Friday, November 18, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Never Never Land

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, November 18, 2011

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and will be gone for the Thanksgiving recess no later than 1:30, after rejecting a proposed constitutional amendment to mandate balanced federal budgets. The amendment — a bedrock ambition of Republican conservatives for decades — will fall at least 40 votes short of the two-thirds majority required, because no more than 20 Democrats will support it.

THE SENATE: Convened at 9 for a few hours of marking time on the defense authorization bill. The bill’s sponsors say they want to pass the measure within a couple of days after the Thanksgiving break by limiting debate to amendments unveiled by the end of today. (The main dispute remains language on detainee policy that has riven Democrats and drawn a presidential veto threat.)

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama’s second day at the East Asia Summit won’t get started for another nine hours, because it’s just before 1 Saturday morning in Indonesia. (At the opening banquet last night, the leaders of the 18 participating nations all wore coordinating batik shirts — Obama’s was green — suggesting that the president’s efforts to do away with the matchy-matchy tradition for such photo ops had come up short.)

TICK TICK TICKING: The odds increase by the hour that the supercommittee deadlock is forever.

A highly anticipated meeting last night among the six members at the ideological center of the panel — Senate Republcians Jon Kyl , Rob Portman and Pat Toomey, Senate Democrats Max Baucus and John Kerry, and House Democrat Chris Van Hollen — yielded no hint of a breakthrough. But that core group vowed to plug on through the weekend, even though there’s almost no hope that the committee colleagues on their left and right would go along with anything they might hash out. “We’re interacting in a variety of ways to see if we can get something we can pull together,” Toomey said on CNN this morning. “I think it’s still possible. It’s not going to be easy.”

The impasse is hardening quickly enough that Obama has no incentive to try to broker a deal at the last minute, as the Republicans are urging him to do. He knows that, by the time he gets back from the Pacific Rim tomorrow evening, there won’t be enough time for him to assert himself — and that if he gets into the fray and comes up empty-handed, he would be open to GOP ridicule as ineffectual.

The likeliest outcome at the moment is that, on Monday, both sides will ask for CBO “scores” of their last, best offers, and then on Wednesday the panel will meet and defeat each of those proposals on party-line 6-to-6 votes. That way both parties will at least be able to offer spin over the holiday weekend that they made good-faith stabs at deficit reduction that were wrongly rejected by the other side.

ALL IN: Among other challenges, it has become clear that there’s no viable prospect for a “halfway deal” — one claiming budgetary savings smaller than the trigger-evading $1.2 trillion target, which would at least reduce the size of the automatic spending cuts. Because Republicans won’t agree to any new revenue unless Democrats agree to serious reductions in entitlement programs, that means a package of a few hundred billion would have to rely entirely on spending cuts — and that’s a non-starter for the Democrats.

Beyond that, there seems to be an expanding view, among lawmakers in both parties, that they’d rather have a defining issue next year than a bipartisan bill today. (That was evident when 72 Republicans — or 30 percent of the House caucus — signed a letter yesterday saying they won’t vote for any tax hikes or new revenue under any circumstance.) Despite the rhetoric from both Boehner and Pelosi yesterday — both said any deal would be better than spending the next year arguing about the coming sequester — both of their rank and files seem content to look those impending across-the-board cuts in the eye until the lame duck after Election Day 2012. That’s when the voters essentially could  settle the fight, either by re-electing Obama and strengthening the hand of Democrats calling for a “balanced approach” of both tax hikes and spending cuts, or by electing a Republican president and more GOP lawmakers bent on retaining the Bush tax cuts and cutting Medicare and Medicaid.

When Congress returns from Thanksgiving, if there’s no grand budget bargain, then there will be plenty of issues that can’t wait even until the new year — from unemployment insurance and payroll taxes to the financial future of the Postal Service.

SELLING A BILL: The “60 Minutes” congressional insider-trading story may have some legislative legs, after all. Today eight senators — Majority Whip Dick Durbin, prominent GOP freshman Marco Rubio and Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand, Jon Tester, Debbie Stabenow, Claire McCaskill, Amy Klobuchar and Dick Blumenthal — are lining up behind legislation to prohibit members of Congress from engaging in insider trading, meaning they would be subjected to internal ethics procedures, SEC fines and federal prosecution if they bought or sold stocks based on knowledge gained from their congressional work or service. Such a prohibition would be extremely tough to enforce, but the political benefits of claiming to forswear the practice could be palpable — and so the bill has every chance of hitching a ride on some sort of must-pass measure by the end of the year. There’s no way, though, that there’s any hope for another provision in the bill, requiring “political intelligence consultants” to register as lobbyists. (They mean you, Newt Gingrich.)

SIGN O’ THE TIMES: Procedural purists will be annoyed, but federal bureaucrats need not worry. This morning Obama sent word from Bali that his aides in Washington should fire up the presidential autopen and affix a facsimile “Barack Obama” to the appropriations “minibus,” which also includes stopgap spending language keeping all government agencies operating for the next four weeks. That means there won’t be any shutdown at midnight tonight, when the current CR lapses.

