Friday, November 04, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Good News and Bad News

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, November 4, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: “Put simply, the world faces challenges that put our economic recovery at risk,” Obama said at his news conference a few minutes ago, after the conclusion of the G-20 summit. But he said the world leaders in Cannes (especially the debt-crisis-plagued Europeans) had made progress at putting their countries on firmer footing. “They’re going to have a strong partner in us,” the president said, “but European leaders understand that ultimately what the markets are looking for is a strong signal from Europe that they’re standing behind the euro.”

After a joint interview for French TV with Nicolas Sarkozy — designed to pump up the host’s sagging public approval ratings — Air Force One will take off from Nice at 1:10. That puts the president back in the residence at 10:25.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and plans to turn off the lights for the next week no later than 3. That means lawmakers won’t finish debating all 18 proposed amendments to legislation making an array of changes to maritime law — including setting national rules for regulating the discharge of ballast water from commercial ships. (The issue has become top-tier in the Great Lakes since an invasion of zebra mussels from such ballast disrupted the regional ecosystem, and Democrats from the region want to give states the power to set tougher-than-federal standards.) The administration, meanwhile, strongly opposes language in the bill decommissioning the Coast Guard icebreaker “Polar Star.”

THE SENATE: Not in session; next convenes at 2 on Monday.

JOBS SLOWLY RETURN: There’s new evidence of the economy’s slight expansion in today’s unemployment reports.

A net 80,000 jobs were created last month — with 104,000 new private sector posts offset by the continued decline in government jobs, the Labor Department said. Employment growth in August and September was 102,000 positions stronger than first thought. The ranks of the long-term unemployed (those out of work six months or more)  fell sharply, to 5.9 million. The number of discouraged workers (those who have given up looking for jobs and are no longer counted as unemployed) also fell. And the symbolically important unemployment rate dropped a notch, to 9 percent from 9.1 percent, the first decline since July and the lowest rate since April.

Still, the jobless rate has now topped 8 percent for 33 consecutive months, and about 125,000 jobs have to be created every month to keep up with the pace of people entering the workforce because of population growth — meaning it takes more than that to bring down the unemployment rate in a lasting way. Which is why Republican leaders — as they do every month — had statements at the ready painting the new numbers as far from sufficient, and urging the Democratic Senate to embrace the 15 bills the House has already passed in the name of job creation. About half have decent levels of bipartisan support; those that don’t are mainly moves to drop labor and environmental regulations. “It’s time to close the book on the failed ‘stimulus’ era in Washington, and start working together to remove the government barriers holding back robust private-sector job creation,” Boehner said.

The long-term forecast means that Obama is looking to stand for his second term a year from now with unemployment higher than on any presidential election day in modern times. In France this morning, he hailed the new numbers as “positive” but lamented that the economy is still growing “way too slow.”

CORZINE’S COLLAPSE: Jon Corzine’s only sporadically successful career straddling the top tiers of politics and high finance came to a disgraced end this morning. He resigned as CEO of MF Global, the brokerage firm that filed for bankruptcy this week and started confronting three federal investigations into at least $600 million in missing customer money. The SEC, the CFTC and the FBI are all suspicious that the firm illegally took money out of customer accounts when its own cash reserves dried up — a consequence of its own disastrous decision to bet heavily on an end to the European debt crisis.

Corzine, who has not been accused of wrongdoing, has retained prominent criminal defense lawyer Andrew Levander. (MF Global said the outgoing boss has declined a $12.1 million cash and benefits severance package.) Now 64, Corzine was a solid success as head of Goldman Sachs in the 1990s, but never found a power niche or prominent legislative profile at the Capitol, where his five-year career was memorable mainly because he was the only fully bearded senator in modern times. He resigned before his first term was up to become governor of New Jersey in 2005 — and taking over MF Global was supposed to start his comeback after Chris Christie ousted him four years later. Today’s news puts an exclamation point next to this truism: There’s no way he’s ever coming back to Washington. His chances of becoming Treasury secretary in a second Obama administration are now less than zero.

RISING CAIN: Herman Cain may be a political dead man walking in the eyes of Washington’s campaign and crisis management experts — but so far the public has a different view. At 23 percent support, he stayed in a statistical tie with Mitt Romney (24 percent) atop the GOP presidential field in the four days after the sexual harassment allegations against him surfaced, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll out today. And his support stayed steady from Monday night through yesterday, even as new charges against him surfaced and his response to them became more and more convoluted and contradictory.

Also, 70 percent said that, whether true or not, reports that Cain made unwanted advances toward women on his National Restaurant Association staff in the 1990s won’t matter when it comes to picking a candidate. And 55 percent of Republicans said Cain’s purported conduct was “not a serious matter” — vs. 37 percent of GOP voters and 42 percent of GOP-leaning independents who said it was. (The latest gauge of public sentiment dovetails with word from the Cain campaign that it’s raised $1.2 million since the story broke.)

