Friday, October 28, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Cloudy With a Chance of Success

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, October 28, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama concluded “We can’t wait” week this morning by announcing two relatively small-bore executive actions designed to help the economy. He ordered federal researchers to hasten the time it takes to make many of their findings available to the public, so that entrepreneurs might turn some of them into new products. And he ordered creation within 90 days of a new government website centralizing information on federal services available to would-be exporters.

The first couple spent an hour at parent-teacher conferences for Sasha and Malia at Sidwell Friends this morning and at 5 will attend an off-camera reception in the Eisenhower Building for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Obama has several Oval Office meetings with senior aides in between, including at 4 with Clinton.

THE HOUSE: Not in session. Next meets (for a pro forma only) at 1 on Monday; the next roll call vote isn’t until 6:30 on Tuesday.

THE SENATE: Not in session. Next meets at 3 on Monday, with a judicial confirmation vote at 5:30.

THE POSSIBILITES: The safest bet remains a solid “no” when handicapping the chances for a supercommittee success. And most of the signals sent by the Big 12 and by the congressional leadership this week sounded, at least on the surface, like harbingers of failure. But there were nonetheless some significant signs that a deal is not at all out of the question — and that efforts to get to “yes” could keep the Capitol and the financial markets on their toes until the Thanksgiving-eve deadline.

Most important is what Boehner and Pelosi did NOT say at their dueling news conferences yesterday. While the Speaker rejected the $1.3 trillion figure for tax increases in the supercommittee Democrats’ opening bid, he notably did not say the number should be a zero. In other words, he signaled he’s still where he was during his talks with Obama this summer: In return for entitlement curbs, Republicans should ignore their no-new-taxes pledges at least long enough to embrace a plan that ends some narrowly crafted tax breaks in order to generate several hundred billion in deficit reduction money.

At the same time, the House minority leader called for a “balance” between taxes and spending cuts — and, when asked, she signaled a change in course from this summer and declined to oppose changing the way inflation is measured so that Social Security cost-of-living increases would become smaller. (Altering the so-called chained CPI formula for calculating changes to Social Security, veteran and federal retiree benefits is part of both parties’ opening bids in the supercommitteee this week. The move could save as much as $200 billion over a decade, or one-sixth of the panel’s target floor. It would save even more if applied to Medicare and Medicaid.)

Beyond their willingness to abandon their old orthodoxies, the rhetoric from both House leaders — “I am committed to getting to an outcome,” Boehner said; “It behooves all of us to be as open as possible,” Pelosi said — signaled both are eager to push toward a deal for as long as there is a glimmer of hope during the next month. That’s because both are mindful that growing numbers in both caucuses are getting ready to endorse at least the notion of a deal that includes new taxes as well as entitlement cuts; that Congress’ approval ratings, which have only dropped since the debt limit standoff ended, will only turn around if there’s a deal that has bipartisan fingerprints on it; and that the best possible shot in the arm for the economy may well be a locked-down plan for budget discipline. (Presumably, they saw what the markets did after the Europeans cut their deal on Greek debt.)

THE REALITIES: Still, the odds are no better than 1 in 3 for the panel reaching a bipartisan consensus in the next 25 days on a deficit reduction plan meeting the $1.2 trillion threshold set this summer. (As a practical political matter, that would mean at least eight of the 12 members voting “yes” and getting the backing from at least three out of the four leaders, because any deal without such broad support would face a high hurdle in take-it-or-leave-it votes on the House and Senate floors.

And the odds are no better than 1 in 5 that the group strikes a grand-bargain-style deal promising to rein in the red ink by $3 trillion or more. During the next three weeks, the overwhelming pressures of partisanship, the deeply ingrained mutual distrust and disdain each party has for the other and the yearnings on both sides to shore up their political bases are far likelier than not to produce an impasse: A lopsided majority of Republicans will do what’s predictable and politically safe in the short term and say “no” to any tax increase, and a lopsided majority of Democrats will do the same and reject any entitlement curbs — with both sides hoping that, sometime in 2012, they can undo the sequestration handcuffs that will otherwise bind the budget to deep across-the-board cuts just as the winners of the next election are taking office.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Mitt Romney is securing his 35th congressional endorsement today, part of his steady effort to leave the impression that he’s become the Republican establishment’s consensus choice and so inevitably will secure the presidential nomination. (Two former attorneys general, William Barr and Michael Mukasey, also endorsed Romney today.) The newest congressional backer, Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller of Florida, brings to five the number of House committee leaders who have signed up with Romney; Judiciary’s Lamar Smith of Texas did so on Tuesday. Rick Perry is second in congressional endorsements, at 14. Herman Cain has none.

