Friday, December 09, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Boehner Calls

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, December 9, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama received his daily global intelligence briefing at 10 but otherwise has nothing on his public schedule.

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

THE HOUSE: Not in session. Next convenes at noon on Monday.

A HAND TO PLAY: Next week will test whether Boehner is better than Reid (or Obama) at legislative endgame brinkmanship.

The House Republican leadership version of the Christmas tree bill looks at least initially like a way for the GOP to get back into the game on the jobs-and-economic-populism front. It also looks as though it’s going to galvanize a solid majority of Republicans, who have so far been deeply split over the virtues of keeping the Social Security payroll tax cut going.

Republicans had been set back on their heels a bit by the president’s rhetorical formulation of the past few weeks — that the GOP is so in the pocket of millionaires (and committed to shielding them from a tiny tax increase) that it was abandoning its support for a tax cut that has put $1,000 in the pocket of essentially everyone else. But now it seems as though Obama may be squandering that winning hand — by declaring he’ll say no to a bill extending that payroll break if it also calls for construction of the Keystone XL pipeline across the Great Plains. That decision to side with environmentalists, over the likely creation of several thousand jobs, has left the GOP a huge opening to call his bluff. And they seem to be united by the chance to do that.

The desire to bait the president should prove sufficient, almost by itself, to get the bill through the House as soon as Tuesday night. At that point, of course, it will be spurned by almost every one of the Senate Democrats, and the first test vote on the north side of the Capitol (maybe as soon as Thursday) will look like another big standoff. Instead, what it will signal is that the final round of bargaining is about to begin. And when it does, Boehner may well have done what he needed to show the others in the room that he’s got the strongest hand. And, when he still doesn’t get to hold on to many of the sweeteners, he can sell his by-then-exhausted troops on the notion that they scored a victory anyway — by forcing Obama to swallow the pipeline language, by getting the words “tax cut” in the last big headline out of Congress for the year, and by positioning themselves for a solid start for a 2012 that will be almost all about positioning and hardly at all about legislating.

THE OTHER SWEETENERS: Under the House bill, the jobless benefits would continue, but states would get back the power (taken away in the 1960s) to insist on drug tests for applicants for those benefits. And the measure would shorten the time period for receiving jobless aid from the current 99 weeks to 59 weeks by the middle of next year.  The Democrats will object to those moves so strenuously that they may be the first to go in conference. Similarly, the GOP may be forced to give up on the generous “doc fix” that’s in their bill: It would prevent a reduction in Medicare reimbursement rates for two years, not the customary one, and would actually boost the spending by 1 percent.

The bill also would eliminate the child tax credit for those in the country illegally, would dictate an end to the research-and-development tax credit for green energy endeavors and would repeal nearly $43 billion already approved for the health care overhaul. And it contains the “boiler MACT” language that stops the EPA from setting new limits on toxic emissions from industrial incinerators. Those provisions, too will cause Democrats to blanch. But not some others, including an extension of accelerated depreciation of new equipment bought by small businesses, and two more years of frozen pay for federal employees — members of Congress included.

SMALLER GAP: The nation’s trade deficit (how much more gets imported than exported) narrowed 1.6 percent  in October to its lowest point this year: $43.5 billion for the month. Exports slipped 0.8 percent to $179.2 billion, the first drop after three months of gains mainly because of declines of shipments of industrial supplies such as natural gas, copper and chemicals. Exports of cars and farm equipment also slipped. But imports fell 1 percent to $222.6 billion, reflecting a 5 percent decline in oil imports and also a decline in purchases of foreign cars.

WAS THERE ANOTHER? Before the plaque memorializing Gabe Zimmerman is mounted next to the doors of Room H215 in the Capitol Visitor Center, it looks as though the official rationale for the honor needs to be reviewed and perhaps amended.

The House resolution ordering the tribute described Zimmerman — who organized the Tucson constituent meet-and-great where his boss Gabby Giffords was shot — as “the first congressional staffer in history to be murdered in the performance of his official duties.” But that assertion was based on a report by the Congressional Research Service, which found no other comparable incident but conceded its study “cannot with authority be said to compromise all of the attacks on members of Congress or staff that have ever occurred.” And the CRS report makes no mention of Harold Rosenthal, a top aide to GOP Sen. Jake Javits of New York who died in August 1976 during a Palestinian grenade attack at the Istanbul airport — while headed to a “staff-del” fact-finding mission in Tel Aviv put on by the Israeli government.  (There’s now an international relations Hill internship in his honor.) However, Rosenthal was apparently burning some vacation time in Turkey on his way to Israel, whereas Zimmerman was unambiguously on the job, and there’s no evidence the PLO members knew a Hill staffer was on the plane they attacked.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Rick Larsen’s already unsettled prospects for winning a seventh term representing Puget Sound in the House have grown more complicated thanks to the three legislative aides he fired yesterday. The mind-bogglingly unprofessional and undeniably puerile behavior by Seth Burroughs, Elizabeth Robbee and Ben Byers — daytime bourbon-shot drinking games and can-you-top-this insults of the boss while at their Cannon Building desks — were all described in a series of tweets by the staffers themselves, which were leaked to a conservative political website in the Pacific Northwest. It’s just the sort of ammunition that will allow Republican political veteran John Koster — who came within 2 points of winning last year — to mount TV ads accusing the incumbent of countenancing fraternity parties on the government dime. So Larsen’s best shot now is hoping that Washington state's independent redistricting commission puts more Democrats in his district before finalizing its congressional map next week.

