Friday, September 23, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: No Plan C. No Point A, Either?

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, September 23, 2011

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 9 and is voting now to reject the stopgap spending and disaster aid package the House passed just before 1 this morning.

THE HOUSE: Convened at noon and before 1 will pass legislation to restrain environmental and emissions regulation for power plants. (Votes on a dozen amendments are now under way.) After that, the lights will be dimmed and lawmakers will start an into-the-weekend holding pattern while the GOP leadership ponders its next move in the current budget impasse.

THE WHITE HOUSE: “Our kids only get one shot at a decent education. They cannot afford to wait. So, since Congress has been unable to act, I will,” Obama said an hour ago in announcing the administration’s plans to waive many requirements in the No Child Left Behind law for states that embrace the policies the president has been unable to get enacted as a replacement.

He’s meeting in the Cabinet Room now with the 15 members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. It’s the last announced event on his calendar for the day.

WHERE TO START? There is no Plan C yet for avoiding a partial shutdown of the government next weekend. All that’s clear this morning is that Boehner and Reid are ready to hold their troops in town for this weekend — and beyond that, into a supposed recess week — to signal that they’re digging in their heels. What the Republicans and Democrats say their dispute is about is at the top of their current list of disputes. In other words, they’re arguing about what they’re arguing about.

The Democrats who run the Senate say they are dead set against any effort to spend less on discretionary programs than what the debt-hike-for-deficit-cut law of August allows — even if it’s only for seven weeks, because they fear the precedent would soon become a bargaining floor for the House GOP. (The House bill would spend at a 98.5 percent rate between Oct. 1 and Nov. 18, and the Republicans say they’re digging in on that.) Beyond that, Reid’s forces are united for now against allowing any cuts to offset the emergency spending on disasters — especially from programs they see as job creators. (The House bill would cut $1.5 billion from green-car research and another, largely symbolic, $100 million from the solar-energy program that propped up Solyndra. Republicans say the deficit is so out of hand that offsets for disaster have to be the new normal.) Democrats say they’re insisting on twice as much disaster aid as the House measure would provide — $6.9 billion versus $3.7 billion. Republicans say the budget cannot afford any more than that.

It had appeared that next Friday's deadline for the stopgap spending bill would come before the deadline for replenishing the disaster fund. Not so. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says the money may well run out as soon as Tuesday because of so many claims from people and local governments clobbered by Hurricane Irene, Texas wildfires, the Joplin tornado and other natural disasters.

THE BREAKDOWN: The vote for the House bill was 219-203, because of the 23 Republicans who voted “yes” even though they’d opposed a nearly identical measure (only the Solyandra tweak was new) on Wednesday. The switchers were Barletta, Bucshon, Burgess, Burton, Campbell, Canseco, Chaffetz, Duncan, Fincher, Fleming, Gowdy, Tim Johnson, Lamborn, Landry, Marchant, Jeff Miller, Neugebauer, Posey, Rohrabacher, Ross, Royce, Mike Turner and Walberg. Still, 24 Republicans voted no, while just six Democrats voted for the bill: Altmire (who also voted yes on Wednesday), Holden, Kissell, Carolyn McCarthy, Michaud and Welch.

FAVORITE GUEST: Members of the super committee have held their third secret meeting of the last two weeks — spending even more time yesterday with Thomas Barthold, the top staffer on the Joint Tax Committee, after their four-hour public hearing came to an end. As in the past, the two chairmen signaled that there would be solid bipartisan consensus — at least on the need to keep the really substantive work of their all-powerful panel a secret. “Productive,” was all that the Democratic co-chairwoman, Sen. Patty Murray, would say about the discussion. “Educational,” added the House GOP co-chairman, Jeb Hensarling.

Those two adjectives didn’t apply all that much to their on-camera portion of the deficit reduction panel’s day. Yes, all 12 of them agreed that in an ideal world they would include in their $1.2 trillion-or-more proposal an overhaul of the tax code that would make it simpler and fairer. But no, there was no agreement at all as to what that overhaul would look like or what the definitions of “fair” or “simple” should be. Instead, it was partisan policy presentations as usual when the talk turned to taxes on the rich, which tax code provisions were closing-worthy “loopholes” and  whether an IRS rulebook rewrite should be revenue-neutral or not.