Since few government offices are open tomorrow, anyway, OMB had said it was willing to wait until early Sunday morning before activating its non-essential-services shutdown procedure — in theory allowing a tarmac singning ceremony when Air Force One arrives at Andrews tomorrow. But the White House said it was happy to repeat the precedent it embraced (to the consternation of a handful of legal scholars and GOP conservatives) in May, when Obama was at a G-8 summit in France and ordered the autopen used to sign a Patriot Act extension that cleared only hours before the law enforcement powers were to lapse.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) With just 46 days until the Iowa caucuses, it now looks like none of the state’s three congressional Republicans will make an endorsement. Steve King, who has represented the state’s western third since 2003, had promised to make an endorsement — and was thought to be leaning toward fellow House conservative Michele Bachmann. But that was when she was surging in the state. This week, with the race a total jumble, he said he doesn’t have “a conviction” that any of the candidates is the best choice. (He got no benefit four years ago from backing Fred Thompson just a month before he finished fourth at the caucuses.)  Sen. Chuck Grassely and Rep. Tom Latham have declared themselves neutral, and are staying that way.

(2) The state Supreme Court last night ordered the reinstatement of Colleen Mathis as chairwoman of Arizona’s Independent Redistricting Commission — effectively rebuking GOP Gov. Jan. Brewer, who had ordered the chairwoman’s ouster three weeks ago after the commission drafted a proposed redistricting map that enraged national and state Republicans.  The court said Brewer’s rationale did not meet the legal test that Mathis had committed “substantial neglect of duty, gross misconduct in office or inability to discharge the duties of office.” Spokesman  Matthew Benson said the governor would consult with legislative leaders to discuss possible options, which he declined to describe. But he said the court’s order potentially left the door open for another removal attempt.

(3) Dick Lugar’s best hope for staying in the Senate may rest on the outcome of a Thanksgiving table conversation in the home of a Fort Wayne car dealer. The Indiana businessman, Bob Thomas, plans to decide then if he’ll spend millions of his own money on a race for the Republican Senate nomination next May. If he does, his candidacy would be based on draining anti-Lugar voters away from state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (whose tea-party-backed campaign has sagged financially in the past few months) — boosting the prospects that Lugar could stay on course for a seventh term by winning even a narrow plurality in a three-way contest. (Thomas spent almost $600,000 of his own money in a GOP primary challenge last year to Mark Souder, who later resigned his House seat in a sex scandal.)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Today, freshman Republican Rep. Tom Reed of New York (40); tomorrow, Senate HELP Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa (72), House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas (64), House Ethics Chairman Jo Bonner of Alabama (52) and House Democrat Gary Ackerman of New York (69).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Give It Up Or Turn It Loose

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10, will begin legislating at noon but won’t be done for the day until late in the evening — after giving its reluctant blessing to the “minibus” appropriations package. (Lawmakers also will start their five hours of debate on whether the Constitution should be amended to require a balanced federal budget.)

The vote in favor of the $181 billion spending bill — which also would maintain spending levels for the rest of the government until Dec. 16 — will be as close as the party whips conclude they can get away with. Several dozen Republicans want to vote “no,” because they think the bill allows too much spending on the five domestic Cabinet departments and several agencies covered and object to the higher limit it would allow for mortgages guaranteed by the FHA. About as many Democrats are unenthusiastic about the bill because they think it would spend too little and deregulate too much.

Secretary Steven Chu is defending the Energy Department’s handling of the Solyndra affair before the Energy and Commerce Committee’s investigations panel.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and is spending all day in the opening round of debate on the annual defense authorization bill. (Its vote to clear the spending bill — and by a much more lopsided result than in the House — probably won’t be until tomorrow, when the current CR lapses at midnight.)

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama has arrived in Bali and has turned in for the night. (It’s almost 1 on Friday morning in Indonesia.) When he wakes up he’ll announce a sale of Boeing 737s and General Electric engines to Lion Air and then have separate meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Philippine President Benigno Aquino and Malaysian Premier Najib Razak. The rest of his day will be spent at the annual East Asian Summit, which no previous president has attended.

NEW HABITS DIE HARD: The visible work of the supercommittee has turned away from deal-drafting and toward name-calling. The shift from legislating to blamespotting looks in every way like the most definitive signal yet that the panel’s impasse is for real and forever. But at the same time, almost all of the panel’s members (and many in the leadership) say they have not given up — and the history of this year’s budget wars is that all the deals have been cut at close to the very last minute. So a weekend of bated breath likely lies ahead — because even if there’s not going to be a deal, no one will admit the process has failed until the last possible deadline has passed.

