Friday, December 02, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Look! Something to Spin!

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, December 2, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is at 815 Connecticut Avenue, in the heart of downtown Washington, where the owners have agreed to undertake an energy efficiency renovation under a public-private partnership the president’s announcing at that office building. (Bill Clinton and Chamber of Commerce boss Tom Donohue are by his side.) Obama is pledging to spend $2 billion on green upgrades to federal buildings in the next two years — but it won’t cost taxpayers anything in the end, he says, because of the ultimate savings on utility bills. A group of corporate executives, mayors and university presidents is committing to match the federal investment. The administration says the effort could create 50,000 jobs.

At 2:20 the president will arrive at the Interior Department for his third speech to the annual conference of various administration officials with the leaders of all 565 federally recognized American Indian tribes.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and will be sent home for the weekend within a few minutes, after passing the Republican bill requiring cost-benefit analyses of every possible new federal regulation.

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

NO LONGER NINE: The economy’s job-creation engine produced a few surprises last month, giving everyone something to talk about. And, as usual, the report can be spun to prove whatever political point is most expedient.

The unemployment rate fell to 8.6 percent, the lowest since March 2009. Undoubtedly a figure that will be widely cheered, it reflects both a positive trend and a potentially negative one. The number of Americans who reported that they worked in November rose by 278,000 from a month earlier — but another 315,000 people took themselves out of the labor force. Moreover, there are still 16 million who count themselves either as unemployed, willing to work if a job could be had (but they have stopped looking) or working part-time because they cannot find full-time positions.

Another good news/not-so-good-news pairing is the payroll count. Up by 120,000 last month and revised higher for September and October, the net number of jobs that employers created is undeniably helpful — but probably still not helpful enough. November’s pace of hiring is still not quite sufficient to accommodate all the new entrants into the labor force. In other words, the jobs engine still needs to churn a little faster.

Cantor’s insta-reaction to the Labor Department announcement encapsulated the Republican talking point for the day: “During the holidays, it’s always comforting to see an uptick in seasonal hiring, but far too many people still remain out of work and the economy still faces systemic problems.” The problem with that formulation is that the government accounts for seasonal factors in its calculations — so presumably these were real, permanent positions newly created.

At the same time, it’s hard to be too positive about the ability of the economy to recover and generate increased demand when the labor force is shrinking. As economists like to say, the labor force figures (unlike the payroll count) tend to be very volatile and shouldn’t be looked at too closely month to month, lest the viewer risk getting vertigo.

The bottom line is that the recovery proceeds gradually and fitfully. The implications of an 8.6 percent-jobless-rate headline are a whole lot better than another month where the story is about the rate remaining at 9 percent or above, but there are still millions of folks who cannot afford to buy a car — or maybe even Christmas toys for their kids. That’s what everyone from Obama to Ben Bernanke has warned. It’s going to be a long slog.

JACKSON PROBE: The Ethics Committee announced today that it would continue to investigate whether Jesse Jackson broke House rules when he went after Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s appointment to the Senate seat that came open when Obama became president. The panel also made clear that it was shifting the focus of its inquiry away from the congressman’s own complicated web of fundraising contacts with the governor (who’s now awaiting sentencing for his subsequent corruption conviction) and toward a more seemingly straightforward question: whether his staff at the Capitol and in Chicago lobbied for their boss to become a senator when they should have been doing official business.  Jackson’s lawyers at Steptoe & Johnson issued a statement this morning denying that the congressman improperly pressed his staff into political service.

THE GO-HOME TECHNIQUE: The morning after the Senate’s temporary-for-now standoff on the payroll tax, Boehner went before the House Republican Conference to gauge support for his efforts to work toward a relatively quick deal — not only on the 2 percentage point cut in the Social Security tax (which would cost $120 billion next year), but also on an extension of unemployment benefits into the new year.

Part of his attempt to win over the hard-line, just-say-no conservatives in the room was to offer them the oldest (but often the most tasty) carrot at any congressional leader’s disposal: If they agree to cutting a deal, they maybe can go home for Christmas on time — which now, officially in the House, means two weeks from today. And if they put up resistance, the deal’s going to happen more or less the same way anyway — but it will take another week, until the day before Christmas Eve, to get there. ("It's got to get done," Obama said this morning. "Otherwise, we can all spend Christmas here together.")

The fact that 26 Republicans last night voted against McConnell’s own payroll extension plan — the one that would be offset by cuts to the federal payroll and some minor means-testing of federal benefits to rule out the really rich — means there’s a much stronger sentiment in the GOP ranks than it had appeared for allowing last year’s holiday tax relief to expire over this year’s holidays. Jon Kyl and his crowd have not run out of steam yet in the Senate, and a similar crowd of 60 or more surely exists in the House — which underscores that any year-end payroll and UI package will have to be written in a way that wins over a solid bloc of Democrats.

ALMOST SPENT: The same holds true, it’s long been understood, for any wrapup spending package, from which the GOP conservatives want to cut $20 billion from this summer's enacted-into-law ceiling. But no Democrat is going to go along with that, and most Republicans won’t either — and not, especially, since White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer declared yesterday that Obama would veto such a package even if the result was a partial government shutdown. (The levels for the departments of Labor, Education and HHS are the most contentious; the levels for many of the other eight bills hanging fire are essentially set.)

