Friday, October 07, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: A Gentlemen's Disagreement

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, October 7, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama, Biden and the Senate’s Democratic leaders have been meeting in the Oval Office since 10:30.

Members of the 1985 Chicago Bears are due on the South Lawn at 3 for a 25th anniversary celebration of their Super Bowl XX victory. (Reagan canceled the original White House welcome because of the Challenger explosion.) At 3:45 the president will meet with Beji Caid Essebsi, the prime minister of Tunisia since the Arab Spring began there in March.

THE SENATE: Convenes at noon for a pro forma session; the next meeting after that is at 2 on Tuesday, and at 5:30 senators will vote to pass the China currency bill and take a test vote that shows fewer than the necessary 60-vote majority to advance the Obama jobs bill.

THE HOUSE:  Convened at 10 for a three-minute pro forma session; the next meeting is at noon on Tuesday, with passage by the evening of the bill to ease pollution regulations on commercial boilers.

TACTICAL NUKE: Just when it seemed the Capitol couldn’t get any more fouled by partisan frustration, mutual distrust and petulant acrimony — all wrapped up in triple-negative parliamentary machinations — the Senate devolved another notch last night. And there’s no sign today that the broken china will get glued back together anytime soon, if ever.

The bottom line is that Reid threw over years of precedent about the rights of the minority and without any warning engineered a change in the Senate rules on a simple majority vote — something that is supposed to take at least a bipartisan three-fifths and often two-thirds of senators to go along with. The Democrat’s maneuver was very similar to the sort of “nuclear option” that a Republican leader, Bill Frist, came awfully close to carrying out a decade ago as a way to boost the majority’s leverage and choke off the minority’s rights (the issue was Bush judicial confirmations back then). But Frist was brought in off the ledge at the last moment by cooler senatorial heads in both parties, who were well aware that the procedures that tie you in knots while you’re nominally in control of the Senate are the same ones that give you a reason to come to work when you’re out of power.

McConnell said he held out hope that, over the four-day holiday weekend, he might persuade Reid to reconsider his move. But there was no tangible budging from the majority leader’s suite. And unless the old rules are put back in place, the GOP leader will be exaggerating only somewhat by saying the Reid move is “fundamentally turning the Senate into the House” — a place where the majority has essentially unfettered muscle to get what it wants whenever it holds its troops in line.

The change Reid engineered limits the amendments that can be considered once a filibuster is defeated — because it will now be against the rules to seek 67 votes to get a non-germane proposal on the floor even after cloture has been invoked. Democrats say it’s no big deal, because such a long-shot maneuver is rarely used and hasn’t actually produced a victory since 1941. But it was being used last night — and it appeared it had a chance to succeed on, of all things, an amendment to the China currency bill that would have curbed EPA regulation of farm dust.

WORK IN PROGRESS: There was so little news in today’s jobs report — the trend lines haven’t much changed for several months  — that it can be read very differently by optimists and pessimists.

There is general agreement that there’s still insufficient job growth to warrant serious cheering. The 103,000 payroll positions added in September are sufficient to keep unemployment from rising  — and, sure enough, it remained stuck at 9.1 percent for the third straight month. But the net new jobs figure is not nearly big enough to get people off the dole.

Private companies are providing all the job growth, while government payrolls continue to shrink. Local governments have cut their workforces in 29 of the past 36 months, and state government in 24 out of 36 months —the combined cutbacks amount to 641,000 of the 5 million lost jobs during the past three years, a source of weakness that isn’t likely to change for a long time.

The pessimistic view — expressed most visibly by the Hill’s top Republicans — is that the government is doing nothing, or the wrong thing, to help the situation. Countering Obama's repeated appeal for his jobs bill, which contains money for infrastructure building and the like, the Speaker repeated an old GOP talking point in responding to this morning’s numbers: that the 2009 stimulus didn't give us 8 percent unemployment as promised, and more of the same won't help.

Those seeking reasons for optimism, though, have some trend lines buried in the jobs report at their disposal. The labor force has been growing rapidly for two months — it’s up 789,000 since July. (That's a sign people are becoming more comfortable in looking for work, with the assurance they might actually find a job.) Moreover, total employment as a share of the population is also rising a bit — and may have reached its post-recession low in July. Labor force participation and employment aren’t rising in a significant way and won’t until total payrolls start booming. But still, the economy has added 2.1 million jobs since payrolls bottomed in February 2010. And when measured year over year, total unemployment has been falling for 16 straight months. No, the job engine isn’t strong at all, but there may be evidence the worst is finally behind us. At least until the next financial crisis hits.

POLL POSITION: The depth and breadth of Obama’s political troubles are underscored in the Gallup poll out today. It pegs the president’s approval rating at 41 percent in September — the second-lowest recorded by the firm among the past eight presidents who sought re-election 14 months later. (Carter was lower, at 32 percent.)