The latest in the maneuvering came last night, when the Democrats leaked the outlines of an offer their co-chairman, Sen. Patty Murray, had made on Veterans Day to the Republican co-chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling. At first blush, it seemed like a breakthrough — because on the surface it looked as though the two parties were suddenly only $100 billion apart on taxes. (Democrats said their offer was $401 billion in new revenue and $876 billion in spending cuts, with a third of it from health entitlements — and the GOP has had an offer with about $300 billion taxes on the table for a week. But Republicans said the offer was as misleading as it was laughable, because it didn’t really reflect the notion that, beyond the stated tax number, the Democrats were also insisting on generating another $800 billion or so from sunsetting the Bush tax cuts on the rich.

The current consensus view is that there are fast-fading prospects for both of the vaunted fallback options from earlier in the week — a proposal from the supercommittee that’s worth less than its $1.2 trillion target, or a proposal like that combined with legislated instructions for Congress to come up with a tax code overhaul and entitlement cuts early next year.

What the current state of play means is that the across-the-board cuts are likely to be triggered — albeit to take effect more than a year from now, leaving plenty of time for Congress to come up with some way to protect itself from the punishment it promised to live by. But how the two parties would come up with a shared solution to that problem — when they haven’t been able to come up with any other meaningful budgetary discipline — is hard to imagine. Even the enormous lobbying power of the defense contractors, who perhaps have the most to lose in a sequester, would be unlikely to change that dynamic in an election year.

THE SUM OF ALL BILLS: The return to the new normal when it comes to the routine business of governing — delay, discord and then last-minute deal-cutting on an unwieldy package that cobbles together most of the one-year-at-a-time discretionary spending bills — is now a sure thing. Reid’s decision yesterday to set aside the Energy Department and water projects measure means that, about a month from now, Congress will cast a take-it-or-leave it vote on just one more appropriations measure.

The big question now is whether that get-out-of-town vote days before Christmas will do nothing more than extend the spending standoff into the new year — meaning that lawmakers will enact another across-the-board stopgap spending measure of a few weeks or months — or whether it will be an actual omnibus spending package (combining the nine bills that are not a part of the minibus set to clear in the next day) that makes line-by-line spending and policy decisions on thousands of federal programs and dictates  how about $840 billion will be spent in the first nine months of the new year. Norm Dicks and Hal Rogers, the leaders of House Appropriations, are already signaling that it will be a tall order to get a bipartisan, bicameral agreement on the other nine bills in the five weeks they have available. Their best weapon — just as it is in the supercommittee deliberations – is to remind the other players that the alternative to a big deal is worse, because postponing the final decisions on fiscal 2012 beyond the first three months of fiscal 2012 essentially guarantees that the campaign-season appropriations process (for fiscal 2013, which starts a month before Election Day) will be even worse.

MISSING DOGS: There are nowhere close to enough votes for House passage of a balanced-budget constitutional amendment. Even if all 242 Republicans vote for it tomorrow (and a handful will not, for a variety of quirky reasons) that would mean four dozen Democrats would have to go along to reach 290 — the two-thirds majority (if all lawmakers vote) required for changing the Constitution. At best, however, there are only about 25 votes among Democrats for the measure — a reflection of how much more to the left the party caucus has shifted in recent years.

There are only about 24 members left in the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, which only a few years ago was big enough to band together with the GOP to drive the House budget policies. (The last time the House voted on the amendment, in 1995, it won 300 votes — 72 of them from Democrats.) But most of those lawmakers are gone, many of them driven out by members of the tea-party-infused GOP freshman class. And, of those who are left, many have now turned against the amendment because they fear calamity in the current era of polarization and partisanship. Among them are two of the top caucus leaders Hoyer and Clyburn, as well as  Marcy Kaptur, Jim Moran, Rob Andrews and Frank Pallone.

A WEALTH OF MATERIAL: Newt Gingrich’s arrival at the top of the Republican presidential pack is confirmed by the Fox News survey taken Sunday through Thursday and released last night. The poll showed his support at 23 percent (double what it was a month earlier) with Mitt Romney holding steady at a statistically the same 22 percent and Herman Cain sagging 9 points in the month, to 15 percent. (Romney’s steady standing as the front runner without any momentum is reflected in the fact that, while he’s been first or second in every Fox poll since July, his number has not been higher than 26 percent or lower than 20 percent.)

And so the feeding frenzy into Gingrich’s life and work will only intensify. Today, for example, the New York Daily News (which famously lampooned the Speaker as a cartoon crybaby on one 1995 front page) resurrected a 2008 interview in which Gingrich (who at the time had taken more than $1.5 million from Freddie Mac) urged presidential candidate Obama to return whatever contributions he had received from the then-politically-besieged mortgage giant. If this year’s roller-coaster GOP campaign pattern continues, Gingrich has maybe three weeks to either succumb to the scrutiny and be swept aside (the highly likely outcome) or weather everything that he’s said and written in the past three decades and head into the holidays in the campaign co-pilot’s seat.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “The fact is, quitting smoking is hard. Believe me, I know,” Obama says on a video released by the American Cancer Society today to mark its 36th “Great American Smokeout.” He touts the virtues of a 2009 law designed to keep young people from taking up cigarettes, in part by ordering the FDA to issue graphic new warning labels. “Some big tobacco companies are trying to block these labels because they don’t want to be honest about the consequences using their products,” Obama says. “Unfortunately, this isn’t surprising.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Supercommittee tax compromise spearhead Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania (50), fellow senator and no-new-taxes stalwart Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma (77) — and the Republican with the most titular power to bridge their divide, the Speaker of the House (62).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Superunknowns

