Friday, December 16, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Saturday in the Senate

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, December 16, 2011

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and is expected to be done for the day by 4, with no plan to return until next week. Lawmakers just voted 393-23 to clear the annual bill authorizing the CIA and other intelligence agencies. This afternoon, close to half of the Democrats will vote in favor of the $915 billion package that concludes the appropriations wars for the next nine months — far more than needed to offset the “no” votes expected from about 50 of the most fiscally conservative Republicans.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and is in spinning its wheels while talks continue on the last piece of unfinished business: the bill combining a continued payroll tax cut, extended jobless benefits, the Medicare “doc fix” and the AMT “patch.” Reid and McConnell said they were close to an agreement. If a deal is not struck today, a test vote is set for tomorrow that would formally spurn the version the House passed along mostly party lines on Tuesday.

Reid and McConnell agreed that there was no suspense over whether the megabus appropriations bill would be cleared — but that the roll call might be delayed until tomorrow as a way to keep senators in town for the tax extenders finale. The leaders said they had assurances from the White House that there would not be a partial government shutdown (technically possible because the current stopgap CR runs out at midnight) because the agencies know that their spending authority will be renewed sometime this weekend.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama has a senior staff meeting at 1 to help plan his strategies for getting the most out of the negotiations on the extenders package. If there’s a breakthrough, he’ll reveal it during a speech at National Harbor at 2:10 to the annual convention of the Union for Reform Judaism, which counts 900 congregations in North America. That's his only public appearance today.

NOW THE HARD PART: The happy sounds from the two Senate leaders this morning may be for real, but it could just as easily be some soft soap before a long weekend — or longer — of bitter brinkmanship over how to offset the cost of extending the payroll tax cut for 160 million people and what “sweeteners” should be given to each party to go along. House Republican leaders do not view a deal as close to imminent, which is why they told their rank and file this morning that they were free to leave town this afternoon — and would not be recalled before Monday, and only with 24 hours of advance notice.

After that same GOP caucus, Boehner made clear that his side was digging in on the Keystone pipeline. If the Senate comes up with a plan that drops the provision — which looks increasingly likely — he said he had the votes in the House to reinstate the language, which would speed along construction of an oil conduit between Canada and the Gulf Coast, creating thousands of jobs that Republicans want to claim credit for but threatening environmental damage that Obama and the Democrats have vowed to prevent. Boehner signaled that his threat would hold true even if the Senate could do no better than its “Plan B,” which Reid revealed last night: a two-month  extension of all the provisions that would otherwise expire on New Year’s Eve, which would essentially give lawmakers a fresh start (albeit only five weeks long, given the winter legislative calendar) to strike a deal.

Despite the appearances of strong divergence, Democrats and Republicans are in sync on a number of fronts, which together would bring the bill’s total cost to about $200 billion if the provisions last for all of 2012. Both parties have united behind maintaining the Social Security payroll tax at its current reduced rate of 4.2 percent for employees. Both parties agree on the need to prevent a deep reduction in Medicare reimbursements for physicians — the disagreement is over for how long. And both agree on the need to extend expiring benefits for the long-term unemployed — but disagree on how long there, too, and also on whether future extensions should be forsworn now. Even some of the offsets have largely been agreed to: savings from the drawdown of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, an increase in the fees that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac charge for guaranteeing loans, an overhaul of the federal flood insurance program and freeing up slices of the broadcast spectrum for wireless broadband use.

TWO-YEAR DECLINE: Although the most conservative Republicans will still vote “no,” the bill wrapping together nine of the dozen annual appropriations bills marks a notable change in the trajectory of federal  discretionary spending: It would decline for a second consecutive year. A couple of other notable provisions that are just coming to light — in a package that contains hundreds of them — are that the $5 billion more in military spending than was originally envisioned (for a total of $518 billion) will be covered by a $1.4 billion cut in construction at defense facilities and a $3 billion reduction for FEMA, leaving the agency with only $4.9 billion. The long battle over funding to carry out the Dodd-Frank financial regulations was resolved by splitting the difference: The SEC would get $1.3 billion, an 8 percent increase that’s halfway between what Obama wanted and what House Republicans wanted. And legislative branch spending was cut by 5 percent, a move that will allow lawmakers to tout their own thriftiness to constituents.

DISASTER CODA: Along with the megabus, the House will vote this afternoon on a separate measure providing $8.6 billion in emergency disaster aid for the rest of fiscal 2012, and a third measure that would offset that expense with a 1.8 percent across-the-board cut in government spending. The Senate seems destined to clear the aid bill but spike the offsets measure on the grounds that “emergencies” aren’t generally offset, and that the disaster spending is still below the ceiling set in this summer’s debt limit deal.

INFLATION RISING: The consumer price index was unchanged in November, the Labor Department said today. Energy costs dropped for the second straight month, offsetting higher prices for food, clothes and medical services. But — excluding the always-volatile food and energy costs — what the government calls “core” inflation rose 0.2 percent last month and 2.2 percent in the past 12 months, which is the most in more than three years. More expensive clothing (up 4.8 percent in the past year) and higher rents (up 2.4 percent in the past year) have been the main culprits.