The restaurant group will say today whether it will release one of Cain’s accusers from the confidentiality pledge in her settlement agreement, and if that happens she has a written statement ready detailing her version of what happened. Cain is back in Washington, preparing to speak to the tea-party affiliated Americans for Prosperity as part of his latest tack — ignoring the imbroglio and speaking only about his 9-9-9 economic plan.

CONFIDENT ON CONFERENCE: That they met for just 10 minutes yesterday is actually a good sign: The minibus conferees should have no trouble coming to a deal before the end of next week and think their compromise can get through the House, even though the spending levels will be a bit higher than what GOP conservatives want: $19.6 billion for the Agriculture part ($2 billion more than the House-passed bill), $52.7 billion for the Commerce-Justice-Science section ($2.5 billion more) and  $55.6 billion for the Transportation-HUD package ($400 million more). Republicans and Democrats alike are so confident in their dealmaking powers on all the line items in those three measures that they may yet move to add two more relatively non-controversial spending bills to the package: those for the  Homeland Security Department and the legislative branch.

DEADLOCK REMAINS: The week is ending with a cloud of pessimism over the supercommittee — even after Boehner opened the door wide yesterday to a deficit deal that includes new taxes (in return for significant entitlement curbs) and poked and labeled the No. 1 anti-tax powerhouse in the GOP universe, Grover Norquist, as nothing more than “some random person in America.”

The assumption is that, despite the House’s recess, its six delegates to the supercommittee will stick around for back-channel deliberations, which will probably continue next week as deliberations in smaller groups rather than with all 12 in one room. But the longer the cone of silence stays in place, the more the stage is open to those lawmakers who are already assuming that the panel is going to fail ­— and are starting now, a year in advance, to make sure the self-imposed punishment of across-the-board cuts never takes place.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: John Yarmouth of Louisville, the best Democratic golfer in the House (64); the Daily Briefing itself (1) – a milestone attainable thanks to the input from editing colleagues Joe Warminsky and Kent Allen.


— David Hawkings, editor

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Thursday, November 03, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Super Sigh

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is in Cannes, where the day’s second formal meeting of all the G-20 leaders is about to get started. (The group will reconvene for a working dinner and then more sessions tomorrow.) After separate one-on-ones with Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel this morning, the president called a resolution of the euro zone’s economic crisis the most important task facing those gathered for the summit — and urged Europe’s leaders to quickly “flesh out more of the details” of the plan struck last week for rescuing Greece from its debt burden.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 with plans to hold dueling votes at 3 that will kill off both the Obama transportation jobs proposal ($50 billion for public works construction and $10 billion for a new infrastructure loan fund) as well as the Republican alternative, which is to extend many highway and mass transit programs through September 2013 — while blocking or reversing a range of unrelated federal regulations. Advancing either measure will require 60 votes; none of the 47 Republicans will break ranks and vote for the president’s plan and only a couple of the 53 Democratic caucus members will back the GOP idea.

Senators will also confirm two new federal trial judges: Scott Skavdahl, a Wyoming magistrate, and Richard Andrews, Delaware’s top criminal prosecutor.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and will start legislative business at noon, with plans to take up two more measures that would help small businesses raise capital. One would ease SEC regulations on the advertising of new securities. The other would allow companies to sell $2 million in stock using “crowdfunding” methods without registering with the SEC. Passage of the second bill may be put off until tomorrow, because today’s last vote is promised before 7.

SOFT PATCH: The prospects for a big budget breakthrough have sagged in the past day, for several reasons.

The supercommittee has no closed-door meetings planned for this week, the first time that’s happened since the group first got together in early September. The six most centrist members of the group — three from each party who had been conducting their own back-channel talks — have reached an impasse. Some in the leadership are talking about an extension on their 20-days-away deadline, which is a desperation signal, to be sure, because there’s no evidence more time would do any good. There are only limited prospects that any more Republicans will pledge to support raising revenue as part of a grand bargain, beyond the 40 who did so yesterday. And the White House is making it clear that the president will stand well away from the panel’s deliberations unless there’s some sign that failure is not its only option.

Beyond all that, momentum for the panel to push through a corporate tax overhaul is stalling now that the Joint Tax Committee has concluded the move would not meet the goal of being revenue-neutral. Eliminating corporate tax credits and deductions, the panel said, would produce only enough revenue to reduce the top corporate rate to 28 percent in a revenue-neutral overhaul — not the 25 percent level sought by Republicans. Democrats used the analysis to question whether a corporate tax overhaul is needed, while the GOP suggested the JCT review was driven by narrow Democratic concerns.

BUS TOUR: The first appropriations conference in two years is getting started today, but the deal on the $128 billion domestic spending “minibus” won’t be done in time to clear the legislation this week. That means it will have to wait until the week of Nov. 14, because the House is going on another one of its one-week breaks. The delay is causing some minor (but still palpable) heartburn for the House GOP leadership, which fears that conservative lawmakers — especially the freshmen — will get re-energized back home next week about cutting discretionary spending deeper than the minibus is going to call for. Boehner & Co. still think they can get the bill through (with the help of some Democrats) even if a couple of dozen GOP members spurn it.