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10, will begin legislating at noon and will be done for the day by 7. There will be a nearly unanimous vote to clear legislation combining a pair of new tax credits for hiring veterans (a sliver of the Obama jobs package) with the repeal of a 3 percent tax withholding from government contracts (a sliver of the GOP jobs agenda). But the debate will be much more contentious on the first pro-gun bill advanced by the Republicans since they took control this year. It would allow people with concealed weapon permits in their home state the right to carry a concealed gun in other states.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and is debating what seems on the surface like a relatively non-controversial $33 billion spending bill for the Energy Department and the Army Corps of Engineers. (Reid’s effort to combine it with two other fiscal 2012 appropriations measures fell apart yesterday in a welter of objections about its spending totals and language allowing American banks to do business in Cuba.)

Reid signaled that, if the energy and water debate bogs down, he was ready to quickly drop the bill and turn instead to the defense authorization measure updated by Armed Services yesterday. He also issued a vague exhortation for senators and their aides to keep their Thanksgiving week travel plans flexible — especially if anyone makes parliamentary trouble for the military policy bill.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is sound asleep in Canberra, where it’s almost 4 on Thursday morning. He’ll spend his second day in Australia addressing Parliament and traveling to a military base in Darwin. The remote northern coastal town is where 2,500 Marines will be stationed permanently under an agreement the president and Prime Minister Julia Gerard announced yesterday — much to the consternation of the Chinese government, which doesn’t appreciate the U.S. effort to become a military counterweight to China in the Pacific Rim.

BASIC MATH: The sum of today’s supercommittee tea leaves is that there’s just enough hope for a deal left that Reid and Boehner are willing to enter the fray — although maybe only long enough to conclude that the two sides cannot be bridged, and certainly not in the time available. While the formal legislative language has to be done by Monday and the committee doesn’t have to vote until a week from today, a general consensus has emerged that there needs to be a handshake by the day after tomorrow (maybe push-able until Saturday) for the paperwork and the budgetary scorekeeping to get done in time.

Pushed hard by John Kerry — who sees this budget deal as his legacy-maker — Democrats are now willing to drop their revenue number to $800 billion (from $1 trillion) in a final attempt to get to a deal. But in return, they’re going to insist that entitlement curbs over the next decade be held to that new, lower number as well. And the Republicans are showing every sign they’re going to spurn that offer. Not only do they want to extract more from Medicare and Medicaid, but much more importantly, they also are already so far outside their own comfort zone with their stated willingness to go for as much as $300 billion in new revenues.

Co-Chairman Jeb Hensarling signaled as much last night when he said of his side, “We have gone as far as we feel we can go” on taxes. That was an acknowledgment of the reality that — even with Pat Toomey, the small-government advocate turned senator, putting his name atop the tax plan, the leadership would be hard-pressed to corral enough members of the GOP rank and file to push such a deal to enactment.

The flurry of top leadership meetings last night could also be a signal that the supercommittee has revealed that it has essentially abandoned hope of reaching a $1.2 trillion deal, and that the two parties’ members are looking for guidance from the top Hill brass about whether they should walk away altogether — or roll out a bill worth less than that amount (the current best guess is they have agreement on about $600 billion in savings) that largely avoids addressing taxes and entitlements. The supercommittee is allowed to create a proposal that cuts just a few hundred billion dollars — and then the difference between that figure and $1.2 trillion would be the size of the across-the-board defense and civilian spending cuts. And shrinking the size of that sequester would at least be a way to tamp down talk that the self-imposed punishment should be skirted altogether.

DUST IN THE WIND: The Capitol Visitor Center was evacuated for about an hour this morning after an alarm went off. The Capitol Police issued the all-clear after determining that there was no smoke or fire and concluding that construction dust had triggered the sensors.

DEPARTURES AND ARRIVALS: Minibus No. 2 is permanently on blocks, and even the vestige that remains before the Senate — the Energy-Water bill — may be abandoned in the next 24 hours. (Reid really, really wants the bill to pass because it would put the Senate on record against any funding for the nuclear waste storage center under Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, but he may be forced to relent in the face of a wave of GOP amendments designed to stoke the Solyndra controversy.)

What it means: Appropriators will be spending the next month doing what they’ve been fighting against — but what’s been expected of them — all year: Assembling a behemoth appropriations package to handle the great majority of discretionary appropriations for the nine months of fiscal 2012 that remain. The must-pass, and generally bipartisan, Pentagon spending bill will be the vehicle that carries all the other measures.