And so, in the back offices of the Appropriations Committees, the hope is that the budget hawks will back off on their spending-total demand if they are granted a decent number of the deregulatory and socially conservative riders they also want to see in any “megabus” spending package. It’s the same Hail Mary pass that was tried in the days leading to the last near-shutdown, this spring, and it really didn’t work. Democrats won’t allow enough of those riders to satisfy the Republicans this time, either. And so a CR until February — which is when the big debate over the 2013 sequester spending cuts will take place — looks more and more like a sure thing every hour.

CORZINE SUBPOENA: The House Agriculture Committee voted this morning to send Jon Corzine a subpoena demanding his testimony next Thursday on the collapse of MF Global, the commodities brokerage he took over so as to resurrect his career as a Wall Street titan — after his string ran out as an elected politician. (The panel oversees commodities regulation.) But even if the previous governor and senator from New Jersey does come down to Washington, it’s hard to imagine he would be willing to answer many detailed questions, since the firm’s collapse is sure to be the subject of years of litigation. Still, it would be a rare appearance by a former member of Congress who’s on the hot seat for his subsequent business misadventures. Regulators and law enforcement agencies are investigating whether MF Global used money from customers’ accounts — $1 billion or more is missing —  for its own purposes as a risky, enormous and really bad bet on the euro crisis.

WATERS RUN: Carolyn Maloney of Manhattan (including much of Wall Street) says there’s not going to be a widely expected bad-blood-battle between her and the more senior Maxine Waters of Los Angeles for the top Democratic seat on House Financial Services next year, when Barney Frank retires. “I’m not challenging Maxine,” Maloney said flatly yesterday, and she’s called Waters to promise the same thing. Which shows that Maloney may be more politically savvy than her detractors say she is. In the face of the Armageddon that the Congressional Black Caucus promised to wage on behalf of Waters, there was no way Maloney could have gained traction. Instead, her best course was to act magnanimous now, then hang back and quietly hope that sometime next year the Ethics Committee’s tortured investigation — of Waters’ actions on behalf of a bank where her husband was a player — produces results that make it politically impossible for her caucus to elevate the Californian to such a position of power.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Jim DeMint is back in his role of trying to be the tea party’s most powerful senatorial kingmaker. Last night he announced that his political organization, the Senate Conservatives Fund, is endorsing Mark Neumann in the Republican primary for the now-open (because Herb Kohl is leaving) Senate seat in Wisconsin — and DeMint excoriated the establishment alternative, Tommy Thompson, as a has-been RINO “with a record of helping liberals to pass budget-busting policies that take away our freedoms” as both governor and Health and Human Services secretary. DeMint’s backing will offer a credibility boost to Neumann, a millionaire home developer and Gingrich revolutionary in the House who left in 1998 after failing to oust Russ Feingold in his first Senate run. (State House Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald also wants the GOP nod.) If Neumann wins the primary, his fall campaign against Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin would surely be one of the most ideologically polarized Senate races in the nation.

(2) Michelle Bachmann’s fading presidential campaign has finally won its first congressional backer: Trent Franks of Arizona, one of the fiercest defense hawks and cultural conservatives in the House GOP ranks. Mitt Romney is still lapping the field in congressional endorsements; he got his 48th this week, from former and probably future national office candidate John Thune. The other House member in the race, Ron Paul, has three: his son the senator and House members Justin Amash of Michigan and Walter Jones of North Carolina.

(3) It sure looks like the days are numbered before Roscoe Bartlett becomes the first House Republican to announce retirement. Yesterday he cut loose his chief of staff for the last eight years (and friend of three decades), Bud Otis — after word got out that Otis was already demon-dialing to line up endorsements and money for his candidacy as soon as his boss steps out of the way. And a former Bartlett aide, Maryland GOP Chairman Alex Mooney, filed the FEC paperwork this week allowing him to start his own exploratory committee — after having promised he would not run if the 85-year-old incumbent decided to go after an 11th term.  State Sen. Davis Brinkley is also ready to run.  (No matter who wins the April primary, he will face a tough fight in the fall, because the old panhandle seat has now been redrawn to take in parts of the heavily Democratic Montgomery County suburbs of D.C.)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Today the Senate majority leader is recognized all day (72). Tomorrow: Democratic Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas (76) and GOP Rep. Jim Renacci of Ohio (53).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Thursday, December 01, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: (Some) Millionaires Will Pay

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and is on course to pass the defense authorization bill tonight. The clock on debate time runs down to zero sometime this afternoon, and there will likely be a vote-a-rama after that on a sheaf of amendments that received almost no public deliberation.

