Friday, July 29, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: It Only Takes a Few

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, July 29, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: “There are plenty of ways out of this mess but we are about out of time,” Obama said in a brief statement for the cameras this morning, urging McConnell and Reid to find a somewhat bipartisan final solution to the debt limit impasse — and signaling he would sign off on the sort of binding deficit-reduction enforcement mechanisms that Republicans want so badly in return for allowing a year or more of additional borrowing.

The president then headed to the downtown Convention Center to announce that federal fuel economy standards will rise to 54.5 miles a gallon by 2025 and tailpipe emissions will be further limited. In a concession sought by automakers, light trucks will get easier treatment for the fist few years after this round of mileage standards kicks in, in 2017. (His only other scheduled public appearance will be in the Cabinet Room at 3:10, when he gives a pep talk to the presidents of four emerging West African democracies: Benin, Guinea, Niger and Côte d’Ivoire.)

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and then recessed for party caucuses after the majority leader announced his timetable for moving a bill that would raise the debt ceiling into next year — which looks to start with a filibuster-breaking vote in the early hours of Sunday morning and final passage at breakfast time on Monday. Reid said he had asked McConnell to start negotiating on changes to the Democratic bill that Republicans could support.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and immediately recessed “subject to the call of the chair,” which means the lights will stay dimmed until Boehner is ready to announce his next move for trying to advance his own two-step debt increase bill. He was preparing to offer his own bill to condition a debt ceiling increase next year on congressional passage of a balanced-budget constitutional amendment — language GOP leaders expected would pick up a crucial handful of votes.

IT’S ALL ON THEM: The government’s ability to swerve away from the default cliff during the next four days rests with just a handful of Republicans. Boehner began the day perhaps as few as two votes short (but also perhaps as many as 10) of his ability to pass his two-step debt increase and deficit reduction plan. He’s got eight out of nine members in his caucus on his side, for sure. He needs nine out of 10 just to keep the process going.

And unless he finds the votes in the next few hours to get to 216 — the number that guarantees a majority today, because there are two vacancies and two members missing with health problems — Congress will be almost entirely out of time, as a practical procedural matter, to get the same piece of legislation passed by both chambers and onto the president’s desk by Tuesday night.

The markets focused on the approaching deadline with balky anxiety this morning. The major stock indexes (each of which have declined at least 3 percent this week) all initially dropped off sharply — the apprehension about the congressional paralysis magnified, at least initially, by today’s report that the economy slowed in the first six months of the year to its weakest pace since the recession ended. But the Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq had all bounced back and were flirting with slight gains as of 11:30.

The Commerce Department says the economy expanded only 1.3 percent in the second quarter, and it downwardly revised its first quarter estimate of GDP growth to just 0.4 percent. (Consumer spending went up only 0.1 percent in April-June, after 2.1 percent growth in January-March.)

The weak economy and Washington’s abandonment of plans for a bold intervention into the long-term budgetary morass will mean that the credit ratings agencies will be looking especially hard at downgrading the United States’ AAA rating even if there is a last-second, Band-Aid, stopgap, can-kicking “solution” to the current impasse.

THE OLD BULLS’ TURN: If there’s no breakthrough by this afternoon, House Republicans will essentially be forced to stand down, step aside and hope that Reid and McConnell can step into the breach and come up with the magic bullet — something that can secure at least  60 senators’ votes this weekend and then be cleared by the House with support from a reasonable majority of Republicans and a large bloc of Democrats as well.

That scenario would once again give the leverage back, and at the ultimate moment, to the Democrats and the president, who could presumably press enough Republicans to vote for almost anything that would avoid a default.

In the end, the biggest difference between the two plans is when the next debt limit crisis would be: Reid and other Democrats would to raise the debt limit from $14.3 trillion to $16.7 trillion, a ceiling that wouldn’t buckle until after Election Day 2012. Boehner’s would guarantee only a five or six month debt ceiling increase of $900 billion (in return for $17 billion more than that in cuts), but would allow another $1.6 trillion in borrowing if Congress enacted a law by Christmas to slash deficits by $1.8 trillion.

But, unless Boehner can show his leadership mettle today by muscling something through on his side — even if it has no chance at all across the Capitol — he will have almost no political leverage left for the even heavier lifting that awaits him on the second round, when he will have to persuade many of the lawmakers who are just barely with him this time, on an entirely Republican plan, to stand with him on a bill that will of necessity have to be drawn to get some Democratic votes.

