered by one of his few genuine friends in the Senate, Coburn. He wasn’t endorsing it as a bow-around-it $3.7 trillion, 10-year package; instead, he was saying it represented a collection of ideas that had bipartisan appeal and so could become the basis for renewed “grand bargain” negotiations.

The Senate leaders are supposed to be proposing a bipartisan group of lawmakers who would write a long-term deficit reduction plan with tough enforcement mechanisms if reductions weren’t achieved. Maybe the Gang of Six could constitute the senatorial delegation to that select committee.

Reid gave Virginia’s Warner — who’s already thinking about a 2016 presidential race and so is eager to play fiscal hero now — 24 hours (meaning until this afternoon) to gauge support for the Gang’s ideas and then report back with which items would be the best sweeteners to include in the Plan B package.

THE TAX TRACK: Perhaps most importantly, the Gang's sketch suggests more in new taxes, albeit offset by new tax cuts, than was being contemplated by Boehner and the president in the grand bargain talks snuffed out at the insistence of Cantor and the conservatives — which were focused less on a short-term monetary target than on setting a new overall revenue target of 19 percent of the size of the economy.

The Gang plan is for a net of $1 trillion in new revenue by limiting breaks for medical costs, charitable donations, mortgage costs and retirement funds — while lowering individual tax rates (to just three, somewhere between 8 and 12 percent, 14 and 22 percent and then 23 and 29 percent as the top bracket, down from 35 percent) and setting one corporate rate. It would scrap the Alternative Minimum Tax, a system designed to prevent higher-earners from avoiding taxes. But leaving alone the earned-income tax credit and the child tax credit are among the only other orders for the tax-writing committees, which would have six months to come up with a plan.

At first blush, this arrangement would appear to overcome the no-tax pledge limitations Grover Norquist has set on almost all Republicans — that they not vote for any new revenue not accompanied by an equally big tax cut. But there’s still an enormous amount of trepidation from conservative Republicans, especially in the House, about doing something so big so fast.

THE SCHEDULE: The House GOP leadership reversed course last night and told the rank and file to be prepared to stay in town this Saturday and Sunday, although they offered no clue about what they might be asked to vote on.

It now looks like the Senate will bide its time this weekend with debate on its own version of the cut, cap and balance bill the House passed yesterday with the help of five conservative Democratic “yes” votes that were more than offset by nine super-conservative GOP “no” votes, including those from presidential aspirants Paul and Bachmann.

NUMBERS TILT TO OBAMA: Two new polls out today (both taken mostly last weekend) suggest strongly that the president is winning the public opinion war over the budget.

The NBC-Wall Street Journal survey found 58 percent supporting Obama’s push for a $4 trillion deal combining spending cuts, entitlement curbs and tax increases, and 36 percent supporting the GOP plan for a $2.5 trillion package solely of spending cuts and entitlement changes. And when provided the arguments from both sides about whether or not to raise the debt ceiling, 49 percent support the idea — including 66 percent of Democrats, 50 percent of independents and 50 percent of non-tea-party Republicans. Opposition to raising the borrowing limit comes from 43 percent overall, including 62 percent from those describing themselves as tea party supporters.

In the Washington Post-ABC News survey, 58 percent of Republicans say their own leaders are not doing enough to strike a deal — up from 42 percent in March. While a similar share of Democrats say the same of Obama, more independents labeled the GOP as more intransigent (79 percent) than the president (62 percent). And if there’s a default and a resulting economic calamity, 42 percent say they would mostly hold the GOP responsible, with 36 percent who say Obama would be at fault. Finally, fully 63 percent say they are inclined to want a new House member in 2012 — a clarion warning to the nascent Republican majority and its 87 freshmen.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Republicans hoping for Chris Christie to get into the 2012 presidential race need look no further than Trenton yesterday to be convinced that his “no” means “no.” The governor told his health department to start implementing its medical marijuana program, which he’d put on hold in April in hope of getting assurances from Washington that it wouldn’t get New Jersey officials in trouble. He never got an answer but now says he’s confident the program is legal, and “my desire all along has to bring compassionate care to the people who need it the most.’’ That is quite simply not a sound bite that would sell among the base of conservative voters in GOP primary and caucus states — especially if other presidential aspirants paired it with out-of-context footage (and you know they would) of scraggly looking youths with funny looking tubes filled with water.