The concession some wavering Republicans might yet insist on, though, is that the stopgap spending provision that’s going to be attached to the minibus last for a shorter time than the leadership wants. A CR lasting, say, only until the week after Thanksgiving would give the conservatives another bit of leverage as they work to drive down the grand total for spending. Complicating matters more is that the conservatives also want to use the spending bills as vehicles for deregulatory policy riders — and every one of those will mean fewer and fewer Democratic votes.

THE LATEST ON CAIN: Rick Perry adviser Curt Anderson, who was an aide to Herman Cain’s senatorial bid in Georgia seven years ago, emphatically and unequivocally denied today that he had anything to do with the leak of the sexual harassment charges that have effectively destroyed Cain’s surprisingly popular presidential candidacy. On CNN, Anderson said he and Cain never discussed the allegations brought by at least three National Restaurant Association workers — and so he knew nothing about the matter before the public learned about it four days ago. The candidate yesterday said the opposite as part of his effort to find a new place to point the blame for his political downfall. He renewed his allegations that the Perry campaign was behind an effort to discredit his candidacy in an interview with Ginni Thomas (the Supreme Court justice’s wife) published today on The Daily Caller website. “That is the D.C. culture: Guilty until proven innocent,” Cain said. Perry, himself, denied that he and his campaign were involved in any way.

INJURY REPORT: Don’t be too alarmed if you see Jon Runyon getting around the House in a motorized wheelchair today. The freshman Republican from New Jersey (and former Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman) got hurt in last night’s charity football game between lawmakers and the Capitol Police. But his office says it’s only a minor “re-aggravation” of an ailment from his NFL days — either in a foot or a heel — and that the congressman (who looks to have shed some serious pounds to get in shape for the game) was headed to a doctor between votes this afternoon to get it checked out.

SOLYNDRA PROBE: The House Energy and Commerce’s Oversight panel voted 14-9 along party lines this morning to issue subpoenas for internal White House documents shedding light on administration actions on behalf of Solyndra, the politically connected California solar panel maker that received a $528 million federal loan even as it veered toward last year’s bankruptcy. The formal document demand comes after the subcommittee’s chairman, Florida Republican Cliff Stearns, was unable to reach a deal for a quicker, voluntary turnover of thousands of pages in a meeting last night with White House lawyer Kathryn Ruemmler. But the Energy Department has provided 80,000 pages of documents, including 1,200 pages of communications with the White House turned over this week.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) The total that’s gone missing from the campaign coffers of congressional Democrats in California now tops $5.2 million — making the alleged embezzlement the largest ever suspected to have been perpetrated by a political operative. The biggest victim, by far, is Dianne Feinstein, whose Senate re-election campaign has now lowered its cash on hand estimate by $4.6 million — leaving only $500,000 in the bank. The other alleged major victims are House members Linda Sanchez ($322,000 missing), Susan Davis ($160,000) and Loretta Sanchez ($125,000). Veteran campaign bookkeeper Kinde Durkee was arrested in September on suspicion she had siphoned $677,000 from the account of a state Assembly candidate. Now, investigators are looking into as many as 400 client accounts.

(2) If supercommittee member Fred Upton ends up signing on to a tax-raising deficit plan, he’s sure to face a spirited Republican primary in southwestern Michigan next August. And he may get that challenge even if the powerful panel disbands without a deal. The Club for Growth does not seem to buy the notion that Upton  has really given up his moderate stripes after a quarter-century in Congress and seen the light on the right — and is looking seriously at recruiting a former state legislator, Jack Hoogendyk, to make the race again. (He took 43 percent in their 2010 primary.) Conservatives remain really suspicious that the congressman embraced his  new ideological posture only so he could claim the Energy and Commerce gavel this year.

(3) Ben Nelson is sending word that he won’t decide on seeking a third Senate term until he goes home to Nebraska for Christmas and gauges whether his family really wants him to run again at age 71 — and spends time by himself, thinking about whether a centrist Democrat like him has a chance to be effective in Washington during the next six years. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has already invested nearly $1 million in radio and TV ads to prop up Nelson’s sagging popularity and the senator himself has $3 million in the bank. If he doesn’t spend it, Republican state Attorney General Jon Bruning can probably start looking for a Capitol Hill apartment to rent starting in January 2013.

(4) The DSCC yesterday launched another early ad buy — this one in Nevada, where the campaign group has produced a radio spot in Spanish accusing appointed Sen. Dean Heller of insulting or ignoring the state’s pivotal Hispanic voting bloc — most recently by scrapping plans to meet with the Latin Chamber of Commerce. Meanwhile, Dina Titus has decided to run for the House seat being left open by Shelley Berkley (Heller’s recruited challenger) instead of trying to win a grudge match against Joe Heck, who ousted her from her suburban Las Vegas seat after a single term last year.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “The system hasn’t been cleaned up at all,” Jack Abramoff says in his first interview since finishing his sentence last year for lobbying corruption, which CBS will broadcast Sunday on “60 Minutes.” “You can’t take a congressman to lunch for $25 and buy him a hamburger or steak ... but you can take him to a fundraising lunch and not only buy him that steak, but give him $25,000 extra and call it a fundraiser ... same access ... same interaction with that congressman ... So the people who make the reforms are the people in the system.”