(2) She may be the founding chairwoman of the congressional Tea Party Caucus, but one prominent leader of the movement says in blunt terms that it’s time for Michele Bachmann to end her presidential bid. She’s starting to spend too much time talking about social issues and losing focus on the fiscal conservatism that’s most important to tea partiers, American Majority President Ned Ryun said in a blog post last night. “The campaign has become less about reform and more about her personal effort to stay relevant and sell books,” he wrote. “It’s not about tea party values or championing real plans to solve real problems. While other campaigns are diving into the substance, the supposed tea party candidate Bachmann is sticking to thin talking points and hanging on for dear life.”

(3) Sherrod Brown scored a 15-percentage-point lead over Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel in a Quinnipiac Poll conducted last weekend, suggesting the Democrat’s bid for a second Senate term is on solid if not quite sure footing. Brown had 49 percent to 34 percent for Mandel (who now has the GOP field to himself) — about the same as in three previous polls since the spring. But with the incumbent under 50 percent and so many undecided, it’s clear the race will tighten next year. How well Obama fares in the state will help settle the outcome. The new Q Poll gave him a 43 percent approval rating in the state — the same as his national favorable number in a Gallup poll out today — and found 44 percent of Ohioans saying he deserved re-election (with 7 percent undecided), but still put him on top in head-to-head matchups against everyone in the GOP field.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No lawmakers today, but four House members celebrate this weekend: Ohio’s Marcia Fudge (59) on Saturday, fellow Democrats Frank Pallone of New Jersey (60) and Bruce Braley of Iowa (54) on Sunday, along with Republican Joe Heck of Nevada (50).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Spending More, Making Less

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and has just finished for the week — after casting a rare bipartisan vote for legislation designed to spur job creation. The bill, passed 405-16, would repeal a five-year-old requirement that federal, state and city government agencies withhold 3 percent from payments on most contracts and give the money to the IRS. Lawmakers also voted, 262-157 along mostly party lines, to make up for the lost revenue ($11 billion over a decade) by slightly tightening eligibility rules to get insurance subsidies created by last years health care overhaul.

THE SENATE: Convened at 11 to interrupt this week’s recess with a 10-second pro-forma session.

THE WHITE HOUSE: After a series of meetings with Geithner and other senior advisers, Obama will welcome Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas to the Oval Office for an hourlong meeting at 3:10. He’ll put in an appearance at an East Room reception for the nation’s mayors before heading out to have dinner (at an undisclosed local restaurant) with winners of a campaign contest.

AN ECONOMIC UPTICK: The economy picked up a little bit of steam in the summer. The annualized growth rate was 2.5 percent in July, August and September — far from a solid, let alone robust, expansion by historical standards, but still undeniably better than the close-to-stalling GDP numbers for the first part of the year: 0.4 percent growth in the first quarter and 1.3 percent growth in the second quarter.

Today’s Commerce Department report said the third-quarter growth was mainly because of stronger consumer spending (annualized growth of 2.4 percent in the summer, more than triple the rate in the spring) and greater business investment, including a 17.4 percent spike in spending on equipment and software. Still, Americans spent more even though they made less money. Their after-tax incomes adjusted for inflation fell at a rate of 1.7 percent in the third quarter, the biggest decline since the third quarter of 2009 — just as the recession was ending.

The latest GDP report will be claimed by Obama as credible evidence against a double-dip recession — but the level of growth is far short of what will be needed for a long-term reduction in the jobless rate, which has been near 9 percent for the past two years. Instead, the best news available is that the overall economic growth at the summer’s pace is likely to keep the unemployment rate from rising.

THEY’RE DOING IT AGAIN: The House’s schedule for next year, which repeats this year’s unusual recess rhythm, will surely continue the balky and disconnected legislative relationship with the Senate and makes certain, a year in advance, that there will be a seventh consecutive lame-duck session.

