Tuesday, December 20, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: The Bitter End

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 for a series of votes on the payroll tax cut, jobless benefits and Medicare reimbursement extensions — none of them on the straightforward question of whether to clear or reject the two-month, $33 billion package the Senate passed Saturday. The closest thing will be a vote within the hour on whether to “disagree with” that bill and seek to open formal negotiations on a potential compromise with the House’s year-long, $202 billion plan. But even in the highly unlikely situation that a majority — almost all Democrats joined by two dozen or so Republicans — votes “no” (meaning they’d be willing to acquiesce in the Senate’s temporary approach), that would not move the legislative process forward an inch.

Members have been told they will be free to go home for Christmas by 4 — a decidedly mixed message from a House GOP leadership that has been lambasting the Senate for “staying on vacation” despite the legislative impasse. (As a result, many politically vulnerable Republicans say they’ll stay in town for at least a couple of days, even with nothing to do.)

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 for a pro forma session only. (Reid is in town and may have something to say from the floor; McConnell’s in Kentucky.)

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is heading to Joint Base Andrews to headline yet another ceremony marking the end of the Iraq War. A few minutes after noon, he will receive the battle flag that was furled and sheathed for the TV cameras in Baghdad last week. (The last U.S. combat troops rolled across the border into Kuwait at dawn Sunday.)

HOLIDAY DEADLOCK: Washington is witnessing that rare standoff that probably will NOT end with a last-minute deal temporarily warding off some draconian consequence and allows both sides to save face. By nightfall, the Capitol will be empty, with neither the majority Democrats in the Senate nor the majority Republicans in the House showing any interest in turning on the lights again (and then giving in to the other side) before next year.

And so what once seemed almost impossible — given the bad economic consequences for so many voters and the potential political peril for all the players — has now become the default setting: A snapback on Jan. 1 to the old Social Security payroll tax rate of 6.2 percent for 160 million workers, which would mean about $20 less a week in the paychecks of people making $50,000 annually; a 27 percent cut in  Medicare payments to doctors; and the end of federal benefits for as many as 1.8 million of the long-term unemployed who have run out the clock on their 99 weeks of benefits. The brightest silver lining at this hour is that there’s precedent in all three cases for the status quo being allowed to expire but then being reinstated retroactively — although if the current impasse lasts longer than a month, that would become logistically much more difficult for payroll firms, the Medicare bureaucracy and the states that administer jobless aid to carry out.

And the current state of negotiations suggest that it would take several days, if not more than a week, to come up with a bill that covers all of 2012 and has its cost fully offset. The Senate leaders only embraced their two-month “Plan B” after their talks got really close, and then fell apart, on a package that would have lasted less than 11 months — until the week after the next election, an expiration designed not only to pare back the cost but also to force a long-term solution in the afterglow of the presidential voting. Republicans, remember, continue to favor almost nothing but spending cuts, while the Democrats will now likely return to the goal of a millionaires surtax that they’ve pushed all fall (but abandoned in a last-ditch effort for a pre-Christmas deal).

THE BLAME GAME: Both parties are gambling — with seemingly equal confidence — that they will win the messaging battle if the payroll tax holiday ends in 11 days, and so neither believes it has any incentive to back away from the brink now. Instead, each side sounds convinced it can successfully portray the other as shirking its responsibility.

House Republicans are slamming both Obama and Reid’s Senate for not holding fast to their pledge to find a year-long resolution before the holidays — a position that overlooks the central role that McConnell played (and, it’s clear, with Boehner’s backing) in concluding that a two-month patch was the best option attainable. House Republicans also think they will win by standing up to the “kick the can” culture that dominates today’s legislative dynamic and so infuriates the public. And so they have concluded that a continued standoff into January will be blamed on the other side — and that even a modest gain for their positions when Congress returns in January could prove that the 112th is not a “do nothing” Congress, after all.

Democrats in both chambers — and the White House, too — all sound confident they can win with the argument that they will not allow the economic recovery to be taken hostage by a relatively small band of the most conservative tea party Republicans in the House. They are also confident that the lopsided vote in the Senate for the temporary bill will be viewed as a sign they have compromised plenty with the GOP in this instance. And they are happy with their talking point that they’re willing to restart talks right away on a longer-term solution — just as soon as the temporary patch that buys them time is put in place.

DEMOCRATS POLL AHEAD: The latest wave of polling would seem to give a solid edge to the Democrats on this one. Those surveyed for today’s Washington Post-ABC News poll said they trusted Obama to do a better job “handling taxes” than the Republicans, 46 percent to 41 percent — a turnabout from two months ago, when the score on the same question was 46 percent for the GOP and 39 percent for the president. Also, Obama has regained his edge over Hill Republicans on “protecting the middle class” — 50 percent say they trust him most on this issue, while just 35 percent chose the GOP. That’s another big change, because last month the two were in a statistical tie on the question. Finally, a Pew Research Center poll taken two weekends ago found 40 percent blaming Republican leaders for a “do nothing” Congress, while 23 percent blame Democrats.