And Obama gets a majority of support from only three constituencies: blacks (85 percent), non-whites (64 percent) and people with graduate degrees (50 percent).  He’s at 49 percent among Hispanics and 48 percent among voters younger than 30. And the five groups where his standing is lowest offer a broad portrait of the electorate he seems to have lost for good: men at 38 percent; voters 65 and older, married people and Southerners at 36 percent each; and whites — 78 percent of the electorate in 2010 — dead last at 33 percent.

THINKING GLOBALLY: “America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will,” Mitt Romney declared this morning in a speech laying out his view of the world at The Citadel. (It’s the same South Carolina military academy where George W. Bush offered his version of the same governor-in-search-of-foreign-policy-cred campaign speech in 2000.)

The speech, arranged a day after Romney unveiled a roster of national security and foreign affairs advisers thick with hawkish D.C. establishment GOP heavyweights, did not mention Obama by name. But it took an unmistakable swipe at his internationalist approach. “An eloquently justified surrender of world leadership is still surrender,” he said. “This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president. You have that president today.”

The candidate’s effort to start persuading GOP voters that he knows what he’s talking about in global affairs comes on the heels of the latest Bloomberg poll of global investors, in which one in five labeled him the best for the world economy among all the Republican contenders. (The others were all in single digits.) By 37 percent to 34 percent, the investors surveyed said Romney would be better for the economy than a re-elected Obama.

BILL'S BACKING: That American Crossroads ad that’s been unavoidable for cable news show audiences in the last few days — the one that uses some sharp editing to show Bill Clinton declaring, “I personally don't believe we oughta be raising taxes. It won't solve the problem” — must be gaining some traction. At least enough that the former president decided to issue a statement last night endorsing Obama’s jobs bill and his Buffett Rule for guiding tax policy. “What I did say was that the ‘Buffett Rule’ cannot solve the problem alone. Reducing the debt requires three things: more economic growth, more spending cuts, and more revenue. Right now, the most important thing is to put America back to work. That's why I support the American Jobs Act.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No incumbents today, but the celebrants tomorrow anchor the ends of the House’s ideological spectrum: Republican Tom Price of Georgia (57) and Democrat Dennis Kucinich of Ohio (65).

PUBLISHING SCHEDULE: Monday is the federal Columbus Day holiday; the Daily Briefing will resume Tuesday.

— David Hawkings, editor

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Thursday, October 06, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: The Surtax Reality

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: “Our economy really needs a jolt right now. This is not a game. This is not a time for the usual political gridlock,” Obama said in urging the Senate to pass his jobs bill at the outset of an East Room news conference that started at 11 — and was announced just three hours before.

At 1:45 the president is welcoming the Texas A&M women’s basketball team, which won the NCAA championship this spring, to the Rose Garden. (After the photo op some of the players will conduct a clinic for local kids on the mansion’s outdoor court.)

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and has voted, 62-38, to limit debate and move toward passage later today of legislation that would threaten economic sanctions against China unless its government permits an increase in the yuan’s value relative to other world currencies.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and will leave for a four-day weekend at about 3, after passing legislation to exempt the cement industry from some federal pollution regulations and starting debate on a second environmental deregulatory bill — to block the EPA from carrying out its new restrictions on emissions of mercury, cadmium, particulates and other toxic air pollutants from boilers, process heaters and incinerators.

GOING NOWHERE: Obama is embracing the “millionaire’s surtax” as the best way to pay for his jobs package — so long as the effective date is postponed until January 2013.

That’s fine with Reid, because delaying the tax until after the next election gives him a shot at bringing aboard the handful of holdouts — among them Ben Nelson, Jon Tester and Joe Manchin, moderates who are all facing tough prospects for winning new terms in states the president’s not going to carry, and who all argue that the economy is for now too fragile to accept any tax changes at all. The majority leader’s goal is to create a unanimous bloc of all 53 Democratic caucus members when the bill is put to its first and potentially only test vote next week. But that number is of course seven shy of what it would take to break McConnell’s filibuster. And there’s no way seven Republicans are ready to go against the grain.

So the president’s $447 billion package is sure to stall as a stand-alone bill — meaning that, for a while longer at least, the 330,000 or so families with income of more than $1 million can remain more worried about running into an Occupy Wall Street protester than about finding creative new shelters for their wealth. That relaxation might not last more than a few weeks, though, because any idea that could generate more than a third of the supercommittee’s baseline deficit reduction target is sure to get a serious look.

SMALL BRACKET, BIG MONEY: Reid’s proposal — which is ultimately the brainchild of Chuck Schumer — is to boost the tax rate from 35 percent to 41.6 percent for the next decade on income from salaries, capitals gains, interest and dividends that’s above $1 million. (Doing so could bring the Treasury more than half a trillion dollars.) A consequence of the new approach is that the Democratic leadership is essentially abandoning the core of its tax policy for almost a decade now, which was to end the Bush-area tax cuts for people who were nowhere close to being annualized millionaires — singles with income above $200,000 and couples with earnings above $250,000. Thousands of small businesses, and millions of people viewing themselves as “middle class” at those levels because they’re in high-cost-of-living areas, would have seen their tax bills go up — which is what made all Republicans and a growing roster of Democrats averse to the approach.