(2) Joe Walsh, the tea party freshman with by far the biggest YouTube audience, has decided to pursue his considerable ambitions by switching districts and running in a different part of the Chicago suburbs next year. Rather than make good on his initial post-redistricting plan, which was to challenge fellow Republican newcomer Randy Hultgren in the March primary, Walsh announced last night that he would move to a much more politically competitive district next door. The move means Hultgren has a much surer path to a second term — and that two prominent Democrats, who thought winning their primary in the northeastern suburbs would be tantamount to a ticket to Washington, cannot count on that anymore. Those two are Tammy Duckworth, the former VA official and disabled Iraq War veteran who’s been a hot Democratic prospect for years now, and Raja Krishnamoorthi, a former deputy state treasurer who’s raising millions from the Indian-American community. If Walsh wins, he’ll be hailed as a giant-killer and his national profile among conservatives will soar. If he loses, he’s already sending signals about running for governor or senator (against Dick Durbin) in 2014.

(3) The House Democratic campaign operation is either getting nervous, or not taking any chances, about the special election in Oregon in eight weeks to fill David Wu’s old seat. The DCCC has reserved another $300,000 in airtime on Portland TV stations between now and Jan. 31, essentially tripling its commitment to helping state Sen. Suzanne Bonamici ward off a spirited, tea party-infused challenge from sports business consultant Rob Cornilles, who took 42 percent against Wu a year ago. Still, the district voted 61 percent for Obama, and national Republicans have so far given no indication that they intend to spend heavily to try to win.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Today, Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York (45) and GOP Rep. Pete Olson of Texas (49). Tomorrow, Republican Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas ( 61) and a pair of House members, Democrat Luis Gutierrez of Chicago (58) and freshman Republican Austin Scott of Georgia (42).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Thursday, December 08, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Not-So-Merry Gentlemen

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and has decided to deny Richard Cordray an up-or-down vote on his nomination to become the first head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The vote was 53-45 in favor of invoking cloture, but that was seven votes short of the 60 required. Scott Brown was the only Republican who voted in defiance of the leadership, which views Cordray as too consumer-friendly for the job — and knows that, without a director, the new watchdog agency is barred by law from doing much of anything.

Senators are on course to be sent home for the weekend by tonight, after another roll call that will remind everyone that Republicans have the votes to prevent a surtax on 200,000 million-dollar earners that would pay to maintain a $1,000 tax break for 160 million others. (Reid and McConnell are on the cusp of announcing a timetable to move up that vote sooner than the scheduled tomorrow morning.)

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and will be sent home for the weekend by 2, after voting to prohibit the EPA from regulating farm dust. That’s something the agency insists it has no plans of doing, an assertion Republicans distrust; Obama says he’d veto the bill, but the Senate’s never going to embrace it.

Lawmakers already voted this morning, 317-98, to pass legislation banning the concocting of chemical mixes that mimic the effects of marijuana, meth and cocaine.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama spent much of the morning in an Oval Office strategy session with the House Democratic leadership. Starting at 1:50, he’s sitting for interviews in the White House with the anchors of TV stations in Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Memphis and Portland, Maine. Then the Obamas and the Bidens will be in the Grand Foyer starting at 6 for the annual presidential Hanukkah reception.

THE FIANL PUSH: Right on cue, the “we might cancel Christmas” threat is being rolled out on three separate fronts, a rare bit of bipartisan coordination for an otherwise muddled march toward the end of the legislative year.

Cantor announced yesterday that, after the coming three-day weekend in their districts, House members would be held at the Capitol until their must-do list is completed, and he suggested there’s almost no chance that would happen before the week of Dec. 19. Reid and Schumer delivered their long-expected assertion that, in the absence of GOP cooperation, it would probably be the days between Christmas and New Year’s before they had run the balky and time-consuming course for getting anything contentious through the Senate. And, just as predictably, Obama said he would not take his family on their annual holiday vacation to Hawaii until his requirements — extending the payroll tax break and jobless benefits, principally — had been met by Congress.

Taken together, those warnings amount to a signal that official Washington won’t get out of town until Dec. 22 or 23. The pushed-to-the-brink timetable became more inevitable than ever after Obama promised to “reject” (which isn’t quite “veto”) any catchall package of extensions for the payroll tax cut and other policy items if it included language that would overrule him and essentially compel construction of the Keystone XL energy pipeline — and Boehner just as quickly replied that he plans to do just that. Each side thinks it has a political winner on this issue: the president because it allows him to pay some of his overdue bills to the environmental community (which thinks the pipeline could ruin the delicate sandhills of Nebraska) and the Republicans because it allows them to put a high priority on an idea with tangible and close-to-immediate job creation at its core.