SPEAKER IN A TIGHT SPOT: The No. 1 question that will debated over the eggnog at Hill-centric holiday parties is whether Boehner will be able to save his Speakership for more than a few more months in light of his horrible miscalculation on the payroll tax bill — and then his desperate flip-flop to get in front of the troops that were marching in the opposite direction from where he said they needed to go.

The old adage about not shooting the king unless you’re sure to kill him still applies: Cantor will not make his inevitable move until he’s sure he can depose Boehner without much of a fight — and preferably, only once he’s persuaded his rival to step off the podium on his own terms and timetable. But the Virginian's trigger finger is clearly getting itchy; the GOP cloakroom is rife with chatter about how Cantor knew that Boehner was walking into a rank-and-file buzz saw when he signed off on the two-month deal — but declined to offer any advance warning before the Speaker took on a fusillade of criticism in a conference call with his caucus Saturday afternoon.

The subsequent storyline — that the Speaker needed to be redirected by his own rank-and-file, which is the exact opposite of the way a House leader wants to work — has raised significant questions about his ability to lead his conference for the long-term. Under the “rule of three,” Boehner has now established a trend, because it the third time this year he’s gotten dangerously out in front of his colleagues (the others were the intial showdown in March and the “grand bargain” over the deficit this summer). Complicating matters further is the way Boehner, by his about face, has infuriated his counterpart in the Senate — who engineered a rare bipartisan deal with Boehner’s blessing (and his proxy), only to be tacitly accused of acting unilaterally and inappropriately by the very senior Republican McConnell was trying top help out of a jam.

NO RECESS FOR NOMINEES: No matter what happens with the extensions bill, the Senate will not formally recess before its return on the fourth Monday in January. McConnell is once again refusing to go along with a formal adjournment resolution, because that’s the best way Republicans know of to prevent Obama from using his constitutional powers to turn nominees into temporary appointees (and bypass the confirmation step altogether) when the Senate has officially turned out the lights.

But McConnell went a step further Saturday and blocked outright a package of confirmations (most of them uncontested) proposed by Reid — his retaliatory response to learning that Obama was thinking of breaking with longstanding “practice and precedent” and declaring he had the power to make recess appointments when the Senate was (as a practical, if not a parliamentary, reality) on break. Since 1933, that’s been interpreted as when the Senate does not meet for more than three days straight — which is why in recent years there have been pro forma sessions, like the one coming this afternoon, whenever more than 40 senators of one party want to neutralize the recess appointment powers of a president from the other party. But some constitutional scholars say that idea could be successfully challenged by the president. (Teddy Roosevelt famously made more than 100 recess appointments when the Senate was out of session for only a few minutes between the end of one Congress and the start of another in 1903.)

Democrats in Congress and other party leaders and advocates are pushing hard for Obama to use his powers to get former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray into the director’s seat at the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — a move that would infuriate the GOP, which blocked his confirmation earlier this month. Republican senators are also suspicious that Obama plans to push onto the National Labor Relations Board two controversial nominees he announced last week: former Labor Department official Sharon Block and union official Richard Griffin.

Among the others caught in the standoff are two nominees for the FDIC, Martin Gruenberg and Thomas Hoenig, and Thomas Curry to be comptroller of the currency.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “My objective is to get about 30 percent of the vote in the first month, about 40 percent in the second month and then about 55 or 60 percent in the third month,” Mitt Romney said on MSNBC this morning —  dismissing any expectations that he might be able to sew up the 2012 Republican presidential nomination early in the primary and caucus season.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Nobody prominent and well-connected in Washington circles is celebrating today.

NOTE TO READERS: The CQ Today print edition did not publish today, as neither chamber was expected to be in session and the House decision to hold votes came too late last night for the printer’s deadline. But complete coverage of today’s action may be found here and on RollCall.com.

DAILY BRIEFING SCHEDULE: The next Daily Briefing will be on Tuesday, Jan. 3 — unless Congress reconvenes in the interim. Happy holidays.

— David Hawkings, editor

Become a Facebook fan at facebook.com/DavidHawkingsDC. Or follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/davidhawkings.

Copyright 2011 CQ Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved | Privacy Policy

Monday, December 19, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Ho ho ho? Oh, no!

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, December 19, 2011

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10, has recessed until 4 and will vote at 6:30 on a package of two-month extensions for the 4.2 percent Social Security payroll tax rate, unemployment benefits and the Medicare physician reimbursement schedule. Republican leaders say they are confident they have the votes to defeat the bill — and then to push through their counterproposal (probably tonight), which is a demand for formal conference negotiations on an extensions package lasting through the end of 2012.

THE SENATE: Not in session; what’s supposed to be only a pro forma session convenes at 2 tomorrow.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama convened a senior staff meeting at 10:45 to discuss the extenders impasse and the situation in North Korea. He has no public appearances planned at the moment.

PAYROLL IMPASSE: Now may be the most intractable legislative impasse yet in a year already marked by memorably intense and bitter gridlock.

