Wednesday, February 15, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: 'Hold on Tight a Little While Longer'

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and this afternoon and will begin debating the energy provisions of the GOP highway bill. (The last amendment vote is promised before 7.) The package would expand offshore drilling for oil and gas, permit drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, approve the Keystone XL pipeline and create a shale-oil leasing program — with any resulting federal revenue dedicated to road and bridge projects.

Boehner appears to have the votes to pass this section of his overall package as a stand-alone bill, but he still faces significant opposition — from fellow Republicans and almost all Democrats — to the other two parts, one to limit federal pensions and the other to revamp highway, rail and mass transit policy for the next five years. As a consequence, he announced this morning that debate on those sections would be put off until after next week’s Presidents Day recess. “It’s more important that we do it right than that we do it fast,” he told a GOP caucus meeting, promising to allow lawmakers to air their grievances through a wide-open amendment process .

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30, will vote at noon to promote of Adalberto Jordan from the federal trial bench in Miami to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and will then spend the rest of the day on its version of the highway bill. But the first contentious amendment vote looks to have nothing to do with public works priorities; instead, it will be on Republican language that would allow any employer (not just religiously affiliated institutions) to opt out of Obama’s contraceptive coverage mandate. After that, attention may turn to proposals to either chide Egypt or cut off its U.S. aid because of its prosecution of Americans working to promote democracy.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is flying to Milwaukee, where at 1:40 (D.C. time) he’ll urge corporate leaders to make more investments and hire more people in America — from the factory floor at Master Lock, a favorite example of the president’s because it brought 100 manufacturing jobs back from China in response to rising labor and logistical costs in Asia. (Obama carried Wisconsin by 14 points in 2008, but since then a big GOP surge in the state has made his chances this year a tossup.)

Air Force One takes off at 3 for Los Angeles, where tonight the president will appear at the first two events in an eight-fundraiser, three-city West Coast tour — a $250-a-head reception and Foo Fighters concert for 1,000 at the home of soap opera impresario Bradley Bell, followed by a $35,800-a-plate dinner in the mansion for 80 hosted by Bell and the actor Will Ferrell .

HOW IT CAME TO THIS: Negotiators continue to haggle today over the fine print of the legislative package extending the lower Social Security payroll tax through the end of the year, maintaining long-term unemployment insurance and paying doctors who care for Medicare patients at the current rate — but with spending cuts totaling no more than $60 billion and probably closer to $50 billion, which would be less than one-third the overall expense.

A deal was close enough, however, that House members were told to expect a vote on Friday. The last major political obstacle faded there this morning, when Boehner got solid if hardly unanimous support for his not-too-many-offsets capitulation from the most conservative members of his caucus. The Senate is also likely to clear the measure by the end of the week, even though McConnell has been publicly cool to the notion of extending the payroll tax cut without paying for it — and seemed to have been taken by surprise at the House GOP leadership’s about-face.

“We have a good framework, but there are still some important details yet to go,” Chris Van Hollen, one of the House Democratic negotiators, said at mid-morning. “It ain’t over till it’s over, so everyone needs to hold on tight a little while longer.” The conference committee has agreed to set 73 weeks as the maximum extension of jobless insurance in the 14 hardest-hit states (down from 99 weeks now) and 63 weeks in all the others (down from 93 weeks). The Republican efforts to require drug tests or a GED as a condition of getting a benefits check have been scuttled. The offsets would come from broadcast spectrum sales, some new fees on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, cutting Medicare payments to hospitals where too many patients skip out on their bills, trimming a fund to combat chronic diseases and setting some new federal pension limits — which, problematically, overlap with some pay-fors in the House highway bill.

But if the measure goes to Obama by the weekend, it would bring to an end one of the most tortured and protracted fiscal policy standoffs in a year that has been replete with them — and just in time for lawmakers to boast back home (during next week’s recess) that they’d put aside their well-known reputations for bickering, brinkmanship and ideological high-handedness long enough to reach bipartisan consensus on a budget bill with tangible, real world implications — and with fully two weeks to spare. (The payroll tax break — which means $20 a week to someone making $50,000 a year — the jobless aid and the “doc fix” are all set to lapse on Feb. 29.) With polls still showing their collective approval rating flirting with single digits, and the election nine months away, members of Congress were under significant pressure to set aside their dysfunctional ways on the three-part extenders package — which in other years would be barely a footnote but which may stand as one of the year’s most high-profile legislative accomplishments. And Republicans, especially, can take some cold comfort in the notion that any anger from the base about their flip-flop on offsets won’t last as long as the anger they would have stirred up nationwide, had they held firm against a continued tax break for the middle class.