Unveiling the 2012 calendar early this morning (over Twitter), Cantor promoted the timetable as a way to “create certainty, increase efficiency and productivity in the legislative process, protect committee time and afford members the opportunity to gain valuable input from their constituents at home.” The practical translation of that final justification is simple: Members of the Republican majority — especially the many in the 87-member freshman class who are vulnerable to becoming one-term wonders — insisted that they have lots of uninterrupted campaigning and fundraising time next year.

In fact, the calendar calls for lawmakers to go back to their districts on Friday, Oct. 5, a full month before Election Day, and not return until Nov. 13 — the day after the Veterans Day holiday — to start the lame duck, hold leadership elections and conduct orientation for the newly elected members. The last time a Congress finished all its legislative business before the election was 1996, and leaders in both parties concede that last fall’s lame duck (in part because of the pending change in party control of the House) was among the most productive ever.

After a week off for Thanksgiving, the House’s target day for ending the 112th Congress is Friday, Dec. 14. If Cantor’s timetable holds, the House will meet for legislating on 112 days — eight more than in the last presidential election year.

AND THEY'RE DOING IT AGAIN: Reid is reportedly nowhere close to announcing the Senate’s calendar for next year, but aides say it’s certain he will have senators at work in several weeks when the House is out, and will plan recesses in several weeks when the House is in. That planned disconnect created significant political and logistical problems this year — especially in the run-up to the debt limit deadline this summer — and both the Senate Democrats and the House Republicans had to scrap planned recesses so both chambers could be open at the same time.

Like this year, House members will rarely be in Washington for more than two weeks at a time. The exceptions are a five-week stretch — albeit punctuated by several long weekends to accommodate party caucus retreats — upon reconvening Jan. 17 (the Tuesday after the MLK holiday) and a four-week run between July 9 and the start of the summer recess on Aug. 3. Because the GOP convention in Tampa is the last week of August, and the Democratic convention in Charlotte is right after that, during the week starting on Labor Day, the House will not return until Sept. 10.

The House’s other recess weeks begin on Feb. 20 (Presidents Day), March 12, both April 2 and April 9 (Passover and Easter are right in the middle), April 30, May 21 (even though Memorial Day is a week later), June 11, July 2 (Independence Day week) and Sept. 24 (Yom Kippur starts the next day, and the work week before will be only three days because of Rosh Hashana).

MEANWHILE, DON’T MAKE ANY PLANS: While they’re pondering next year’s calendar, lawmakers and their aides are increasingly resigned to being at the Capitol deep into December once again this year. The de facto target adjournment being bandied about in both the House and Senate is Friday, Dec. 23. That’s because — even if the supercommittee process turns out to be a total bust — it will take until the eve of Christmas Eve to get the annual appropriations process finished. The current stopgap spending bill lapses in three weeks, on Nov. 18, and appropriators are now mulling whether the next CR should last until Dec. 18 (in an effort to drive the spending debate across the finish line the weekend before Christmas) or concede the inevitable and extend it until the 23rd. The reason for the slow going remains as it has been for weeks: So many conservative Republicans in the House think the grand total for discretionary spending agreed to this summer is too high — and so many House Democrats think it’s too low — that there’s no majority in line to pass any substantive spending bill.

BACK AND FORTH: Yesterday’s Republican counteroffer in the supercommittee — a $2.2 trillion, 10-year deficit reduction plan that’s all about spending curbs and would put off a tax code overhaul until next year or later — is just as much of a non-starter as the $3 trillion package as the Democratic opening bid that leaked out the day before.

But the two plans actually have three important aspects in common. Both do what budget hawks want and propose savings far beyond the $1.2 trillion floor set this summer for avoiding indiscriminate across-the-board cuts to social safety net and military programs. Both call for getting to the bigger number — if not quite a “grand bargain” — with hundreds of billions in savings from Medicare and Medicaid, and both envision cuts to appropriations that are deeper than what’s proscribed under the deficit downpayment and debt limit law of August. The similarities between the two partisan sketches actually suggest that the dozen lawmakers may have been talking with one another — not always past one another — in their closed-door deliberations.