A tax hike that would touch only about 0.3 percent of the nation’s returns should have at least a shot at some bipartisan appeal, especially if paired with the sorts of health care, other entitlement and subsidy curbs that the GOP thinks should carry the bulk of the deficit reduction load during the next decade.  And imposing the surtax would be a whole lot less complicated than cooking up an entire tax code overhaul during the seven weeks before the supercommittee’s deadline.

The 12 members of the panel continue to send few signals about their thinking — other than their apparently bipartisan view, which Senate Democratic co-chairman Patty Murry echoed yesterday, that the only way they have a chance to reach a deal is if they can build some mutual trust and respect for one another in their almost-daily closed door meetings. (The approach also has the added benefit of partially warding off the building barrage of entreaties from lobbyists, both out front and behind the scenes. One of the newest such efforts is being mounted by a sort-of-shadowy group called “Partnership for America” — which describes itself as a grass-roots organization focused on “common-sense, market-based” solutions to the nation’s problems and has plans to spend $3 million in the next year with an initial goal of pushing health policies to replace the 2010 medical insurance law.)

BOMB SCARE: The Capitol Police bomb squad closed several Senate-side roads at the foot of Capitol Hill at about 7 this morning after finding a suspicious device — described by officials as a small metal cylinder with some caps on it — in the Pennsylvania Avenue parking area near the reflecting pool. The device (which was first inspected with a robotic explosives sniffer) was being loaded into a specialized truck and taken to Quantico, Va., to be rendered safe. The roads were expected to reopen by late morning.

QUIET EXIT: Sarah Palin has become something like this year’s version of Dick Lugar in 1996. The Indiana senator had the misfortune to announce his longshot presidential campaign on the same morning as the Oklahoma City bombing, assuring that he’d get none of the press coverage he was counting on to jumpstart his bid. And last night, Palin’s under-produced announcement that she was ending her long flirtation with a 2012 presidential bid — an email followed by an Alaska radio interview — dominated cable new coverage for no more than 70 minutes, after which it was eclipsed by the infinitely more historically significant (if no less expected) announcement that Apple’s Steve Jobs had died.

Palin says that her political focus for the next year will be helping the GOP hold the Senate and expand its majority in the House. She will be only 52 in 2016, and a clear sign of how viable she might be then (assuming a Republican isn’t in the White House and running for re-election) will be how much money she raises for congressional candidates in the next 13 months, how many invite her to speak at their rallies, and how many longshot tea party candidates she promotes who go on to Capitol Hill.

The ex-Alaska governor's news was minimally surprising. Balky bus tours aside, she had done none of the grunt work needed to get a campaign off the ground — no high-profile staff hired, no fundraising newtork built, no elected officials in Iowa or New Hampshire wooed, no contract with Fox News suspended. And with each passing week, her poll numbers got worse; two-thirds of GOP voters told the Washington Post ABC News poll last week that they didn’t want her to get into the race.

BRIEF APPEARANCE: Gabby Giffords is in Washington today for the second time since the attempted assassination, but she won’t be coming to Capitol Hill or otherwise doing any congressional business. Instead, she’ll be in the Old Executive Office Building at 1 for a special retirement ceremony that Biden is staging for her husband, Mark Kelly, the astronaut and Navy captain. (The couple’s memoir is due out in six weeks.) The congresswoman’s spokesman, Mark Kimble, said she would fly back to Houston later this afternoon to resume her outpatient rehabilitation regimen.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Marco Rubio said yesterday that has no interest in the No. 2 spot on the Republican ticket next year and essentially promised to serve out his first term as a Florida senator. “I’m not going to be the vice presidential nominee,” Rubio said at a policy conference — after first responding to a questioner by saying he would “probably not” be. His almost Shermanesque statement came on the heels of a Public Policy Polling survey that found 36 percent of voters in his state say they’d be less likely to vote for the Republican presidential candidate next year if Rubio is on the ticket, compared to 33 percent who’d say they’d be more likely to.

(2) Debbie Halvorson, who was in the House for one term ending in January, is announcing today that’s she wants to come back — not by winning a rematch against freshman Republican Adam Kinzinger in the southwest suburban Chicago suburbs, but by defeating Jesse Jackson in the Democratic primary in a neighboring district. (The two really don’t like each other — a personal animus that’s grown from their feud over political dominance in pushing a proposed third Chicago airport.)