Even with the pipeline language in the mix, though, House GOP leaders are still short of the votes they need on their side to get the payroll tax and unemployment benefits provisions passed. Another House GOP caucus was under way this morning where Boehner and Cantor were test-marketing various offsets and policy sweeteners that might amount to their magic formula. The boomlet that Cantor helped to foster this week for the “repatriation” language — which would allow corporations a break on their income earned overseas — is now but a distant memory because of the outrage it would spark among Democrats, both in the House and the Senate. The GOP leadership plainly realizes that they are losing this round in the messaging wars to a united Democratic front, and they have little patience for overly ambitious conservative efforts that would only prolong the process.

NO FIFTH: “I simply do not know where the money is, or why the accounts have not been reconciled to date,” Jon Corzine is about to tell the House Agriculture Committee under subpoena to explain himself in the collapse of MF Global, the commodities brokerage he took over after his five years as a senator and four years as governor of New Jersey. (The Senate historian says it’s the first time in more than a century that Congress has demanded a former senator return to give testimony.) Corzine has put out testimony taking responsibility for the firm’s risky and wrong strategy of betting on a happy outcome to the European debt crisis, which has led to one of the biggest bankruptcies in U.S. history — and an estimated $1.2 billion in customer funds still unaccounted for. It says their losses weigh on his mind “every day,  every hour.” And he's also signaling he's ready to defy expectations — since the FBI and several federal regulators are investigating, and he could be held personally liable in civil litigation — by forgoing his Fifth Amendment rights and answering most questions. He said that as a former member, he respects the importance of congressional oversight.

PUNT FORMATION: Appropriators were on the cusp of agreeing this morning to a final way out of the budget wars for the rest of the year. The probable scenario is that Congress will avoid the most contentious lingering fights over spending and policy riders by leaving out as many as three domestic bills (Labor-HHS-Education, Interior-Environment and Financial Services) and funding the agencies in question at current levels. The final spending package for the remaining six bills will probably be unveiled at the start of next week and voted on in the House within 48 hours after that — putting pressure on the Senate to go along quickly and clear the package before the Dec. 16 expiration of current stopgap funding for the government. A yearlong CR for the three bills left in limbo would short-circuit fights over as many as 40 environmental riders and efforts by the GOP to block implementation of the health care and Dodd-Frank laws.

MASSACHUSETTS TRAIL TIPS: (1) Elizabeth Warren has an outside-the-margin-of-error lead over Scott Brown, 49 percent to 42 percent, in a UMass-Boston Herald poll out today. That the incumbent senator is so far below 50 percent within 11 months of the election does not bode well for Brown’s chances of hanging on as the first GOP senator from Massachusetts since 1978. The survey comes as Brown is lamenting how often he sees his own efforts at striking bipartisan legislative deals (even on narrow parochial matters) being stymied by the Democratic leadership – and, in his view, for no other reason than they want to minimize his chances of winning a full six-year term.

(2) Kennedy family operatives say they’re convinced the 31-year-old Middlesex County assistant DA who’s the youngest namesake of the family patriarch — Joseph Patrick Kennedy III — can be successfully positioned  as an “outsider” and is very close to deciding he’ll go after the House seat Barney Frank is leaving open. That’s because almost all the other potential candidates for the seat (who are waiting patiently for “the youngest Joe” to make up his mind) are state legislators or city officials who are burrowed into the state’s Democratic machine. His promoters also note that Kennedy is fluent in Spanish and was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic, which should serve him well in the newly drawn district, which will be one the state’s most Hispanic. If he ends up in Congress (no sure thing, given how intensely he’d surely be opposed by the Republicans in a district where they think they have a real shot), Kennedy would be following in the footsteps of his father (Joe II), a grandfather (RFK), two great-uncles (JFK and Ted), a first cousin once removed (Patrick) and a great-great-grandfather (“Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald.)

QUOTE OF NOTE: “He’s a tremendously inspirational  person as far as rallying troops, But as far as governing, he does not have the discipline, he does not have the capacity to control himself and does not stay focused,” Homeland Security Chairman Peter King said of Newt Gingrich on CNN last night, becoming one of the first senior House Republicans to offer an unvarnished view of the former Speaker. If Gingrich were president, the Long Island Republican added, “The country and the Congress would be going through one crisis after another, and these would be self inflicted crises. You know there is enough crises in the world, without inflicting crisis on ourselves. Or again, I keep saying ‘putting himself at the center.’ The reason the Republicans lost the government shutdown debate with President Clinton in 1995, is because Newt gave the impression it was all about being made him being made to get off of the back of Air Force One. I meant, that’s how he puts himself at the center of everything.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Freshman Republican Rep. Raúl Labrador of Idaho (44).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Somewhat Clintonian

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama and Biden spent more than 90 minutes in the Oval Office this morning with the Senate Democratic leadership, working to get on the same page on both the payroll tax extension and the other end-of-the year legislative disputes that are sprouting up all over the Capitol.