WHIP COUNT: The consensus view is that these are the 26 House Republicans who began the day the most irreversibly in the “no” column on the current Boehner bill. Two are presidential candidates, Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas. Ten others are also at least in their second terms: Jason Chaffetz of Utah, Phil Gingrey of Georgia, Jim Jordan of Ohio, Joe Barton and Louie Gohmert of Texas, Jeff Flake and Trent Franks of Arizona, Steve King of Iowa, Tom McClintock of California and Connie Mack of Florida.

And 14 are from the 87-member freshman class: Joe Walsh and Randy Hultgren of Illinois, Andy Harris of Maryland, Dennis Ross of Florida, Chip Cravaack of Minnesota,  Mo Brooks of Alabama, Dave Schweikert of Arizona, David McKinley of West Virginia, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, Scott DesJarlais of Tennesseee, and Trey Gowdy, Mick Mulvaney, Jeff Duncan and Tim Scott of South Carolina.

THE UPSHOT: The Speaker and his team appear to have made a pretty significant tactical blunder during the last day, by essentially adapting a “Field of Dreams” strategy for getting their bill through. Twenty-four hours ago, their public message was that passage with room to spare had become a foregone conclusion; privately, apparently the message was the same to wavering members: We have the votes because we’re counting on you, and it’s too late to back out now. Clearly, the self-fulfilling-prophecy approach came up short, although the leaders didn’t realize it for sure until just before the roll was called last night.

But it’s also true that Boehner (with Cantor at least for now as his indispensable wingman) is getting credit from even the most solid “no” votes for his approach to the current crisis. They praise him for realizing that part of the tea party freshman crusade for “shaking up Washington” has been to do away with the old strong-arm, threat-filled, pork-barrel-greased “hammer” methods of Tom DeLay and so many leaders (of both parties) who have come before. That’s generally true, although it’s also the case that there’s an implied message when leaders ask their recalcitrant troops if they are “on the team” or not: Being off the team means the captains will not feel obliged to help you much, if at all, when it comes to advancing legislation, getting on a better committee or raising money for your next campaign.

THEY CAN DO IT, TOO: The fiscal impasse, prolonged as it now is by internal Republican strife, is sparking a seed of galvanizing excitement on the left — where activists are talking more and more earnestly about using the GOP’s budget policies as a rallying cry for a sort of liberal version of the tea party. At the forefront of this idea is the American Dream Movement, a coalition formed last month and led by Civic Action that has been a palpably evident force in lobbying House Democrats to line up against the Boehner plan. In a campaign led by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, more than 200,000 Obama donors and volunteers also threatened to abstain from the president’s re-election campaign if Democrats agree to make entitlement cuts.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Colorado’s Diana DeGette (54) and fellow House member Jeff Denham of California (44) today; his Republican freshman colleague Quico Canseco of Texas (62) tomorrow.

— David Hawkings, editor

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Let's Get This Party Started

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and will debate for two hours this afternoon before passing the Boehner plan for raising the debt limit and cutting the deficit. Republican leaders are confident they have the votes they need, virtually all of them from their own ranks. (Just to make sure, there will be roll calls early this afternoon on some unrelated measures in order to force the rank-and-file to the floor — and into the sightlines of the GOP whip team.) No amendments will be allowed, and the climactic vote will come between 6 and 7.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and is in a holding pattern until Reid decides whether to start the ball rolling on his Democratic default-avoiding alternative — or wait a day so he can take up Boehner’s measure, declare it “dead on arrival” once and for all but then turn it into the procedural vehicle for carrying whatever becomes the final negotiated agreement.

THE WHITE HOUSE: To the outside world, Obama looks to be on the sidelines for a third day since his nationally televised rallying cry for his version of a “balanced approach.” Behind the scenes, his senior team — with Biden at the forefront — is making calls, sending e-mails and sneaking into Capitol hideaways in hopes of shaping the endgame at the margins.

Obama’s only announced meetings are with Geithner at 3 and Clinton half an hour after that.

IN LINE, FOR NOW: Boehner’s “get your ass in line” exhortation will be obeyed by at least 90 percent of his caucus today, and they’ll provide all 217 votes required to assure passage of his last, best tea-flavored proposal – combining a decent down payment on deficit reduction ($915 billion over a decade) with an increase in the debt ceiling lasting five or six months ($900 billion.)

Two venerable fiscal conservative groups — the Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation's political arm (once again) — came out against the House bill this morning, but their opposition will prove too late to reverse the momentum the Speaker got rolling yesterday. And a few minutes later a more newly influential conservative group, Crossroads GPS, urged a “yes” vote.