(2) It’s comeback time for former members of Congress in Michigan and Nevada. Pete Hoekstra, who rose during 18 years in the House to chair the Intelligence Committee, has accepted GOP recruiting entreaties and will challenge Debbie Stabenow’s bid for a third Senate term in 2012 — and hope to avenge his loss in the gubernatorial primary last year. And Dina Titus, who lost her Las Vegas suburbs seat after one term to Republican Joe Heck last fall, says she’s going to run for Congress in 2012 — but has not yet decided which of the possible districts (including her old one) she’ll go after.

(3) North Carolina Republicans have released a second draft of a new congressional map that’s even worse for the Democrats than the first. It would create two incumbent-versus-incumbent Democratic primary contests — Brad Miller vs. David Price and Mike McIntyre vs. Larry Kissell — whereas the first draft didn’t suggest any such contests. In theory the only two Tar Heel incumbent Democrats who would have a good chance of returning in 2012 would be be Mel Watt and G.K. Butterfield.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who began her fifth term in January and is the longest-serving woman senator ever (75).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: The Gang's All Here

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and will open debate early this afternoon on the tea party movement’s desire to condition a $2.4 trillion debt ceiling increase on congressional passage of a balanced budget constitutional amendment. The “cut, cap and balance” bill will pass along party lines (meaning far short of a veto-proof majority) between 6 and 7 — and that will be its legislative, if not rhetorical, high-water mark, because a similar measure has no hope in the Senate.

Janice Hahn of Los Angeles will be sworn in at about 1:30, returning to 18 the number of Democratic women from California in the House — a roster the same size as the entire Ohio delegation.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and is spending the day on its first regular spending bill for next year, proposing an 8 percent cut (to $72.5 billion) in discretionary spending on veterans and military construction. The weekly caucus lunches are from 12:30 to 2:15, but after that there may be actual votes on germane amendments; one is designed to punish Arlington Cemetery for sloppy recordkeeping and misburied caskets. Reid’s pushing for passage tomorrow.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is planning to spend the day off-camera, and his only announced event is a senior staff meeting that started at 10.

HE’S BACK: Just two weeks to the default deadline, today looked to represent something of a calm before the storm — until an unexpected revival of a plan from the Gang of Six was unveiled this morning, and drew a chorus of bipartisan interest and optimism from about 50 senators in a closed-door briefing.

Oklahoma Tom Coburn announced his surprise return to the group after two months away, and he and the other five described a package of sweeping trims to entitlements and other spending programs and plans to raise revenue by shrinking tax breaks. Initial details were sketchy, but the package holds the prospect of as much as $4 trillion in deficit reduction in the next decade. Coburn told reporters he thought it could garner a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate — but every day that goes by without a locked-down deal in place lengthens the odds that the new Gang of Six idea will prove to be too ambitious, too late. And besides, any talk of taxes that might be palatable in the Senate is still going to be extraordinarily difficult to sell to the House (even though some GOP moderates might go for it).

LAYIN’ LOW: Reid and McConnell, meanwhile, are going to wait until at least Thursday before unveiling their last, best, most realistic legislative hope for staving off an economic catastrophe — in order to give Republicans sufficient time to make their speeches and cast their votes for the tea party’s cutting, capping and balancing plan. (Part of the emerging orchestration is to allow that idea to have the veneer of plausibility for at least a couple of days, so the conservative base might come to believe their loyalists in Congress at least fought the good fight before capitulating to Plan B.)