The president and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper have a 45-minute meeting this afternoon, followed by a joint news conference (or at least a reading of prepared statements for the cameras) at 3. Obama is due at the Jefferson Hotel downtown at 4:30 for a fundraiser.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 for speeches, will begin debating bills at noon and will be done for the day by 5:30, after passing a measure requiring congressional approval for any federal regulation with an annual economic cost of $100 million or more. The Republicans condemn many such rules as job-killers and want the power to block them. Democrats deride the legislation as a potentially dangerous legislative overreach into executive branch power. Obama says he would veto it — but he won’t have to, because it’ll never get through Reid’s Senate.

THE SENATE: Convened at 11:30 for speechmaking only — while the clock marks off the required day before tomorrow’s vote sustaining the filibuster against the confirmation of Richard Cordray to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

MAN, MYTH, WELL-DOCUMENTED LEGEND: Two more polls out today highlight how the Newt Gingrich phenomenon is for real. The former Speaker’s double-digit lead over Mitt Romney in both — 37 percent to 22 percent in a national survey of Republicans by Gallup, and 31 percent to 17 percent among people who plan to go to the Iowa caucuses in four weeks and were polled by CBS and The New York Times — will significantly change the nature of the reaction to Gingrich’s surge in the Capitol’s two Republican cloakrooms.

So far there has been close to a stony silence in public — and peppered with audible gasps, head-shaking and disgruntled asides in private. The most tangible evidence that Gingrich is held in minimal high regard by the lawmakers who know him best is that he’s been endorsed only by two who served during his Speakership, fellow Georgian Jack Kingston and Texan Joe Barton. But the more attention gets paid to Gingrich’s candidacy — which now seems certain to survive past the opening round of January primaries and caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida — the more the press, the big-money donors, the lobbying world and the actual voters will press hard for truthful memories from the 53 other Republicans in today’s House (and the 13 former GOP House members who are now senators) who served during Gingrich’s four years in charge. The country will be looking for expert opinions about whether the voters are on to something, or seriously off base, when they say (as they told the Times-CBS pollsters) that Gingrich is the best prepared in the GOP field to be president, the most qualified to be commander in chief, and the most understanding of everyday Americans’ concerns.

Every GOP lawmaker in office from 1995 through 1998 has a store of Gingrich stories to tell. Almost all of them were around during the 1997 putsch attempt, the ethics case, impeachment and his sudden exodus. They were also around for the balanced budget deal and the welfare overhaul. Almost all of them have felt his considerable wrath, and learned something from his limitless storehouse of bold ideas. They have witnessed him (in settings the public never sees) being erratic, undisciplined, visionary and steel-nerved. They know his management style, under the pressure of imminent defeat and in the flush of assured victory.

Why Tom Coburn is essentially the only one who’s come out in open opposition to a Gingrich presidency — and even he’s still disinclined to explain the reasons why — has been a curiosity until now. But Gingrich’s skyrocketing poll numbers and fundraising make clear that his candidacy can no longer be written off as a curiosity. He’s survived and is thriving despite political impediments and personal limitations that would have humbled most nationally ambitious politicians long ago. His somewhat Clintonian resilience means he could actually win the nomination. And if that happens, it will be far too late for those congressional Republicans who have longed to declare themselves as having buyer’s remorse.

OLD PRO, NEW GAME: Roy Blunt would not be launching a late challenge to get onto the Senate Republican leadership ladder if he wasn’t sure he would win. During his days in the House as Tom DeLay’s top lieutenant, and later as majority whip in his own right, he almost always lived by one of the oldest adages in politics: If you’ve got the votes, call the vote. And if you don’t, don’t. He also insisted that the rank-and-file practice the “no surprises” rule of managing up, so there can be little doubt that Blunt’s candidacy announcement yesterday came with McConnell’s blessing. And, in an important sense, he’s also banking on the considerable “not Newt” wing of the congressional GOP – because Blunt serves as Mitt Romney’s chief liaison to the Capitol.

So look for the Missourian to score a clear-cut victory at next Tuesday’s caucus lunch over fellow freshman Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who’s been the only declared candidate for conference vice chairman for months. The No. 5 job in the hierarchy comes with a seat at the leadership table where strategy and policy decisions are deliberated. The post is open because of the musical chairs necessitated by Lamar Alexander’s relinquishing of the No. 3 spot as conference chairman. John Thune will step into that post come January, and the current vice chairman, John Barrasso, will replace Thune as Policy Committee chairman. Johnson’s only chance is that he’s been able to sell himself as more worthy because he brings an outsider’s and business owner’s perspective (and a tea party world view) that’s otherwise lacking at the leadership table and would be particularly valuable in an election year.

CHECKING IT TWICE: Negotiations toward a wrapup spending package for the two-month-old fiscal year are going well enough that House GOP leaders today are putting the parliamentary ducks in a row for a final vote on such a $900 billion behemoth early next week. Senate and House appropriators may actually meet in public tomorrow, to discuss their differences on their eight overdue bills and to announce that a bow has been tied around some of them. Norm Dicks, the top Democrat on the House panel, says there’s now a 60 percent chance that the “megabus” could get cleared by the end of next week. (If it’s not, another stopgap CR would be required to tide the negotiations over into the week before Christmas — or into the new year if there’s a rush to the exits by Dec. 16.) It looks likelier by the hour that the very last disagreement that’s going to get resolved is over the fate of the Republicans’ No. 1-with-a-bullet policy rider: preventing any money from being spent implementing the health care law even before the Supreme Court rules on its constitutionality. Obama is going to dig in very, very deep to prevent that from happening.