Panetta, meanwhile, told House Armed Services yesterday that he is close to completing and sending to the supercommittee a proposal for achieving $450 billion in Pentagon savings over 10 years — which would be $100 billion more than the floor amount the supercommittee will be looking for under this summer’s debt deal. He offered no details beyond saying the cuts would aim to reduce overhead and redundancies and stressing they would be considered “strategically” without affecting military capabilities. He said he was going to be offering the bigger number because he wants to help the supercommittee get to an enactable deal that avoids the triggering of across-the-board cuts, which he says would be much worse for the nation’s military posture.

McCOTTER UNPLUGGED: When Thaddeus McCotter ended his quirky and quixotic campaign for the presidency yesterday and endorsed Mitt Romney, the reason was pretty obvious to fellow Republicans back home in the Detroit suburbs: He urgently needs to devote all his attention to holding his own House seat. (He made clear yesterday that he would not challenge Sen. Debbie Stabenow instead.) If he wants to win a sixth term so he can keeping playing guitar in as many congressional garage bands as possible, McCotter will have to ward off a serious primary challenge from State Sen. Mike Kowall. (He’s formally announcing his candidacy tomorrow as state GOP officials gather on Mackinac Island.) The contours of the Livonia-based district have been redrawn by the legislature to be more Republican in the next decade.

McCotter’s departure leaves two House members in the race for the GOP nomination. “I’m in it for the long haul,” Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann said on CBS this morning, after another debate in which she was unable to get much sound-bite traction against apparent frontrunners Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. She also conceded that her vaunted early fundraising machine has slowed significantly, and she said she was skipping the Florida straw poll to focus her energies on Iowa, where her straw poll victory in August gave her campaign viability. (McCotter finished last in a field of 11 and never improved his standing after that.) Ron Paul of Texas, meanwhile, declared on the stage in Orlando last night that he viewed himself as in third place in the race and had every intention of staying in as well.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “My next-door neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration,” former Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico declared last night — his breakthrough moment at the first GOP presidential debate to which he’s been invited since May.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No lawmakers celebrate today or tomorrow, but four House members do on Sunday: Republican Mario Diaz-Balart  of Florida (50) and Democrats Gregory Meeks of New York (58), Jerry Costello of Illinois (62) and Doris Matsui of California (67).

PUBLISHING SCHEDULE: If the planned Rosh Hashana congressional recess is under way by Monday, the Daily Briefing will not be delivered for the next week. Publication will resume on Monday, Oct. 3.

— David Hawkings, editor

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

Thursday, September 22, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: September Issue

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and by this evening will pass (with a good-sized bipartisan majority) legislation continuing parts of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which provides retraining and financial support to people whose jobs move overseas. The Republican House is more resistant to the TAA extension but is likely to acquiesce in it, because doing so is the condition Obama has set for sending Congress the free trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and at noon will start debating legislation designed to limit EPA regulation of power plants. It will be the placeholder until Republican leaders unveil their Plan B for a stopgap spending and disaster aid package.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is leaving at 12:30 for a five-hour round trip to Cincinnati, where he’ll make his latest pitch for his jobs package in the shadow of the decrepit, 48-year-old Brent Spence Bridge. It carries Interstates 71 and 75 over the Ohio River between the home states of Boehner and McConnell, which makes the politics of the 2:30 photo op patently obvious. Not so the policy rationale for linking the $2.4 billion replacement project to his economic stimulus proposals. That’s because it’s nowhere near shovel-ready: Construction is not supposed to start for another four years.

HARDLY A SURPRISE: The start of the next congressional recess will probably be delayed into the weekend or beyond, because there’s no quick fix in sight for this year’s third — and by far least consequential — budgetary standoff.

Congress has nine days to come to an agreement on how to fund the government during the start of the new budget year. As a practical matter, the fight over disaster money can be postponed for a few weeks beyond that, because FEMA has what it needs to keep hurricane, tornado and flood relief operations going at least into the second half of October. But some sort of stopgap spending bill, or CR, cannot wait beyond a week from Monday, or Oct. 3, the first weekday in fiscal 2012. That’s when any partial government shutdown would be tangibly put into effect.

As a result, Republican leaders this morning are talking about decoupling the disaster aid from the CR. They are also talking about moving a stopgap bill that lasts for less time than the seven weeks they’d hoped for — maybe even for only a week. Both those approaches would have a fighting chance of winning bipartisan acceptance in the House. But not so the other option they’re mulling — reducing the rate of spending the CR would allow. The bill the House defeated yesterday would have reduced spending by 1.5 percent, which is just what this summer’s debt-increase-for-spending-cut law calls for. But 48 Republicans and all but six Democrats opposed it anyway. The theory is that, by enlarging that “haircut” to, say, 2 percent, a CR could pass with an all-Republican majority.