That scenario assumes enactment by this weekend of Minibus No. 1, the three-bill domestic spending package that also keeps the rest of the government running until Dec. 16. That’s going to happen, but not without some sweating among the House Republican whips, who are now working hard to hold the number of GOP defections to no more than 40. (That number of “no” votes would mean 20 Democrats would have to vote “yes” to assure passage.) Their challenge is being made significantly more difficult now that two prominent conservative groups, the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, have come out against the bill — by putting it on their “key vote” lawmaker-approval scorecards — because in their view it doesn’t cut spending enough (less than 1 percent overall for the programs covered) and would increase the maximum size of home loans that can receive FHA guarantees.

PILED HIGH: So long as Newt Gingrich was languishing in the polls, the other GOP presidential candidates and political reporters were similarly disinclined to wade into his gargantuan paper trail — a nearly limitless trove of provocative and even wacky ideas, outlandish condemnations, over-the-top exhortations and policy position contradictions that date to his arrival in the House 32 years ago, reached an almost unfathomable crescendo during his four years as Speaker in the 1990s and has only abated slightly in the years since.

But the floodgates are opening now that he’s having his turn in the spotlight as the potentially viable conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. This week’s dustup — about whether he was a “historian,” a “strategic adviser” or what every layman would describe as a “lobbyist” (whether he formally registered or not) for Fannie Mae — will not be the only one, and it won’t go away any sooner now that it’s known he was paid as much as $1.8 million for his services, or six times as much as he copped to at a debate last week. For every day that Gingrich lasts in the presidential top tier, there will be another story to write that casts him as either an ideological gadfly (at best) or a flip-flopper (at worst) —and either way, as the sort of deeply burrowed-in Washington insider that GOP voters have made plain they’d just as soon do without.

AMMO MYSTERY: A bullet struck a White House window but was stopped by ballistic glass, the Secret Service said today. The agency said it made the discovery yesterday, and that agents also found a second round of ammunition outside the mansion. But the agency said it had not yet conclusively linked the bullets to the gunfire exchanged between two cars nearby on Friday night, after which an AK-47 was recovered.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “There is lot to say. I will speak better. I want to get back to work. Representing Arizona is my honor. My staff is there to help you. They keep me informed on your behalf. I miss you, I miss home. I will see you real soon,” Gabby Giffords says in a video message released yesterday, the morning after her ABC interview aired. The statement made clear that her default setting is to seek a fourth House term next year.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Another day without any congressional celebrants — and slim pickings, too, among capital power types. The most notable: Ann Dore McLaughlin Korologos, Labor secretary for the final 14 months of the Reagan administration (70).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Appearances Matter

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and at noon will resume debate on legislation to update laws governing the Coast Guard and maritime police, with passage assured before the last vote of the day — which will be no later than 3:30. (The amendment getting the most attention would do what Obama wants and delete language requiring the decommissioning of the Polar Star, the only heavy-duty Coast Guard polar icebreaker that has a chance of operating anytime soon.)

The House also will set the rules for tomorrow’s debate on a measure requiring states that permit the carrying of concealed handguns to recognize conceal-and-carry permits from other states.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10, will vote at noon to confirm two state court judges for promotion to the federal trial bench (Sharon Gleason of Alaska and Yvonne Rogers of California) and — after the weekly caucus lunches — will spend the rest of the day in preliminary debate on the second minibus spending package.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama gets aboard Air Force One at 1:30 — that’s 8:30 Hawaii time — for an 11-hour, 5,200-mile flight to Canberra. (The state visit to Australia was canceled twice last year, first so the president could stay in Washington to lobby for his health care overhaul and then because of the BP oil spill.)

A WEEK TO WATCH: A week from today, we will know if the supercommittee has some sort of deal or not, because the summertime debt limit law gives the panel only until midnight next Monday to turn over actual legislative language for its definitive deficit reduction “score” from the CBO.

Today’s betting line is that the prospects have all but ended for a package that’s much bigger than $1.2 trillion, which is the supercommittee’s sequestration-avoiding 10-year deficit reduction target. The last gasp of talk about a grand bargain probably will be at 2:30 today, when the bipartisan “Group of 45” in the Senate (Saxby Chambliss and Mark Warner, leaders) and the bipartisan “Group of 100” in the House (Steny Hoyer, Heath Shuler and Mike Simpson, leaders) convene a news conference to urge the Big 12 to keep trying for a “big, balanced plan” that includes both revenue increases and entitlement curbs — and exceeds the minimum target by at least several hundred billion dollars, so that Congress might boast to the financial markets and the debt rating firms that it was able to do better than just sit back and accept its self-imposed punishment of across-the-board cuts.

Those pleas likely will be ignored in the back rooms where the super-panel lawmakers are huddling in small groups. Instead, the prospects are growing that at best the committee will come up with a detailed plan for saving no more than about $600 billion by embracing the set of options that have been kicking around the Capitol since the days of the Biden summit this summer — including farm subsidy cuts and a new formula for gauging inflation that helps cut entitlement payments — plus $400 billion from ending the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But then the supercommittee would claim that it has met its goal by assigning the regular congressional committees (Finance and Ways and Means, mainly) to make several hundred billion more in tough choices about taxes and entitlements. There will be ridicule at the notion that the all-powerful panel is punting the tough work back to the people who were thought to be unable of doing tough work, but the idea is nonetheless gaining credibility as the only way of avoiding $1.2 trillion over nine years in cuts evenly split between defense and civilian spending. Neither Obama nor GOP leaders is going to allow that punishment to be avoided — at least until the next election.