Two more attempts to alter the bill’s provisions on terrorism suspects are likely to come up short, meaning the measure will go to conference shrouded in a veto-threat cloud. And none of the alterations will change the bill’s bottom lines: $527 billion for the Defense Department budget, $117 billion dedicated to Afghanistan and Iraq and $17.5 billion for the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons programs. All that amounts to 6 percent less than what was spent last year and 4 percent less than Obama asked for.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and this afternoon will pass two more pieces of the Republican agenda for shrinking the government’s reach — over the objections of almost all Democrats. One bill would end the $3 federal tax checkoff that provides some funding ($139 million in 2008) for the presidential candidates and their nominating conventions, and would also close a commission created after the disputed 2000 contest to improve voting procedures. The other measure would revamp the way agencies write new regulations, requiring them to always do a cost-benefit analysis and to periodically review rules already on the books for possible elimination.

Before going home, no later than 6:30, lawmakers also will pass the bill naming a prominent Capitol Visitor Center meeting room for Gabe Zimmerman, the congressional aide killed in the Gabby Giffords assassination attempt.

THE WHITE HOUSE: The president, Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama will be on the Ellipse at 5 for one of the annual first family rituals of the holiday season: the lighting of the National Christmas Tree.

After his daily national security briefing, the only other event on the president’s public schedule was this morning’s World AIDS Day speech at George Washington University, where he said he was redirecting $50 million in spending toward additional domestic treatment. He also challenged state governments, drug companies and private foundations to do more. Obama set another goal of getting antiretroviral drugs to 2 million more people around the world in the next 25 months.

DEAL TIME: The Senate Republican plan for offsetting the cost of extending the payroll tax break for another year may well work, and will surely serve as the opening bid for final negotiations that could get this must-pass item off the year-end congressional agenda pretty quickly.

The proposal would achieve most of the necessary $111 billion in savings by continuing the current pay freeze for federal workers and putting the government workforce on an attrition-based path to shedding about 200,000 jobs. But that’s not what the Republicans are emphasizing in their salesmanship — nor is it the language that will get Democrats to the bargaining table. The provisions that are at the center of both the GOP marketing and the coming dealmaking are those that would curtail Medicare, jobless and food stamp benefits for millionaires. (The Republicans also propose a new checkoff box on Form 1040 that would allow Warren Buffet and the other superrich to voluntarily pay the additional taxes they think they ought to owe.)

Those are mostly symbolic ideas, to be sure, but they are a crystal-clear signal to the Democrats that their populist rhetoric is starting to have an effect, not only on the electorate but also on Republicans worried about their fortunes next fall. The shifting politics make tomorrow’s Senate test vote — which will produce party-line rejection of imposing a millionaire’s surtax to pay for the payroll tax — even less meaningful than it already was. Instead, the package (by Nevada newcomer Dean Heller, who’s in a tough 2012 race for a full term) kicks the door wide open for Obama to get in the game for a while, convene the leadership for a short meeting and cut a deal. (It looks less likely than yesterday, though, that such a deal would go beyond extending the current 4.2 percent for Social Security that’s deducted from paychecks and include a similar reduction in the rate for employers.)

THE REST OF IT: Without too much effort, the president and Boehner and Reid should be able to agree as well to a path for some limited extension of the jobless benefits expiring on New Year’s Eve as well as a status quo retention of the current Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors. All of those things may well be wrapped together in one big bill with almost supercommittee-like, take-it-or-leave-it ground rules for debate. And it would pass with ease if the three top leaders all signed off on it.

The biggest potential obstacle would be if the GOP defense hawks reverse course and launch a last-minute campaign for attaching language that would ease the punch of the military spending sequester. Rumors of that maneuver are abounding, even though the president’s people are now unambiguous in saying he’d veto any such effort. In the end, the triggers will be left untouched until next year, when they will become the principal problem of Budget committee chairmen Paul Ryan and Kent Conrad. Ryan says he’s open to repealing the almost $500 billion in defense sequester — but only if the same level of cuts are imposed elsewhere.

SHORT, NOT LONG: The first week of the wrapup session is going to end without any tangible progress on the short-term budget front. Back-channel staff discussions have put congressional leaders no closer to an agreement for moving a year-end omnibus spending package. The one thing everybody seems to agree on is that a long-term continuing resolution — keeping all the appropriations priorities just as they are for another nine months, until the end of the budget year — is not a viable option. Republicans also think that would limit military spending too much, while Senate Democrats want to push hard for reshuffling domestic spending at the margins. But the time to finish a big omnibus is slipping away fast, even if Congress stays in town until the eve of Christmas Eve. So a CR until February looks to be the default setting.

QUOTES OF NOTE: “NYers can take a joke. But if Sen. John McCain wants to mock parts of America, stick to Arizona,” Chuck Schumer tweeted last night, declining to accept the half-way apology McCain had offered for saying that Long Island “sometimes regrettably” was part of the United States. “I’m sorry there’s at least one of my colleagues that can’t take a joke and so I apologize if I offended him and hope that someday he will have a sense of humor,” McCain said on the floor.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democrat Gary Peters (53), whose bid for a third term will be decided in a May primary in the Detroit area against freshman Hansen Clarke — one of about a dozen member-vs.-member contests brought about by redistricting.

— David Hawkings, editor

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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Stub Hubbub

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is leaving his office at 12:40 for an afternoon pitching the payroll tax break in swing-state Pennsylvania and an evening of fundraising in big-money New York.