The only headline-worthy difference, ultimately, is the one that’s prevented a grand bargain all year: The Democrats would get to their larger grand total by raising $1.3 trillion in new revenue (a one-to-one ratio that’s surely no more than a barggaining position) while the GOP remains steadfast in its unwillingness to abandon its orthodoxy and start talking about taxes being part of the mix at all. Learning whether that’s a moveable posture will be the deciding factor about whether the nation learns the meaning of sequestration next year.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Connie Mack has decided on an up-or-out course for his congressional career and will run for the Senate next year — recognizing that no one in the current Republican field has caught fundraising fire or surged in popularity among the party’s conservative base. His late-starting candidacy, which leaked late last night, will once again push Democrat Bill Nelson’s prospects for re-election — he won the seat when Mack’s namesake dad retired in 2000 — back into tossup territory. (The presumed GOP front-runner, state Senate President Mike Haridopolos, dropped out this summer, leaving former Senate appointee George LeMieux, former state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner and former Ruth’s Chris CEO Craig Miller as the main options until now.) While it initially sounds suprising, Mack’s bid makes sense in light of how much he’s worked to raise his profile this year as a tea-party-style fiscal crusader. It’s up in the air what will happen in the Gulf Coast congressional district Mack has held for four terms, especially when the redistricting of the state, which gains two House seats, is so in flux.

(2) Michael McCaul has made the opposite decision from Mack’s. He’s decided he’d rather stay in the House and try to become Homeland Security chairman in 2013 (at the start of just his fifth term) than risk his political career on a 2012 Senate campaign. The Austin Republican is likely to have little trouble winning re-election next year no matter what happens in the Texas battle over redistricting — in which the Republican map that would to deny Hispanics more than maybe one of the four new seats faces a tough battle for survival in the courts. McCaul’s decision means the fight for the GOP nomination for the open Senate seat will be between establishment Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and tea party favorite Ted Cruz, a former state solicitor general.

(3) There’s not going to be any race to succeed John Olver, who has remained one of the most obscure members of the House over the past two decades even while rising to become the eighth-most-senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. (He’s now got the top seat on the panel that writes the Transportation and HUD budgets.) After he reversed course yesterday and announced he would not run for an 11th full term — his wife, Rose, is fighting cancer — political mapmakers at the statehouse in Boston breathed a huge sigh of relief. The state lost one of its 10 seats in reapportionment, but now redistricting can occur without forcing one incumbent in the all-Democratic delegation to take on another. Instead, Olver’s rural Berkshires territory will be largely subsumed into Richie Neal’s Springfield-based district.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democrat Maurice Hinchey, who says he’s doing well enough in his battle with colon cancer that he’ll seek an 11th term in upstate New York (73).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: The $3 Trillion Balloon

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama will tout his two moves to make it easier to manage student loan debt at 12:45 (Eastern) at the University of Colorado’s downtown Denver campus. (Air Force One is wheels up for Joint Base Andrews an hour later, and the president is due back in the Oval by 5:15.)

The education policy shifts are part 3 of this week’s effort to show what the president can do to goose the economy at the margins in the absence of congressional collaboration — and, in this case, to appease the Occupy Wall Street protesters, who cite the high cost of college among their top complaints. The president is allowing an estimated 1.6 million graduates to cap their federal loan repayments at 10 percent of their discretionary income (down from 15 percent) starting in January, two years before the cap would otherwise be lowered under the new “pay as you earn” law. He’s also declaring the balance on such loans forgiven after 20 years, five years earlier than now. And he’s allowing as many as 5.8 million people who have received money from the Federal Family Education Loan Program as well as a direct government loan to consolidate the two into one, and at a half-percentage-point lower interest rate.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and this afternoon will return to legislation allowing a several-thousand-acre land swap southeast of Phoenix for the benefit Arizona’s copper mining industry (and also the bill’s principal sponsor this year, Paul Gosar, a GOP freshman from Flagstaff facing tough re-election prospects next year.) The measure will pass with bipartisan support, with or without additional language protecting some American Indian land from being mined, in part because it could create as many as 5,000 jobs connected to Resolution Copper’s $6 billion plan. But the Obama administration opposes the swap on environmental grounds, and its prospects in the Senate are cloudy.

Before going home for the day by 5, debate will also get started on a bill ending the 3 percent government tax withholding on contractor payments. (The lost $11 billion in revenue would be made up for by tweaking a Medicaid payment formula.)

THE SENATE: In recess for the week.

JUST SOMETHING TO WORK WITH: The first Democratic supercommittee trial balloon has crashed even before it was put fully aloft. Not only has it been spurned by one of the party’s own panelists — Jim Clyburn, who said he could not countenance the plan's cuts in Medicare — but Republicans found its call for a one-to-one ratio of tax increases to spending cuts so disdainful that two senators on the panel, Jon Kyl and the usually-more-circumspect Rob Portman, essentially shouted the Democrats down even before they had finished their presentation yesterday.