NOT THERE YET: The nation’s understanding about how much Gabby Giffords has recovered in the 10 months since she was shot in the head grew by an order of magnitude last night — and the details are undeniably remarkable, as a tale of perseverance and determination worthy of an hour on prime time TV whether she was a congresswoman or not.

But she is a House member, and so the nation (or at least political Washington) was also yearning to better understand her prospects for a future in the public eye. And on that score, nothing. Which seems entirely appropriate, once you look at ABC’s entire report. It makes plain that — while her energy, wit and intellect are bubbling just below the surface — all her physical and occupational and speech therapy has not yet brought her back to the point where she could function fully at the Capitol. The interview at the end offered strong hints that she is now able to consider issues and cast votes, but does not yet have the communication skills or physical endurance to work the cloakrooms, huddle with lobbyists or banter with constituents.

“Better” is the one word she could muster to explain where she needed to be before even deciding whether to seek a fourth term. Fortunately for her, she has six months to reach that milestone; the candidate filing deadline isn’t until Memorial Day, her Tucson-centered district would become a bit more Democratic under Arizona’s tentative redistricting plan — and (unlike so many historically vulnerable incumbents) her party is totally content to keep the 2012 field open for her until she decides.

QUIET DEALS: The penultimate Friday before Christmas is the newest de facto target adjournment date for this session of Congress. That’s because the first minibus conference agreement — finalized and filed overnight — sets that day, Dec. 16, as the expiration point for the year’s newest stopgap continuing resolution to keep the government open and operating. (The package is on course to clear with ease by Friday, when the current CR lapses.)

Beyond that, the big news in the first substantive fiscal 2012 budget bill is that it looks to be at least a brief return to the days of yore: While it essentially freezes the bottom line — the total is $128.1 billion, about the same as last year, in discretionary spending for the five domestic Cabinet departments and agencies covered — the package reflects some genuine bipartisan and bicameral bargaining. For example the food program WIC, a bedrock of Democratic social spending, will get $6.6 billion — almost 10 percent more than House Republicans wanted, and the community police program that Democrats have loved since the Clinton years would survive despite an ardent GOP effort to end it. More would be spent on Amtrak than Republicans wanted, too. But, in return, the GOP was able to hold firm for a one-third cut in spending on the CFTC, just as it was supposed to take on new regulatory powers over Wall Street, as well as language ordering deregulatory moves at several other agencies — including three new limits on federal regulation of firearms.

ONE MORE TIME (BUT DIFFERENTLY): Reid acknowledged this morning that, in a sense, the process for completing the first appropriations bill worked almost too well — because it proved that the actual process of amending legislation out on the Senate floor can work. But now, he said, more amendments are potentially piling up in the hopper than he can possibly schedule time for, as debate gets under way on minibus No. 2 — covering a $128 billion hodgepodge of energy, harbor dredging, foreign aid and domestic policy programs that are usually handled in three separate measures.

“I don’t know how much time we’re going to be able to spend on this,” Reid said, because next week is the Thanksgiving break and after that he has promised to start debate on the defense bill. And after that there will either be a supercommittee plan to debate or — if there’s no deal — several other bills embodying proposals (unemployment insurance, payroll tax holiday, etc.) that were unable to catch a ride on a big budget package.

Complicating matters, for starters, is an effort by Jim DeMint to derail the parliamentary process for combining the three appropriations bills into one. Reid has the 60 votes to beat back that effort, but it could take time. Then, Republicans have a host of ideas up their sleeves — starting with at least three amendments that would prevent the IRS from implementing, enforcing or otherwise administering the medical device and employer mandate taxes that are due to take effect in 2014 (assuming the Supreme Court upholds them next summer).

EYES ON IOWA: Herman Cain (at 20 percent), Ron Paul (19 percent), Mitt Romney (18 percent) and Newt Gingrich (17 percent) are in a statistical dead heat among Iowans likely to attend the first-in-the-nation GOP caucuses seven weeks from today, according to a Bloomberg News poll out this morning. Rick Perry, who is running ads in Iowa, is at 7 percent; Michele Bachmann, who won the Iowa Straw Poll in August, is at 5 percent. Ten percent were undecided, but fully 60 percent of those surveyed said they might move off their current to choice — suggesting a remarkably fluid race so close to the caucuses. (Only a quarter of likely caucus-goers say social or constitutional issues are the most important to them, while seven in 10 cited fiscal concerns.) A nationwide CNN poll, meanwhile, has Gingrich (at 22 percent) running neck-and-neck with Romney (at 24 percent) among Republicans naionwide.