DISSECTING THE DEBATE: Mitt Romney followed up on his cautious debate performance last night by announcing he’s secured one of his most sought-after endorsements — from Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, which will hold 2012's third GOP nominating contest on Saturday, Jan. 21. But as that news came out this morning, word also got out that Newt Gingrich had won the backing of the state House Speakers in the first two states that will vote, Kraig Paulsen of Iowa (caucuses in 18 days) and Bill O’Brien of New Hampshire (primary on Jan. 10).

The consensus view of last night’s 13th and final pre-voting debate in Sioux City was that it was something of a damp squib, with Romney sounding cautious and non-confrontational toward Gingrich, the former Speaker weathering the attacks from everyone else (with a tight smile and against-type self-discipline), and none of the others coming to the fore in any dominant way. Michele Bachmann had the best opening to do so, with her sharply articulated explanation about how you don’t have to be a registered lobbyist to be an influence peddler, but her attack was undercut by her own declaration that the PolitiFact editors had verified as true everything she’d said about Gingrich and his $1.6 million from Freddie Mac at the previous debate. That prompted a mid-debate “pants on fire” declaration from those same fact checkers. Rick Perry’s likening of himself, somewhat haltingly, to Tim Tebow did not go over well with the pundits, but Ron Paul’s stay-the-course libertarianism and isolationism did.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Hunter Bates, a former McConnell chief of staff, is the first candidate out of the box in the unexpectedly open northern Kentucky congressional district. But no one expects he’ll be the last. A flood of aspirants will consider the seat, which Ways and Means member Geoff Davis has held since 2005; at 53, last night he become the first House Republican to announce his political retirement this year — surprising even some of his top aides. (“In order to devote more time to my family,” Davis insisted.) The seat will stay reliably Republican (60 percent for McCain) barring some unexpected turn in redistricting. Among the other potential GOP candidates are two state senators, Katie Kratz and Damon Thayer; two state House members, Adam Koenig and Alecia Webb-Edgington; businessman Kevin Sell; and conservative blogger Marcus Carey. Democrats may try to woo former TV broadcaster Nick Clooney, the father of actor George Clooney, who came within 8 points of Davis in 2004.

(2) Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, Jim Matheson, has decided to try and keep his unlikely career going for a seventh term by running in the state’s newly created House district. Even though he doesn’t live there, his current territory was broken apart by the Republican legislature in the mapmaking process — in a clear effort to get rid of him — and the new 4th District at least takes in more of his Salt Lake County political base than any of the others. Still, had the district existed three years ago, it would have gone for McCain by 56 percent, and three serious Republicans are already seeking the seat: state Sen. Carl Wimmer, state Rep. Stephen Sandstrom and Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love.

(3) House Republicans from Illinois are unlikely to pursue an appeal of their redistricting challenge — which was dismissed yesterday by a three-judge federal panel — because their odds of winning at the Supreme Court are long and many of them (especially those with March primaries) would rather put all their energy and money into getting their uphill campaigns into full gear. The boundaries they fought were drawn by the Democratic-dominated state legislature with the hope of scoring a net gain of four congressional seats in 2012. The judges agreed with the  Republicans that the map “was a blatant political move” but said the plaintiffs had not come up with a way to mitigate against that outcome. The court also rejected Republican arguments that the map was designed to disenfranchise Hispanics by cramming as many of them as possible into the Chicago district of Luis Gutierrez.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “Christopher Hitchens was a wit, a charmer, and a troublemaker, and to those who knew him well, he was a gift from, dare I say it, God,” Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter said last night after the death of one of the last half-century’s premier Washington polemicists and slayers of sacred cows — and an atheist to the end of his life, which was caused by esophageal cancer at 62. “He was a man of insatiable appetites — for cigarettes, for scotch, for company, for great writing, and, above all, for conversation. That he had an output to equal what he took in was the miracle in the man.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Both parties’ longest-tenured members of House Appropriations, each of whom is celebrating with the deal on the megabus: Bill Young of Florida, a former Republican chairman (81), and Norm Dicks of Washington, the current ranking Democrat (71) .

— David Hawkings, editor

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Mission (Finally) Accomplished

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is extending minimum wage and overtime protections to nearly 2 million home health care workers. He and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis will explain the move at noon, when the president is also expected to say something about the latest version of Washington’s up-against-several-deadlines gridlock. (Home care aides have been exempt from federal wage and hour laws since 1974, but the president says rapid changes in the industry, and the surging elderly population, are prompting him to change the rules without permission from Congress — yet another piece of this fall’s “We can’t wait” campaign.)

After lunch with Biden, Obama’s only other publicly scheduled event is tonight’s installment of the annual wave of presidential holiday receptions – this one at Blair House for the diplomatic corps.

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and will vote at 4:15 to confirm Morgan Christen, a justice on the Alaska Supreme Court for the past 33 months, to one of the four vacancies on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. An overwhelming majority is expected to line up right after that to clear the $662 billion (and now veto-threat-free) defense authorization bill. But after that, it appears the Senate will be in suspended animation until there’s a breakthrough in either the spending or tax extenders impasses.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and between noon and 3 will pass five relatively non-controversial bills, the most substantive of which is a 40-week extension of the federal welfare block grants to states ($19.4 billion this year) — with new rules cutting 5 percent of the money to states that don’t prevent the spending of welfare checks at liquor stores, casinos or strip clubs.