Abramoff says that, at the height of his influence in the 1990s, he had sway in 100 House offices. “I would view that as a failure, because that leaves 335 offices that we didn’t have strong influence in.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Retiring-after-10-terms Lynn Woolsey of California (74), fellow House Democrat (but now Senate candidate) Mazie Hirono of Hawaii (64), and fellow freshman Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, a Republican (33).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Wednesday, November 02, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Big Middle Men

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: “Construction workers have been among the Americans hit hardest over the past few years, and that makes no sense when there’s so much of America that needs rebuilding,” Obama said in remarks at the new Georgetown Waterfront Park, in the shadow of the Key Bridge (D.C.’s oldest surviving span across the Potomac, finished in 1923), in pressing the Senate to pass the public works plank of his jobs bill. There’s still no way that’s going to happen — a message that will be delivered by the Democratic leadership when they arrive at the Oval Office for a presidential audience at 4:15.

Air Force One takes off at 7 for France, where the prospect of a Greek referendum on an economic rescue plan for the euro zone is sure to dominate the G-20 summit in Cannes.

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and is waiting for word on when senators will vote to scuttle the transportation jobs bill. The latest time would be tomorrow morning. McConnell is pressing for an arrangement that would allow him to offer an alternative — probably the long-term rewrite of highway and mass transit policy that the Environment and Public Works Committee produced last month.

THE HOUSE: Convenes for legislating at noon and will be done for the day by 3:30, after passing a pair of bills that would make it easier and less expensive for small businesses to raise capital in the securities markets.

Boehner, Reid, Pelosi and McConnell are in the Capitol Visitor Center’s Emancipation Hall now, awarding Congressional Gold Medals to the surviving “Nisei” (second-generation Japanese-Americans) who escaped internment and ignored crushing discrimination during World War II to serve in the three main military units open to them: the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service.

TIPPING POINT? One hundred House members, about evenly split between the parties and including Hoyer among the Democrats, are pledging in writing today to support a package that both raises taxes and curbs entitlements in order to cut at least $4 trillion from projected deficits in the coming decade. The effort means either the momentum for such a grand bargain is building among the rank and file — or it has reached its bipartisan high-water mark less than halfway toward the 218-vote threshold needed to assure House passage.

The roster of lawmakers will be unveiled this afternoon, but these 18 are among the signatories on the document, which two prominent centrists, Blue Dog Democrat Heath Shuler and Tuesday Group Republican Mike Simpson, have been circulating for several weeks: Republicans Steve LaTourette, Cynthia Lummis, Tom Rooney, Paul Gosar, Reid Ribble, Jo Ann Emerson, Tom Petri and Charlie Dent, and Democrats Emanuel Cleaver, Peter Welch, Jim Himes, Mel Watt, Terri Sewell, Jim Cooper, Henry Cuellar and Allyson Schwartz.

If Shuler and Simpson say they haven’t given up looking for signatories because they’re confident more are out there, that should give the supercommittee and the leadership some resolve (meaning a decent measure of political cover) to keep pushing right to the Thanksgiving deadline for a deal that goes significantly beyond the 12-member-panel’s $1.2 trillion minimum target.

And pumping up optimism for a deal is word out this morning that the two of the principals from this summer’s Biden summit — the vice president and Cantor, who famously walked out when the tax talk got too serious — are having dinner tonight, with  only their wives at the table, at the VP’s Naval Observatory mansion. The couples will have at least one substantive conversation starter at the ready once all the pleasantries about Ashley Biden’s engagement are out of the way: the back-of-the-envelope, $2.6 trillion-or-so outline Erskine Bowles came up with at yesterday’s supercommittee hearing, which would split the differences between the opening Democratic and Republican bids. He proposed raising $900 billion in new revenue, cutting $600 billion from Medicare and Medicaid, reaping another $200 billion by switching to the “chained” method for calculating cost-of-living increases in entitlements — and claiming $400 billion in lower interest payments because of the other cuts. Put that all together with a $700 billion savings claim for ending the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and the deal starts to look relatively significant.

IT’S NOT OVER: The Herman Cain presidential bid continues inexorably toward the precipice of free fall today. The timing of the end essentially rests with the National Restaurant Association, which will sooner or later feel compelled to do the politically smart thing and release both women who have accused Cain of inappropriate sexual behavior from the gag-order clauses in their 12-year-old settlements (sorry, “agreements”). Then, whether they are getting cold feet or not about taking center stage in a Washington scandal, all the intimate details of their stories are surely going to become public within hours — and not just whether the long-confidential deal delivered at least one of them a couple of months’ salary (as the candidate says) or a whole year’s worth.