The question now is whether a more ribald appeal — or playing additional clips from mob movies, or starting to threaten freshmen with a lifetime of second-tier committee assignments — will be required to get at least half (120) and maybe three-quarters (180) of the House Republicans to stick with the Speaker on the really climactic vote, which could come as soon as the end of the weekend. That roll call will ultimately be on a final package that must inevitably be written in a way that drives many of the most conservative Republicans away while bringing over a decent bloc of Democrats — at least one out of five (40) and maybe as many as half (97).

The veil of silence that seems to be enveloping the Senate this morning suggests that an agreement may be coming into view on legislation (probably marked with the fingerprints of Biden and McConnell) that would have raised the debt ceiling for at least another year (the eve of the presidential nominating conventions would be an obvious marker) and make an equivalent amount of budget cuts — even before the “Round 2” work of a special congressional panel of elders gets started.

The Democrats’ only remaining line in the sand — after giving up on a clean debt ceiling increase and then on making some taxes part of any deficit-for-debt swap — is that the Treasury get enough borrowing authority, in one legislative act, to last past the 2102 election (a fallback from the spring of 2013). And in the end that demand isn’t going to be quite met, either. The letter last night from the united bloc of 53 Democratic Caucus senators rejects the length of the Boehner debt limit increased but noticeably made no demands about how much longer the borrowing power needs to last.

POSITIVE INDICATORS: The fact that the Senate GOP leader’s press office is so vigorously tamping down reports about McConnell's back-channel negotiations with the vice president only adds to the conventional wisdom — maybe cynical, maybe misguided — that two of the most accomplished negotiators in recent Washington history have just about got this particularly nettlesome problem figured out.

If they have, they may have even telegraphed their intentions in some oblique way to the House — where there’s considerable excitement this morning that the leadership’s official schedule talks about votes through the weekend but then anticipates no more roll calls until after Labor Day. (If that  timetable holds, it would mean the Treasury’s Tuesday night risk-of-default deadline would be met with time to spare, and that as a reward of sorts, the congressional summer recess would get started a week ahead of schedule.)

Maybe on the Biden-McConnell rumors, and maybe because the impending House vote is being played as a step away from the precipice, all the major stock indexes were edging up a little bit at mid-morning after three straight days of declines.

DELTA DAYS: Ending the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration looks to be the only other thing on the congressional must-do list before the August recess. But any moves to break the impasse, which is now five days old, will have to wait in line behind the settlement of the debt ceiling war.

Meanwhile, the intense partisan rift spilled into the open yesterday, when Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller asserted that the real reason for the standoff was intense lobbying by Delta, the only major airline that’s mostly non-union, and the willingness of House Republicans to do the carrier’s bidding. The senator derided as a subterfuge the stated reason for the standoff — that Senate Democrats won’t consider a stopgap FAA funding bill because it would end $16.5 million in subsidies on flights to 13 rural communities. That provision, Rockfeller said, was designed as a bargaining chip so Democrats would give in on something they dislike even more: Language in the long-term aviation programs overhaul that would make it more difficult for Delta workers to unionize. (The provision would reverse a federal regulatory decision last year that airline and railroad employees should be able to form a union by a simple majority of those voting.)

QUOTE OF NOTE: “As in the fable, it is the hobbits who are the heroes and save the land. This Lord of the TARP actually ought to read to the end of the story and join forces with the tea party, not criticize it,” former movement heroine Sharron Angle said in response to McCain’s floor speech yesterday that labeled as “worse than foolish” and “bizarro” the notion that a balanced budget constitutional amendment could get through Congress before a default. He also read approvingly a Wall Street Journal editorial lambasting “tea party hobbits.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Nobody in Congress, but political notables range ideologically from Marilyn Quayle (62) to Hugo Chavez (57).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: You Couldn't Make This Up

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and is essentially in suspended animation while awaiting Reid’s next move on his legislative plan for avoiding default, which he and the rest of the Democratic leadership plan to announce before noon.