PLUM POSITION: Robert Zoellick told the World Bank’s board this morning that he would not seek a reappointment and would step down June 30, when his five-year term as president ends. (During his tenure the bank says it provided more than $247 billion to help developing countries boost their economic growth and combat poverty.) Zoellick, a former deputy secretary of State and U.S. trade representative, is only 58 and would be a top candidate for several Cabinet posts under any Republican who might win the White House this fall. In the interim, his departure will compel the Obama administration to decide whether the United States will insist on holding on to the job — which has been held by an American since the international lending organization was created 68 years ago. Water-cooler speculation in the global banking world has focused on Hillary Clinton and Larry Summers as the highest-profile Americans who might want the post.

NOW AND LATER: The latest good polling news for Rick Santorum comes from Ohio — which, like Michigan, is an industrial Midwest battleground not only in the Republican primaries but in the fall as well. A Quinnipiac Poll out today shows the ex-Pennsylvania senator ahead there by 7 percentage points — with 36 percent to 29 percent for Mitt Romney. (Newt Gingrich, who had identified Ohio as one of his better Super Tuesday opportunities, is at 20 percent, and Ron Paul is at 9 percent.) In a potential fall matchup, the Q poll shows Obama edging Romney in Ohio by 2 points, Santorum by 6 and Gingrich by 12 — even though his approval rating in the state remains a hair below his-new-national average 47 percent. (The Ohio vote is March 6, a week after Michiagn.)

The less-obvious good news for Santorum comes from Texas, where the Byzantine court battle over congressional redistricting has now forced another postponement of the GOP primary. It was supposed to be part of Super Tuesday. Then it was pushed to April 3. Yesterday that date was scratched as well, with the party instead asking judges in San Antonio to permit a May 22 date. But that, too, will become impractical if the redistricting fight drags on, and under some scenarios the vote could be as late as June 26. Almost certainly someone will have secured a majority of the delegates by then, but if not, the 155 coming from Texas would be an enormous prize. And the bulk of them almost surely go to the most conservative candidate left standing. For now, Gingrich seems to be counting on it — in part because he’s got promises of enthusiastic help from his former rival, Gov. Rick Perry. But if Gingrich is out of the race by late spring, Santorum could claim an enormous prize.

CITY HALL TO CONVENTION HALL: Antonio Villaraigosa was tapped today to be chairman of the Democratic convention starting in Charlotte the day after Labor Day. The position is akin to being master of ceremonies (assuming the convention remains a choreographed Obama love-fest and doesn’t degenerate into party infighting), and so it affords the two-term mayor of Los Angeles three evenings in prime time to raise his profile as a leading spokesman for the entire party, not just the Latino community. Beyond that, it underscores the party’s efforts to generate an especially heavy turnout for Obama among Hispanics in four of the swing states — Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. Usually the chairman’s job goes to a senior member of the congressional leadership, but DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the Obama campaign have made clear they want this convention to shake off some of its more old-fashioned traditions.

HASTINGS RULING: Winsome Packer may continue to pursue her sexual harassment suit against the Helsinki Commission, but a federal judge has ruled that Alcee Hastings and a former chief of staff, Fred Turner, may not be held personally liable in the case. Packer worked for the Europe-policy advisory commission in Vienna and claims the Florida Democrat made frequent unwanted sexual advances when he visited as a leader of the commission from 2007 until last year — and that Hastings and Turner retaliated against her after she complained. “This whole thing is ridiculous, bizarre, frivolous, and has wasted — and is still wasting — a whole lot of folks’ time and money,” the congressman said in a statement. “I am glad to see that these bogus allegations have finally been dismissed.” But that’s actually not true. Judge Barbara Rothstein’s ruling yesterday makes clear that Hastings may still be put under oath to describe his version of his encounters with Packer.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No current lawmakers, but  at least two former Cabinet members: James Schlesinger, Defense secretary for Nixon and Ford and then Carter’s first Energy secretary (83), and John Block, Reagan’s first Agriculture secretary (77). And former House GOP Conference Chairman John Anderson of Illinois, who won 5.7 million 1980 presidential votes (90).

— David Hawkings, editor

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