But that would be a very short-term victory, because there’s no way such a measure could get the 60 votes needed to get through the Senate. It probably wouldn’t even get more than 40 votes, because every Democrat and some GOP appropriators as well would assert they have no interest in walking away from the August budget deal. (McConnell, an old-time appropriator, had absolutely nothing to say about the standoff in his daily opening remarks on the floor this morning.)

The Senate, then, looks sure to stand by the principle that you don’t abandon an agreement you enacted into law just two months ago. Less certain is whether senators will insist on the principle that emergency spending is never matched with offsetting cuts elsewhere — because there seem to be a good number of relatively recent examples when it was. But the fights over green-car technology research and whether it should be cut to contribute $1 billion more to FEMA (or whether the agency should get $3.6 billion right now, or twice as much) are on the back burner for at least a little while.

All the attention today is how Boehner will get out of this latest straitjacket of his own making. Will he go to his right, and then get stuck in the Senate? Or will he go to his left, and truly jeopardize a hold on leadership that grows more problematic every time he allows the House to “work its will” and they respond by slapping him in the face. The Speaker said this morning that he was confident his leadership style would help him in the long run, even though it makes his life "more difficult." He said he was working to gauge GOP caucus support for different CR options and hoped to unveil an approach by tonight.

DOING IT HIMSELF: Senior administration officials this afternoon will detail for reporters precisely how the president plans to assert his own authority to sweep aside some of the central provisions in the current education law and replace them with his own ideas. The formal announcement will come tomorrow.

Since Congress is nowhere close to getting started on a rewrite of the decade-old No Child Left Behind law, which was a principal domestic policy change of the Bush presidency, Obama and Arne Duncan — who’s undeniably the most powerful Education secretary ever — are going to blow past some Republican lawmakers’ resistance and essentially impose the policy prescriptions of theirs that are stuck at the Capitol. (Many of these were embodied in the Race to the Top initiative of monetary rewards for the states that Obama put in place at the start of his presidency.) They will declare they are willing to waive some of No Child’s toughest requirements — most notably sanctions on schools that don’t get all their students proficient in math and reading by 2014 — in any state that carries out changes akin to what the president wants, such as expanding the number of charter schools, linking teacher evaluations to students’ performance and upgrading academic standards. Nine out of 10 states say they have plans in the works that could get them out from under the No Child rubric.

ARTFUL DODGERS: Today’s best opportunity to watch some forced bipartisan comity and listen to some contorted rhetoric is at 4 in the Ways and Means hearing room. That’s when the official portrait of Charlie Rangel will be unveiled — assuring that, for decades to come, visitors to the ornate Longworth chamber will be reminded of a third modern-era chairman of the House’s preeminent policy-making panel who was driven from power after he was caught in relatively petty schemes for personal or financial aggrandizement. (Portraits of Dan Rostenkowski and Wilbur Mills already loom over the room.)

Black Caucus Chairman Emanuel Cleaver will presumably talk about how Rangel rose from humble beginnings to become the first African-American chairman of the committee in 2007. New York’s senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, will say nice things about the dean of their delegation. Pelosi will avoid linking Rangel’s own nationally ridiculed downfall to her own loss of the Speakership last year. Chairman Dave Camp will offer something anodyne. Boehner will sound gracious while struggling to avoid making an unintentional  joke at anyone’s expense. And then the guest of honor will return to his current role as an 81-year-old back-bencher.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Three House Democrats from Chicago — Jesse Jackson, Bobby Rush and Danny Davis — have reversed course and started bellyaching about the new congressional map for Illinois, even though it was drawn so their party could pick up as many as five seats across the state. They’re even talking about helping the Republican effort to get the new lines thrown out by a federal court, on the grounds they violate the Voting Rights Act by not creating a second seat for a Hispanic even though the Latino population has gone up in the past decade. (Doing so would end up boosting the number of GOP voters in other districts.) At a minimum, they won’t do what their party wants and contribute $10,000 each to fight the lawsuit. Leading the angry outcry is Jackson, whose own district has been reshaped to include more suburban and rural areas — opening him up to a comeback primary challenge by former Rep. Debbie Halvorsen. (Meanwhile, assuming the map stays as is, Joe Walsh says he’ll run for a second-term in a GOP primary against fellow freshman Randy Hultgren.)