THE WAR IS OVER: Today will not be remembered in future years as the day before a partial federal government shutdown — and not only because lawmakers will probably (but only probably) step back from the precipice in the next 30 hours. Even if they don’t, the history books will instead be marking this as the day the Iraq War formally ended — 105 months, $800 billion, 4,484 dead American troops and 32,000 servicemembers wounded since it began.

But the cost in time, taxpayer money and human sacrifice was worth it, Panetta declared at a “casing of the colors” ceremony in Baghdad shortly after 5 this morning (D.C. time) at which the official battle standard was furled around its staff and then sheathed in camouflage. “After a lot of blood spilled by Iraqis and Americans, the mission of an Iraq that could govern and secure itself has become real,” the Defense secretary said. “To be sure, the cost was high — in blood and treasure for the United States, and for the Iraqi people. Those lives were not lost in vain. ”

The ceremony was 16 days ahead of the deadline set by the U.S. and Iraqi governments three years ago, and belatedly and formally fulfills one of the signature campaign promises that won Barack Obama the Democratic nomination and then the presidency that year. (About 4,000 troops remain, down from 50,000 at the beginning of the year and 170,000 at the war’s peak, but all are supposed to be home before Christmas.) And the finality of the moment was lambasted anew this morning by Obama’s 2008 opponent. John McCain, the top Republican on Senate Armed Services, declared on NBC’s “Today” that “we are at risk, great risk, of losing everything we’ve gained” during the military occupation because no troops are staying behind.

SHUTTING DOWN A SHUTDOWN: The other way Dec. 15 is noted in modern American history is as the day in 1995 when a 21-day partial government shutdown began. It’s still the longest in history, and the record’s not threatened now. But it will probably take into the weekend before the suddenly deep divide over the appropriations endgame is bridged. That would mean either a mostly symbolic shutdown on Saturday and Sunday — when national parks would close, but hardly any essential federal services wold be jeopardized — or, much more likely, a 48-hour stopgap spending bill to replace the CR expiring at midnight tomorrow.

Just before 1 this morning, Republicans unveiled the $1 trillion megabus appropriations bill they plan to push through the House tomorrow — and almost entirely with GOP votes. That’s because even those Democrats who like most of what’s in it (because it’s purportedly almost identical to the agreement negotiated by the appropriators this week) will deride the measure as unacceptable strong-arming by the GOP — which has introduced the bill in an effort to circumvent Obama and Reid, who have decided to hold the “official” spending package hostage until the payroll tax impasse is broken. The suspense this morning is whether most House Republicans, after passing their spending bill (and two narrow bills covering disaster aid and its offsets) will bolt Washington for the weekend, which could make it difficult to get a short CR through, and even more difficult for the whips to gauge support for any tax extension package.

The new House measure sticks by the negotiated spending levels and drops many of the policy riders pushed by GOP conservatives. But it would roll back administration policies that had loosened restrictions on the rights of Cuban immigrants to travel back home or send money to relatives — provisions that Obama has said that, by themselves, were veto bait. If the measure really is identical to the conference agreement that was described as finished except for its Senate Democratic signatures, then that deal may yet need to be revisited in the coming hours.

READY TO PAYROLL: The frenzied focus on the spending package has had the effect — unintentional or not — of affording some breathing room for negotiations on the wrap-up package of tax and policy extensions. Last night’s meeting among the three top congressional leaders (Pelosi was nowhere in sight) came to nothing beyond an agreement to keep talking — in part because Boehner reportedly conceded it was in everyone’s best interest for the deal to be cut by McConnell and Reid (because so many House Republicans remain suspicious that their Speaker would give away too much if he gets alone in a room with the Senate majority leader.)

The two Senate leaders are sure to get after it this afternoon, especially now that it’s clear to the minority leader that the other side has blinked first, by putting a finger-flick up against its most politically important bargaining chip. With Reid’s team returning from the White House yesterday and allowing word to leak that they were ready to bargain away the millionaires’ surtax — their preferred “pay-for” for everything this fall, including the extension of the Social Security payroll tax break — it’s only a matter of time before McConnell folds on the Keystone pipeline, speeding construction of which has never been all that important to him. Once that trade is sealed, the rest of the negotiating should move pretty quickly on extending the payroll tax, continuing jobless benefits (but with only some of the strings the GOP wants to attach), avoiding the pending cut in Medicare payments to doctors and preventing the spread of the AMT into more tax returns. (It’s up in the air whether the GOP will get its wish to cut back regulation of industrial boilers as part of the deal.) In the end, the likeliest outcome by far is that the only a small fraction of the couple-of-hundred-billion-dollar cost of the package will be offset.

The negotiating comes in light of an AP-GfK poll, taken last weekend and released today, finding 58 percent support for extending the payroll tax holiday and 35 percent opposition. (People calling themselves conservative back the extension, 54 percent to the 42 percent.) The survey — like all the others in recent weeks — found congressional approval near its all-time low: 84 percent of the respondents disapproved of the way Congress is doing its job, with at least eight in 10 Republicans, Democrats and independents all feeling that way.

GRAND BARGAIN BACKERS: Historically abysmal approval ratings are one of the reasons why serious players are still talking about striking a “grand bargain” for reducing deficits (and the burgeoning debt that comes with them). There’s essentially no hope for such an accord until after the election, when the balance of political power for at least two years will be set. But Boehner, other senior Republicans and many Democrats, too, think that continued hammering away at the big budget impasse might at least convince some swing voters that some lawmakers in the current Congress are passably competent.