Gary Locke was confirmed by unanimous consent this morning to become ambassador to China, so his resignation as Commerce secretary is imminent. And there may be a vote in the next few hours to confirm Bob Mueller to a two-year extension of his term as FBI director, under a law that Obama sought and that he signed yesterday.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and will spend the bulk of the day marking time by debating some of the 200 or so proposals by Democrats to change what they deride as an anti-environmental approach to the Interior and EPA appropriations bill. (Every roll call will be an opportunity for the Republican whips to round up votes on Boehner’s debt and deficit package, now due on the floor tomorrow.) Lawmakers also will pass a bill that would create a special U.S. envoy to press for religious freedom in South Asia. The last vote is promised before 7.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama’s under a cone of silence; the daily intelligence briefing and a meeting now under way with his senior team are the only events on his schedule. But at least seven senior West Wing officials went on television this morning to spread the administration’s new talking points – which is that the Republicans are playing “Russian roulette” with the economy.

THE UNKNOWN UNKNOWNS: Don’t worry if you think you haven’t been told how to decipher the hidden code. The handwriting is not on the wall. There is no secret plan to end the war. The people who always say, “Don’t worry, they’ll figure it out at the last minute like they always do” aren’t saying that with very much confidence today.

All the lobbyists, congressional aides and journalists who think they’ve seen it all before and so claim they really understand how Washington works (not to mention the lawmakers who have been in office longer than seven months) are at a loss to predict with much precision what’s going to happen in the next six days — or maybe as long as the next two weeks, if the Treasury agrees with the Wall Street banks who say the government has several hundred billion in cash in its wallet for paying the early August bills, even though its credit card is going to be maxed out after Tuesday.

The consensus thinking at the moment is this: There won’t be a default. Some bill will get cleared that raises the $14.3 trillion limit on federal borrowing. The grand bargain is so last week, even though it might be easier to pass than what’s under consideration now. Instead, some mash-up of the Boehner and Reid plans is where things are headed. That’s because the two measures have much more in common than their partisans want to let on — although few people want to say so just yet because the politics of getting to “yes” before the very last minute aren’t good for either side.

But in the end, it will probably be McConnell who steps out of the shadows and becomes the human bridge between fellow Republicans in the House and fellow old bulls of both parties in the Senate. His ultimate goal is to find one magic number (for both the new debt limit and an equivalent downpayment on deficit reduction) that’s at the same time big enough to prevent a downgrading of the government’s Triple-A credit rating, big enough for tea party Republicans to think they won something and small enough for Democrats to think they’ve lived to fight another day.

And whatever the legislation says, Obama will sign it — because he surely doesn’t have the leverage to get anything he likes better by vetoing whatever House Republicans and Senate Democrats can scrape together and push through. (Besides, the criticisms OMB heaped on the Boehner plan still fell short of an outright presidential veto vow.) And the president’s acquiescence will come even if all else fails and the best Congress can do is produce a 10-day or one-month increase in borrowing before canceling its summer break and staying in Washington to search anew for the elusive grand bargain — a potential outcome that is increasingly the subject of forlorn and exhausted whispering at the Capitol.

WORD FROM THE ACCOUNTANTS: The green eyeshades at CBO are proving their nonpartisan bona fides again today. This morning they announced that the Reid plan would save $2.2 trillion during the next decade — fully $1.3 trillion more than the Boehner plan. It’s not exactly as much or in the same way as the Senate majority leader has said he was after — but, crucially, the official budget scorekeepers said it was fair for Reid to claim 45 percent of the projected savings from the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Republicans, even though they made the same claim in some of their own proposals, had derided that as a gimmick.) The CBO also said Reid would save $840 billion in other spending by government agencies and would reduce  interest payments by $375 billion over a decade.

The announcement comes on the heels of what Boehner should view as a big favor from the CBO. Although the agency’s headline sounded bad — the Speaker’s plan wouldn’t save as much as he said it would ($850 billion vs. $1.2 trillion) — the announcement was politically and tactically good news for the House GOP leadership, because it masked the enormous difficulty they are having in gathering the votes needed to pass their legislation. The CBO scoring also gave Boehner the excuse he needed to go back to the legislative drafting board and “fix” his plan — probably so that it does more to appease conservatives, who complain it would take too small a first bite out of discretionary federal programs.

Two influential conservative groups , the Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation’s political arm, opposed the first Boehner plan and are unlikely to be brought around after he unveils his changes, which is planned for this afternoon. But the Chamber of Commerce is urging a “yes” vote.

STEPPING OUT: Boehner and Reid are in agreement on a two-step process to reduce the deficit; the big sticking point is the enforcement mechanism for the second round of cuts to be proposed by a special Hill committee. The Speaker wants that to be a second debt-ceiling hike to get the Treasury past the election, which is what Obama had been saying was his bottom line priority. Reid, on the other hand, wants the second step to be deficit reduction that is not tied to another debt-ceiling raise.