After a photo op with a family in Scranton, the president will take the podium at a high school at 2:45 to make his case for extending and expanding the payroll tax holiday. He’s sure to mention a Treasury report, released this morning, with state-by-state estimates of how many taxpayers benefited from this year’s 2 percentage point reduction in the Social Security tax — including 6.7 million Pennsylvanians who are sharing a $4.7 billion  tax cut this year.

After arriving at JFK at 5, Obama will attend three fundraisers: at a private residence where tickets begin at $10,000; at the Gotham Bar and Grill in Greenwich Village ($35,800 a seat) and at the Sheraton Hotel ($1,000). He’ll also attend a reception celebrating the six-month anniversary of New York’s gay marriage law. He’s due back in the family quarters half an hour after midnight.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and is voting to limit debate and restrict amendments to the defense authorization bill. The cloture move puts senators on course to pass the measure Friday. The leaders of Armed Services, Carl Levin and John McCain, are working to limit the range and roster of amendments that will require roll calls in the next three days — but their effort to circumscribe the rest of the debate with a sweeping package deal came up short this morning.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10, will start legislating at noon and will be done for the day around sundown, after voting along party lines to advance the next piece of the Republican deregulatory agenda — legislation that would overrule changes to union election rules proposed by the National Labor Relations Board. (The measure is a dead letter in the Democratic Senate.) Lawmakers will also vote to name one of the biggest meeting rooms in the Capitol Visitor Center in memory of Gabe Zimmerman, the Tucson district aide who was killed in the Gabby Giffords shooting melee.

CHECKS AND BALANCES: As the president heads out to campaign on the issue, another day of maneuvering over the future of the payroll tax has made clear that this year’s break on employee pay stubs will surely be extended through 2012. But there’s only a coin-flip chance, at best, for a new reduction in what businesses put toward their workers’ Social Security benefits.

McConnell essentially sealed the deal yesterday, when he blew past his principal deputy, Jon Kyl, and declared that Republicans would not be trumped by Democrats when it comes to supporting a popular tax break. And at the same time, the White House made it more clear than ever that the president isn’t concerned about the effect his payroll plan would have on the deficit.

What’s looking to happen is that the extension of last year’s nearly one-third cut (from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent) will end up happening relatively easily, and without any offsets, and then the debate in the coming weeks will be over what sort of pay-for might be embraced to theoretically finance the expansion to help employers. (Doing both would cost $265 billion.) Since even the smallest and most symbolic tax hike for millionaires is going to be rejected out of hand — the next test vote proving that will come Friday — the Democrats who favor that approach are essentially stepping aside and telling the Republicans to come up with their own way of paying to help the business community, if they want to. And the Senate GOP leadership is going to reply as soon as this afternoon that, yes, they do want to. Their initial offer looks to be to embrace one or both of the two most frequently adopted offsetting revenue raisers in the GOP arsenal: Selling the rights to use more of the broadcast spectrum to the wireless industry, and raising the fees imposed on people who pass through airports and board commercial flights.

If the Democrats don’t choose to deride those ideas, the payroll tax fight could end sooner than it looked like only yesterday — and maybe even be a springboard into an easy decision by the GOP to acquiesce in an extension of unemployment insurance benefits for the long-term jobless. (Their decision to put off the defense sequester fight until next year — when they’ll try to shift more of the automatic spending cuts to domestic programs — suggests the Republicans may be choosing to ratchet back their fighting instincts for a little while.)

Debates over the tax extenders, and the annual “patches” for the alternative minimum tax and the Medicare doctor payment formula, are still far away from ready-for-prime-time. (The delay, at least, affords more time for those senators with visions of grand bargains in their heads to continue their search for the sort of deficit reduction formula that so readily eluded the supercommittee.)

SENATE’S TURN: Reid has laid out the plans for Senate votes next month on two versions of a balanced-budget amendment. Neither has a shot at getting the required two-thirds to advance in the face of significant Democratic opposition. (Majority Whip Dick Durbin is driving that point home at a Judiciary hearing he arranged for this morning titled “The Perils of Constitutionalizing the Budget Debate.”)

Ben Nelson, Jon Tester, Claire McCaskill and perhaps a few others also running for re-election will back the  proposal by fellow Democrat Mark Udall, which is a bit looser than the one the House rejected this month  because it would keep Social Security receipts and outlays off the budget-balancing ledger. But it would take 20 members of that caucus to join all 47 Republicans to assure adoption, and that’s not remotely close to happening. Beyond that, no Democrats will back the language the Republican leadership plans to put to a vote. It would cap federal spending at 18 percent of GDP and require a two-thirds majority vote to increase taxes.

THE ‘E’ WORD: The votes will also come, curiously enough, just as lawmakers are deciding whether to fish or cut bait on the overdue completion of the new budget year’s appropriations process — in which a subtext of the deliberations over a comprehensive package or another stopgap CR will be the future of dozens of don’t-call-them-earmarks — parochial or otherwise narrowly drawn provisions. A decision to press ahead with the line-by-line omnibus for dictating the $800 billion in spending would bring intense pressure for the Senate, especially, to at least cast a vote for the binding earmark ban legislation being unveiled today by McCaskill and Pat Toomey. It would not pass, but at least then it would afford a veneer of cover for so many of the lawmakers who see every other special project as a bedeviling earmark – except their own.