(2) Floridians disapprove of Obama’s job performance, 57 percent to 39 percent, his worst score in any of the current Quinnipiac University statewide polls in any state — and by 53 percent to 41 percent, voters there say he doesn’t deserve a second term. The state is the third biggest electoral vote prize next year, with 29. Obama carried it by 3 points in 2008; in the two previous elections it provided Bush with his margin of victory. The poll, out in advance of tonight’s GOP debate starting at 9 in Orlando, shows Mitt Romney topping Obama, 47 to 40 percent, but Perry in a statistical tie against the president. (Assuming Sarah Palin doesn’t run, Perry’s ahead of Romney, 31 percent to 22 percent among Republicans; if she’s in, the Texas governor’s ahead of the Massachusetts governor by 6.)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: House Administration Chairman Dan Lungren of California (65) and fellow House Republican Bob Goodlatte of Virginia (59).

— David Hawkings, editor

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

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

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Calendar Guys

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations; if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians, not us, who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and security; on refugees and Jerusalem,” Obama told the General Assembly today in a last-ditch effort to stop a vote this week on a resolution endorsing Palestinian statehood.

He’s now expanding on that message in a closed-door session with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and he’ll do the same late this afternoon in a session with Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. The president’s other speech today is at a 2:45 meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative. He’s also having one-on-one sessions with Japan’s Yoshihiko Noda, Britain’s David Cameron, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Salva Kiir Mayardit of South Sudan, the U.N.’s newest member. After attending a massive evening reception for world leaders, Air Force One is wheels up out of JFK at 9:45. The Obama’s are due back in the residence 70 minutes later.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10, will begin debating several minor bills at noon and will be done for the day by 5 after voting to shave spending on discretionary programs by 1.5 percent during the first seven weeks of fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. The bill would also provide $3.6 billion in disaster aid. (No amendments will be allowed, and the debate will be limited to an hour.)

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and at 12:30 will reject the first two amendments offered to the tenuously negotiated bipartisan trade package. One would make renewal of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program contingent on implementation of the pending trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. The other would cut the budget for that worker aid program.

DEADLINES, AGAIN: The latest chapter in this year’s story of budgetary brinkmanship will be written this afternoon, when the Republican House passes stopgap spending legislation that would provide only half the disaster recovery money the Democratic Senate has voted for — and would come up with $1 billion of that aid at the expense of the sort of “green technology” program for hybrid car research that Democrats hail as a jobs creator and the GOP derides as a goofy boondoggle.

The vote will come just 48 hours before the scheduled start of a congressional recess that’s supposed to last through the weekend after next, when the new budget year begins and most programs will need to see the stopgap CR enacted in order to open for business on Monday, Oct. 3. So Boehner and Reid will be under intense pressure from the rank and file to come to a meeting of the minds, and fast.

Today’s House roll call, and the tight timetable, should work to Boehner’s advantage — paradoxically, because it will expose the weakness of support for the bill he’s pushing. Plenty of Republicans don’t like the overall level of spending the measure allows — which is what the summer debt deal embraced, but which is still (at an annualized rate) $24 billion more than what the House’s original Ryan budget had in mind. And so 50 or more of them would return to their favored “shut it down” posture and vote against the bill unless they can at least claim a symbolic victory from the $1 billion offset. And the Democrats won’t provide enough votes to make up for those defections, because they think the whole measure spends too little.

That leaves Boehner’s team explaining to Reid’s team that today’s bill is the best that’s politically achievable — especially given the calendar. (There really is no appetite in the ranks for another collection of canceled co-dels or weekends with the family.) And Reid’s probably going to end up agreeing — in part because he’s not got all that many extra votes in his pocket to insist on his way. (Ten Republicans voted with him to advance the $7 billion package last week, and presumably two or more of them would be willing to take the House GOP side now, which would put the majority for the more expensive package below the magic 60 Reid needs.) And, besides, providing $3.6 billion for hurricane, flood and drought relief now would tide over recovery efforts for a few months, and would allow the option of going back to the federal spending well later in the fall.

AIN’T NO SUNSHINE: Yesterday’s closed-door meeting of the supercommittee produced no tangible agreement on policy, but instead a further rationalization from the lawmakers for their escalating tendency to convene in private — even though they all swore that they would wield their enormous power in a fundamentally transparent way. The Senate co-chairman, Patty Murray, said the 12 of them “clearly” understand “the tremendous time challenge in front of us and the tremendous challenge in front of our country today for us to come to an agreement” by Thanksgiving — and agreed that might require them to ditch the parliamentary niceties in favor of back-room candor.

The committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing on tax issues tomorrow morning, with Tom Barthold of the Joint Committee on Taxation as the witness. But some of the Big 12 are also expected to meet this evening for a bipartisan, high-wattage dinner party at the Old Town Alexandria home of Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia. At least 16 senators, 10 House members and more than a dozen CEOs are coming.

DOMINOES: One day after Lamar Alexander stepped toward the exits of the Senate Republican leadership — declaring that he’s “giving up my seat at the table in exchange for some more independence” — the chain reaction among his colleagues is starting to play out.

With the Tennessean no longer running for whip in 2012 (when Jon Kyl retires), the principal mystery is whether anyone else besides John Cornyn of Texas will go after the No. 2 job. His head start means he’ll  be awfully tough to beat — especially if he leads the party to a Senate majority next fall as chairman of the caucus’ campaign operation — but Richard Burr of North Carolina says his potential candidacy is “very much in the cards.” And the overtly ambitious John Thune of South Dakota says he could go after the whip’s job, too.

Thune will have a chance to audition, in a sense, because he looks to be unopposed to become GOP Conference chairman (the No. 3 job) in January, when Alexander steps aside. Burr will stay on as chief deputy whip. John Barrasso of Wyoming announced yesterday that he’ll settle for moving up into Thune’s chairmanship of the Republican Policy Committee (the No. 4 spot), leaving open Barrasso’s No. 5 spot as conference vice chairman. Freshman Ron Johnson of Wisconsin wants that position.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Republicans have recruited Jim Slezak, a former Democratic state legislator who opposes abortion rights and gun control, to switch parties and run for the House seat that Dale Kildee’s retirement has opened up in Michigan. The announcement is expected this afternoon. Slezak’s switch gives the GOP a fighting chance to capture the Flint-area district, although in this year’s redistricting process it was made even more Democratic than it had been (Obama by 29 points). Among the Democrats likely to run are former Rep. James Barcia, state Sen. John Gleason, state Rep. Woodrow Stanley, teachers union leader David Crimm and the retiring congressman’s nephew Dan.

(2) National broadcast news coverage of the record class of 87 House Republican freshmen is being dominated by just three of them. The University of Minnesota read eight months of transcripts from ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, MSNBC and NPR and found that Allen West of Florida appeared in 222 broadcasts — or 18 percent of all the stories in which any first-termer was mentioned. Joe Walsh of Illinois was second (148 broadcasts, for 12 percent) and Tim Scott of South Carolina was third (45, or 4 percent).The rest of the top 10: Sean Duffy of Wisconsin (38 mentions), Michael Grimm of New York (27), Ben Quayle of Arizona (26), Kristi Noem of South Dakota (25), Adam Kinzinger of Illinois (22) Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina (21) and Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania (20).

(3) A ninth podium will be set up — for former Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico — at tomorrow night’s debate by GOP presidential hopefuls in Orlando. That’s because he’s drawn at least 1 percent support in five recent public polls, the ground rule set by sponsors Fox News and Google. The Florida GOP tried unsuccessfully to talk the sponsors out of the move. As a result, the debate will last a full two hours starting at 9, or 15 minutes longer than originally planned. Johnson last got a spot in a debate back in May. (Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan is still running — really — but has not yet cracked the magic one-in-a-hundred threshold.)

QUOTEOF NOTE: “You’re already hearing the Republicans in Congress dusting off the old talking points. You can write their press releases. ‘Class warfare,’ they say. You know what? If asking a billionaire to pay the same rate as a plumber or a teacher makes me a warrior for the middle class, I wear that charge as a badge of honor,” Obama declared at last night’s campaign fundraiser in New York’s Gotham Theater.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No current lawmakers, but two old Washington hands: former CIA director James Woolsey (70) and public radio talk show host Diane Rehm (75).

— David Hawkings, editor

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

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

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Everybody's In

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and is tucking into its first substantive debate on trade policy in three years. (There will be a lunch break at 12:30 for the weekly party caucuses.) The bill, which would maintain widely supported tariff preferences for goods from the world’s developing nations, will be amended to extend the aid program for those who lose their jobs to overseas competition. Doing so is necessary for getting a bipartisan majority to vote for implementing trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, which have been on hold since 2008.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at noon and by this evening (any roll calls will be after 6:30) will have passed five not-controversial measures. One would continue autism research programs, another would maintain subsidies for pediatrics residencies and a third would tweak the federal parole system.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama began his day in New York in a pair of meetings at the U.N. designed to give a boost to Libya’s new leadership — first with Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of the National Transitional Council, and then with other heads of state as that council outlined its plans for setting up an after-Qaddafi government.