That testy session in secret presaged a balky and partisan start for this morning’s public hearing, only the fourth time the panel has convened before the cameras. Although Senate co-chairwoman Patty Murray opened the meeting by declaring “we aren’t there yet, but I’m confident we are making progress,” the signs are not at all encouraging that the panel can defy all odds and meet its four-weeks-from-today deadline for approving a bipartisan budget cutting package and thereby ward off across-the-board cuts that both parties see as draconian.

But there are two aspects of the Democratic opening bid that merit serious attention by those holding out hope that a deal might be struck at the final hour, and laboring to figure out what it might look like. The first is that the proposal was for cutting the deficit by almost $3 trillion in the next decade — or two and a half times the panel’s mandate, which most economists lament would be far from sufficient to correct the nation’s long-term and grim fiscal forecast. The other is that the Democrats call for curbs on discretionary appropriations — beyond the 10 years’ worth of tight caps endorsed this summer as part of the debt limit deal — is the first move, by either party, to get out of their traditional political comfort zones in hopes of goading the other side to do a bit of the same.

More evidence that the supers have not yet given up (or been told to give up by congressional leaders) is word that both Reid and Boehner have inserted themselves into the talks in recent days.

ON THE 1 PERCENT: If congressional Democrats want officially nonpartisan evidence that it’s time to raise taxes — as a way to redistribute the wealth, make the Occupy protesters happy and cut into the deficit — they got it yesterday from the CBO. The Hill’s independent budget scorekeepers reported that the after-tax income of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans has soared 275 percent since the end of the 1970s, compared with 62 percent for all households and just 18 percent for the poorest one-fifth of the population.

WORLD VIEW: Boehner’s hard-line speech about Russia yesterday was not only the latest evidence that the Speaker wants to become more of a player on the international stage, but also a clear sign that the House has no interest for now in helping Obama advance his “reset” policies by normalizing trade relations with Moscow — which would be central step toward Russia being allowed to join the World Trade Organization. Boehner said he would not move such legislation until the administration helps resolve the territorial dispute between Russia and neighboring Georgia. Russia is the largest economic power still outside the WTO and has been trying to join for almost two decades.

WOW: Approval of Congress has descended into single digits for the first time in the 34-year-history of the CBS-New York Times poll on the topic — just 9 percent in the survey out today. And the disdain is across the board: 83 percent of both Republicans and Democrats and 85 percent of independents disapprove of the job the lawmakers are doing. But the most dramatic number in the poll is the 89 percent who say they trust the government only some of the time or never.

SUPPER CLUB: He may be the front-runner, but only 17 percent of Republicans in a new poll picked Mitt Romney as the presidential candidate they’d most like to have dinner with. That was a third-place finish behind Herman Cain at 29 percent and Newt Gingrich at 22 percent. Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul and Rick Perry were all in single digits, and 5 percent of those surveyed by the Clarus Research Group said they’d just as soon not sit down with any of them.

Romney continues to pile up the congressional endorsements, though — he’s now got more than 30 — and he came to the Hill this morning to court about a dozen more lawmakers who are considering backing him. He also raised an estimated $500,000 from lobbyists during a breakfast at the headquarters of the American Trucking Associations. The host committee included the governor’s top Hill liaison, Roy Blunt, as well as House Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa and House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “The White House is going to get egged if this keeps up. You got to throw some candy in there, a couple Reese’s Pieces or something,” the president (on Jay Leno last night) said that he told the first lady after she revealed plans to once again hand out raisins and fruit to the kids allowed to trick-or-treat at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on Monday.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: House members Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat (67), and Geoff Davis, a Kentucky Republican (53).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Def Auth Dance

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama will tape his fourth appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” (it’s his second as president) at NBC’s Burbank studios at 1:30 (Eastern time), zip up to San Francisco for a fundraising lunch at the W Hotel and then fly to Denver for two more big money events tonight in the Pepsi Center, where he formally secured the Democratic nomination three years ago.