HINCKLEY HEARINGS: John Hinckley won’t testify on his own behalf during the eight days of hearings that began this morning before federal Judge Paul Friedman, who will decide (probably early next year) whether the man who came within an inch of killing Ronald Reagan is mentally healthy enough to spend most of next year living with his 85-year-old mother.

Hinckley lawyer Barry Levine says his client won’t take the stand unless he’s shielded from cross-examination, and federal prosecutors say they won’t agree to that. So the hearing will be mostly conflicting testimony from teams of psychiatrists. The doctors at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital say Hinckley — a patient since he was found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1982 — is well enough to be discharged for good, assuming all goes well in a supervised series of eight visits of 17 to 24 days each to Jo Ann Hinckley’s home in Williamsburg. Prosecutors maintain that Hinckley, now 56, remains capable of and inclined toward more violent behavior. What’s not legally an issue is whether the would-be presidential assassin should ever be released from federal custody.

‘HUMILIATED, EMBARRASSED’: “The funny thing about Herman Cain is that never in a million years did he probably think I would speak out on this,” Ginger White said today on ABC’s “Good Morning America” in describing her version of their 13-year affair — which she said included regular gifts and money from him (but "not sex for cash”) and even a date to see Mike Tyson fight Evander Holyfield in Las Vegas (not clear if it was the famous ear-biting one).

“I came out being very honest and so far I have been absolutely humiliated, embarrassed,” she said, because of the GOP candidate’s decision to deny their relationship. (Before telling his top team that he was “reassessing” his presidential bid yesterday, Cain described White as a “troubled Atlanta businesswoman” in a letter to supporters that declared “this woman’s story is completely false.”) For her part,  White said she did not think Cain would be a good president but declined to join those thinking he should get out of the race, saying: “That’s something that he has to look himself into the mirror and ask himself.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina (56) and fellow Republican Kristi Noem, a freshman and South Dakota’s only House member (40).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: The New Revenue Revue

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 with the expectation of votes this afternoon (after the caucus lunches) on several amendments to the defense authorization bill. Senators will reject a proposal by Colorado Democrat Mark Udall, who wants to scrap the controversial language requiring al Qaeda terrorism suspects to be generally held in military rather than civilian custody — and create a commission to study the detainee issue. A bid by Illinois Republican Mark Kirk to slap sanctions on Iran’s central bank has a better chance of success.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at 2 to debate four relatively non-controversial bills, with no amendments allowed. The votes on passage won’t come before 6:30. The most prominent measure would make a rare, if limited, foray into immigration policy — by ending per-country caps on employment-based immigrant visas (to allow more hiring of skilled foreign workers) and raising the per-country caps on family-sponsored immigrant visas. But the measure would not change the overall annual limits on immigrant visas.

The other bills would create an expedited airport security screening process for military personnel and their families, expand death and disability benefits for federal workers and extend special bankruptcy protections for Guard members and reservists who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama’s meeting in the Oval Office at 2:30 with Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands. The euro crisis, trade and investment between their countries and the agenda for next May’s NATO summit in Chicago are on the agenda. (A 5:30 senior staff meeting is the only other item on the president’s public schedule.)

Biden arrived in Iraq this morning to begin his eighth visit there as vice president. He plans to spend the rest of the day in Baghdad, chairing a meeting of the U.S.-Iraq Higher Coordinating Committee, meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and speaking at a ceremony to honor war casualties.

TAXING MATTERS: For the next month, and the first 10 months of next year, the congressional story line will be about how both parties want to pound on their defining issues much more often than they want to pound out legislative achievements. The newest Exhibit A is being revealed this week: Senate Democrats are going to arrange for three separate votes on extending and expanding the Social Security payroll tax cut — and offsetting the cost in ways the Republicans will reject out of hand.

The first vote, on Friday, will be to on whether to impose a 3.25 percent surtax on incomes above $1 million in 2012, which would generate the $255 billion necessary to cover the cost of lowering the payroll tax another notch, to 3.1 percent from 4.2 percent now (it’s normally 6.2 percent) while also halving the Social Security tax businesses pay on the first $5 million of their payrolls. Republicans will all vote “no,” arguing that the move would prompt job creators to create fewer jobs. And Democrats will almost all vote “yes,” because they’ve gained confidence from recent polling that shows broadening and deepening public anger toward the expanding gap between the super-rich and everyone else. (It’s not only the Occupy Wall Street crowd that’s howling at the 1 percent; more and more voters are realizing they’re part of the 99 percent, and that it’s not class warfare to complain about it.)

For now, Reid’s not saying how he’ll engineer two more votes that allow him to make the same point as the first. But only after all that theater has played out — probably not for another two weeks — will Congress get down to the task of maintaining the current tax cut through 2012, and without any pay-for provision. (There was no offset when the payroll tax was trimmed a year ago, and that bothered neither the Republicans nor Obama, so in the end both will acquiesce in that approach; in essence, the White House already has, and Cantor has come pretty close.)