The new timetable means the Senate’s canceled weekend will be spent on the procedural machinations required to send the legislation to the House early next week. It also means House members will be free to spend this Saturday and Sunday away from Washington, knowing full well that the weekend of July 29 will mean round-the-clock caucuses, whip meetings and floor proceedings on both sides of the Capitol.

The almost singular drive now is for a package that would give Obama the power to order an 18-month increase in the borrowing limit (after surviving a series of three votes of disapproval by Congress) while yet another bipartisan panel of elders went to work on a package of entitlement cuts and maybe tax increases that, if backed by a majority of that special committee, would be guaranteed up-or-down votes in Congress. To sweeten the deal for the House Republicans, they would be given the power to add to the package about $1.5 trillion in spending cuts so long as they were negotiated in dance with the White House. They also would likely be allowed to vote to impose a two-year cap on all discretionary pending at about $1.05 trillion.

ETHICS MESS: The House’s internal policing system has been turned upside down by the revelations of apparent misconduct by a pair of Ethics Committee lawyers.

California Democrat Maxine Waters will almost certainly see the case against her — that she improperly aided a bank in which her husband owned stock (One United of Boston) to get federal bailout money in 2008 — dropped altogether, as she has demanded. The evidence in internal memos made public yesterday is pretty clear that the lawyers, Morgan Kim and Stacy Sovereign, who were suspended from the staff last fall, violated panel rules by secretly feeding information about talks about the case last year to Jo Bonner.

And Bonner, the Alabama Republican who is now the committee chairman,is now likely to become the most prominent lawmaker who gets in trouble because of the Waters investigation. The watchdog group called CREW wants Boehner and Pelosi to appoint an outside counsel to investigate the committee’s handling of the case — and the two leaders will be hard-pressed not to go along.

HOUSING NUMBERS: Builders broke ground on a seasonally adjusted 629,000 new houses in June, a 9.4 percent jump from May and the biggest increase since June 2009, the Commerce Department said today. And the more volatile measure of new apartment construction surged 31.8 percent. But all that building (a combined increase of 14.6 percent) is nonetheless on pace to produce only half the 1.2 million new homes needed each year to sustain a healthy housing market. Though new homes represent 20 percent of the overall home market, they have an outsize impact on the economy; the National Association of Home Builders says each home built creates an average of three jobs for a year and generates about $90,000 in taxes.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) RNC Chairman Reince Priebus says the Obama re-election campaign committed “apparent criminal behavior” when it filmed a Web video in the Map Room on the ground floor of the White House and then mailed it to supporters, and he asked yesterday for a Justice Department investigation. But his complaint is probably going nowhere, for two reasons: Obama can cite plenty of precedents, because both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton filmed ads in the non-West-Wing, more residential portion of the mansion. And the video and a related raffle suggested, but did not require, a $5 donation as an entry fee. Justice has so far been silent on the Priebus demand, which followed a House Oversight Committee request for records about the video.

(2) Paltry second-quarter fundraising figures reported to the FEC last week offer very clear clues about which House members are likeliest to head for the exits voluntarily next year. The Republicans with the most remarkably weak numbers include redistricting-troubled Rules Chairman David Dreier of California (who raised only $45,000 in April, May and June); former Appropriations Chairman Bill Young of Florida ($9,000), who will turn 82 next year; 85-year-old Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland ($28,000) and 80-year-old Howard Coble of North Carolina ($25,000). The Democrats with noticeably small hauls include 79-year-old Pete Stark ($46,000) and 74-year-old Grace Napolitano ($39,000) of California, Rubén Hinojosa of Texas ($18,000), Brad Miller of North Carolina ($94,000) and freshman Bill Keating ($90,000), whose Massachusetts seat is about to be carved up and given to more senior incumbents in redistricting.