(3) Another incumbent-versus-incumbent matchup is now in the offing in Arizona, where an independent redistricting commission has drawn a map that’s likely to pit  Ben Quayle against fellow House Republican freshman  David Schweikert in an affluent district located in north Scottsdale, near Phoenix. Republicans hold a 5-3 advantage in the state’s delegation now, and Arizona is gaining one seat because of its population surge. The new lines could shift that ratio, with two seats that would appear to be tossups and only four solid GOP districts.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “Brave enough to think differently, bold enough to believe he could change the world, and talented enough to do it,” was the epitaph Obama coined for Steve Jobs last night after Apple announced that its co-founder had died at age 56 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. “He transformed our lives, redefined entire industries, and achieved one of the rarest feats in human history: He changed the way each of us sees the world.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Severely redistricting-challenged Lloyd Doggett of Texas (65), fellow House Democrat Brian Higgins of New York (52) and GOP Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana (46).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Offset Hype

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama signed the stopgap spending bill just after midnight, assuring uninterrupted federal government operations until at least Friday, Nov. 18.

He’s got a senior staff meeting at noon, lunch with Biden and a 3:45 Oval Office meeting with Honduran President Porfirio Lobo — who’s expecting to receive effusive praise for his efforts to restore democratic and constitutional order in his country.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and plans to pass two bills before sunset. One would exempt the cement industry from an array of pollution regulations. The other would reclaim a sliver of the broadband technology grants awarded under the 2009 stimulus law.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and will spend the day biding time on the bill imposing economic sanctions on China because of its yuan devaluation policy. (A vote to limit debate and move toward passage is planned for tomorrow morning.)

REID’S ANGLE: Yesterday’s unusually personal spat between Obama and Cantor — over whether the president’s jobs bill will even get its preordained “no” vote from  the Republican House — is still getting plenty of TV time today. But the more substantive development is Reid’s bold new plan for jump-starting the bill’s prospects in the Senate, where the Democrats in charge have hardly warmed to the original Obama approach.

Reid announced this morning that he was abandoning the president’s ways for offsetting the $447 billion in new economic stimulus he wants and instead is doubling down on the class-warfare approach — by proposing to pay for the entire bill with a 5 percent surtax on millionaires. (In other words, the top income tax rate for people making more than $1 million a year would go up to about 40 percent.) Reid floated that idea to his caucus yesterday and it won nearly unanimous pledges of support from the rank-and-file — who view it as a way to create a defining issue for 2012 if not for actually pushing the legislation anywhere close to enactment. (The idea is to compel all the Republicans to vote against the Reid approach — then subject them to a blizzard of campaign rhetoric portraying them as so devoted to protecting the pocketbooks of the wealthiest that they won’t lift a finger to assist the unemployed.)

There was also, to be sure, considerable opposition to the Obama offset plan in the Senate Democratic ranks: those from states with high median incomes didn’t like the president’s plans to impose higher taxes on family earnings above $250,000, and those from energy-producing states hated the proposed taxes on oil and gas drillers. And all that dissent had given McConnell confidence that he would have won yesterday when he tried to call the president’s bluff and secure an up-or-down vote on the Obama plan as written. Once Reid blocked the Senate from doing exactly what the president was calling for on his trip to Texas — “What’s the problem? Do they not have the time? They just had a week off. Is it inconvenient?” Obama japed at one point — he was pressed hard to come up with Plan B, and fast.

The approach is sure to win over the House Democrats, who in recent days have started to sound more combatively enthusiastic about mounting populist opposition to almost anything the GOP does — even if that means more of the sort of legislative stalemating that is so infuriating the public.

NOT DYNAMIC, YET: Texan Jeb Hensarling, the House GOP’s co-chairman of the deficit supercommittee, made what passes for news out of that secretive panel yesterday when he declared: “We hope that we can meet or exceed the statutory goal” of avoiding across-the-board cuts by proposing $1.5 trillion over 10 years in entitlement curbs and/or revenue increases.

That single tea leaf suggests that the all-powerful 12 have not given up on reaching something akin to the grand bargain Obama and Boehner went after several times this summer. But to get so much deficit reduction — and in a way that does not drive away too many of the Republican votes that will be essential to enactment — will require plenty of creative thinking about the revenue-raising options. And one of the ideas that is fast gaining ground, in GOP circles, especially, is to re-embrace the controversial and often disputed notion of “dynamic scoring” — the idea of counting on an expected surge in economic activity, and resulting revenue, after cutting tax rates. One option would be to raise a certain amount of revenue by traditional methods (changing rates or ending breaks) with the guarantee that tax rates would be lowered in the future if economic growth has helped raise more money than expected. An alternative would be to pass a tax overhaul that is officially revenue-neutral — in an attempt to satisfy Republicans — with triggers that would raise tax rates automatically in the future if economic growth and extra revenue fail to materialize.

GOP FIELD: Two polls out today (both taken before Chris Christie gave his final answer) underscore Mitt Romney’s standing as a solid but de minimus front-runner in the existing and presumably final GOP presidential field. A national Quinnipiac poll puts Romney at 22 percent, a 4-point boost from a month ago. Herman Cain has surged 12 points since the last Q Poll to 17 percent support — which puts him in a statistical tie for second place with Rick Perry, whose 14 percent showing now is a 10 point slide from a month before. A CBS poll meanwhile, has Romney and Cain tied at 17 percent and Perry at 12 percent. (Michele Bachmann is a single-digit afterthought in both.)