IRAN DEBATE: The annual defense authorization bill is also on a trajectory to clear next week, even though a last-minute snafu on the Senate floor yesterday made it look otherwise. Partisan sniping over other matters put the last-minute stop to the adoption  of a package of more than 70 amendments to the bill that had been left on the cutting room floor when the bill first passed, but which both sides subsequently agreed to. One of them — by John McCain, the top Armed Services Republican — would ban from major defense programs the use of cost-plus contracts, which reimburse contractors’ expenses. But McCain will try to get the language in to the final conference agreement anyway, and he’ll surely succeed. Less certain is the fate of the Senate’s language (even though it was adopted on an almost unheard-of 100-0 vote) creating new sanctions on those doing business with Iran’s central bank. The White House says that could complicate the business dealings of European allies at the worst possible time and is pushing for changes that it describes as tinkering at the edge — but which sponsor Mark Kirk views as substantial and very problematic.

NO DEAL: The payroll tax, jobless benefits, Medicare payment rate, boiler regulations and AMT “patch” package remains stuck — with no real prospects for getting off the dime until next week. A Friday test vote in the Senate has no prospects of revealing a breakthrough. Yesterday’s Claire McCaskill-Susan Collins alternative has not been greeted as manna from heaven there. And, in the House, this morning’s Republican Conference meeting produced nothing to speak of. Instead, the leadership was test-marketing the idea of paying for the package with a gradual increase in Medicare premiums for the wealthiest seniors — a sign they still view the Obama income-inequality argument as something they want put to rest as soon as possible.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us,” Franklin Roosevelt said in his “Day of Infamy” speech to a joint session of Congress 70 years ago tomorrow. An hour later, Congress cleared the declaration of war.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Two veteran GOP senators, Mississippi’s Thad Cochran (74)  and Maine’s Susan Collins (59), and second-term GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter of California (35).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Newt vs. Nancy

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is flying toward Kansas, where at 2 (Washington time) he’ll deliver a speech that aides describe as a curtain-raiser for one of his central 2012 campaign themes. At the high school in Osawatomie — the town 50 miles southwest of Kansas City where Teddy Roosevelt delivered his New Nationalism address in 1910, calling for a “square deal” for all Americans — the president will describe this as a “make-or-break moment” for the middle class and all those working to join it in the face of widening income inequality. And he’ll promise to spend the rest of his presidency working for a country “where everyone engages in fair play, everyone does their fair share, and everyone gets a fair shot.” (Aides say Obama’s been working in the speech for a month and that a pitch for the payroll tax extension will be only a tangential add-on.)

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and at noon (just before the weekly caucus lunches) will vote on whether to break a filibuster that’s preventing the confirmation of Caitlyn Joan Halligan, who was first nominated for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals 15 months ago. The outcome appears too close to call. Most Republicans think she’s too liberal, and they’re eager to maintain the three vacancies on the country’s second-most-prominent federal bench at least until after the next presidential election. (They’re also aware that Democrats view the 44-year-old Halligan as eventual Supreme Court material: New York’s solicitor general from 2001 until 2007, she then headed Weil, Gotshal’s appellate practice for three years and is now general counsel to the Manhattan D.A.)

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 for speeches and this afternoon is set to pass 10 more non-controversial bills. One would outlaw the sale of synthetic drugs that imitate the hallucinogenic or stimulant properties of drugs. Another would tinker with D.C. zoning rules to speed up the long-planned redevelopment of the Southwest waterfront.

IT’S ON: Four weeks from the Iowa caucuses, and it’s clear the opening round of the Republican nomination race has become Newt Gingrich’s to lose — and that his legendary lack of self-discipline and delayed fundraising aren’t the only big reasons he might stumble. He’s also got to get past another former Speaker of the House.

Nancy Pelosi says she has a dossier on her predecessor that she’s ready to talk about “when the time’s right,” and yesterday she suggested that — if Gingrich’s presidential run sustains its new viability — she’d go public with her views about the House ethics committee case against Gingrich that resulted in a $300,000 fine against him during his third year as Speaker. Pelosi wasn’t then in the Democratic leadership, but she was on the investigative panel. She had initially suggested — in talking to the liberal Talking Points Memo over the weekend — that she was preparing to disclose confidential documents from that era. But her office now says she’d only be out to explain the myriad details of the ethics case, which she thinks would poison the GOP electorate on its new favorite. (The panel concluded Gingrich used tax-exempt contributions for political purposes and then misled congressional investigators about it. He’s the only Speaker ever formally reprimanded by the House.)

Gingrich, with typical brio, responded to Pelosi yesterday “for what I regard as an early Christmas gift,” then attacked her integrity and called for harsh House sanctions if Pelosi violates congressional ethics secrecy rules. “It tells you how capriciously political that committee was that she was on it. It tells you how tainted the outcome was that she was on it,” he said.