(3) Dan Boren followed his father’s footsteps to Congress and now is considering a chance to emulate his dad on the way out – by resigning early to become a college president. Having announced last month that his fourth term representing eastern Oklahoma would be his last, the 37-year-old conservative Democrat is in the mix to be named the head of Northeastern State University. (The special election would almost certainly be a hotly contested turnover target for the GOP, with state Rep. George Faught the likely nominee.) Boren’s father, David, resigned from the Senate in the middle of his third term in 1994 to become president of the University of Oklahoma, a job he still holds.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “The intruder entered the front door of the farm house and physically assaulted Cindy while demanding money at gunpoint. Hearing Cindy’s screams, Congressman Boswell entered the entryway and attempted to disarm the intruder,” the Iowa Democrat’s chief of staff, Grant Woodard, says in a statement detailing an incident at 10:45 Saturday night at the family homestead in Lamoni. “Mitchell was able to secure a shotgun from another room. Mitchell pointed the shotgun at the intruder who then retreated into the fields around the house. Besides some scrapes and bruises, Congressman Boswell and his family are fine.” (Cindy is the 77-year-old congressman’s daughter and Mitchell is an adult grandson. No arrests have been made.)
HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Republican Rep. John Campbell of California (56). Former Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee (89).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Monday, July 18, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Bargaining, But No Grand Bargain

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, July 18, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama at 1 will formally introduce Richard Cordray, a former Ohio treasurer and attorney general, as his nominee to be the first head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. An hour after that Rose Garden announcement, the two will convene a meeting to discuss options for implementing the year-old financial services regulatory law even if Cordray isn’t confirmed.

Obama is wrapping up a meeting now with a group of the super-rich — Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates among them — who have formed a group called the Giving Pledge, which urges  wealthy families to give most of their billions to charity.

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 and will be devoted to speechmaking until 5:30, when it will vote for the first time to confirm an openly gay man to the federal bench. J. Paul Oetken, the associate general counsel for Cablevision since 2004 and a Justice Department and White House lawyer in Clinton’s second term, will sit on the trial court in Manhattan.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at noon and at 2 will begin debating one odd-lot bill, allowing church pension plans to form investment partnerships with other pension plans. If someone wants a roll call on passage, it won’t be until 6:30.

DEBT CEILING ENDGAME: Unless there’s some super-top-secret, back-channel negotiating between Obama and Boehner going on, the endgame is in sight for raising the debt ceiling just in time to avoid government default in two weeks. All of the players sounded equally committed over the weekend to doing whatever it takes to permit the Treasury to keep paying bondholders, government contractors and federal beneficiaries without interruption. But there will be plenty of histrionics and posturing and false starts along the way.

It all begins with some policy-pointless but politically priceless legislative stagecraft tomorrow in the House: Passage of legislation — which stands no chance in the Senate — that would condition more Treasury borrowing on a balanced-budget constitutional amendment proposal going to the states for ratification. (The bill would also dictate another $30 billion in discretionary spending next year and reduce all federal spending from 24 percent to 20 percent of GDP within a decade, which is why it’s dubbed “cut, cap and balance.”)

That trifecta is a mantra of the tea party movement, and so it’s become the new unifying rally cry for Republicans. And so this week’s scheduled House recess has been canceled solely to give the proposal its day in the headlines — and thereby give a measure of comfort (and political cover) to the most important 121 people in Washington these days: The not-one-vote-extra majority of Republicans who will soon be required to scrunch up their noses and vote for the final higher-debt, lower-deficit deal.

A bare majority of the majority will have to vote “yes” in order to bring along a similarly razor-thin majority of the minority. If 97 Democrats back the final bill, that would give it 218 votes (actually one more than necessary, because two of the 435 House seats will still be vacant, so a majority of the occupied seats will be 217.)

But the Democrats are getting more and more vocal in their view that there’s no reason for them to walk the plank for shrinking the size of government, even if their president wants them to, unless the Republicans walk with them. Liberals abhor the idea, and only the most electorally safe among them will reluctantly go along if Pelosi insists she needs their votes to save Obama’s presidency. The shrunken ranks of centrists and Blue Dogs are wary that they’ll get hammered by the GOP next fall no matter how they vote.