Administration officials this morning unveiled the second slice of the president’s “We can’t wait” package designed to boost the economy without any legislation. It’s much narrower than yesterday’s refinancing initiative: One executive order designed to help veterans get jobs at community health centers and another to boost training for vets who want to become physician assistants.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 with plans to pass four bills and be done for the day by 3:30. The only controversial measure would give Resolution Copper (a joint venture of Australian and British mining concerns) 2,400 acres of mineral-rich federal land in southeastern Arizona in a swap for 5,300 acres of land, scattered across six counties, that could become parts of national forests or conservation areas.

THE SENATE: In recess for the week.

WHERE TO HOLD ’EM? There’s always one issue that seems to hogtie the annual defense authorization bill until the last minute, either because Republicans and Democrats can’t agree or because senators and House members have diametrically opposed ideas: The future of Stealth bomber in the early 1990s, the alternate engine for the F-35 for much of this decade, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” a year ago. This time, the issue is the handling of military detainees.

The chairmen of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees are joining Obama in opposing language in the Senate’s defense authorization bill that would require military custody for suspected al Qaeda terrorists and sharply limit their transfer out of Guantánamo Bay. “Professionals in the intelligence community and law enforcement need the flexibility to use all tools to effectively interrogate, incarcerate and bring terrorists to justice,” Pat Leahy and Dianne Feinstein said in a letter to Reid (who’s also on their side) that was made public yesterday and signed by 11 other Democratic senators. The provision — embraced by fellow Democrat Carl Levin, the chairman of Armed Services, and almost all Republicans — has become the single biggest obstacle to passage of the annual military budget and policy package. The version of the bill passed by the House would proscribe the handling of detainees in different ways, and the White House opposes that language as well.

The issue looks to be intractable for now, but in congressional negotiating terms the hour remains pretty early. And, despite legislative dysfunction almost everywhere else, the two Armed Services committees are hanging on to an unblemished-for-four-decades record of getting a “def auth” bill to the president’s desk every year. So some face-saving, split-the-difference compromise is surely out there somewhere.

PAPER TRAIL: Jack Murtha was a past master at papering over (or, failing that, muscling through) congressional disagreements over defense policy during his two decades as the top Democrat on the House’s Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. And, just-released FBI records suggest, he may have been just as good at staying one step ahead of the law. The papers document what was widely suspected in the years before his death in 2010: The FBI had opened a criminal investigation into whether the Pennsylvania Democrat and some best-buddy lobbyists were part of a long-running scheme to steer federal earmarks to sham companies and nonprofits for the benefit of Murtha’s friends and former aides. (The watchdog group known as CREW was unable to get the Justice Department to comply with its FOIA request while Murtha was alive.)

PERRY PLAN: Rick Perry unveiled his long-awaited economic plan in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this morning and will promote it in a speech in South Carolina this afternoon — a double-barrelled rollout designed to revive his flagging presidential candidacy, if not wipe away yesterday’s really diverting news about the Texas governor’s backhanded interest in the “birther” conspiracy theories. (Perry said on CNBC today that stoking suspicions about Obama's nationality was "fun.") The plan has been in the works for more than two months, but only came together in recent days — and was pushed to completion by Joe Allbaugh (Bush’s campaign manager in 2000 and later FEMA director), who was brought aboard as the de facto campaign impresario  last week. Perry’s chief economic adviser is now Steve Forbes, who ran for president in 1996 on a 17 percent flat-tax platform.

The Perry’s plan’s centerpiece is a flat 20 percent income tax rate, with a choice for people to pay their current rate if it’s less. He would preserve the current tax breaks for mortgage interest, charitable and state and local taxes for families earning below $500,000, boost the standard deduction to $12,500 and end taxation of estates and Social Security benefits. His plans would also would lower the corporate tax rate to 20 percent and eliminate taxes on qualified dividends and long-term capital gains. To make up for the lost revenue, he would cap federal spending at 18 percent of GDP.

CHINA GUYS: There was bipartisan agreement at the Ways and Means Committee this morning that Obama should be applying more pressure on China to change what many lawmakers derided as “predatory” trading practices. But there was a clear partisan split when it came to whether the House should embrace the sort of legislative approach endorsed by the Senate two weeks ago — punishing China with sanctions for manipulating its currency. Chairman Dave Camp said an all-out effort to get Beijing to alter the value of the yuan would not be a “silver bullet” — echoing the position of his GOP leadership, which so far has been steadfastly against bringing up the bill, which the business community fears would incite a trade war. But top Democrat Sandy Levin pressed hard for a vote on the Senate bill, which threatens higher tariffs on Chinese imports if the country continues to undervalue its currency as a way of keeping its exports cheaper.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) The list of really vulnerable House incumbents continues to lengthen, while the list of sitting senators who are in trouble has more or less stayed the same for months. And Dick Lugar remains near the top. Things looked a little better for him the other day, when Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock turned in some less-than-stellar summertime fundraising totals for his Republican primary challenge form the right. But yesterday Mourdock got a decent boost — an endorsement from Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks  PAC, which in combination with the Tea Party Express could make Lugar’s bid for a seventh term close to unsustainable.