Alan Krueger, who chairs the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, will be in the West Wing press room at 1 to advocate for at least an extension of the payroll tax — and to rebut those in the GOP (a seeming minority, led by Kyl) who argue that reverting to the status quo wouldn’t throw any cold water on the economy. (The current cut has benefited 160 million workers, and ending it would mean $1,000 in additional federal taxes next year for a family earning $50,000.)

THEY LIVE: The payroll debate will be the only tax question Congress even touches before next year, and any serious debate about restructuring the corporate code — in a way that raises revenue by closing some of the loopholes that benefit targeted industries — is of course off until 2013 at the earliest. But that’s not stopping two of the stymied supercommitttee’s members, Senate Republicans Rob Portman and Pat Toomey, from taking some of the panel’s now-mothballed ideas and turning them into opening GOP bids whenever the tax debate is resurrected for real.

THE BIG ONE: Reid stated the obvious last night, but at least in so doing, he gave some more shape to the final legislative weeks of the year. No other stand-alone spending bills (for the fiscal year that’s now one-sixth over) will be debated in the Senate — only a single package combining the nine unfinished appropriations bills.

So such an $800 billion-or-more behemoth has become the best case scenario for replicating the new norms of the budget process. But it will be super-tough to get such a bill done in the time remaining before Christmas, because the dwindling days give every dilatory advantage to the Republicans who want to cut $20 billion below what this summer’s debt deal allows. Democrats are going to resist just as forcefully — especially now that disarming next year’s sequester triggers has become a virtual non-starter. The likeliest outcome remains another stopgap spending bill lasting until February. (Conceding that such a CR is inevitable sooner rather than later is also the only plausible way Congress might go home for the holidays in three weeks, rather than four.)

HOME PRICES: Home prices dropped in September from August in 17 of the 20 big cities tracked by the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller index, which put out its latest report this morning. (The exceptions were Washington, New York and Portland.) It was the first such broad decline after five months in which at least half the cities in the survey showed gains — the latest signal that the troubled housing market remains on shaky ground. Atlanta, San Francisco and Tampa  posted the biggest monthly price declines. Prices in Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix fell to their lowest points since the housing crisis began four years ago.

AFTER BARNEY: For House Democrats, the most palpable fallout from Barney Frank’s surprise retirement will be a pitched battle for the party’s top seat on the Financial Services Committee. The race between Maxine Waters of Los Angeles and Carolyn Maloney of Manhattan will compel the caucus to confront issues of race, because Maloney is white and Waters is African-American; congressional ethics, because Waters may yet face House sanctions for her efforts to promote the interests of a bank in which her husband was a player; seniority, which Maloney will argue shouldn’t matter the same way it didn’t matter to her colleagues when they bypassed her for the top spot on the Oversight panel a year ago; and the party’s efforts to maintain some bridges to Wall Street, which employs thousands of Maloney’s best-heeled constituents.

The election is a year away, but at the outset Waters is the clear if not prohibitive favorite, for three reasons: The ethics case against her remains a muddle, the notion of putting Wall Street’s congresswoman in the committee’s second chair won’t appeal to many caucus members, and the Congressional Black Caucus (which already has four members in top committee seats) will pull out every stop to elect her.

CAIN UPDATE: Five weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Herman Cain pressed ahead with his presidential campaign today and said it would not move to bridge a glaring discrepancy between the candidate and his own attorney. Yesterday Cain categorically said he never had a sexual relationship with Atlanta businesswoman Ginger White, who detailed the 13-year extramarital affair she says the two ended shortly before he started seeking the GOP nomination. But his lawyer issued an expansive statement with no such denial — saying, essentially, that the press had no business probing the intimate lives of two consenting adults. Cain was preparing to make a speech at Hillsdale College in Michigan later in the day. No other interviews or appearances were planned.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “You should be wary of any candidate who carries the endorsements of every member of Congress, because it means they’re going to be a status quo president,” Jon Huntsman (who has no such backing) said of Mitt Romney in Merrimack, N.H. last night. Romney’s Hill endorsers will grow to 48 today, when he campaigns in Florida with Miami-area Republicans leana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio (60), who’s still the fastest woman in Congress — she ran Cincinnati’s Thanksgiving Day 10K in 47 minutes, 46 seconds. Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago (52), Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano (54)

— David Hawkings, editor

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Join us Tomorrow: Finite Spectrum, Infinite Demand - Solving the Spectrum Crunch

CQ Roll Call Forum

Finite Spectrum, Infinite Demand:

Solving the Spectrum Crunch

New Speakers Added

Space is limited. Register now.

Moderated by: Keith Perine, technology reporter, CQ Roll Call

Interviews by: Mike Mills, editorial director, CQ Roll Call

Join the conversation #CQRCSpectrum

It's now pretty much a given that, with the explosion of mobile wireless devices and increasing bandwidth usage, the nation faces a shortage of radio frequencies to meet the coming demand.

But the issue is not whether we have enough airwaves to meet coming needs -- it's more about who controls the usable parts of the spectrum map and how to make the best use of it. This sets up a regulatory arial dogfight among wireless companies, broadcasters and federal agencies much of the contested prime spectral real estate.