Cain himself offered no new variations on his shifting story during a speech this morning to the Consumer Electronics Association. He’s likely to be pressed hard by House Republicans — many of whom have much more experience with the basics of campaign management and media relations — when he comes to Capitol Hill for a meet-and-greet this afternoon. But he apparently got something of a free pass last night when he had dinner at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse downtown with 10 GOP senators, none of whom has yet endorsed him. (The group consisted of Bob Corker, John Hoeven, Saxby Chambliss, Jim Risch, Lamar Alexander, Rob Portman,  Kelly Ayotte, Richard Burr, Lindsey Graham and Ron Johnson.)

A Quinnipiac poll conducted Oct. 25-31 — i.e. mostly before the first reports of the sexual harassment case — shows the former restaurant lobby chief with 30 percent support among likely Republican priary voters — statistically out front of Mitt Romney, who was at 23 percent. (Newt Gingrich, who may yet get his turn in the spotlight as the favored conservative alternative to Romney, was at 10 percent and Rick Perry was at 8 percent.) The poll also showed a 6-percentage-point uptick during the last month in Obama’s approval rating — to 47 percent — and had him leading Romney by five points and Cain by 10.

GETTING TOGETHER: Reid has declared Minibus No. 1 such a success that he plans on moving to Bus No. 2 by tomorrow, as soon as the vote to keep the transportation jobs package off the floor is out of the way. And by then, House and Senate negotiators could be well into their deliberations on the final shape of the Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Transportation, HUD, NASA and NSF package. The deal — with the addition of another CR to fund the rest of the government from Nov. 19 deep into December — may well be done by Friday. Look for the $128 billion grand total of the Senate package to get trimmed by only a billion dollars or so, if at all, because House GOP leaders have concluded they can muscle a measure of that size through without much opposition from the most conservative budget hawks.

ARIZONA HEAT: The redistricting of Arizona is in turmoil today. The Republican state Senate did Gov. Jan Brewer’s bidding last night and ousted the chairwoman of the five-person citizens’ commission that was supposed to redraw the state’s political boundaries in a nonpartisan way for the first time. The move has seemingly limited legal validity (the law says panel members can only be removed for “substantial neglect of duty, gross misconduct in office or inability to discharge the duties of office”), but it could take months to reverse in the courts. The chairwoman, Colleen Mathis, is the only registered independent on the five-member panel. Brewer, predictably, complains that Mathis is improperly favoring the Democrats in the maps drafted so far.

UNEXPECTED COORDINATION: It looks as though the Senate Democrats have caved to the House Republicans on one all-important matter: the congressional calendar for 2012.

The timetable that Durbin put out yesterday defies predictions and sticks very closely to the plans for next year that Cantor announced last week. The suddenly synchronized schedules (more or less) are in no way revelatory of some huge breakthrough in the centuries-old mutual disdain that the people in the north side of the Capitol hold for the people on the south side, and vice versa. Instead, it’s a tacit acknowledgment that this year’s uncoordinated House and Senate schedules created far too many logistical problems.

At least through Labor Day, the two chambers will have disjointed schedules only three times. The Senate will start its year on Monday, Jan. 23, a week after the House — a clear sign that the State of the Union will be arranged for Jan. 24. The House is taking weeks off in March and June when the Senate is not. And the Senate will be in recess the week beginning on Memorial Day (May 28), while the House will be out the week before. But the lights will be dimmed in both chambers for Presidents Day week (Feb. 20), the two weeks bracketing Passover and Easter (April 2 and 9), Independence Day week (July 2) and the five weeks starting Aug. 6. The Senate has not said anything about its timetable for the fall, but since the House is already planning a lame duck, there’s no doubt senators will be in town in November and December, as well.

Beyond their functions of setting the legislative pace for the year and determining when incumbents will get back home to campaign, the calendars have enormous influence over many aspects of the regional economy: They determine when PACs can arrange fundraisers, when trade associations can set their D.C. “fly-ins” or convention dates, when corporations and their advocates buy the bulk of their advertising in the congressional trade papers — and when thousands of Washingtonians, from cab drivers to legislative aides, can plan their vacations.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No current lawmakers, but top-tier D.C. players from the past: Pat Buchanan (73), the commentator and insurgent 1992 GOP presidential candidate, and Ron Mazzoli (79), a Kentucky Democrat in the House and a player on immigration policy from 1971 through 1994.

— David Hawkings, editor

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Tuesday, November 01, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Four, Seasoned

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and is voting now on the final five amendments — all by conservative Republicans — to the $128 billion “minibus” appropriations bill. Passage of the measure will occur within the hour, in time for the weekly caucus lunches. Starting at 4:45, Panetta, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey and other administration officials will conduct a 90-minute, closed-door briefing for all senators on the situations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at noon and will begin debating three bills after 2, with votes after 6:30. The most symbolic (but politically potent) would urge more public buildings to have “In God We Trust” — the official government motto since 1956 — inscribed on their walls. The most substantive is a measure already passed by the Senate that would compel the Peace Corps to give its overseas volunteers training for preventing and responding to sexual assault.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama and Biden are meeting in the Oval Office at 3:15 with Reid, Pelosi and other top Democratic congressional leaders — with the next round in the deficit reduction wars presumably the top topic.