The additional scrutiny on the former Speaker’s every move will intensify in light of the newest Iowa poll — from the Washington Post and ABC — that has Gingrich at 33 percent among likely caucus-goers and Mitt Romney and Ron Paul tied for second at 18 percent. Michele Bachmann seized on the results as good news of sorts this morning, because she said her 8 percent (when combined with the undecided) shows she still has a chance to win — and live up to her Iowa straw poll boomlet from the summer. The Minnesota congresswoman said there was plenty of time left for the voters to realize that both front-runners Romney and Gingrich “are flawed candidates.”

Romney, meanwhile, was continuing his steady, mainstream, establishment, presumed-front-runner campaign today with a  visit to Arizona, where he’ll pick up former Vice President Dan Quayle’s endorsement.

DEFENSE OUT FRONT: The military spending bill, by far the biggest single piece of the unfinished appropriations agenda, is close to final form.

If the other eight measures don’t get unstuck over the weekend from their year-long limbo, defense hawks will push hard to clear this one measure ahead of all the others — arguing that it’s ultimately non-controversial and closely tracks the policy decisions that are sure to emerge from the defense authorization conference. But the leadership will surely resist, because it sees the Defense appropriations package as a legislative sweetener that, if combined with the more contentious domestic spending bills, would make a “megabus” that is relatively easy for both parties to accept. In fact, if any measure is likely to drop out of such a catchall, it’s going to be the most controversial one — governing the departments of Labor, HHS and Education — which is deeply mired in disagreements about both spending levels and policy riders. Unless the parties can quickly resolve their differences on both fronts, Hill leaders are likely to insist on a continuing resolution that would simply keep funding for those three departments at current levels through next September.

In the military spending bill, the tentative $518 billion grand total would be about 2 percent less than what the House advocated and 4 percent less than what Obama initially sought — but about 1 percent more than what the Senate planned to spend, which was based on the number nominally agreed upon in this summer’s debt limit deal. That mans appropriators will need to shave $5 billion from the other national security bills, for foreign aid and the Homeland Security Department.

One of the final sticking points — as has been the case for several years now — is language governing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. But the debate isn’t anymore about whether there should be a super-expensive backup engine; there isn’t going to be one. Instead, the debate is about the pace of the purchase plan for a plane that’s supposed to anchor the fleets of all the services for the next decade or more. The program’s managers are having second thoughts about how quickly to procure the jets while glitches continue to surface on test models, and slowing down the procurement would save a bit of money in the short run.

NO SHORTAGE OF IDEAS: Two centrist senators, Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Susan Collins, say they’ll unveil a payroll tax extension plan this afternoon with potentially broad bipartisan support. (They’re keeping the details under wraps until their rollout.) Unless their plan catches fire, it looks as though the week will end on a note signaling continued impasse: Another Senate vote on Friday in which almost all the Democrats vote in favor of, and almost all the Republicans vote against, raising taxes a smidge on millionaires to finance another year with $1,000-lower Social Security taxes for everyone else. But on either side there’s still not all that much sense of panic, or even suspense, about the ultimate outcome: A holiday-season package — with a price tag above $180 billion — that would extend (but not expand) the payroll tax cut, renew unemployment benefits and avert a 27 percent reduction in payments to doctors who take Medicare.

Reid’s latest plan is to pay for the continued payroll tax break by imposing a lower-than-before surtax of 1.9 percent on household earnings above $1 million beginning in 2013 — and ending after 10 years. He’s also come up with $38 billion by increasing fees that mortgage lenders pay to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and means testing jobless aid and food stamps to exclude millionaires. Except for the millionaire tax part, Reid’s plan is pretty close to something that would be acceptable as a starting point to the GOP leadership in the House — which would then want to add the "boiler MACT" and Keystone XL pipeline provisions.

OFF RAMP: Randy Babbitt probably won’t last the week as head of the FAA, and he’s almost certainly spent his last day wielding any federal authority. He’ll probably resign by tomorrow, before the “discussions with legal counsel” about his employment status reach the conclusion that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is justified in firing him. Babbitt was put on indefinite administrative leave yesterday, as soon as word reached DOT that he’d been arrested Saturday night on charges of drunken driving in the northern Virginia suburbs.

Deputy Administrator Michael Huerta is running he agency for now — and when Babbitt goes he’ll likely be tapped to be acting administrator through the end of next year. (Though Huerta, who’s running the troubled NextGen effort to reinvent the air traffic control system, is on generally good terms with Congress, there’s little incentive for Obama to tempt a confirmation fight for a job that’s really high-profile but might be open again in January 2013.) Lawmakers and the airline industry had almost nothing but good things to say about Babbitt — an Eastern pilot for 25 years and also president of the pilots' union — but his position has not become untenable, if for no other reason than LaHood has made a campaign against drunken driving one of the hallmarks of his tenure.