This morning the House majority leadership and the Senate majority leadership both doubled down on their positions in the surprising standoff over the payroll tax holiday. Boehner insisted he would push his Republican troops to defeat the two-month extension — even if the result was that no bill clears and taxes go up for 160 million workers in a dozen days. “This is a vote about whether Congress will stay and do its work or go on vacation,” he declared before reporters at the Capitol. He spoke about an hour after Schumer, the No. 3 leader for the Senate Democrats, said Reid has no plans to call senators back to Washington before their scheduled return in five weeks — and would only return to the bargaining table on a year-long bill once the House had cleared the short-term measure. “There are no other options,” Schumer declared on MSNBC.

The White House, for its part, sought to stoke the possibility that the deadlock would be broken tonight, after all. Almost all the Democrats in the House are ready to vote for the two-month bill at the president’s urging, his spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said, and “it should be pretty easy” to get about 10 percent of Republicans (those in tough re-election races) to break ranks and go along — out of fear that to do otherwise would subject them to ridicule for allowing a tax hike at the holidays. (If all 192 Democrats vote “yes,” it would require 26 Republicans to do the same to form a majority of 218 .But those aren’t the numbers in play, if for no other reason than a dozen or more members who were sent home for the weekend on Friday — mainly retirees and lawmakers in safe seats — will not be returning to Washington this week, no matter what.)

If the bill clears, it would mean Boehner would have fundamentally misread the sentiment of his rank-and-file for the second time since the weekend began. Although he denied it this morning, the evidence is overwhelming that he had advance word about, and initially supported, the package unveiled Friday night by Reid and McConnell — in large measure because it included the language requiring Obama to make a decision in 60 days on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a major aim of the House GOP. And in a conference call with his troops Saturday afternoon — after the Senate passed the bill with 39 Republican and 50 Democratic caucus “yes” votes — Boehner initially promoted the deal, only to reverse course in the face of significant rank-and-file resentment. House Republicans generally view the stopgap bill as both genuinely bad policy (because it gives businesses no measure of certainty) and bad politics, not only because its tentative quality bolsters the reputation of Congress as inept, but also because it would likely allow Obama to reclaim the upper hand when the debate was rejoined next month.

The year-long bill the House passed a week ago would cost $202 billion. The Senate’s two-month bill would cost $33 billion.

KOREA IN TRANSITION: The government-run North Korean media today is urging citizens to “loyally follow” Kim Jong Un — describing the little-known, 20-something third son of Kim Jong Il as both the “great successor” and at the “forefront of the revolution.” North Korea also test-fired a short-range missile on its eastern coast, but intelligence officials said the launch probably happened before the death of the “dear leader” was announced, was somewhat routine and should not be seen as a bellicose move related to the transition in power.

Obama called South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at midnight and promised that his administration remains committed to stability on the Korean peninsula. (About 28,000 U.S. troops are stationed on the South Korean side of the border.) There had been reports the White House was on course to decide this week whether to try to re-engage North Korea in nuclear negotiations and to spur those efforts along with a significant delivery of food aid, but that decision has now been postponed indefinitely because of Kim Jong Il's death. He was 69 and had been running the world’s most isolated nation with an autocratic and erratic hand for 17 years, starting a nuclear weapons program while allowing as many as 2 million citizens to die from starvation.

PAUL PULLS AHEAD: Ron Paul is now the new favorite to win the Iowa caucuses in two weeks, according to a Public Policy Polling poll of Iowa Republicans released last night. It found the Texas congressman with 23 percent support, Mitt Romney with 20 percent, Newt Gingrich down to 14 percent and Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry at 10 percent each. The pollsters found that Paul’s significant organization in the state, the depth of commitment among his backers (73 percent say they are sure to stick with him) and his support among young voters (33 percent) were all working in his favor.

The poll was taken before Gingrich pushed the button on another one of his trademark rhetorical bombs yesterday, declaring on “Face the Nation” that as president he would force federal judges to defend their unpopular decisions before congressional hearings — even if the Capitol Police or federal marshals had to arrest them to get them to comply with House and Senate subpoenas. It’s that sort of outside-the-box provocative thinking that initially helped drive his surge in the polls — but is now helping to undermine his support the more attention it gets in the mainstream media. The  same sort of scrutiny would almost surely surround Paul’s candidacy if he wins in Iowa, although the effect would be different, because Paul appears to have enough money and support among libertarian Republicans to keep his candidacy going indefinitely, just as he did long after McCain wrapped things up in 2008.

PUBLISHING SCHEDULE: Whenever Congress goes home for good, the Daily Briefing will also take a break for the holidays, with plans to return Tuesday, Jan. 3.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Sen. Ron Portman of Ohio (56) and Rep. Adrian Smith of Nebraska (41) today; a third Republican, Rep. Bill Posey of Florida (64), yesterday.

— David Hawkings, editor

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Copyright 2011 CQ Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved | Privacy Policy