Right now, the president is in the middle of a whirlwind round of interviews in the Cabinet Room with TV anchors from Tampa, Houston, Omaha, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Denver, Phoenix, Portland, Portsmouth, Va., and Manchester, N.H. He has a photo op with the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis at 12:20, and at 1:45 he’s using his executive power to designate Fort Monroe as a national monument. (The 188-year-old fort, at the once-strategically-crucial mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, was ordered shuttered in the 2005 base-closing round, and the last soldiers moved out in September.)

STILL TALKING: This afternoon is the last, best opportunity for a quartet of the most serious and respected fiscal-policy-expert politicians of the last 30 years to make their case for a grand budget bargain — one that both raises taxes and curbs entitlements in order to reduce projected deficits by at least $4 billion in the next decade.

If anything’s going to give the supercommittee the political cover it needs to overcome the long odds and agree on such a package, it will be the well-covered and impassioned testimony it hears from Republicans Alan Simpson and Pete Domenici, and Democrats Erskine Bowles and Alice Rivlin. The four could not be more clear-eyed and emphatic in arguing that a deal that only meets the panel’s $1.2 trillion target — let alone another budgetary impasse at Thanksgiving — will set the nation on course toward a red-ink catastrophe that will arrive sooner than politicians want the public to realize.  (The hearing may be the last public meeting of the Big 12, each of whom has set aside almost all other congressional business — other than fundraising, of course — for the final three weeks before the Thanksgiving-eve deadline.)

The odds for a big deal improved a little bit last night because of a speech by Boehner in Louisville, with the Senate GOP leader by his side. “This is personal for me, and I know it is for Sen. McConnell as well,” he said. “I want these things to happen. I didn’t take this job to preside over a partisan screaming match.”

The Speaker predicted the panel will “find common ground” on a deal that Congress will endorse and that will preserve the ideological "principles" of both parties — forecasting that the supercommittee effort will produce results as historic as the 1996 welfare overhaul brokered between a Republican Congress and a Democratic president. Boehner praised both co-chairmen, Jeb Hensarling and Patty Murray, for their “commitment to finding solutions — finding those ‘areas of overlap’ between the parties, and getting them done.”

He also said that “nothing, nothing, would send a more reassuring message to the markets than taking bipartisan steps to fix the structural problems in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security” — a remark that dovetails cleanly with reports that the supercommittee is actively debating money-saving options for the retirement program.

RODHAM MATRIARCH: Dorothy Rodham, the secretary of State’s mother, died early this morning at age 92. Clinton learned that her mother was gravely ill last night and — with only a few hours to go before her scheduled departure — canceled a trip to London and Istanbul, first for an international conferences on cyber security and then for a meeting about improving security and economic development in Afghanistan. “Her story was a quintessentially American one, largely because she wrote it herself,” the family said in a statement released by the William J. Clinton Foundation. "She overcame abandonment and hardship as a young girl to become the remarkable woman she was — a warm, generous and strong woman; an intellectual; a woman who told a great joke and always got the joke.”

LEARNING CURVE: Herman Cain’s presidential campaign isn’t in total implosion mode today,  but only because a sufficient number of conservatives are reflexively rallying around him — if for no other reason that they have just started getting used to him as their only potentially viable default alternative to Mitt Romney. But, the more his welter of contradictory and conflicting statements is shown on TV, the more clear it becomes that first-time-candidate Cain has not learned this first rule of politics: The things you have done in the past are rarely as bad as trying to cover up or deny the things you have done in the past.

To review, very quickly, Cain first put campaign guru Mark Block on MSNBC yesterday morning to say the candidate was “not personally aware of any settlement” paid by the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s to make complaints by two women go away. Then Cain went to the National Press Club and on Fox, and said, “If the restaurant association did a settlement, I wasn’t even aware of it, and I hope it wasn’t for much.” And then he went back on the air again, telling Fox, “Yes, there was some sort of settlement or termination,” and PBS that he was “aware that an agreement was reached” — and even offering an awkwardly candid recollection of one untoward encounter.

What’s absolutely true is that Cain’s quick rise will turn into a total collapse if all the whispering turns out to be true and there is another sexual harassment shoe that’s about to drop.

NEW STATUE: A waving, smiling, nine-foot, 900-pound bronze likeness of the 40th president is being unveiled today outside the original (Terminal A) building at Reagan National Airport. The sculptor is Chas Fagan of North Carolina, who also crafted the full-sized bronze Reagan in the Capitol Rotunda.

NEXT UP: The second three-bill minibus to come before the Senate — the debate will probably get started tomorrow — will prove much more contentious than the legislation set to pass in a few minutes. It will combine the measures that determine the budgets for foreign aid and the State Department; the Energy Department and the Army Corps of Engineers; and the Treasury and a hodgepodge of domestic agencies including the FCC, the GSA, the OPM, the SBA and the SEC.