It’s as part of that discussion that House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan has teamed up with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden this week to propose a new plan for revamping Medicare — not by privatizing it with vouchers, as Ryan famously pushed this year, but  by continuing to offer the traditional system while at the same time allowing the choice of several private plans. The talk will also help keep at bay the efforts of those Republicans working on legislation to reverse, or at least limit, the $500 billion in across-the-board Pentagon cuts set to occur over the next decade because the “supercommittee” came up short this summer. House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon will unveil his plan today for offsetting $127 billion of the sequester  by trimming the size of the federal workforce through attrition by 10 percent over the next decade

ALL EYES ON IOWA: Tonight’s debate starting at 9 in Sioux City will be the 13th and last among the Republican presidential candidates before the Iowa caucuses, now 19 days away. The obvious story line is whether Newt Gingrich says or does anything “zany” — the moniker that Mitt Romney is now trying to stick him with. If he does, his standing as the new front-runner may yet be short-lived. If he does not, the former Speaker will have probably cemented his position as the candidate to beat, because a reassuring debate performance could be counted on to stiffen up some of his softening support in Iowa. (He’ll still have to combat the intensifying anxiety among the Republican establishment, not only on K Street but even in the offices of the National Review, which opposed his nomination this morning with an editorial concluding: “He appears unable to transform, or even govern, himself. He should be an adviser to the Republican Party, but not again its head.”

QUOTE OF NOTE: “I’d probably want to go and vomit,” John Dingell, who was first elected the House 56 years ago this month, says in imagining his reaction had he been allowed to glimpse the future of the congressional culture back in the 1980s and early 1990s,when he was at the height of his power as Energy and Commerce chairman.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democratic Sen. “Mark, not John” Warner of Virginia (57)

— David Hawkings, editor

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: On the Brink of Brinkmanship

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and is now rejecting two versions of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution — a foregone conclusion ever since the votes were promised as part of the summer debt limit deal. Reid and McConnell are now working behind the scenes (while overtly furious at each other) on the next step in the year-ending tax extenders debate.

A party-line vote was expected to rebuff the Republican proposal, which was to cap spending at 18 percent of gross domestic product, require a two-thirds majority to increase taxes and dictate that spending not exceed revenue in each fiscal year unless supermajorities in Congress voted for deficits during war or other emergencies. The vote a few minutes ago was 21-79 against the Democratic alternative, which had no spending caps or special rules for tax bills (except that cuts for millionaires could only be allowed during times of surplus) and would shield the Social Security trust fund from being tapped to balance the books.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and is expected to be dismissed before 5, after adopting the $662 billion defense authorization conference agreement and voting on as many as 10 bills under the suspension of the rules process.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is arriving for a 90-minute visit to Fort Bragg, his first as president. At noon he and the first lady will deliver speeches thanking the troops and their families for their sacrifices during the Iraq War and promising that the administration remains committed to providing veterans robust benefits and help securing jobs. (The North Carolina fort — home to the Special Operations command, the 18th Airborne Corps and the 82nd Airborne, among others — says more than 200 soldiers who died in Iraq left from there.)

Obama is due back in the Oval Office by 2, and at 5 he’s headed a few blocks away to the St. Regis Hotel for another re-election fundraiser.

ANOTHER STANDOFF: Shutdown brinkmanship is back. There’s even a decent shot that the two sides will dig in long enough that the current stopgap spending law will be permitted to expire 60 hours from now, which would mean a mad weekend scramble to get something to replace it before the bulk of the federal government reopens for business next Monday — either a very, very short CR or the comprehensive $1 trillion appropriations package that’s essentially written up and ready to go.

The standoff intensified in the Senate this morning, when Reid proposed holding the next symbolic test vote tonight — the one in which the Democratic majority will formally spurn the payroll tax, jobless benefit, “doc fix” and AMT “patch” package pushed through the Republican House yesterday, because it also would speed along construction of the Keystone oil pipeline. McConnell objected, insisting that he’d use all his parliamentary powers to make sure the appropriations “megabus” is done first.

Republicans clearly see a way to seize back the year-end momentum on this front from Obama and the Senate Democrats, who have been holding the better hand for weeks on the question of continuing a tax cut for 160 million people. But now, the Democrats think their opponents have badly overplayed that hand by holding up final action on the spending bill until the GOP relents (or at least comes to the final bargaining table) on the tax package. And that, the Republicans say, makes Democrats vulnerable to the same criticism they have been using against the GOP all year: They’re willing to hold the government hostage, and cause genuine problems for millions of people, until they get what they want.

The longer the megabus package is allowed to sit on the shelf, the more it risks being picked apart around the edges — and it could well fall apart altogether if the votes aren’t called soon. Officially, the text is not out because no Senate Democrats have been allowed to sign on the dotted line at the bottom, but everyone knows it’s a done deal (despite what Reid insists) and more and more people are aware of the thousands of line-item details every hour. If the old legislative adage is that a compromise, like an unrefrigerated fish, starts to rot after three days, then this is Day Two.