On Nov. 30, CQ Roll Call's veteran technology reporter Keith Perine will moderate a panel discussion with some of the most knowledgeable and influential government and industry officials at the epicenter of this issue.

This event will come one week after the congressional "supercommittee" wraps up work on its deficit reduction package -- and one likely recommendation will be to raise revenue by auctioning off new slices of the airwaves. How lawmakers write those provisions and how the Federal Communications Commission structures such future auctions will determine who wins, who loses -- and whether the wireless broadband explosion will continue unabated or hit a spectrum roadblock.

Space is limited. Register now.


8 am Breakfast reception

8:30 am Welcome Remarks

8:35 am Interview with Member of Congress

9:05 am Mini-Interview on Spectrum Management, Innovation, & Economic Growth

Rob Atkinson, The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation

9:15 am Interview

Congressman Cliff Stearns

9:45 am Mini-Interview on Spectrum, Rural Development, & the Digital Divide

Rebecca Murphy Thompson, Rural Cellular Association

9:55 am Panel Discussion

Former Congressman Rick Boucher, Internet Innovation Alliance

Harold Feld, Public Knowledge

Christopher Guttman-McCabe, CTIA

Rick Kaplan, FCC

Chris Ornelas, National Association of Broadcasters

Chris Riley, Free Press

10:35 am Closing Remarks

10:40 am Adjourn

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Monday, November 28, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Frank Out

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, November 28, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is starting two hours of meetings on the European debt crisis in the West Wing with three top EU officials: European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. The president, Van Rompuy and Barroso will deliver statements and maybe take questions at 1:40; Obama’s public schedule is empty for the rest of the day.

THE SENATE: Convenes at 1 for speechmaking and behind-the-scenes dealmaking on the defense authorization bill — and for a vote at 5 promoting Christopher Droney, a federal trial judge in Connecticut since 1997, to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

THE HOUSE: Not in session; returns from the recess at 2 tomorrow.

ONE LAST YEAR OF BARNEY: Barney Frank will announce his retirement this afternoon, deciding to end after 32 years an extraordinary run as one of the most verbally agile, tart-tongued, parliamentarily adept and legislatively wide-ranging congressional liberals of the past half-century. The decision amounts to a tacit acknowledgment that he and other Democrats have concluded they have no real shot at reclaiming the House majority next fall, when Frank will be 72. (He is the ninth House Democrat this year to announce retirement plans.)

During his 16 terms, Frank rose to be chairman for four years of the Financial Services Committee, where he wrote the financial services regulatory overhaul that bears his name — and where he’s now the ranking Democrat. (His retirement leaves Californian Maxine Waters next in seniority for that post.) He also wielded considerable influence for years on the broad range of issues before the Judiciary Committee. And in 1987 he became the first-ever incumbent member of Congress to announce his homosexuality.

Frank won his current term with a record-low 54 percent. But, under the new congressional map for the state, the contours of the district have been significantly redrawn — meandering from his longtime base of support in the liberal town of Newton and the city of Brookline down to a portion of Fall River — and the new territory should be about as reliably Democratic as the one before. Some possible Democratic candidates include City Year co-founder Alan Khazei and Newton Mayor Setti Warren, who both considered but then dropped plans to run for the Senate next year; former Brookline Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Deborah Goldberg; and a range of  state legislators including James Vallee, Marc Pacheco, Mike Rodrigues and James Timilty.

The eighth House Democrat to retire, Charlie Gonzalez of San Antonio, did so over the weekend, and it looks like there will be little question who will succeed him in the city-center seat, which he and his father have represented in Congress for half a century. State Rep. Joaquin Castro, twin brother of the mayor, had been planning on running a more hotly contested race in a neighboring district but should have no trouble claiming the seat — and at the same time creating an opening for Ciro Rodriguez, who lost last fall, to wage a credible comeback bid for Congress from adjacent territory.

ALL MIXED UP: Just how much of a muddled mess will the rest of the year in Congress be? The contours of the morass will become clear two days from now, when senators will cast a vote signaling a lasting standoff over extending the year-old payroll tax break — with the impasse centered in the Republican caucus.

The situation is just one of several that will play out in the next month with enough balkiness and ponderousness to drive almost every lawmaker, aide, lobbyist and journalist to distraction. Very little legislative achievement will be heralded — but it’s going to take until a couple of days before Christmas to not get there. All the happy talk about wrapping up for the year in just three weeks, on Dec. 16, will soon yield to the parliamentary and political reality of what lawmaking is going to be like now that the supercommittee has squandered its opportunity to wrap a collection of big and contentious policy changes into one take-it-or-leave-it-and-then-get-out-of-town bill.

PAYROLL PLAY: Jon Kyl (who’s decided to make his last two years in Congress a tour de force of conservative resistance to almost every attempt at bipartisan compromise) revealed yesterday that he’ll fight to defeat an extension of the 2-percentage-point cut in the Social Security payroll tax, on the grounds that it’s too expensive (about $100 billion a year), it would jeopardize the retirement program’s longterm solvency, and it hasn’t proved to be much of an economic stimulant. He and others on the right, in the Senate and the House, would probably relent only if the tax cut was paired with some additional spending cuts taken from the menu assembled by the supercommittee but thrown into limbo by that panel’s collapse.