The Energy-Water portion has broad bipartisan support, because it brings visible federal benefits to so many corners of the country, and so it’s being used as the sweetener that helps lawmakers swallow the more politically bitter spending levels and policy provisions in the other two bills. But the Senate isn’t likely to endorse the package without first acting on another wave of amendments by Republicans eager to poke at the Obama policies and spending priories that the Democratic-majority Senate is seeking to advance. Look for GOP efforts to cut aid to Pakistan, skip out on U.N. dues, limit the reach of the financial regulatory overhaul and prevent the IRS from collecting revenue needed to carry out the 2010 health care overhaul.

If and when the second minibus drives through the Senate, that would leave five spending bills unpassed. Reid’s likely next step would be to package the Homeland Security bill (sweet) with the measures for the legislative branch and the Interior and EPA (sour), then save for last a package combining a bill that’s savory for both parties (Defense) with one that both parties view as unsavory (Labor-HHS-Education) — because Republicans say it spends too much and Democrats say it spends too little. House and Senate appropriators are nearing agreement on a $518 billion Pentagon compromise bill that would meet the target of the August debt limit deal — meaning $5 billion more than Senate appropriators endorsed but $12.5 billion less than what the House passed this summer.

OBAMA’S HEALTH: “Cool” with several different connotations — alternately unflappable, hip and aloof — is an adjective that’s attached to the president as often as any other. Now comes word from Obama’s doctor that the patient in chief is quite literally cool. His body temperature was 97.7 during his annual physical last week, highlights from which were released last evening. “The president is in excellent health and ‘fit for duty,’” Dr. Jeffrey Kuhlman said in his summary. “All clinical data indicate he will remain so for the duration of his presidency.” The report described Obama as “tobacco free,” physically active (blood pressure 107 over 71), eating a healthy diet, drinking alcohol occasionally and moderately and keeping at a healthy weight (181). He’s also lowered his cholesterol level from borderline unhealthy to ideal since his last checkup 20 months ago.

FCC PICKS: The two former Senate aides formally nominated for the FCC last night should have no trouble winning confirmation, virtually assuring the telecom regulatory agency will be at full strength by January. Jessica Rosenworcel is a top adviser to Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller, who will conduct the confirmation hearings and has been pushing her candidacy for the commission for months. (She previously worked at the FCC and would replace her boss there, Michael Copps, when his term expires next month.) Ajit Varadaraj Pai became a partner at Jenner & Block this spring after a long tenure on the FCC staff and a stint as a Senate Judiciary staff counsel.

2012 DEBATE SCHEDULE: The first presidential debate will be Oct. 3 at the University of Denver. The nominees will face off again, in a town hall format, on Oct. 16 at Hofstra University on Long Island. (The final Obama-McCain faceoff of 2008 was there as well.) The final debate will be 16 days before the election — on Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton. The vice presidential debate is set for Oct. 11 at Centre College in Danville, Ky. If something goes wrong at any of those venues, the backup site is Washington University in St. Louis. The Commission on Presidential Debates, which put out the timetable yesterday, said details on the formats and the names of the moderators won’t be named until next year — presumably with intense input (and de facto veto power) from the two candidates.

KIMMEL PICKED: Another can’t-miss date of the 2012 political season was announced this morning; The 98th annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner will be Saturday, April 28. The headliner will be ABC late night host Jimmy Kimmel.

QUOTE OF NOTE: From the House GOP’s daily whip notice today: “Good morning. It has been 916 days since the Senate passed a budget. Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries could have married and filed for divorce over 12 times in that same span of time.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: California Republican Darrell Issa (58) — the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and one of the richest members of a Congress that’s collectively 25 percent richer than the Congress of 2008.

— David Hawkings, editor

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Monday, October 31, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Cain's Total Denial

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, October 31, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is ordering the FDA to take new steps to prevent and reduce shortages of cancer medicines, anesthetics, emergency-room supplies and other drugs that have recently been in short supply. He’s signing an executive order to that effect within the hour, the latest move in his effort to advance his priorities without any input from Congress. But the president is going to endorse legislation requiring drug makers to notify the FDA six months ahead of a potential shortage.

Obama spent more than an hour in the Oval Office this morning with Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who’s now leading a balky effort to broker Middle East peace.

THE SENATE: Convenes at 3 with no business beyond a 5:30 vote to confirm Stephen Higginson, who runs the appeals office for the U.S. attorney’s office in New Orleans and teaches full time at Loyola Law School, for a seat on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals

THE HOUSE: Convenes at 1 for a brief pro forma session.

TAKING ARROWS: Herman Cain this morning emphatically denied reports to that he made unwelcome, inappropriate overtures to at least two women on the National Restaurant Association staff while he was CEO in the 1990s — and said he was not aware if the powerful Washington trade group paid the women a cash settlement to ward off a lawsuit.

“I have never sexually harassed anyone,” he said on Fox News a few minutes ago. “I was falsely accused.”