AGAINST THE GRAIN: The 10 House Democrats who voted for the extenders bill last night bill were Barrow, Boren, Boswell, Braley, Cardoza, Donnelly,  Loebsack, Matheson, Ross and Walz. The 14 Republicans who voted “no” were Amash, Barton, Brooks, Campbell, Flake, Fortenberry, Garrett, Tim Johnson, Lummis, McClintock, McKinley, Neugebauer, Wolf and Woodall.

SAVE THE DATE: Obama will deliver his next State of the Union address the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 24 — one day after the Senate returns from the coming break, and one week after the House reconvenes to start the second session of the 112th Congress.

DOWN IN THE POLL: Only 22 percent say the nation is headed in the right direction, according to the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll out today, while 42 percent say the performance of the current Congress is “one of the worst” ever —the highest number ever recorded on a question that’s been asked since 1990. Obama’s job-approval rating is at 46 percent, 2 points better than a month ago.

The poll’s numbers in the GOP presidential race, meanwhile, show Newt Gingrich leading Mitt Romney by 17 points among Republican voters nationwide — and by 23 points if all the other candidates are excluded.  The reason seems clear: Only 29 percent view Romney as “conservative,” while 59 percent give Gingrich that label. But when the surveyors asked about general election matchups, they found Obama defeating the former Speaker by 11 points among all registered voters but in a statistical tie with the former Massachusetts governor. That apparent electability gap is what has so many Republican congressional strategists worried: They fret that Gingrich at the top of the could do the party serious damage in close races for the House and Senate, particularly in the Northeast.

ANCHOR AWAY: Look for Jake Tapper to emerge quickly as the odds-on bet to become the permanent anchor of ABC’s Sunday talk show “This Week” — instead of the other contenders Terry Moran and Jonathan Karl — well before the seat next comes open around the time of the inauguration. For the next year, though, George Stephanopoulos will be doing his previous job as well as his current one, co-hosting “Good Morning America.” The Sunday ABC anchor is one of the most potentially influential positions in American journalism — but during her short few months on the job, Christiane Amanpour never came close to fitting in. The word is that the venerable foreign correspondent realized early on that she wasn’t ever going to be suited to the roles of domestic political superanalyst and uber-insider Beltway pundit, and asked to go back in the field about the same time ABC brass also concluded that she had no long-term future on the show.

RUNNER-UP: House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan was named “the most influential American politician” of 2011 and the third runner-up for Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” recognition today. (Kate Middleton was fourth runner-up.) “Through a combination of hard work, good timing and possibly suicidal guts, the Wisconsin Republican managed to harness his party to a dramatic plan for dealing with America’s rapidly rising public debt,” the magazine said. “He brought an ugly issue out of the foggy realm of think tanks and blue-ribbon panels and dropped it into the middle of the national debate in time to define the next presidential election.”

Finishing higher up in the editor’s balloting were Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei; William McRaven, the admiral who ran the SEAL operation that killed Osama bin Laden; and the face on the cover: “The Protester,” honoring the people from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park “for capturing and highlighting a global sense of restless promise, for upending governments and conventional wisdom, for combining the oldest of techniques with the newest of technologies to shine a light on human dignity and, finally, for steering the planet on a more democratic though sometimes more dangerous path.”

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Steny Hoyer may not ever be Speaker, his unambiguous ambition of the past 30 years, but the minority whip insists he wants to stick around for at least one more term (which would be his 16th) representing southern Maryland. He turns 73 next June, and speculation that he would retire surged yesterday for two reasons: His longtime top aide, Terry Lierman, announced he was leaving the Hill to start a health care venture capital firm. (The new chief of staff will be  Alexis Covey-Brandt, who now runs Hoyer’s floor operation and has been with Hoyer for eight years.) And state House GOP leader Anthony O’Donnell revealed he was ready to give up his legislative seat after 18 years to run for Hoyer’s seat, even though the state’s redistricting may make the 5th District no more inclined to go Republican. Hoyer told reporters he is firmly committed to seeking re-election.

(2) The 18 new congressional districts for Pennsylvania were unveiled last night by the Republicans who run Harrisburg, and it’s no surprise that the mapmakers went to great lengths to shore up the prospects for GOP congressmen in politically competitive territory. (Also no surprise, the legislators took care of the one House seat the state lost in reapportionment mainly by combining the exurban Pittsburgh districts currently held by Democrats Jason Altmire and Mark Critz, but in a way that gives each a fair shot at beating the other in a primary — and then gives GOP state Rep. Jim Christiana a solid shot in the fall.) On the other side of the state, the map was significantly reconfigured to make political life more comfortable for Patrick Meehan, Jim Gerlach, Charlie Dent, Tom Marino and — most of all — freshman  Lou Barletta, who saw his territory changed from mostly Democratic to GOP-leaning. The biggest Democratic beneficiary is Tim Holden, whose seat was made safer by dispersing much of his GOP precinct to nearby Republican incumbents. Under the new map, Democrats will probably view the seats held by Republicans Mike Fitzpatrick and Mike Kelly as their most plausible pickup opportunities.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “Congress’s critics are greatly overstating the extent to which politicians profit from their investing activities,” political scientists Andrew Eggers of the London School of Economics and Jens Hainmueller of MIT write in a Boston Globe op-ed today. “We re-created the entire stock portfolio of each member and conducted a systematic financial analysis of their performance as investors. We found that members of Congress generally perform no better than ordinary investors. Over the 2004-2008 period, the stock portfolio of the average member of Congress underperformed the market by 2 to 3 percent per year. Put another way, in a five-year period during which the market lost around 20 percent of its value, the average congressional portfolio lost over 30 percent.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: A pair of Republican women who defeated incumbent House Democrats 13 months ago, Sandy Adams of the Orlando suburbs (55) and Nan Hayworth of the New York suburbs (52).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: One Is Done