(2) One of the strangest line items in the hundreds of third-quarter campaign finance reports just filed at the FEC is a bill owed by freshman Democrat Cedric Richmond: $1,446 still due to Deep South Investigations, a New Orleans-area firm that specializes in covert video surveillance, court records searches and serving subpoenas. The report shows that the campaign did $5,000 in business with the company (no specifics are provided) starting after Richmond defeated Joe Cao last fall.

(3) Ann Wagner, a former ambassador and RNC co-chairwoman, has definitively shot down reports that she was considering joining the for-now-lackluster group of Republicans seeking to challenge Claire McCaskill’s bid for a second Senate term next year. Instead, she said she was sticking with her original plan — to run for the suburban St. Louis House seat that Todd Akin is relinquishing to make that Senate run. She’s got a solid shot at winning, in part because her gold-plated resume has helped her raise $1 million just in the past several months.

QUOTES OF NOTE: “There’s so much left to do that, understandably, a lot of people feel a little disenchanted. A lot of people feel discouraged. That old ‘Hope’ poster is fading, it’s getting dog-eared along the edges there,” Obama said at his Las Vegas fundraiser yesterday. A few hours later, he told donors in Los Angeles: “This election will not be as sexy as the first one. Back then it was still fresh and new. I didn’t have any gray hair. Everybody loved the ‘Hope’ posters and all that. This time it’s, we’ve got to grind it out a little bit.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No congressional incumbents today, and only one top-tier member of the Washington elite: Democratic strategist and provocateur James Carville (67).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Monday, October 24, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: 'No Podemos Esperar'

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, October 24, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama left this morning for a three-day trip out West, where he’ll roll out a new I-can-do-it-all-by-myself strategy for advancing his economic prescriptions. He’ll also raise millions for his re-election campaign. After a fundraiser at the Bellagio in Las Vegas this afternoon, he’s off to L.A. for a pair of top-dollar dinners — first at the home of producer James Lassiter and then at the home of actors Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at 2 to debate seven bills the GOP leadership views as noncontroversial, including one to prevent U.S. airlines from participating in the European Union’s emissions reduction plan. (The only votes will be after 6:30 to give lawmakers a full travel day.)

THE SENATE: Convenes at 3:45 for a pro forma session but is effectively gone until next Monday. (It’s the ninth week this year when the lights have been off in one chamber but on in the other.)

NEW CATCHPHRASE: The White House announced new federal rules this morning to make refinancing easier for as many as one million people who have minimal equity in their homes or who are underwater on their mortgages. The regulations are the first maneuver in a new Obama effort to jump-start the economy on his own authority — meaning without any legislative help from a Congress where Republicans have dug in against his ideas.

The president will promote his latest strategy, with a focus on the refinancing rules, when he arrives this afternoon in Nevada, the state with the highest foreclosure rate for 56 straight months. At a 5:30 photo op arranged with struggling Las Vegas homeowners, he will quite literally abandon his “pass my jobs bill” mantra of the past month and replace it with a different slogan: “We can’t wait.” The catchphrase is designed both to underscore his decision to leverage his presidential powers in the absence of congressional action — with the hope that voters will embrace his assertiveness — and to poke anew at Republicans for their decision to oppose his $447 billion economic stimulus plan, both as package and broken into pieces. (Overtly or not, the president will also be able to draw a sharp contrast with Mitt Romney, who told said last week that the foreclosure wave should be allowed to “run its course and hit the bottom.”)

The Federal Housing Finance Agency says the new rules will permit some borrowers to refinance no matter how much their home’s value has dropped. The process will be made simpler and cheaper by eliminating appraisals and extensive underwriting requirements for most borrowers — so long as they are current on their mortgage payments. Fannie and Freddie also have agreed to waive some fees.