Plenty of Republicans — including Arizona’s other senator, John McCain (not to mention Eric Cantor in the House) — are wide open to extending the break even without a full offset, in part because they realize the potential political damage they’d do to themselves by engineering — in the weeks before Christmas — what Obama and the Democrats could fairly label a $1,000 tax increase on the typical American family. The Democrats, meanwhile, essentially will be united once again behind the idea of raising income tax rates for millionaires to pay for a popular proposal — but that will of course be opposed by all the Republicans, even those hoping to see the payroll tax holiday lengthened.

And so the first debate of the mop-up month will result in predictable gridlock, and the payroll tax will likely return to 6.2 percent on New Year’s Day. Reviving the debate next year is possible, but retroactively cutting a tax that’s taken out of millions of weekly paychecks would be mind-numbingly complex. A range of other narrowly targeted tax breaks that are about to expire — the so-called “extenders,” including the one for makers of green energy hardware — could get completed next year and be made retroactive to Jan. 1. Same with the annual effort to limit the reach of the alternative minimum tax.

DEFAUTH DANCE: The tax debate will complicate and extend the Senate’s deliberations on the defense authorization bill, which faces a rocky future on its own. The bipartisan leaders of Armed Services, McCain and Carl Levin, remain unable to assemble a veto-proof majority behind their current efforts to codify policies for the detention of suspected terrorists. (The main dispute is over the circumstances under which a terrorist detainee should be held in military, rather than civilian, custody.) And they have been unable to come up with a compromise that they and the White House would sign on to.

But the other big budget-related debate that’s catching a ride on the defense bill does have to do with defense policy. Once again, McCain will be leading an uphill fight — with an amendment that seeks to limit, or maybe undo altogether, the $55 billion in each of the next nine years in Pentagon spending cuts that have been triggered by the supercommittee’s stalemate. But he won’t have the votes to get his way, if for no other reason than a majority of senators are loath to wriggle out — at least this soon, and with the cuts not due to take effect for another 13 months — from the punishment Congress imposed on itself for failing to make affirmative deficit reduction decisions.

BENEFITS HORIZON: The extension of unemployment insurance — the shorthand here is “UI” — will run into the same dynamic as the payroll tax. Current benefits lapse at the end of next month and (even though the jobless rate looks to be at or very near 9 percent for a while to come) there’s no reason to think the usual partisan fight over how, if at all, to provide federal help to the long-term jobless (generally those who have already used up six months of state benefits) won’t resurface. Perhaps 2 million people could lose their jobless benefits this winter if Congress doesn’t act in December.

The fight about how to help people without jobs probably will box out any substantive debate about how the federal government might create more jobs for those people to take. There’s no sign the Democratic Senate (which is obligated to spend a couple of days this month on the non-starter balanced budget constitutional amendment) has any interest in advancing any of the bills the House has passed in the name of job creation — what Republicans like to call their “forgotten 15,” which they plan to grow to 20 or more with several more deregulatory efforts in the coming weeks. And there’s no chance the House will bend to any more of Obama’s job-creating ideas.

DOC FIX: Congress also will be pressed to make time in the next four weeks for its annual fight over the rate at which doctors are paid for treating medicare patients — the “doc fix.” Curbing those reimbursement rates was one of the big budget disciplines Congress imposed in the 1990s — and has been backing away from almost every since. The patch created last year added $19 billion to the deficit, and lasted only one year. Absent another paper-over, rates are expected to be cut by 27 percent in January.

CR TOWN: On top of all that, more than $800 billion in one-year spending decisions are in limbo, and the current stopgap spending authority lapses in three weeks. This will probably prove to be the thorniest issue of all — and maybe the last one on which Congress gives up before going home for the holidays. It seems essentially impossible to imagine that the appropriators, the leadership and the rank and file can agree on all the details of a single package that would combine all nine of the unfinished annual budget bills. But they will probably put an inordinate amount of effort into the project anyway, passing a one-week CR that keeps the government going until Dec. 23 — and then, as their turn-out-the-light move — passing another one that extends the impasse beyond the State of the Union address in late January.

The question without a clear answer is the same as it’s been all year: What is just the right amount of spending to avoid revolts by GOP conservatives and the vast majority of Democrats against the package? (Remember, the debt-limit increase deal from the summer allows Congress to spend $20 billion more on discretionary programs this year than the House’s Ryan budget would, and conservatives say that equals $20 billion too much.) And that simple math is only the biggest problem. Also looming are intractable differences over how (if at all) to fund the federal bureaucracies that are supposed to be carrying out the health care and financial regulatory overhauls, whether to cut off or limit aid to Pakistan, whether to ban funds for international organizations that promote abortion, and whether to stop paying dues to the U.N.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Today, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado (47); yesterday, House GOP freshmen Paul Gosar of Arizona (53) and Jon Runyan of New Jersey (38); on Saturday, GOP Rep. Shelly Capito (58).

— David Hawkings, editor

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