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and is supposed to be done for the day by 5:30, after passing the Republican package for wrapping up most of the year’s unfinished business (the payroll tax break, jobless benefits, Medicare “doc fix” and AMT “patch” extensions) — with a few non-mandatory sweeteners (the Keystone XL pipeline speed-pass) thrown in to assure close-to-total Republican support and maybe win a dozen or more Democratic votes.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 for a day of speeches for and against competing versions of a balanced-budget constitutional amendment — both of which are doomed to rejection tomorrow.

During the weekly caucus lunches, the 47 Republicans will hold a secret-ballot election to choose between the two freshmen seeking to be vice chairman of the GOP Conference, the No. 5 spot in the leadership pecking order. Missouri’s Roy Blunt, an embodiment of the party establishment who spent a decade in the House leadership, is expected to prevail over Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, the plastics company executive who’s one year into his first elected office and is running as a tea-party-backed outsider. (South Dakota’s John Thune is unopposed to step up a notch to the No. 3 post of conference chairman, while no one is challenging Wyoming’s John Barrasso for promotion to the No. 4 job of Policy Committee chairman; all the dominoes are falling because Lamar Alexander is resigning from the conference chairman’s job.)

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is arriving for a campaign fundraiser at the Hyatt Regency at the foot of Capitol Hill. He’s spent the previous hour giving interviews to TV anchors from Norfolk, Pensacola, Colorado Springs and Seattle. The president’s message was to thank the considerable military populations in those markets for their “enormous sacrifices and achievements” during the now-ending nine-year war in Iraq — and then to make his daily pitch for the payroll tax extension and against the pipeline add-on.

RIGHT ON CUE: Well, at least one of the must-pass measures looks like it’s going to actually get passed this week — and win Obama’s signature before Christmas, even.

Negotiators reached agreement last night (and filed their conference report this morning) on a $662 billion defense authorization bill, and they say they expect the final version of language regulating the detention of terrorism suspects will win the president’s backing — the major bit of suspense for this year’s bill. (A version has cleared Congress every fall for the past half century, although rarely without a good measure of suspense. Last year, for example, was when the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” kept the authorization bill from clearing until the last day of the lame duck, three days before Christmas.) Now, the House is ready to embrace the final fiscal 2012 defense bill tomorrow, and the Senate will clear it probably Thursday — which could be as much as a full week before the first session of the 112th Congress collapses in a heap because of the deepening impasse over the extenders legislation that’s now dragged the “megabus” spending bill to a standstill as well.

Although the defense legislation would generally require that the military take custody of any member of al Qaeda or its affiliates suspected of plotting an attack on the United States (with U.S. citizens exempted), a newly added provision says nothing in the bill should be interpreted as getting in the way of civilian law enforcement agencies carrying out terrorism investigations and interrogations in the United States. Senior members of the Armed Services committees say White House and FBI officials were part of the negotiating on that language — which essentially means Obama could turn anyone he wants from a prisoner of war into a criminal suspect. But the legislation would deny suspected terrorists (even American citizens seized in this country) the right to trial and subject them to indefinite detention — language that drew minimal opposition other than from civil liberties and human rights groups.

The only remaining major objection that Obama had raised against the bill — although he did not level an explicit veto threat — was when the Senate voted unanimously to impose tough sanctions on the Iranian Central Bank, aimed at punishing Iran for its nuclear program. Those sanctions remain in the final deal. Overall, the bill authorizes $27 billion (4 percent) less than Obama requested and $43 billion (6 percent) less than Congress gave the Pentagon for the year before — a reflection of tightening budgets and the end of the Iraq war. The bill requires the Pentagon to help Afghanistan National Security Forces get up to speed faster on taking over the country’s protection. And it would freeze some $700 million in aid to Pakistan until the country improves its methods of detecting and disarming roadside bombs.

EARMARK WATCH: The final bill abandons 40 Republican-sponsored and 75 Democratic provisions from the House bill (worth $834 million) that were emphatically opposed by the Senate, which viewed them as earmarks — unfairly, in the eyes of House Armed Services. Claire McCaskill, who’s made her crusade for “earmark reform” a centerpiece of her re-election campaign, said the willingness of House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon to give up on the provisions amounted to a “clear admission that he and his colleagues attempted to circumvent the earmark ban.” The House chairman’s office asserted that all of them were “in reality policy provisions set to be competitively disbursed by the Pentagon and fully in keeping with the letter and spirit of the House earmark ban.”

SAVING IT FOR LAST: “This isn’t just irresponsible, it’s reckless,” McConnell declared when the Senate got started this morning — reacting to Reid’s plan to hold the megabus spending package hostage until there’s a final deal on the payroll tax and jobless benefits extensions.