But the Texas governor is going to get a big boost in buzz today when he reports raising $17 million in his first seven weeks as a candidate (close to what Romney pulled in during his first quarter as a candidate and more than what he’s expected to report for July, August and September), and having $15 million still in the bank at the start of this week.

WHY NOW? Jerry Costello has been among the most obscure members of the House since his arrival 23 years ago, but his surprise decision to retire has gained a significant amount of attention and raised eyebrows among fellow Democrats. He’d worked hard and successfully to keep his southwestern Illinois territory mostly intact in redistricting — and sent strong signals his plan was to step aside in 2014 and anoint his namesake son, a junior state legislator, as his successor. But now he’s leaving next year and young Jerry says he won’t run, after all — which seems to be a signal the family’s pretty worried about holding what’s only a marginally Democratic seat (56 percent for Obama in 2008, but 54 percent for Republican Mark Kirk for the Senate last year) even in the president’s home state on the day he’s seeking re-election.

The challenge for the Republicans now is to find a topflight candidate. Their top recruit, 2010 lieutenant governor nominee Jason Plummer, seemed to back out of the race a few days ago but may reconsider now that Costello’s out. Otherwise, the party for now is looking at a former local mayor, Roger Cook, or a local nurse, Theresa Kormos. The early Democratic talk is former state Rep. Jay Hoffman, who had been planning to challenge veteran GOP Rep. John Shimkus in a neighboring district, will move instead to fill the Costello void. Another option is state Rep. John Bradley.

FAST AND FURIOUS: House Republicans, who have gained as much traction as they could have hoped for from probing the Solyndra solar company loan guarantee mess, are seizing on another rich vein of unusual and potentially scandalous behavior in the Obama administration: The extraordinary federal gunrunning enterprise known as Operation Fast and Furious — in which the ATF arranged to sell thousands of U.S.-government-owned weapons to Mexican drug cartels in an effort to keep track of the criminals, but the guns ended up being used in hundreds of crimes including the killing of a Border Patrol agent and other murders in the United States.

House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith seems to have found a solid wedge into the bizarre program. He says there’s evidence Eric Holder wasn’t telling the truth when he testified about his first learning of Fast and Furious — the attorney general says it was this spring, but there’s a paper trail suggesting strongly that it was the summer of 2010 — and Smith wants Obama to name an independent counsel to investigate. “Allegations that senior Justice Department officials may have intentionally misled members of Congress are extremely troubling,” the congressman said.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland (68), currently a safe bet to win a second Senate term next fall, and his would-be 2013 senatorial colleague Denny Rehberg, the senior Republican appropriator who’s now Montana’s sole House member (56).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Mr. Christie, Oh The Time Has Come

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and will be done for the day before 3:30, after sending Obama legislation keeping all discretionary federal programs operating — albeit with a 1.5 percent “haircut” — for the next 45 days. He’ll sign it in time for the government to open as normal in the morning. (A four-day CR lapses tonight.)

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and will spend the day on legislation that would punish China for keeping down the value of the yuan. (The weekly party caucus lunches start at 12:30.)

THE WHITE HOUSE: Air Force One is ferrying Obama to Texas and Missouri for a whirlwind four-fundraiser day. After arriving in Dallas just after noon, the president will make appearances at two events in the downtown Sheraton. Then he’ll be whisked to a community college in suburban Mesquite, where he’ll make another pitch (starting at 3:55) for his increasingly moribund jobs bill as a way to keep teachers in classrooms and modernize schools. He arrives in St. Louis at 6:30 for his traditional two-part money scoop — a big hotel packed with mid-level donors followed by a mansion where he’ll meet the locals who have “maxed out” — and is due back in the family quarters just after midnight, where the CR will be waiting for him.

SUSPENSE IS OVER: Chris Christie will announce at 1 that he’s not going to run for president in 2012, after all. The New Jersey governor reached his decision to stay with his original decision overnight — after agreeing to entreaties that he reconsider from all manner of Republican luminaries and money people.

The decision (aided by the reality that it’s actually getting pretty late to start mounting a viable candidacy) almost certainly means that the GOP field is set, because the only other question mark is Sarah Palin and she hasn’t been heard from in any meaningful way in several weeks now. But the shifting nature of the polls — which now have businessman Herman Cain surging into the top tier — suggest plenty of ambivalence with Mitt Romney as the unassailed front-runner.

There will be significant forces at work now within the GOP establishment to get over that uncertainty and rally around the former Massachusetts governor as the most electable challenger in the hunt. At the same time, the social conservative forces will be pressed to decide whether to unite behind Rick Perry as the one candidate (not Cain or Michele Bachmann or Ron Paul) who might wrest the nomination away from the establishment.

