Tuesday, April 24, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Touchy Subjects

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and will vote at 2:15 (just after the weekly caucus lunches) to keep in place labor regulations that speed the timetable for unions to hold workplace organizing elections. Republicans are destined to come up a handful short of the 51 votes they need to advance a special resolution nullifying the National Labor Relations Board rules, a main Chamber of Commerce objective for the year.

The rest of the day will be spent on as many as 39 amendments to the Postal Service overhaul — almost all of which will be rejected because they’ll garner fewer than 60 votes. (The vote-a-rama may drag on long enough that Reid puts off until morning the vote to pass the bill, the centerpiece of which would provide $11 billion to finance buyouts of 15 percent of the current workforce.) The key vote will be on an alternative, which parallels the measure awaiting debate in the House, that would go further in speeding up post office closures and ending Saturday mail delivery.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at noon to debate half a dozen non-controversial federal lands bills. Lawmakers have until 6:30 to get back in town for roll calls.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Air Force One is about to land at the Raleigh-Durham airport, the first stop on a two-day trip to college campuses in three swing states — where Obama will press his efforts to get Congress to continue the 3.4 percent interest rate on a popular federal loan used by about 7 million poorer and middle-class students. That rate was set five years ago but is on schedule to double in July. (Yesterday, Mitt Romney got out ahead of the president’s appeal to the potentially crucial bloc of younger voters and said he agreed with his opponent that the lower rate should be retained; many of his fellow Republicans in Congress disagree in light of the $6 billion cost of a one-year extension.)

After his 1:15 speech at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — which will be mostly repeated this evening at the University of Colorado at Boulder — Obama will tape tonight’s appearance on the Jimmy Fallon show. Before he left this morning, Obama presided at an East Room ceremony honoring Rebecca Mieliwocki, a seventh-grade English teacher in suburban Los Angeles, as the federal government’s National Teacher of the Year.

IT’S BACK: Immigration has joined the roster of campaign issues that will get a place on the congressional proxy-vote calendar.

Chuck Schumer announced at a Senate Judiciary hearing this morning that Democrats would force a vote on legislation written to nullify Arizona’s controversial immigration law — and that the balloting would happen even before the Supreme Court decides if the law is constitutional. (That won’t happen before late June, because the oral arguments in the case are not until tomorrow.) The bill would almost certainly be stopped by a Republican filibuster, and would absolutely be rejected in the GOP House. But as with so many other measures coming under the spotlight at the Capitol in the next six months, legislative success or failure is not the point. In this case, the move would be a second way for the Democrats to underscore that they have become the party more worried that the Supreme Court has become overtly politicized and unduly activist. In the case of the constitutional challenge to the health care law, which will also be decided in June, the Democrats would view a rule striking down the law as a huge departure from precedent. In the case of the Arizona immigration case, they say a ruling upholding the law would be out of bounds from past holdings.

Today’s hearing prompted Senate GOP Whip Jon Kyl to walk out in protest. “It is strictly political theater,” he said. “The timing of the hearing just one day ahead of the Supreme Court’s review of the law suggests that its purpose is either to influence the court’s decision or to garner publicity.”

Beyond its part in the every-four-years ascent of the Supreme Court’s role to near the top of the presidential campaign agenda, the immigration debate would obviously have an important effect on the Hispanic vote — which Obama is counting on winning big in his second term bid. And he got good news today from a poll out of Arizona (where Kyl is retiring after three terms): The president has moved into a statistical tie in the state against Romney — 40 percent to 42 percent. Only one Democrat, Bill Clinton in 1996, has carried the state since Harry Truman in 1948.

WHY DID HE SAY THAT? Democrats and even some Republicans are wondering aloud why Boehner went on TV yesterday and set at 33 percent the chance that the GOP will lose the House this fall. “I can tell you one thing: Nancy Pelosi would never ever raise the possibility we might lose,” Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said this morning.

“I would say that there is a 2-in-3 chance that we win control of the House again but there’s a 1-in-3 chance that we could lose,” the Speaker told Fox. "I’m being myself — frank; we’ve got a big challenge and we’ve got work to do.”  He said he viewed 50 fellow incumbents as in danger of defeat – none more so than the 18 running in “orphan districts” in California, Illinois and New York, where there’s no Senate race above the House contest on the ballot and Obama is a lock to carry the state. (The Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats to retake the House, so a wipeout in those “frankly pretty vulnerable” districts, to use Boehner’s phrase, would accomplish three-quarters of that task.)