The report, in Politico last night, came as the surging Republican presidential front-runner was in Washington for several events designed to temper his outsider image with some insider moves — but threatened to turn into a media feeding frenzy that could upend his current standing in the GOP polls. At a forum at the conservative American Enterprise Institute this morning, he refused to discuss anything but fiscal policy, although he promised to “take all of the arrows later” at a National Press Club speech this afternoon.

On Fox News, he asserted that he was not part of any decision at the restaurant association to make five-figure payments to two women in return for their leaving the trade group and promising not to say why. According to documents obtained by Politico, the women (who were not named) complained that Cain made sexually suggestive questions, comments and gestures that made them uncomfortable.

Cain and his aides have emphasized a “let Herman be Herman” approach to the new level of national scrutiny that has accompanied the former Godfather’s Pizza boss because of his burst of momentum in the race for the nomination. The latest good news for him came this weekend — a new poll by the Des Moines Register showed him in a statistical tie for first in the state, with 23 percent support to 22 percent for Mitt Romney with nine weeks to go before the state’s caucuses. (The poll had Rick Perry at 7 percent among likely caucus-goers, trailing Rep. Ron Paul of Texas at 12 percent. Michele Bachmann, who has staked her candidacy on winning her native Iowa, was at 8 percent.)

D.C. SCANDAL: House Oversight and Government Reform said today that — while it found evidence corroborating Sulaimon Brown’s claims that his campaign for D.C. mayor last year got money linked to a senior campaign operative for Vince Gray – it could not substantiate Brown’s claims that he had been promised a D.C. government job in return for acting as a Gray stalking horse. The panel also said it had no evidence that Gray knew about or approved payments by his campaign to Brown’s campaign. Chairman Darrell Issa said he was ending the committee’s seven-month inquiry into the matter – one of several that have severely hampered Gray’s political effectiveness during his first 11 months as mayor of the capital.

BIG DOGS BARKING: With 23 days to the next big deadline for a deficit deal, look for the top four Capitol Hill leaders to get much more overtly involved this week in the search for a deal that could get through Congress with bipartisan support — and narrow the next decade’s yawning budget gap by substantially more than the $1.2 trillion supercommittee minimum. That’s because the continuing partisan impasse over taxes has kept the all-powerful 12 from getting close at all to an agreement — despite about two dozen gatherings for private negotiating sessions, social dinners and public hearings.

With the lights on in both chambers for the first time in three weeks, Boehner and McConnell have the opportunity to do some coordinated temperature-taking about the willingness of rank-and-file Republicans to accept some measure of additional revenue (whether tied to expected economic growth or not) as the price of a deal that makes a big dent in the deficit, eases economic anxiety and restores at least some confidence in Washington. If they conclude that close to half of GOP House members and senators are willing to make that trade-off, a grand bargain may yet be achievable — and they will give Jeb Hensarling and Jon Kyl the green light to work out the details.

Similarly, Reid and Pelosi will be doing some gentle whip-cracking of their own — to make sure that not too many in their ranks are rebelling against the big concessions to party principles embodied in last week’s opening Democratic bid at the supercommitee: $500 billion in Medicaid and Medicare reductions and trims to discretionary spending beyond what’s already in store — assuming that those cuts are paired with a decent-sized tax increase. (The liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says the Democrats’ plan “actually stands well to the right of plans” offered by the Bowles-Simpson and Rivlin-Domenici commissions and is the best the GOP should be allowed to hope for in a negotiated settlement.)

The White House, meanwhile, shows less and less interest in the supercommittee process by the day. Officials there are concluding there’s so little chance for a deal that there’s no percentage in the president putting any of his dwindling political capital on the line — especially while he’s getting some mileage (and an uptick in his approval ratings) out of his  “We can’t wait” campaign to show he can govern at the margins without any help from the do-little Congress.

As has been the case since the supercommitee was created in August, its best chance for overcoming the long odds for success lies in lawmakers’ concluding that the alternative would be worse: indiscriminate across-the-board cuts to domestic and defense programs that make Republicans and Democrats cringe with nearly equal anxiety.

A LITTLE GET-TOGETHER: The most tangible budget news of the week won’t be the Senate’s passage of only its second spending bill for the fiscal year that started a month ago. A solid bipartisan vote for that domestic spending “minibus” — $128 billion for the Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Transportation and HUD departments as well as the FDA and the National Science Foundation — is on course for no later than Wednesday. But the real news will be that, after that, House and Senate appropriators plan on convening their first actual conference committee in two years — and that those lawmakers actually have been authorized by their leaders to come up with a genuine compromise agreement.

The big question for the negotiators is whether to turn what’s currently a three-spending-bill amalgam into a package including five or six bills. They will do so only if appropriators are confident they can push whatever bill they come up with through the House — where a coalition of conservative Republicans (who lament the bills would spend too much) and liberal Democrats (who lament the opposite) appear to have the combined muscle to stop any spending legislation for now.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Fourth-term Democrat John Barrow (56), who faces a decidedly more Republican constituency thanks to Georgia’s redistricting.

— David Hawkings, editor

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