He’s about to usher Afghan President Hamid Karzai into the presidential suite at the Walforf, where he’ll meet this afternoon with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Tonight the first couple will attend a fundraiser (Alicia Keys is the headliner) where tickets range from $2,500 to $15,000.

OPEN DOOR: Today will be marked in the history books as a turning point in the country’s complicated and inconsistent approach to civil rights. At midnight, an 18-year prohibition against soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen being open about their homosexuality came to an end. If they’re asked (or even if they’re not), gay men and lesbians in uniform are now free to tell the world about their personal lives without fear of official reprisal.

“Patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love,” Obama said in a statement this morning, in which he predicted that the repeal will “enhance our national security, increase our military readiness and bring us closer to the principles of equality and fairness that define us as Americans.”

There is no provision for automatically reinstating the 13,000 who were kicked out of the armed forces while the “don’t ask, don’t tell” statute was on the books. But Obama’s statement said that “as commander in chief, I want those who were discharged under this law to know that your country deeply values your service.”

Those remarks — from the president who made civil rights history of his own by breaking the ultimate color barrier in American public life — were to an emphatic rhetorical drum roll for an occasion that had appeared otherwise anticlimactic in official Washington, where some conservatives in Congress continue to quietly but emphatically oppose the change. (Gay advocacy groups planned a series of celebrations across the country.) “All service members are to treat one another with dignity and respect regardless of sexual orientation,” the Pentagon personnel office said in a typically dry memo issued at 12:01 a.m. “The Department of Defense is committed to promoting an environment free from personal, social or institutional barriers that prevent service members from rising to the highest level of responsibility possible.”

Panetta and Mullen will hold a news conference at 2 to discuss the military’s readiness to live under the new normal. (Officials say 97 percent of the military has undergone training in the new law. Applications from openly gay recruits will now be processed. Pending investigations and discharges will be dropped.) But the Defense secretary and Joint Chiefs chairman are also sure to be asked about the changes to military programs proposed by the president as part of his new deficit reduction package — most notably an increase in the amount retirees and the military pay for health care and unspecified changes in the DoD pension system. (Those changes will be on top of the cuts the president wants to make in weapons procurement and other military programs, which Republicans on the Hill are preparing to campaign against.)

ALEXANDER OUT: Lamar Alexander stunned the Senate this morning by announcing his resignation from the No. 3 post in the Republican hierarchy — and abandoning his campaign to step up by winning the whip’s job next year.

His decision virtually assures that John Cornyn of Texas, who had become the clear front-runner in the race, will become the whip once Jon Kyl departs after the 2012 election. It also means that, once Alexander steps aside as GOP Conference chairman — he said he’d formally do so in January — the leadership will no longer have any senator who evidences any sort of moderate or maverick tendencies. (Alexander, a two-term Tennessee governor, secretary of Education  and two-time presidential candidate, said he planned to seek a third term in 2014.)

Alexander said on the floor that — by relinquishing a job that puts him in charge of the party’s message-making effort — he stood a better chance of helping to change a profoundly gridlocked Senate. His decision “will liberate me to spend more time working to achieve results on the issues I care the most about,” he said. "I want to do more to make the Senate a more effective institution so that it can deal better with serious issues.” He suggested both parties could do a better job finding consensus on policy issues without becoming timid or abandoning their ideological roots.

South Dakota’s John Thune — who dropped plans to run for president a year ago because he thought he had a better chance of becoming a top Senate GOP leader — is the early favorite to become the new Conference chairman. Wyoming’s John Barrasso is also going after the job. But a third potential candidate, Nebraska’s Mike Johanns, is preparing to drop those aspirations and endorse Thune.

EYES ON THE WEEKEND: A game of chicken intensified today over disaster aid in the stopgap spending bill. Congress needs to clear the legislation by this weekend unless it wants to cancel next week’s scheduled recess or allow a partial government shutdown on Oct. 1.

Reid announced on the Senate floor that, assuming the Houses does not alter its version of the CR (which would provide $2.6 billion in disaster aid and offset part of that expense with cuts to a green technology program) before passing it tomorrow, he will move to amend it with the $6.9 billion package of disaster aid the Senate passed last week. The majority leader almost surely has the votes to do that, but it could take days to get accomplished in light of a certain filibuster by GOP conservatives. That means it could be Saturday or beyond before the measure is sent back to the House.

ANOTHER SUPER DAY: There’s talk about another behind-closed-doors meeting of the supercommittee being arranged for this afternoon, so the 12 members would presumably share in private their thoughts about Obama’s populist package in advance of the next public meeting on Thursday.