There are some much less dramatic differences; the Reid plan would save $15 billion by auctioning off broadcast spectrum, long derided as one of the more frequently announced and rarely executed budget mechanisms. The House plan does not mention any auction. On Pell grants, both plans would preserve maximum award rates for low-income students over the next two years, but there is some difference over savings from other changes in the program.

FOREIGN RIDERS: One more of the dozen routine annual money bills is getting off the ground before Labor Day, when Congress will return from any summer break and in theory have four weeks to turn any deficit and debt deal into a comprehensive collection of discretionary spending decisions for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

The two domestic bills that are going to take the biggest hits under any budget deal — because they cover the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Transportation and HUD departments — are being left at the starting gate until September at the earliest. But a House Appropriations subcommittee this morning approved a foreign aid package totaling $47.2 billion (including emergency funding related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and counterterrorism operations), which is just about the same as what’s being spent this year. It also would reflect Republican approaches to U.S. foreign policy by banning participation in the U.N. Human Rights Council, capping contributions to U.N. peacekeeping activities and prohibiting contributions to the U.N. Population Fund.

THE WU MATH: David Wu sounds like he’s trying to do one final favor for the  Democratic leadership that’s pushing him out of the House 17 months ahead of schedule. His resignation announcement yesterday said he would make his departure official “upon the resolution of the debt-ceiling crisis” — a suggestion that he’ll stand on Pelosi’s side against whatever Boehner puts on the floor in the coming days. It’s a nice, but pointless, gesture. Whether he stays or goes, it will still take 217 votes to guarantee passage of any bill in the House, because that’s the lowest  number that makes a majority of either 433 occupied seats (there are already two vacancies) or 432 seats.

The first Chinese-American ever elected to Congress is becoming the fourth lawmaker to quit just this year because of his personal peccadilloes. The others: Chris Lee, John Ensign and Anthony Weiner.

HOLDING PATTERN: House Republicans are hoping to propose a plan today for ending their impasse with Senate Democrats over interim funding for the FAA, which has been partly shut down since Saturday because of a dispute that boils down to the future of federally subsidized flights to a dozen remote towns.

But while that process plays out in the shadows of the so-much-bigger budget standoff, members of Congress are browbeating the airlines not to take advantage of the situation. All the big airlines other than Spirit and Alaska have continued to collect money that normally would go to ticket taxes (which are officially suspended during the impasse), and lawmakers want the $25 million a day or so to somehow be passed back to the passenger — or at least set aside in a fund that could help pay for airport improvements.

At the same time, the Department of Transportation has suspended $6.2 billion in 172 airport improvement contracts — including multibillion-dollar projects in the Washington area involving research and development of the new satellite-based air traffic control system — until the FAA funding stream is restored.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democratic Rep. Lacy Clay of Missouri (55) and Republican Rep. Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania (52)

— David Hawkings, editor

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Bargain Basement

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and this afternoon (after the weekly caucus lunches) will take up Reid’s plan for adding $2.7 trillion to the national debt limit while cutting projected deficits by the same amount. He’s made some procedural moves to prevent unfriendly amendments but hasn’t yet started the process for overcoming the certain filibuster from Republicans, who deride the plan’s reliance on $1 trillion in “savings” from war spending no one expected to occur.

Gen. Martin Dempsey of the Army is testifying at his Armed Services confirmation hearing to succeed Adm. Mike Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and this afternoon will resume debate on the Interior and EPA spending bill, which faces enough angry Democratic amendments that it won’t be done before the last roll call of the day, which is promised before 7. (The official photograph of the 112th Congress will be made in the chamber at about 2.)

THE WHITE HOUSE: Other than a senior staff meeting this morning and a meeting with Panetta and Biden at 3:15, Obama has cleared his schedule to focus on the debt and deficit impasse.

OBAMA’S OMISSION: One week to go, and no plan for avoiding a government default has sufficient support to become law. One day to go, and Boehner’s own plan does not have enough support from the Speaker’s fellow Republicans to be assured of passage by the House.

But if that does happen, the Boehner two-step will leapfrog over the Reid one-stop and become the likelier measure to become law. That’s because of the news buried under all of Obama’s combative rhetoric on national TV last night was what he did not say: He never vowed to veto the Speaker’s plan.