BATTLE FOR CHARLESTON: The final wave of polling in West Virginia shows that today’s special gubernatorial election is a dead heat — and about 7 percent of voters are undecided, which means a nationally seismic upset win by Republican businessman Bill Maloney is in the offing. If he wins, it’s a solid sign that the anti-Obama tide is rising faster across the country than seemed possible only a couple of months ago.

Democrats say the decent turnout from their ranks in the three weeks of early voting bodes well for Earl Ray Tomblin, who’s been acting governor since Joe Manchin gave up the job to become a senator in January. But the national GOP (which doesn’t have much else to spend money on this fall) has poured nearly $4 million into the state in the same period — mainly for TV ads (many aired in the D.C. market in order to reach the panhandle) reminding voters that Tomblin has been working to implement the federal health care overhaul law in the state even though most governors are fighting it in court. Maloney himself is working to frame his own election as a momentum-builder for Obama’s defeat next year. (The president’s certainly not going to win reelection with the help of West Virginia, which he lost by 13 points last time.)

Tomblin has distanced himself from the president and is tying himself to Manchin’s record as governor. Along the way, he's pulled together support from an unusual coalition that includes the Chamber of Commerce, organized labor and the NRA. And so if he pulls out a narrow victory tonight — the polls close at 7:30 — it will offer only minimal comfort to the national Democrats, and certainly no winning formula that could be applied nationwide.

MAKING DEALS: While a measure that would start a trade war takes up the Senate’s time this week (the one to punish China for its currency policies) three other measures that would liberalize trade are starting down their well-choreographed and quite smooth path through the House.

Bills to implement the South Korea, Colombia and Panama free trade deals will be considered in Ways and Means tomorrow, less than 48 hours after the White House sent up the ceremonial paperwork, and are expected to cruise to House passage next week with a comfortable and (compared with everything else these days) bipartisan majority. The goal is to have those votes before next Thursday, when Korean President Lee Myung-bak arrives for a state visit. (His country’s trade relationship with the U.S. is by far the biggest of the three.)

The trio of trade bills may well stand as the final legislation of the year that both Obama and House Republicans embrace jointly in the name of job creation. Cantor yesterday said definitively that the president’s $447 billion jobs bill will not be put before the Republican House as a single package — further dimming the chances that Reid will ever find the votes he needs to get it at least through the Democratic Senate.

The best chance for the few pieces of the president’s package with decent GOP support — the administration’s infrastructure bank idea, maybe, plus his extended and expanded payroll tax holiday and the continuation of jobless benefits — is to hitch a ride on whatever the supercommittee comes up with. But that’s assuming that those 12 lawmakers defy expectations and agree on a bipartisan plan by Thanksgiving for cutting $1.2 trillion or more from the next decade’s worth of projected deficits. (The panel was back behind closed doors this morning and is signaling that it may soon start meeting twice a day, both at midday and in the evening. That would make their remarkably leak-free cloak of silence, which was maintained after last night’s two-hour session, even harder to keep buttoned for the long haul.)

APPROPRIATIONS MARKERS: Reid now plans to try to push three spending bills through the Senate — Agriculture, Transportation-HUD and Commerce-Justice-Science — in the next month in hopes that it will give his side some extra leverage in the omnibus appropriations negotiations with the GOP House. (The three were chosen because they were approved in committee with broad bipartisan support.) The staff-level talks on the all-in-one spending behemoth are supposed to get under way in the next week, but there remains only an outside chance that the measure will get to the president’s desk before the stopgap measure taking effect tomorrow runs out.

LOUGHNER UPDATE: Jared Loughner is “getting better” thanks to the anti-psychotic drugs he’s being forced to take, federal Judge Larry Burns ruled yesterday — and so there’s “substantial probability” he’ll soon become mentally competent to stand trial for the Tucson shooting rampage in which Gabby Giffords and a dozen others were wounded and federal Judge John Roll was among six killed.

Burns ordered that Loughner keep taking the medications while his appeal of the forced treatment continues. Prosecutors have written in court documents that Loughner has expressed “regret for the circumstances that led to his arrest” — a total change from before his medication began, when he expressed no remorse at all. When he was asked whether he thought about harming himself, he said, “I want to die. Give me the injection. Kill me now,” the documents said. (If he’s tried and convicted, he will be subject to the death penalty because Roll was among his victims.)

Meanwhile, the Senate last night confirmed Jennifer Guerin Zipps, who’s now a federal magistrate, to succeed Roll on the trial court bench.

IT’S OFFICIAL FOR FORD: Among the other people who won relatively quiet, voice-vote confirmation last night was Robert Ford, the first American ambassador to Syria in six years. He took the job in December under a recess appointment after several Republican senators blocked his confirmation on the grounds the post in Damascus should not be filled. But that objection tuned into senatorial defiance in the week since Ford’s car was pelted with tomatoes, eggs and concrete chops by protesters loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Ford’s hard-line approach toward Assad’s crackdown on anti-government protestors had already begun to win over GOP senators, and Clinton pushed hard for a confirmation vote as a sign that Washington had his back.)