The lawmakers on the panel were noticeably restrained in public yesterday after the president rolled out his plan, with the Republicans declining to lambaste it and the Democrats declining to embrace it. But the leadership — to whom the supers still ultimately remain beholden — ratcheted up the commentary this morning. Boehner offered a tartly worded reminder that the president — who said in the Rose Garden that it would be “hard to argue against” his plan for tax increases — had endorsed last fall’s tax cut compromise by declaring that to do otherwise would mean “smaller paychecks” and “fewer jobs” for many Americans.

The back-to-back combativeness of the president and the Speaker underscores how the smart bet should be that there’s no big deal on deficit reduction this year, because no one on the supercommittee will be inclined to stray from the party line. But there remains intense interest in the two Republican House members from Michigan on the panel, Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp and Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, because they have such a long history of voting with Obama on issues important for their home state and because that state has one of the worst economies in the country.

TROY DAVIS LOSES: Troy Davis, whose death-row claims of innocence have won the support of more than 50 members of Congress and former FBI Director Bill Sessions, lost what’s probably his final appeal today. Georgia’s pardons board rejected his bid for clemency, clearing the way for Davis to be executed tomorrow night. (It is the fourth time in four years his execution has been scheduled.) Davis was convicted in the 1989 killing of off-duty Savannah officer Mark MacPhail, who was slain while rushing to help a homeless man being attacked. A parade of witnesses who fingered him at trial have since recanted, but prosecutors say they still believe he did it.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Roy Blunt will be in charge of Mitt Romney’s effort to round up as many congressional endorsements as possible, and early enough to cement his standing as the establishment’s first choice for the GOP nomination. (So far he has just 14 House and Senate backers, but that’s more than anyone else.) “Through his experience in the private sector and as governor, I believe Mitt has the right background to help create more economic certainty and spur job growth,” Missouri’s freshman senator said in a release from the Romney campaign this morning. Blunt is reprising the role he played for George W. Bush a dozen years ago, when he was a second-term congressman — a job that labeled him a rising star in the House GOP and led to his election as majority whip three years later.

(2) Michele Bachmann (who has no formal endorsements yet from fellow members of Congress) is in the uncomfortable position today of having to claim her presidential bid is “alive and well.” She offered that assessment after her former campaign manager Ed Rollins said yesterday (on MSNBC) that the Minnesota House member “doesn’t have the ability or the resources to go beyond Iowa,” the only one of the early voting states where polling suggests she has a chance of winning.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No current lawmakers, but two former House members from New York: Democrat George Hochbrueckner (1987 through 1994) is 73 and Republican Joe DioGuardi (1985 through 1988) turns 71.

— David Hawkings, editor

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Monday, September 19, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: A Principle, Not a Rule

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, September 19, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama has finished his for-the-cameras Rose Garden rollout of the $3.2 trillion deficit reduction proposal his senior aides sketched out in a conference call last night. “The Speaker says we can’t have my way or the highway and then says, basically, my way — or the highway,” the president said in summarizing their standoff over taxes. “That’s not smart. It’s not right.”

He and Michelle Obama are leaving at 4 for New York, where they’ll spend the night after a meet-and-great at the U.S. Mission to the U.N. at 6 and then dinner in a private home for big-dollar Democratic donors.

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 and at 5:30 will vote to brush aside a conservative GOP filibuster against even debating an extension of the recently expanded reach of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which helps workers whose jobs move overseas. That procedural move is the first in a complex series of steps in a bipartisan process leading to ratification of free-trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at noon for a pro forma session.

MOSTLY FOR SHOW? Today’s Obama prescription for big-time budget savings is nothing more than a populist, aspirational opening bid. The president telegraphed as much this morning by what he didn’t say; there was nothing approaching the “pass this bill” mantra that gets used every time he mentions his job-creation package.

And, already, the White House seems to be backtracking on the biggest and boldest idea in the deficit plan: The “Buffett Rule” proposal — which was described on Saturday as a relatively explicit tax surcharge or minimum tax rate proposal to make sure that people making more than $1 million a year (three out of every 1,000 taxpayers) have an effective tax rate at least as high as those at middle levels — has now been downgraded to nothing more than a “guiding principle” that will shape the president’s negotiations with Congress.