The president’s not rejecting the Boehner plan out of hand, because, in the end, it embodies plenty of the “grand bargain” fallback position he has resigned himself to — except for the no mention of taxes part, of course. And it even includes a more or less fail-safe (if quite balky) method for getting the debt ceiling raised high enough to keep the Treasury flush beyond the election: $1 trillion in new borrowing would be authorized right away, and another $1.6 trillion would be allowed in several installments (unless two-third majorities in Congress objected each time) once a new special congressional committee proposed a package of entitlement curbs and they were locked in place  by up-or-down, no-amendment congressional votes.

The details of that language should be sufficient to calm the credit ratings agencies, which have been making complaining noises in the last day about the Boehner bill not creating a long-enough period of certainty about the creditworthiness of the government — suggesting its enactment might still promote a downgrading of U.S. debt. (Markets were slipping for a third day this morning, but the declines were modest; the Dow was down by half a percentage point at 11:30 and the S&P 500 was off two-tenths of a point.)

UNDER THE MATTRESS: Also  holding any market anxiety at bay, at least for another morning, was word that there may be a couple of more days of cash available after next Tuesday than the Treasury has expected. Geithner is still sticking with his longstanding view that the government needs to borrow more money on Aug. 3 to make good on all its obligations. But the government had $85 billion in cash on hand at the end of last week, and several banks say that suggests a slightly higher-than-expected level of daily tax receipts that could keep the government afloat for a few days beyond the declared deadline.

23 IS THE MAGIC NUMBER: Unless Boehner is sure by tonight that he’ll lose no more than 23 members of his own caucus, he will not move ahead with tomorrow’s scheduled debate. The number is the bottom line of some simple math. It takes 217 votes to assure passage (the magic number is off by one because of a pair of vacancies.) And Boehner and his whip team (Cantor and McCarthy are fully on board) will need to find all of those votes from their own 240-member caucus. That’s because it would be foolishly risky for them to count on any support from Democrats in the currently poisonous atmosphere — although a handful of the most politically endangered Blue Dog types might stray from the fold and vote “yes” if passage becomes a sure thing.

The suspense is propelling third-termer Jim Jordan of Ohio into the position of the indispensable man. This year’s chairman of the Republican Study Committee — the most conservative caucus in the House, which claims seven in 10 GOP lawmakers as members — came out against the Boehner plan last night, arguing that it does not make deep enough spending cuts soon enough.  But how hard he will work to corral other  colleagues to vote “no” seems up in the air. (The list he’s using would start with the 58 lawmakers who joined him and defied Boehner in April by voting against the midyear spending deal.)

Another faction that will prove crucial, of course, is the 87 freshmen — and one of their leaders, Allen West of Florida, has endorsed Boehner’s approach. So has Grover Norquist, because the bill is revenue-free and thus is in line with the Americans for Tax Reform pledge. One of the things they both also like is that the bill would compel the Senate and the House to vote on a constitutional balanced-budget amendment by the end of the year — although not necessarily the one they like, which would require two–thirds votes in Congress for new taxes.

BASE LINES: Boehner’s situation within his own ranks is so precarious — and the rank-and-file’s distrust of his compromising instincts so close to the surface — that he apparently concluded he had to use a rare opportunity to speak to the entire country last night as a vehicle to buck up his own hard-line bona fides inside the House Republican conference.

The result was a five-minute speech that stuck up for the very sort of intransigence spurned by the public — and especially the independent voters who will get to decide how this summer’s trip to the economic precipice is remembered come Election Day. But it’s a tone that’s embraced by the Republican base, which continues to interpret the last election as a sign that voters favor principled stands against the tide of red ink over any compromise that might stanch a bit of that red ink.

At the same time, it’s just as curious why Obama chose last night to pull the rip cord and deploy a president’s most powerful rhetorical weapon: the prime-time TV address. There was widespread expectation he’d use the moment to announce something super dramatic — that he was prepared to raise the debt ceiling on his own authority, maybe. Instead, his boldest move was to drape himself with Ronald Reagan’s mantle (he raised the debt ceiling 18 times, etc.) while trying — in more measured tones than he used Friday night — to explain why a debt ceiling crash wouldn’t be his fault and to get the public to flood the Capitol switchboards and inboxes with messages telling Congress to help him out. (Officials reported that the House switchboard was nearing its capacity of incoming calls this morning, but there was no way to ascertain whether the callers were generally siding with the president’s arguments or the Speaker’s.)