EASIER ROAD IN THE SENATE: The political dynamic is totally different in the Senate, and the vote counting math is much easier: a comfortably filibuster-proof majority is waiting for whatever package Reid and McConnell unveil tomorrow or the next day. That means support from at least 45 (and perhaps as many as 48) of the 53 members of the Democratic caucus, with the half-dozen senators most vulnerable to defeat next year probably casting the only “no” votes.  And it means at least 15 (but perhaps as many as 25) votes from the 47 Republicans, the number varying depending on how well the tea party movement does at agitating back home.

To give some of those Republicans a preliminary feel-good vote, the Senate’s on course to vote this week on a proposal for a balanced-budget constitutional amendment. Getting one through requires 67 votes. But those votes aren’t anywhere close to being there.

PLANNING ON PLAN B: Over the weekend, the majority and minority leaders’ plan became even more obviously the default roadmap for avoiding economic calamity 16 days from now. It would allow the debt ceiling to rise by $2.5 trillion (to $16.8 trillion) in three installments — meaning the next existential borrowing crisis would be the problem of the next Congress and the winner of the next presidential election. It would allow Republicans to vote three times before Election Day to prevent the new borrowing — and require Democrats to come up with enough votes in their ranks to keep the bond sales going. And it would create a panel of a dozen lawmakers and tell them to write a deficit-reduction plan — without any preconditions about entitlements or taxes or even a specific monetary target — by the end of this year or early next year. Congress would then have to accept or reject the proposal without amendment, assuring more defining votes on fiscal policy on which both sides could campaign next year.

The initial Reid-McConnell offering, however, is likely to be silent on spending cuts, allowing House Republicans to claim credit for adding perhaps $1.5 trillion in savings during the next decade (from domestic and defense appropriations, mainly) from the menu assembled at the Biden summit. Such a vote to amend the bill would be another opportunity for GOP members  to say they did something good before holding their noses and voting “yes”.

The increasingly likely schedule is for the Senate to pass the bill by Friday, and  for the House to stay through the weekend for its debate.

A MOVE TO MASSACHUSETTS: Elizabeth Warren may have been passed over to be the nation’s principal consumer watchdog over mortgage brokers, credit card companies and other lenders. But her long-term prospects for a powerful career in Washington nonetheless look at least as bright as Richard Cordray’s, because she’s now available to be recruited as the Democratic nominee for the Senate in Massachusetts. Her getting into the race is really the only way to make Scott Brown vulnerable to becoming a footnote in senatorial history next year — and she's surely ready to go for it.

Senate Republicans are already signaling they’re no more ready to allow Cordray’s  confirmation than they were to acquiesce in the elevation of Warren, who helped think up the idea for the new Treasury agency as a Harvard professor and helped Geithner set it up. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will officially begin its oversight and regulatory work on Thursday — but the law creating it says many of its activities cannot get started unless there’s a confirmed boss in place, and the Republicans who never like the idea in the first place have essentially said they’ll work to keep the job vacant for as long as possible as a neutralizing move.

“Until President Obama addresses our concerns by supporting a few reasonable structural changes, we will not confirm anyone to lead it,” Dick Shelby, the top Republican on Senate Banking, said yesterday. “No accountability, no confirmation.”

FLORIDA FIELD: The race for the Republican nomination to face Sen. Bill Nelson in Florida took a surprise turn this morning when state Senate President Mike Haridopolos dropped out. (Fundraising wasn’t a problem — he raised a whopping $3.5 million in the past six months — and he issued a statement saying only that he wanted to focus on his legislative work instead. With his departure, former Sen. George LeMieux, the establishment candidate, and  former state House GOP leader Adam Hasner, who’s working to position himself as a Marco Rubio-like  grass-roots conservative, become the top rivals for the nomination.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado is 61 today, and four House members celebrated birthdays Saturday:  Republican Mike Rogers of Alabama (53) and Democrats Don Payne of New Jersey (77), Barbara Lee of California (65) and Tim Ryan of Ohio (38).

— David Hawkings, editor

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