What that means, the White House said in a statement today, is that “the president will veto any bill that takes one dime from the Medicare benefits seniors rely on without asking the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations to pay their fair share.” That line in the sand underscores how, in this latest round of the budget wars, the president is going to be more about populist positioning than legislative dealmaking. Since the Hill Republicans rejected a grand bargain this summer pairing every $5 in spending cuts against just $1 in new revenue, there’s every reason to believe they’ll laugh out loud at today’s $1-to-$1 ratio — and Obama knows that. So what he’s after with his $1.5 trillion tax number is nothing more than something to refer to in his re-election stump speech — as his predicate to thumping GOP congressional candidates, and whoever his opponent is, for views on taxes and Medicare that poll-test really poorly.

The opportunity for a veto threat won’t present itself for at least two months, if at all. Republicans are so locked in to their opposition to raising taxes on anyone — and are now doubling down with their emphatic opposition to anything smacking of “class warfare” — there’s essentially no reason to believe the supercommittee’s grand total will come close to the number Obama is talking about today. (Remember, $3.2 trillion is approaching triple what’s needed to avoid across-the-board cuts after the next election.) Instead, the cuts are likely to top out, at most, at about half what the president is talking about — or $1.7 trillion, which is the cost of offsetting Obama’s entire jobs package (which he’s not going to get) plus the amount of deficit reduction needed to avoid that sequestration.

REAL NUMBERS: The tax and Medicare straw men aside, there’s a good-sized basket of deficit-reducing cherries in today's package from which Congress might choose in order to get close to that number.

The biggest among them is that Obama wants to claim $1.1 trillion in red-ink reduction during the next decade just from following through on the already-agreed-upon plans for winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That gives the supercommittee almost all of the minimum it’s after, right there — unless Republicans want to put troops back on the battlefield, or dismiss that proposal as an accounting gimmick that shouldn’t count toward the panel’s goal.

Beyond that, the president is calling for $72 billion in not-yet-specified cuts to Medicaid and $248 billion in savings from Medicare — 90 percent of which would come from an intensified effort to cut overpayments. That’s something Republicans were wide open to in this summer’s Biden summit talks, because it speaks to their own favorite mantra, that the deficit can be cut deeply by better combating "waste, fraud and abuse." (Obama is backing away from his earlier willingness to raise the Medicare eligibility age, just as he’s dropped any mention of Social Security.)

The other $250 billion in mandatory spending reductions he’s proposed also draw heavily from the menu assembled by the vice president’s bipartisan working group: $92 billion from “restructuring government operations and reducing government liabilities,” $78 billion from “improving federal program management and reducing waste and abuse,” $33 billion from cutting farm subsidies and a $43 billion reduction in federal benefits — including a reduction in health benefits for military retirees who are still in the civilian workforce.

BIG TARGETS: The breakdown of his proposed tax increases is this: $866 billion in the next decade from ending the Bush tax cuts for those in the upper-income brackets, $410 billion from limiting the deductions and exclusions those same people could take on their returns (which was also the core of his plan for paying for the jobs bill) and about $300 billion from closing “loopholes” and eliminating special interest tax breaks — including those for corporate jet owners and oil and gas businesses.

But beyond that, the president also issued a vague call for the supercommittee to undertake a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code — so long as the effort raised at least as much revenue as his specific proposals while lowering individual rates, cutting “wasteful loopholes and tax breaks,” boosting job creation and being “consistent with the Buffett Rule.”

(Durbin said yesterday, meanwhile, that Senate Democrats will try to decouple the jobs debate from the deficit debate and would put the Obama economic stimulus plan before the Senate as a stand-alone bill next month.)

CRIME STATS: Violent crime dropped 6 percent last year, the fourth consecutive annual decline, the FBI reported today. (Robbery fell 10 percent, rape dropped 5 percent, and murder, non-negligent manslaughter and aggravated assault fell more than 4 percent each.) Property crime was down for the eighth straight year, falling 2.7 percent. But the grand totals for 2010 were still staggering-sounding: 1.2 million violent crimes and 9 million property crimes.

MAP QUEST: The Obama administration is ready to signal today that it will vigorously assist the efforts of Hispanic groups to get the new congressional map of Texas redrawn to boost the chances more Latinos will get elected. In a federal court filing due by this afternoon, the Justice Department will argue that the map written by the state’s Republican legislature violates the Voting Rights Act because it would not lead to more than perhaps one additional Hispanic member of Congress — even though a surge in the Latino population is almost entirely responsible for Texas being awarded four additional House seats, more than any other state. (It will have 36 members for the next decade, more than any other state but California.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Republican Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina (46) and Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas (56) today; Democratic Rep. John Tierney of Massachusetts (60) yesterday and GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa (78) on Saturday.

— David Hawkings, editor

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