INSIDE SHIFT: Two big West Wing moves involving long-ago Capitol Hill staff power players are being rolled out more or less in tandem this week. Jennifer Palmieri, who’s now the top political person at the progressive Center for American Progress think tank, is headed back to the White House as deputy to Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer. (She toiled there for all eight years of the Clinton era, the last three as deputy press secretary — having entered the Clinton orbit as a senior aide to Leon Panetta back when he was making the switch from California congressman to OMB chief.) Palmieri was also DNC press secretary in 2002 and John Edwards’ spokeswoman in 2004. Phil Schiliro, meanwhile, is completing his slow fade out of the president’s inner circle; he’ll leave the White House payroll altogether at the end of the month, with no private-sector-landing-pad job announced. He’s been a special assistant with a hodgepodge portfolio this year — following two years of mixed results as the president’s top lobbyist on Capitol Hill, a job he got after decades as the right-hand man to Henry Waxman, another House Democrat from California.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No congressional incumbents, but notables include Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (66); Andy Cuomo, the New York governor and former HUD secretary (54); and Don Nickles, a prominent Washington lobbyist who rose to be GOP whip during four terms (1981-2004) as an Oklahoma senator (63).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Monday, December 05, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Why We'll Be Here

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, December 5, 2011

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 with nothing official on the agenda beyond the uncontested confirmation of four new federal judges: lawyer and city police corruption commissioner Edgardo Ramos as well as Brooklyn magistrate Andrew Carter for the trial court in New York, Marshall attorney James Rodney Gilstrap for the bench in East Texas and Kalispell attorney Dana Christensen for the U.S. District Court in Montana.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at noon and after 2 will debate eight bills from the least-controversial corner of the legislative hopper — including adjustments to laws governing infertile fish in the Pacific Northwest, parks in Colorado and Utah, a tribe in Texas, the Hoover Dam and an abandoned lighthouse site outside Los Angeles. (Any disgruntled members who want to cast dissenting votes will have to wait until tomorrow.)

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama and a group of university presidents are in the Roosevelt Room now, discussing ways to make college more affordable. It’s the final event on the president’s public schedule, which included several early morning meetings with top advisers.

THE LATEST GAME: This will be a make-or-break week for the payroll tax extension. It won’t determine whether there’s going to be one — there will be — but in the next several days Washington will know whether it will take until the end of next week or until the days before Christmas to get there. The smart bet, especially those who want to lock in some non-refundable airline tickets, is of course that Congress will do what it always does and extend the agony over a pre-ordained outcome until the last possible minute, which is probably early on the morning of Friday, Dec. 23.

The next public step in the process will come this afternoon, when Reid unveils what his side is billing as a genuine compromise offer to Republicans. The expectation is that Democrats will propose using the biggest chunk of easy money at Congress’ disposal: The couple of hundred billion dollars that, on paper anyway, is about to be “saved” in the next couple of years from winding down the military’s involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan. In theory, the money not being spent there is enough to cover both a 12-month extension of the lower payroll tax for 160 million workers and the expansion Obama wants — giving a similar break to businesses on their part of the Social Security payroll tax.

There’s a decent chance that Republican leaders on both sides of the Capitol would go for it — mainly because it’s so clear to them that Obama is winning a rare political victory on this issue, by successfully portraying the Democrats as in favor of a meaningful, economically stimulative tax cut and the GOP as in favor of a year-end tax increase of about $950 per worker. The sooner Boehner and McConnell make that story line go away, the better for their side. But they’re still having a tough time selling that politically obvious notion to their conservative troops.

That’s why the GOP counteroffer, which will probably come from the House, will be to accept the $120 billion payroll tax extension (but not the expansion) only if it’s decoupled from a continuation of benefits for the long-term unemployed. Conservatives dislike the UI extension even more than the payroll tax break, and will insist that it happen only if there’s a separate vote on a measure that offsets that $50 billion one-year cost.

Instead, Republicans want a pair of deregulatory sweeteners added to the payroll tax package — the so-called “boiler MACT” bill deregulating industrial boiler emissions as well as language that essentially forces federal approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which Obama wants to delay in order to put off outrage from environmentalists. Beyond that, the GOP will propose maintaining the current Medicare physician reimbursement rate for two years (at a cost of $39 billion) rather than the customary one-year patch. The annual AMT “fix," which keeps the alternative minimum tax from reaching into too many middle-income returns, will figure in there as well.

NO WARM FUZZIES: When there is a deal, it almost surely won’t be because the president used any measure of personal salesmanship on congressional Republicans. Obama has made almost no touchy-feely overtures to any GOP members, let alone the dwindling group of swing-vote moderates — none of the White House movie nights, gabfests in the family quarters, Kennedy Center presidential box seats or Marine One flights to Camp David that past presidents have deployed so deftly. The little bit of courting Obama has tried (his famous golf summit with Boehner, most notably) has produced almost no benefit.

But the absence of such niceties has only hardened the enmity that so many Republicans hold for this president — and it’s an attitude that doesn’t portend well for the future; next year has already been written off as a time for dealmaking, of course, because accord works against the campaign strategies of both sides: Obama is preparing to run against a “do nothing” Congress and Republicans are preparing to run against an ineffectual incumbent. But the president’s standoffishness is so annoying to Republicans that it might poison the well from the start in 2013, assuming Obama’s still in the Oval Office and the GOP sway over the Capitol has only intensified.