The majority leader reportedly made the decision at Obama’s urging, with this simple strategic rationale: The $900 billion discretionary spending package is truly the one remaining bill that broad bipartisan majorities view as essential to complete (and are eager to vote for) this month, and once it’s done there will be minimal incentive for many members to stay in Washington — especially through the weekend and beyond — while the final deal on a much more contentious extenders bill is worked out. So, in the Democrats’ view, the appropriations bill needs to shelved until it can be used as a reward for finishing the Christmas tree. (The most immediate consequence will be the drafting of a one-week stopgap appropriations bill, to keep the government going once the current CR expires Friday night.)

Except for the necessary Democratic signatures (which Reid is refusing to allow) the big spending bill is reportedly complete, and offers line-by-line directives for all nine of the regular measures that are still in limbo. (In other words, no nine-month CRs covering the EPA or the Interior, Labor, HHS, Education, and Treasury departments.) Most of the deregulatory riders pushed by the GOP are gone, including those fought hardest by environmentalists. As a trade-off, the Republicans won a partial reinstatement of the bans on travel and money transfers to Cuba. Language to raise airport security fees was also dropped.

DEFICIT DECLINING: The deficit for fiscal 2012 is on course to dip below $1 trillion for the first time in four years, the Treasury Department now predicts. Its newest forecast is for a $996.5 billion budget gap for the year ending next September — which would be a 23 percent drop from last year’s $1.3 trillion deficit. But those calculations assume that the expiring payroll tax break and jobless benefits will not be extended — so, if and when they are next week, the decision on offsets will determine whether the red ink is held below or stays above that symbolically important trillion-dollar mark.

FRIENDLY SUGGESTIONS: No Labels, a new and well-publicized nonpartisan citizens advocacy group, released its 12-point plan this morning to “Make Congress Work.” It’s the jumping-off point for the group’s first national grass-roots organizing campaign and drew initial Senate endorsements from Joe Manchin, Bill Nelson and Joe Lieberman, House backing from Jim Cooper, Bruce Braley and Tom Petri, and the support of former members Evan Bayh, Tom Davis and Mickey Edwards. The proposals include suspending congressional pay when budget and appropriations deadlines are missed; guaranteed up-or-down votes on all presidential nominees within 90 days; requiring in-person filibusters; three consecutive five-day legislative workweeks a month paired with a week’s recess; allowing rank-and-file lawmakers to challenge leadership decisions with anonymous signatures on discharge petitions; and a prohibition on incumbents campaigning against colleagues.

THE NEW GUARD: The 37th sergeant-at-arms in the House’s history will be 54-year-old Paul Irving, who spent 25 years with the Secret Service before retiring in 2008 — after stints in the presidential detail and as head of congressional affairs, top spokesman, chief budget officer and coordinator of the agency’s 2003 absorption by the new Homeland Security Department. (He’s now running the Miami office of Command Consulting Group, a corporate security firm.) Bill Livingood, who also was a Secret Service agent, is retiring at the start of the year after more than 17 years as the House’s top law enforcement and protocol official — and also the person who gets to bellow the presidential introduction at every State of the Union speech.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “When Newt showed up, he said we can become the majority, we can take back the House,” Dick Cheney — a member of the House’s Class of ’78, as was Gingrich — said on CNN last night. “Initially, none of us believed it. But he was persistent and he was tenacious. He kept it up, he kept it up, and he kept it up. And finally by ’94 he’s the newly elected Speaker of the House of Representatives with a Republican majority. So I wouldn’t underestimate him.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo of California (69) and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (61).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Monday, December 12, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Rider Satisfaction

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, December 12, 2011

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 and at 5:30 will decide whether to stick with two ambassadors who took up their posts last year under recess appointments and will have to come home in three weeks if not confirmed. Norm Eisen looks to have 60 votes needed to stay in the Czech Republic; the conservative foreign policy establishment likes him, though some senior Republicans are still smarting at his handling of a case during his previous role as the White House’s internal ethics enforcer. But the odds are long for Mari Carmen Aponte, the envoy to El Salvador; her base of support in the Latino community doesn’t look sufficient to overcome the eyebrows she’s raised among GOP conservatives for her past romance with a suspected spy for Cuba and for urging Salvadorans to abandon anti-gay prejudices.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at noon and this afternoon will debate four post-office-naming bills, three other seemingly non-contentious measures and legislation to renew and expand pipeline safety regulations for the next four years. Votes will be clustered after 6:30.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are beginning a joint news conference after spending two hours in the Oval Office discussing the relationship between their countries once the withdrawal of the final 6,000 American troops is complete three weeks from now. They’re then headed to a 12:45 wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, where hundreds of the nearly 4,500 Americans killed in the Iraq war are buried.

THE SUPREME COURT: The justices announced this morning that by June they’ll decide if Arizona’s law targeting illegal immigrants steps into policy-making territory that belongs to the federal government. (Elena Kagan, who was solicitor general when this dispute got started, recused herself.) Several provisions of the state law are not being enforced while the case is pending, including a requirement that police question the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally, a requirement that all immigrants carry registration papers, the criminalization of job searches by illegal immigrants and permission for police to arrest suspected illegals without a warrant.

ALMOST ALL ABOARD: This looks to be the second-to-last week Congress will be meeting this year — but the last in which the discretionary spending part of the 2012 budget wars will be hanging fire.