TRAIL TIPS: 1. Todd Akin is trying to get right by his congressional financial disclosures before errors impede his campaign for the Republican Senate nomination in Missouri. Last week, the six-term House member amended nearly a decade’s worth of personal disclosure forms and reported assets for 2010 worth a minimum of $355,000 — or more than 10 times what he had reported in May. The increase was mostly the value of a pair of properties he partly owns in an affluent St. Louis suburb and another piece of land on Cape Cod. (Aides said Akin mistakenly though he didn’t have to mention them because they generated no income.) The congressman is facing former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman for the right to take on first-term Democrat Claire McCaskill.

2. While David Wu continues to rebuff pressure to resign after an 18-year-old woman accused him of sexual impropriety, the campaign for his seat is in full swing. (The boundaries of the high-tech-focused western suburban Portland district are changing slightly because of redistricting and the electorate will become slightly more Republican.) Oregon Democrats expect state Sen. Suzanne Bonamici to join the two candidates already in the primary race, Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian and state Rep. Brad Witt. Potential Republican nominees include sports marketing businessman Rob Cornilles, who lost to Wu last year, three state legislators and two tea party candidates from last year’s primary.

3. The departure of Mike Ross is increasing the chances that Arkansas will have an all-Republican House delegation in 2013. The GOP was already targeting the Blue Dog Democrat for defeat next year and was encouraged by the redrawing of the state’s congressional map to make his district more amenable to Republicans. Now the GOP would seem to be the odds-on favorite to take the seat.  Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, business consultant Tom Cotton and Beth Anne Rankin, who took 40 percent as the nominee last year, are all likely GOP contenders. Democratic possibilities include college chancellor Chris Thomason, state Rep. Bruce Maloch, U.S. Attorney Conner Eldridge and state Sen. Gene Jeffress.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY:  Freshman Republican Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama (35).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Monday, July 25, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Eight Days a Week

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, July 25, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is planning to steer clear of the debt talks, at least in public and at least for today, with all sides apparently concluding that anything the president agrees to at this point will be viewed with debilitating suspicion by the House Republican majority’s rank and file.

The president has a 12:50 speech to the National Council of La Raza and at 4 will host the traditional Rose Garden photo op with the World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

Administration officials from several departments and agencies are announcing at this hour a coordinated strategy for repelling transnational organized crime.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and this afternoon will clear legislation making an exception to the 10-year term for FBI directors so that Bob Mueller can stay on the job until September 2013. A contentious debate will then get started on the $27.5 billion (7 percent cut) spending bill for the Interior Department and the EPA, with Democrats planning a sustained effort to strip out a collection of provisions they view as hostile to environmental protection.

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 with nothing on its official agenda beyond confirmation votes at 5:30 on a pair of federal judges. Paul Engelmayer, a former federal prosecutor and since 2005 the partner in charge of WilmerHale’s New York office, will head to the District Court in Manhattan. Ramona Villagomez Manglona will get a 10-year term as a territorial judge in the Northern Marianas.

WINNING UGLY? An eight-day week has begun, with two plans not looking any better than one.

But global markets, at least at midmorning, appeared sanguine enough. That the House Republicans and Senate Democrats are going their separate legislative ways, at least for a time, has not been causing any visible panic. The worried-about Asian anxiety did not materialize (most markets there declined about 1 percent or less), and as of 11:30 all the major American stock indexes were off about half a percentage point.

And so today is looking to be substantively wasted, with dueling news conferences, and all the attendant finger-pointing and partisan posturing, substituting for (or, perhaps, masking) a path toward consensus. The likelier day for a final way forward is tomorrow. Tuesday, after all, has been the day when big and bold proposals have lurched the debate ahead in each of the previous two weeks: The McConnell double back-flip with a head fake that became the McConnell-Reid Plan B was rolled out July 12, and it was July 19 when the Gang of Six put out its bold bullet points — including the revenue number that apparently prompted Obama to up the tax ante with Boehner (from $800 billion to $1.2 trillion) at the end of last week.

What’s genuinely remarkable is that, under both the plans now being discussed, the undeniably bigger winner is the political party that owns just one of the three corners of the legislative triangle. Whether it’s the Boehner way or the Reid way, the Republicans would still get the two things they’ve most wanted all along: They would get to tie any new borrowing to an equivalent amount of deficit reduction. And there would be no tax increases at all for the wealthy or big corporations. In other words, the new House GOP majority has won the day. The 87 freshmen and their leaders need only to figure out how to declare victory in a way that does not make the Democratic majority in the Senate and a Democratic president feel so belittled that they try and claw back some of the enormous amount of ground they’ve conceded in the last couple of weeks.