All those numbers make it clear that Gingrich — the newest (and probably final, for real) beneficiary of the “not Mitt” movement within the Republican electorate — could be toppled from his spot among the front runners far more quickly than the time it took for him to climb in to the top tier. (It’s sort of hard to believe it was just six months ago that his Tiffany line of credit, Greek cruise and swipe at the Paul Ryan budget had virtually everyone writing off his candidacy.) But those sideshows from early on may yet get resurrected — or supplanted by the newest imbroglio, which has surfaced only in the last couple of days: When Gingrich said at last week’s debate that he had taken $300,000 to advise Freddie Mac as a “historian,” he wasn’t being very forthcoming. The mortgage giant said at the time (right after his Speakership ended in 1999) that Gingrich was being brought aboard as an adviser on federal legislative and regulatory matters — in other words, a good old fashioned lobbyist.

THE OOPS CREW: Cain’s moment as the Romney alternative clearly has passed — if not because of the four women who have complained about being sexually harassed or groped by him, then certainly because of the painful-to-watch, “I’ve got all this stuff twirling around in my head” inability to answer the absolutely simplest foreign policy question (his attitude toward Libya) during a videotaped Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board meeting yesterday.

And there’s very little chance that Perry will jump-start his candidacy (or get any more congressional endorsements beyond his current 14) with his speech in Iowa today calling for a radical downsizing of the federal government — starting with halving the salaries of members of Congress and ending the rules that bar them (in his words) “from holding real jobs in their home states.” He would also push to set an 18-year term limit on all federal judges, press legislation to automatically sunset federal regulations unless Congress votes to renew them, privatize airport security and – yes – close the Commerce, Education AND Energy departments.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “Protesters have had two months to occupy the park with tents and sleeping bags. Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said this morning, after New York police and sanitation workers finished dismantling the two-month-old Occupy Wall Street encampment before dawn. He said he ordered the move, starting an hour after midnight, out of fear of violence, health hazards and fires — but he said privately owned Zuccotti Park would reopen later in the day.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No sitting lawmakers, but two nationally prominent former members and presidential aspirants: Howard Baker of Tennessee (86), the Senate Republican leader from 1977 through 1984 (he ran for the White House in 1980) and later Reagan’s chief of staff and the younger Bush’s ambassador to Japan; and Bill Richardson of New Mexico (64), a House member from 1983 until 1997 and after that Clinton’s U.N. envoy and Energy secretary, a two-term governor, 2008 White House candidate and briefly Obama’s first choice for Commerce secretary.

Also, my boss, CQ Roll Call Editorial Director Mike Mills (51).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Monday, November 14, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: They'll Take It

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, November 14, 2011

Today In Washington

THE SUPREME COURT: The justices agreed this morning to review the constitutionality of the health care overhaul in time for a ruling in June. They said they will hear five hours of oral arguments — likely in late March — focused on the heart of the 2010 law, a requirement that individuals buy medical insurance starting in 2014 or pay a penalty.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at 2 to debate bills that would name seven post offices, a wildlife refuge in Mississippi and a federal courthouse being built in Florida (for Alto Lee Adams, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court from 1949-51). If any lawmakers object, they can demand a roll call vote after 6:30.

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 for preliminary debate only (no cutting or deregulating amendments from Republicans yet) on the second appropriations minibus for the fiscal year that’s six weeks old: a $129.5 billion package combining what are normally three different spending bills: Energy-Water, Financial Services and State-Foreign Operations.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama’s got only one public event on the third day of his Pacific Rim trip: a fundraiser at 11:15 (Hawaii time) at the Aulani Disney Resort in Kapolei.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS: The Supreme Court’s timetable for considering the health care law gives the justices the power to make their most politically decisive ruling since they effectively decided the 2000 presidential election.

But that’s only if a majority of the court decides it even wants to settle the question of whether the federal government has the power to compel people to buy a product in the commercial marketplace (a health insurance policy) and punish them (with a tax) if they don’t. A ruling, four months before Election Day, that the mandate is constitutional would provide a significant and perfectly timed boost to Obama and congressional Democrats — because it would enshrine for the ages their top shared domestic policy achievement. A ruling that strikes it down would grant the GOP nominee-in-waiting, and congressional Republican candidates, their No. 1 campaign season wish — because it would validate all of their vituperative derisions of “Obamacare” as an unconstitutional overreach.

The main reason the justices would take one side or the other is that the regional federal appeals courts have been split on the core question of whether the mandate is within Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce. (Two have upheld the law, a third has found it unconstitutional and a fourth has ruled it’s too soon to say.) And a main function of the Supreme Court is to make consistent judicial policy when the lower courts disagree. But it’s also true (Bush v. Gore aside) that Roberts and the other conservatives who are the majority on the court have said over and over again that the judicial branch should generally look for ways to stay out of white-hot political disputes — and also should defer, if at all possible, to the will of the elected branches of government when it comes to policy disputes.