Negotiators are on course to get their $900 billion-or-so megabus deal wrapped up, and the formal conference report paperwork filed, by late tonight — which would mean the House would embrace the package by Wednesday and the Senate would clear it with hours to spare before Friday at midnight, when the current stopgap CR expires. Both Boehner and McConnell have essentially given their blessing to whatever package the Republican appropriators come up with. And Pelosi has done the same, trusting that the House Democratic appropriators have gotten the best deal possible. That leaves Reid as the last leader withholding judgment; he’s supposed to get a briefing late this afternoon. If he nods in assent, then there’s no way the White House will object.

The measure would hold all spending for fiscal 2012 (which is 10 weeks old now) at the grand total agreed to in the summer debt-limit deal — but contains enough conservative social-policy and deregulatory riders to win over a sufficient number of Republicans still smarting at those spending levels. At the same time, the roster of those riders, and their reach, is designed to be not so onerous as to draw a veto threat or to turn off a majority of Democrats, whose votes are essential in light of the still decent-sized number of GOP opponents. Ultimately the goal is to get about the same numbers of lawmakers voting for the package as voted for the three-part, $128 billion domestic minibus last month — with a few more Republicans voting “yes” than last time (when 101 in the House and 30 in the Senate went the other way) and a few more Democrats voting “no.”

Negotiations on all but two bills in the nine-measure package were essentially done by yesterday afternoon, when more than 100 narrowly crafted and generally parochial provisions were dropped at the insistence of a few senators (Claire McCaskill their leader) who saw them as earmarks and vowed to bring down the whole megabus if they remained. An effort to block new rules about travel and money transfers to Cuba was also sidebarred yesterday in the face of intense administration opposition. Work continued into the night on a list of riders the GOP is still pushing to add to the Labor-HHS-Education and Interior-Environment packages — and there’s still a chance that the conferees will reach enough of an impasse on those two that they’ll propose a special CR just for them lasting until September, while coming to a comprehensive agreement on the other seven.

Republicans are holding out to the last for language that would block any spending to carry out the health care overhaul. And the White House has dug in against that language — or at least implementing it before the Supreme Court decides next spring whether the insurance mandate and Medicaid expansions are constitutional. Republicans are also pushing until the last moment (and so far without apparent success) to prevent the EPA from carrying out its latest plans for coal ash, discharges of hot water and greenhouse gases from power plants, and emissions from both cement plants and oil refineries.

But the GOP does appear set to score some victories on abstinence education, wetlands regulations and abortions in Washington paid for with D.C. tax dollars — a sign that Republicans remain eager to micromanage the capital city’s affairs behind closed doors, even if their public posture suggests they’re ready to allow more local autonomy.

EXTENDED FEATURES: The House is full-steam-ahead for a vote tomorrow on the GOP plan for pairing the Social Security payroll tax extension with an accelerated timetable for building the Keystone XL pipeline — although one of the more candid Republican analysts of legislative dynamics in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, is breaking with party orthodoxy (again) and agreeing with the Democratic leadership view that the package has no hope of surviving on the north side of the Capitol. (Graham’s prediction yesterday on NBC directly contradicted McConnell, who said on “Fox News Sunday” that Democratic support in the Senate would be sufficient to get the pipeline language through.)

The bottom line is that it will be the weekend, at the earliest, before congressional leaders come to a final deal on the extenders bill, which also will include language extending jobless benefits, Medicare doctor payment rates and the status quo AMT system. The latest out-of-the-box idea, which is gaining some traction in both parties, is that much of the cost could be offset by boosting the “guarantee” fees that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac collect from lenders — which would require Congress to brush past objections from the banking, real estate and construction industries.

TRAIL TIPS: (1): The buzz at the end of the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Washington last week was at least as much about all the ring-kissing the group got from the presidential candidates as it was about this salient down-ballot fact: There are now two GOP Jews with decent shots at getting elected to the Senate next year — former Gov. Linda Lingle, who’s running for the open Senate seat in Hawaii, and Josh Mandel, the Ohio treasurer who’s challenging Sherrod Brown. And there’s a third candidate with a decent shot: Adam Hasner, the former state House minority leader in Florida, although his prospects have faded in light of Rep. Connie Mack’s candidacy.

(2) The most surreal ad by an ouside organization in the 2012 congressional campaign belongs, so far, to the conservative group Crossroads GPS, which is running a spot in Massachusetts attacking candidate Elizabeth Warren for being a friend to the big banks. That she could be remotely and tangentially tied the “Wall Street bailouts” is a remarkable testament to the power of creative political thinking, given how she has spent the last three years being pilloried by Republicans for her work in the White House and for Congress as a critic of the banks.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “I’m not going to rule anything out or anything in,” Ron Paul  said at Saturday night’s Des Moines debate when asked if he would run a third-party presidential campaign if his bid for the GOP nomination came up short. (He finished third in 1988 as the Libertarian Party nominee, with 0.5 percent of the vote — but would surely do at least an order of magnitude better this time. "I don’t talk in absolutes,” declared the Texas libertarian known as the House’s "Dr. No.")

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Today, House GOP freshman Blake Farenthold of Texas (50); yesterday, two of Reid’s three appointees to the faded-into-memory supercommittee: Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (70) and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry (68).

— David Hawkings, editor

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