TRAVEL BULLETIN: Members of Congress look to be among the more eager users of the “trusted traveler” pilot program the Transportation Security Administration is unveiling today — especially if their summertime sojourns financed by outside groups are any indication. (The $1.5 million spent on their privately financed travel during the August recess shattered previous monthly records.  More than three-quarters of that amount was because of an AIPAC-arranged all-expenses-paid trip to Israel for at least 65 lawmakers, spouses, children and other relatives.)

The TSA program, meanwhile, is meant to expedite screening at U.S. airport checkpoints for some citizens who voluntarily release detailed information about themselves. Initially it will be open only to frequent fliers on Delta whose travels begin in Atlanta and Detroit, to American’s regular customers flying out of Miami and Dallas, and to people already enrolled in Customs and Border Protection’s Trusted Traveler programs.

USHERED IN: Angella Reid, the general manager of the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City, was named this morning as the ninth person (and first woman) to be the chief usher at the White House — essentially the executive staff director for the executive mansion. (Stephen Rochon, a former Coast Guard admiral, left earlier this year for a job at the Department of Homeland Security).

QUOTE OF NOTE: “I don’t think that they’re better off than they were four years ago,” Obama said of the American people in his ABC News interview yesterday, portraying himself as “the underdog” in 2012  when asked how he would answer the famous question that Reagan used to winning effect against Carter in 1980. “They’re not better off than they were before Lehman’s collapse, before the financial crisis, before this extraordinary recession that we’re going through. I think that what we’ve seen is that we’ve been able to make steady progress to stabilize the economy but the unemployment rate is still way too high.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No congressional incumbents, but former members include these three Republicans: Few-know-he’s-even-running presidential candidate Buddy Roemer (68), fellow former Louisiana congressman from the 1980s Henson Moore (72) and former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska (65).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Monday, October 03, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: An Unwated Senate Export

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, October 3, 2011

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 and will vote at 5:30 to take up legislation that would impose economic sanctions on China for its apparent currency manipulation. The solid bipartisan majority on that test vote will be a sign the measure will pass before the end of the week. But that will be the symbolic high-water mark for this year’s legislative swipe at Beijing, because GOP leaders in the House have no interest in the measure — and Obama is wary of it as well.

Senators also will vote to promote Henry Floyd, a federal trial judge in South Carolina, to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at 2 with plans to pass seven minor measures, with votes put off until 6:30. One of the bills would give local officials on the Northern Marianas the same control over their local waters as the governments of the other territorial islands.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama convened a Cabinet meeting at 11, will sit for an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos at 2:35 and after that will welcome the Dutch ambassador and three Google Science Fair winners to the Oval Office. He’s also likely to formally send the South Korea, Colombia and Panama trade deals to Capitol Hill. (The pacts, first struck by George W. Bush three years ago, are expected to boost U.S. exports by a combined $13 billion annually once they secure their now-nearly-certain congressional approval.)

AFTER YOU. NO, AFTER YOU: The bill to punish China for its purported deflation of the yuan is at the center of something akin to a congressional Alphonse and Gaston routine.

Last year, the House (which was then in Democratic hands) voted overwhelmingly for the bill and left it to the Senate to back away from an enormous economic confrontation. This fall, the situation is reversed. Reid knows he can do what his top lieutenant Schumer wants (and give Sherrod Brown’s re-election campaign in Ohio a bit of a boost) by passing the bill that’s essentially a serving platter for politically popular rhetoric about unfair economic policies in China taking away some 2 million American manufacturing jobs — totally comfortable in the knowledge that Boehner and Cantor won’t put the measure before the House. That’s because they know the bill would then clear, inciting a trade fight that could hobble the U.S. economy in the short term while infuriating the American multinational corporations that rely so heavily on both Chinese factories and retail markets. (The Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable are fighting the measure the most aggressively, but the conservative Club for Growth also opposes it out of fear it would lead to consumer inflation.)

It’s tough to see how Obama would veto the bill if it ever gets to him, given its considerable election-year appeal and the fact that his administration’s quiet-diplomacy-first approach hasn’t proved tangibly fruitful. (Beijing, by the way, denies its exchange rate is responsible for the $273 billion trade deficit that the United States has with China.)

BAH, HUMBUG: There’s no suspense about tomorrow’s House vote on the seven-week stopgap spending package. It will clear by a lopsided margin; no more than two-dozen liberal Democrats, and a comparable number of conservative Republicans, will cast a politically comfortable but substantively “free” vote against the bill, which keeps all federal programs running until the weekend before Thanksgiving — albeit with only 98.5 percent of their funding from the fiscal year that ended Friday at midnight.