And so the easiest way to find five votes between now and June might be for one of those conservatives (the chief justice, Scalia, Thomas, Alito and that big maybe, Kennedy) to shop the view among his colleagues that it’s too soon to decide the constitutional question yet — because the mandate hasn’t actually taken effect and so no one has been “harmed” by having to pay a penalty for not obeying.

ANOTHER WAY OUT: Ten days until the supercommittee’s absolute deadline (counting today) ... six days until the CBO needs to know what it’s scoring if there’s going to be a deal ... and still no glimmer of a bipartisan bargain remotely in sight no matter what co-Chairman Jeb Hensarling says. In fact, Clyburn says his fellow Democrats on the panel are getting more and more itchy to get off the same page, and the Republicans in the group are getting ready for a fusillade of criticism from the rank and file — especially House members returning from a week back home — for their offer to raise $250 billion in new revenue (without actually raising tax rates), which would get one-fifth the way toward the panel’s $1.2 trillion minimum target.

The boomlet today is for the idea that the deal would do nothing more than set reconciliation instructions for a net-revenue-rasing tax overhaul (size not yet determined) to be written next year — and with the same up-or-down-vote/no-filibuster process that’s supposed to help the supercommittee now. It’s the last plausible escape hatch left for the supercommittee to wriggle through, especially because the lawmakers can say their move would be more than kicking the can down the road — it would be facing the reality that rewriting the tax code in a few days would be nearly impossible, because of the prospect that a single misplaced comma could mess things up seriously down the road.

The talk of dismantling the punishment trigger — the across-the-board sequester cutting both military and civilian programs in the absence of a deal — is getting louder again today, mainly because Obama over the weekend made clear that he opposes the idea but pointedly did not use the word “veto” in discussing how he would react to a bill that would disarm the trigger.

TOTALLY SPENT: Negotiators are on course to announce their deal today on the first minibus of fiscal 2012 spending bills — in plenty of time for Congress to clear it by week’s end. The package will provide $128 billion in discretionary appropriations through next September for the Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Transportation and HUD departments as well as NASA, the FDA and the National Science Foundation. It also will have language keeping all the rest of the government on autopilot until the middle of December — meaning there’s really not even the theoretical threat of another government shutdown this week. (The first shutdown resulting from the fabled Gingrich-Clinton budget standoff started 16 years ago today, by the way.)

Two of the more important policy shifts that will be carried by the minibus are restrictions on NASA’s relationships with China and Chinese-owned companies, and an end to restrictions on heavy trucks using the interstate highways in Maine and Vermont.

RIM SHOT: Fresh off his success in winning bipartisan congressional backing for trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Peru, Obama is making headway on another front that could make trade liberalization one of the “who knew?” hallmarks of his presidency. At the APEC summit in Honolulu over the weekend, he won commitments from Japan and Canada to join talks aimed at binding nine Pacific Rim nations to a trade pact in the next year. If it happens, it would be the biggest such deal since NAFTA in 1994 — and would be a significant step toward giving American goods and services a commercial advantage against those from China. (The talks already involve Australia, Chile, Peru and Singapore, all of which already have separate free-trade agreements with the U.S., as well as Malaysia, New Zealand, Vietnam and Brunei.)

ONE-DAY STORY: There won’t be any investigative or poor public relations “legs’’ to last night’s “60 Minutes” report suggesting that Boehner, Pelosi, House Financial Services Chairman Spencer Bachus and other lawmakers made stock-trading profits off of insider information. That’s because what’s being alleged is based on implication only; insider-trading laws don’t apply to members of Congress; the story was bipartisan in nature, and thus one side can’t use it against the other; and, besides all that, the public perception of Congress is already so low that it won’t be driven lower by additional evidence that buttresses existing suspicions that people at the Capitol get preferential treatment.

All that said, the issues raised by CBS (and Peter Schweizer, the conservative Hoover Institution scholar who drove the reporting process for Steve Kroft’s piece) are as ethically complex as they are important. But, in a sense, those issues boil down to this: Since House members and senators have access to non-public information on the full range of American and global economic activity — and have the capacity to shape the futures of almost any business — should their every investment transaction be suspect to suspicion? If the answer is “yes,” but the notion is that lawmakers should have a chance to buy stocks like the rest of us, should they be compelled — if not by law, then by public pressure — to make all of their investments through blind trusts?

QUOTE OF NOTE: “They’re wrong. Waterboarding is torture. It’s contrary to America’s traditions. It’s contrary to our ideals,” Obama said last night during his press conference after the APEC summit, reacting to the support for the practice expressed by Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann at Saturday night’s GOP presidential debate.  “That’s not who we are. That’s not how we operate. We don’t need it in order to prosecute the war on terrorism, and we did the right thing by ending that practice.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No lawmakers today, but four celebrated during the three-day weekend: On Veterans Day, Sen. Barbara Boxer (71), fellow Californian Pete Stark (80), fellow House Democrat Corrine Brown of Florida (65) and freshman House Republican Tim Huelskamp of Kansas (43); on Saturday, Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island (62).

— David Hawkings, editor

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