OCCUPY THE MALL: The Occupy movement is taking an additional position in Washington today through Wednesday — on the Mall between the Smithsonian castle on 8th Street and the foot of the Washington Monument hill on 14th Street. Organizers (which include and the SEIU) say about a thousand mostly unemployed protesters will set to work constructing a “People’s Camp” this afternoon, and plan to fan out down K Street and across Capitol Hill starting tomorrow morning with the message that “Congress needs to represent the 99 percent, not just the 1 percent.” The “Take Back the Capitol” protest is meant to draft off of, not replace, the protesters at the Occupy D.C. base camp in McPherson Square — and was organized before last night’s clash there between protesters and police, in which 31 were arrested when they refused to dismantle (or climb down from) an unfinished wooden structure they built in a park overnight.

‘BUS’ A MOVE: The prospects are increasing that a genuine, rider-and-line-item-rich, $900 billion-or-so spending package could get done this month — and obviate the need for another stopgap CR that postpones the final decisions for the current fiscal year until January or February. Bipartisan, bicameral compromises on eight of the nine bills that are still unfinished have essentially been completed — with only the most nettlesome one (covering health, education and labor programs) still deep in the weeds.

The optimism for a “megabus” increased after both top House GOP leaders signaled that they had essentially put down (or at least minimized) the rebellion within their own ranks, where conservatives wanted to cut $20 billion beyond the bottom line set by law in the summer debt limit deal. First Boehner declared that domestic discretionary spending had been pared back about as far as was reasonable. Then Cantor declared flatly that the summer spending cap would not be shifted — and even conceded that was as tough for the Democrats (who want more) to swallow as the Republicans who want less.

With the spending grand total settled, the final money matters will fall into place in a couple of days. (House GOP committee chairmen and the ranking Democrats were laughed out of the room when they bellyached about how their coming 6 percent budget cut would cripple their ability to retain top staff and conduct decent oversight.) With the dollars settled, the attention will soon focus on the House GOP’s riders — and those could yet scuttle the whole deal. The White House sounds like it’s willing to go to the mat against those that limit funds for the 2010 health care and financial regulatory laws, clean air and clean water laws, and the administration’s “Race to the Top” education initiative.

GETTING OUT NOW: For dozens of Hill aides, the end-of-the-year exhaustion will be followed by an early 2012 job search. With next to nothing expected to happen legislatively next year, many staff members will be open to entreaties from law firms and lobby shops. K Street already has set its collective sights on senior Senate Republican aides, who are having to decide now whether to stick around in the hope that they would have more to do if their side wins senatorial control next fall — or leave through the revolving door now, spend a boring 2012 in the required cooling-off period, and be ready to make lots of rain as soon as the next Congress gets started.

NOMINATION FIGHT: At Obama’s request, Reid will force a showdown vote this week (probably Thursday) on confirming Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He won’t be able to break the Republican filibuster, which is based as much on the party’s dislike for the former Ohio attorney general’s ideology as it is about neutering the new CFPB altogether. (Under the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory law, which created the agency, it can’t exercise its new powers until a director is in place.) Getting an up-or-down vote on Cordray would require the support of at least seven Republicans (to bond with the 53 Democrats and make a cloture-invoking 60) and that’s not going to happen. But the White House has decided to wage an unusually overt campaign to woo nine of them — Lisa Murkowski, Dick Lugar, Chuck Grassley, Dean Heller, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Bob Corker, Lamar Alexander and Orrin Hatch — with an effort to portray them in their home-state media as more interested in protecting Wall Street than in helping the little guy against payday lenders, debt collectors, credit reporting agencies and unscrupulous mortgage lenders.

NEWT’S FRIEND LIST: Newt Gingrich’s surge is underscored by NBC polls taken in the first two GOP voting states before Herman Cain “suspended” his campaign. In Iowa (caucuses are four weeks from tomorrow), the ex-Speaker is at 28 percent among likely caucus-goers once Cain’s second-choice supporters are allocated to him — followed by Mitt Romney at 19 percent and Rick Perry at 10 percent. In New Hampshire, Gingrich is statistically almost at the same place as near-native-son Romney now, with 23 percent – up from 4 percent in October.

Gingrich’s big month will continue once he formally claims Cain’s endorsement, which seems to be a sure thing and will probably be delivered by the end of this week. It is at that point when the people who know him best — 50 of the most-senior House Republicans and the half dozen senators who were House members when Gingrich ran the place — will be under significant pressure to explain why they have been damning him with the faint praise of silence so far. Jack Kingston and Joe Barton are the only two veterans of the Gingrich revolution who have endorsed him, and yesterday Class  of ’94 alumnus Tom Coburn went on TV to say he’d have a tough time collaborating with a President Gingrich. His own majority leader, Dick Armey of Feedom Works, is getting ready to say something even more pungent.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Today, Republican Rep. Rodney Alexander of Louisiana (65); yesterday, Democratic Rep. Grace Napolitano of California (75).

— David Hawkings, editor

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