The president has already used his own power to advance his “race to the top” ideas for changing the No Child Left Behind education policies and to reduce the time it takes for small businesses to get paid on their federal contracts — and in both cases Congress subsequently began moving similar legislation. But it's unlikely the mortgage maneuvers will be turned into a bill anytime soon, if ever.

BIG OR SMALL? With its deadline now one month away, the supercommittee has publicly succeeded at nothing beyond keeping its aspirations to itself. Even the deficit reduction grand total the 12 lawmakers are aiming for is undeclared: This summer’s debt ceiling deal set $1.2 trillion over 10 years as the floor for avoiding politically painful across-the-board cuts to defense and domestic programs, but there are plenty of tea leaves suggesting the group is shooting for something maybe four times as big (the proverbial grand bargain) and almost as many tea leaves pointing to a below-a-trillion end result. That would offer some measure of face-saving for the six Republicans and six Democrats while at least minimizing the dour consequences of the resulting sequester.

There’s no overt evidence at all, though, that the supers have broken their central partisan impasse: Republicans remain steadfastly against trading tax increases for cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. And Democrats remain steadfastly committed to shielding those entitlement programs unless such reductions are paired with revenue increases.

The committee will continue meeting privately this week, while holding only its third public hearing — a Wednesday showpiece focused on discretionary spending. (Behind the scenes, the panelists have been feeding a steady stream of options to the CBO so that those budgetary scorekeepers can work ahead on the tough math assignments and not be left holding the bag on an enormous accounting project in the final hours before the committees’ Thanksgiving-eve due date.)

THEY'RE STILL THERE: House leaders are working just offstage — and with a bit of unsolicited encouragement from the White House — to prevent the most conservative Republicans from staging any more budgetary revolts before the year is out.

Tea party freshmen and their elder allies in the GOP caucus haven’t given up on their hopes of reopening this summer’s debt ceiling agreement so they can drive down (by about $23 billion) the grand total of discretionary spending the deal permits in this new fiscal year. Top appropriators and the House leadership team say that the total negotiated with Obama this summer should stand — not only for keeping-our-word reasons but also because the extra money is essential for making spending-bill agreements with the Senate. And OMB chief Jack Lew sent Congress a letter last week saying he and the president couldn’t agree more — and that a veto is possible if any spending bill cuts below the agreed-upon big number.

The next test of the conservatives’ resolve could come as soon as next week, after the Senate passes the “minibus” $128 billion domestic package it debated all of last week. If, after a quick behind-closed-doors conference with the House, Boehner & Co. concede they do not have the muscle to clear that measure with its current price tag, it will be solid evidence that the revolutionaries have won their final battle of the year. What that means is that a straightforward bill to maintain the spending status quo through next September — the so-called yearlong CR — will be the only viable alternative. But if that’s the course the GOP takes, they will have to give up their efforts to use the appropriations bills to carry the sort of socially conservative policy riders that have been almost as important to them as driving down the budget.

REPORT CARD: The quality of congressional websites has soared in the past two years — but too many of them still lack such educational and transparency features as member voting records, links to the text of legislation they’ve cosponsored and basic how-a-bill-becomes-law explanations. That’s the central conclusion of a report out today from independent, non-partisan Congressional Management Foundation, which has been studying Hill web sites for a decade.

After looking at 618 sites, the best-in-show awards went to Alaska Democrat Mark Begich (best senator's site), Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan (best House member’s site), House Education and Workforce (best committee site) and the House minority leader’s office (best leadership site). Another 98 personal-office, committee and leadership websites were given A’s under a complex formula for assessing a site’s usability, timeliness,  breadth and depth of information, constituent service offerings and legislative self-accountability. Since the last assessment, two years ago, the most common changed grade was from an F to a B.

As in the past, Democrats and House members tend to have better sites than Republicans and senators; 61 percent of freshmen House members received A or B grades from the foundation and only 17 percent got an F, while 31 percent of new senators got top marks and 46 percent got a failing grade.

GIFFORDS UPDATE: Gabby Giffords has moved to North Carolina to begin two weeks of what her office calls “intensive” rehabilitation starting today. The trip, to an unidentified facility in Asheville, was arranged so that the congresswoman could spend more time with a therapist who had been treating her in Houston.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Sen. Jeff  Merkley of Oregon (55), fellow Democrats in the House José Serrano of New York (68) and Brad Sherman of California (57), and Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack of California (50).

— David Hawkings, editor

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