And the only question after that is whether the Republicans will be rewarded for their tactical triumph by an electorate that has been telling pollsters how it preferred bipartisan compromise (and a mixture of taxes and cuts) to get to the big goal.

PLANS OF ATTACK: Boehner is supposed to unveil his two-step this afternoon: First, a bill that could be on the House floor as soon as Wednesday to make $1.2 trillion in mostly discretionary spending cuts over the next decade — in return for a slightly less than equivalent, less-than-a-year increase in the borrowing ceiling. Second, a plan for creation of a special congressional commission that would propose another $1.8 trillion whack at the deficit through entitlement curbs and a loophole-limiting, base-broadening tax overhaul — the deadline for enactment being when that new $15.4 trillion or so debt ceiling gets hit.

Reid is then supposed to put out his one-stop alternative: A bill calling for $2.7 trillion more in borrowing authority by promising that much in deficit reduction, almost all from freezing or cutting spending and without any revenue increases or entitlement changes — a feat of accounting magic that will be accomplished by claiming fully $1 trillion in savings from carrying out the already planned winding down of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Neither one can prevail. The debt ceiling increase in the Boehner two-step is not big enough to get a bill through the Senate, and the president has said without equivocation that he’ll veto any measure that doesn’t cover the Treasury beyond the next election. Not only that, but the Speaker will still have plenty of trouble pushing his own bill through the House. Next to no Democrats will go for it, and there is still a solid bloc of tea party Republicans (probably at least 30 and maybe as many as 50) who will not vote for any legislation that raises the debt ceiling at all. Meanwhile, the Reid one-stop accounting methods (counting so heavily on “savings” of expenses that were never going to be incurred anyway)  will be derisively laughed off by the House.

And so sometime in the coming round-the-clock endgame the president will have to step back into the room (and probably in front of the cameras) to act as a one-man conference committee to cobble together a bill that wards off the threat of a default.

TOWER OUTAGE: With no legislative end in sight to this summer’s preliminary budget impasse (over aviation programs), the Obama administration this morning issued  stop-work orders for major modernization projects and said they would stay in place until the House and Senate agree to a way to keep money flowing to the FAA until a larger aviation bill gets finished. Among those projects are a $43 million control tower in Las Vegas, a $25 million tower in Palm Springs, a $31 million tower in Oakland and a $6 million project at New York’s LaGuardia.

WU WOES : The House Democratic leadership is launching a hard push to get David Wu to resign. Just a couple of months after the Anthony Weiner debacle, the last thing the party needs politically is another veteran lawmaker sticking around while lurid details of alleged sexual transgressions get aired.

The Oregon Democrat signaled yesterday that he wanted to do just that, putting out word that he will not seek an eighth term next fall but insisting he won’t agree to leave ahead of time. That decision was a direct rebuff to the leadership, which had been working to get Wu to resign before the news broke Friday that the teenage daughter of one of the congressman’s close friends and campaign donors was accusing him of sexual assault. And so Pelosi and DCCC Chairman Steve Israel ratcheted up he pressure late last night by calling for the Ethics Committee to open a formal investigation of those allegations.

The timing of the alleged incident, over the last Thanksgiving holiday, would suggest that the congressman’s period of highly unusual and erratic behavior — emailing a picture of himself in a tiger costume to some aides, most notoriously — had not abated by the time he won re-election. Senior staffers got so concerned that they kept him off the campaign trail and urged him to be admitted to a hospital for psychiatric treatment. After the election he said he was seeking professional help, and in the spring he emailed constituents to apologize for succumbing so publicly to extreme stress — which he blamed on a foundering marriage — while asserting he was doing better mentally.

BLUE DOG BLUES: Democrat Mike Ross is announcing in Little Rock today that he will not seek a sixth House term in 2012, but may run for governor two years after that. The redrawing of the state’s congressional lines could make the race to replace him competitive. Like the first House Democrat to retire this year, Oklahoma’s Dan Boren, Ross is a member of the ever-faster-dwindling conservative Blue Dog Democrats, a group that was essentially halved in the midterm Republican surge.

TRADE ADJUSTMENT: Supporters of the trade liberalization deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea are holding out hope that Congress will bless the agreements before going home for the summer. The reason for optimism is that a dozen Republican senators have promised to vote with the Democrats to advance (over a GOP leadership filibuster) a continuation of expanded Trade Adjustment Assistance benefits for workers whose jobs disappear as a result of the trade deals.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri (58) yesterday; GOP Rep. Tim Johnson of Illinois (65) on Saturday.

— David Hawkings, editor

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