Of course, it will have taken three tries just to get this little Band-Aid bill through — because of a dispute that was essentially over $1 billion (the amount of disaster aid the GOP House wanted to offset by cutting a green-car program, remember?). So it’s essentially impossible to imagine that the same people will be able to agree in just 50 days on how to spend an amount of money that’s approaching three orders of magnitude bigger than that — the $1.043 trillion cap for all discretionary spending that Congress set as part of the August debt limit deal.

Even assuming the tea party freshmen will give up on their efforts to reopen negotiations on that grand total and drive down the number — which is no safe assumption — there are hundreds of policy and spending-level disputes looming for the House GOP and Senate Democratic appropriators who will now set about to turn two versions of 12 different spending bills into one saleable package. A glimpse of just one chapter in that fight offers ample evidence for a fall full of pessimism. The House’s Labor-HHS-Education package, unveiled last week, would spend nothing to implement the 2010 health overhaul law unless and until the Supreme Court held it to be constitutional next summer. The Senate would essentially give the president the $8.6 billion he says is required. And that same House package would cut Labor Department spending by 20 percent (even though all the administration wanted was the keep spending flat) while essentially choking off the rulemaking powers of the National Labor Relations Board.

And so, the people planning for the budget wars to be over in December must be labeled the most unrealistically optimistic in town. Even if the supercommittee’s long-term deficit reduction talks come to nothing — which is getting close to a safe bet — there will be plenty of squabbling over this year’s budget to keep Congress in town until the week before Christmas.

SO HARD TO LET GO: The solidifying gloom surrounding the supercommittee’s secretive deliberations won’t lift after tonight’s closed session, where the agenda item will be whether a tax overhaul should be included in a potential red-ink-reduction package — even if it’s designed to do nothing to mop up any red ink.

Senate Republicans Rob Portman and Pat Toomey will try to persuade the others to include a revenue-neutral overhaul that simplifies the IRS rule book and broadens the base, while eliminating deductions and generating credits that would spur economic activity and tax revenue. Getting agreement on that much, by itself, in just six weeks is a herculean task — especially when the Senate Democrats who are most amenable to making a tax overhaul part of a grand bargain, Max Baucus and John Kerry, are only interested in doing so if the end result promises to raise hundreds of billions of additional revenue.

And, of course, every provision that’s labeled by one side as a “loophole” was able to worm its way into the code because some special interest and some allied lawmaker was able to label it a “vital matter of economic fairness.” And that reality transcends politics, touching both the small brewery break championed by Kerry and the racehorse break that’s been the handiwork of McConnell. Coming up with a list of special-interest provisions that a solid majority of the supercommittee could live without could, by itself, take up most of the fall — even without pairing that discussion with deliberations over whether to settle for the $1.5 trillion floor for the committee’s proposal or whether to adopt the biggest-bargain-is-the-most-palatable-bargain approach that Obama and Boehner flirted with this summer. Which is why the shoot-the-moon talk of a $4 trillion deal is fading very fast.

EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES: While all the excitement in the world of presidential politics today centers on Chris Christie — all the signs are he’s genuinely reconsidering a run for the GOP nomination but will decide once and for all (and by the middle of the week) that he’s still NOT going to go for it — there’s still plenty of curiosity at the Capitol about what’s really motivating Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann to keep up their quixotic bids.

For Paul, the answer seems simple; he’s giving up his Texas seat in the House next year and so has nothing else to do. But, for Bachmann, it’s another story. She’s given somewhat contradictory indications about wanting to hang on to her Minnesota seat if she doesn’t end up as the nominee. She’s got some time to decide, because uncertainty about redistricting and her solid support in the GOP base has kept potential rivals from stepping up. But if she decides she wants to stay — and not parlay her rhetorical skills into a lucrative TV deal, for example — she’s going to be pressed to signal that by showing up more often on the House floor to carry out her basic congressional responsibility by casting votes.

She has voted only 54 percent of the time since announcing her presidential bid in June and missed every one in September; no other physically healthy House member has a worse attendance record this year. (Paul has participated in 84 percent of this year’s House votes). Four years ago, by contrast, McCain made only 44 percent of the Senate’s roll calls during the year before he won the GOP nomination, while Obama made it to the floor 62 percent of the time and Clinton participated 72 percent of the time.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “A lot of you have sent me wonderful letters and said good things to me when you meet me in the street. I wasn’t always gracious about it. It’s hard to accept being liked. I don’t say this often, but thank you. Although if you do see me in a restaurant, please, just let me eat my dinner,” were the final words in 92-year-old Andy Rooney’s last regular commentary on “60 Minutes” last night. CBS said it was his 1,097th such appearance since his gig began in 1978.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Today, Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico (68); two fellow Democrats in the House, Allyson Schwartz of Pennsylvania (63) and Karen Bass of California (58); and freshman GOP Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin (40). Yesterday, Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia (57) and my son Charlie (13).

— David Hawkings, editor

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