The comments encapsulate several truths about the current state of play in the race for congressional control. Most race-by-race analyses conclude that the Speaker’s odds are within range of appropriate (if seldom-stated) political reality, and so there’s little reason for the Speaker to be coy about it — especially because sounding the alarm now should have the effect of helping the odds get longer. That’s because his publicly stated concern, which is a total reversal from his “nearly impossible” rhetoric of a month ago, will undeniably have the effect of helping the party raise more money in the weeks and months ahead. And at the moment, the sense that continued House control can be taken for granted has led to the Republican congressional campaign organization falling behind its Democratic counterpart in fundraising.

ADVANTAGE, BANKS: The banks have won the latest skirmish in their war with the credit unions over the market in small-business lending. For much of this spring, it looked very much like the credit unions had the votes to pass legislation in the Senate this month that would have allowed them to expand their lending capabilities — and thereby cut into the banks’ cherished territory. (The bill would allow credit unions to raise the cap on loans in their small-business portfolios from 12.25 percent of their assets to a of 27.5 percent — which the credit unions claim would prompt them to make loans creating 100,000 jobs.) But a blizzard of lobbying by the banks — who say the legislation would crush community institutions and give even more advantages to the credit unions, which already get a tax-exempt status — has now prompted Reid to postpone the vote indefinitely, although he is still signaling it will happen sometime this year. Every week of delay, however, makes it less likely the House will take up the measure during this Congress.

STILL, IT WON’T BE EASY: Reid got around his most recent Max Baucus problem this morning by securing an agreement to name seven other Senate Democrats (in addition to the Finance chairman) to the conference panel that will write the final highway bill. That means Baucus will not be able to bond with all the Republicans to push through language that goes against his party’s wishes — and tempts a veto — by essentially compelling approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The eight Democrats named to the negotiating table were Baucus, Barbara Boxer, Jay Rockefeller, Dick Durbin, Tim Johnson, Chuck Schumer, Bill Nelson and Bob Menendez. The six Republicans were Jim Inhofe, David Vitter, Orrin Hatch, Dick Shelby, Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Hoeven. The House leadership plans to name its negotiators tomorrow. The conferees already are conceding it will take until June to come up with a final version of the road and mass transit policy package — because they will in many ways be starting from scratch, because of the wide gulfs of policy differences (the Keystone pipeline one of many) between the Senate’s two-year, $109 billion bill and the much more expensive five-year aspirations of the House GOP.

THE DELAWARE GAMBIT: Romney is of course going to vacuum-up a lopsided majority of the 231 delegates at stake in today’s five Republican presidential primaries. (Polls close at 8 in Connecticut, Delaware and Pennsylvania, and at 9 in New York and Rhode Island.) The only one of those contests worth watching is the smallest of them all — in Delaware, because that’s where Newt Gingrich is making what really, truly looks to be his last symbolic stand. Helped by a decent grass-roots organization, he’s spent most of his time there in the last couple of weeks and has a genuine shot at winning — which would mean securing a tiny but comforting 17-delegate boost (it’s a winner-take-all contest). If that happens, the former Speaker plans to plow ahead into the North Carolina primary campaign (May 8; 55 delegates) on that thinnest possible reed of viability. And if that doesn’t happen, he’s signaling that he will once and for all bring his career in electoral politics to a belated end.

COLD MOUNTAINS: Pennsylvania is the only one of today’s presidential primary states where congressional nominations are also being decided, and the results will bring an end to the House careers of at least one centrist Democrat — and probably two.

In the marquee member vs. member race, in the rural areas north and east of Pittsburgh, Jason Altmire’s once solid front-runner status has been reduced to only a slight and tenuous edge over Mark Critz. Organization to turn out the vote will prove even more critical than usual, because the weather in the region is unseasonably cold and blustery — with a lingering prospect for sticking snow around Johnstown. That would be bad news for Critz, because that’s his political wheelhouse, but at the same time he has the much more enthusiastic backing of unions, which have labeled the Blue Dog Altmire a sellout for opposing the 2010 health care law.

At the other end of the state, in territory drawn by the Republican legislature to concentrate in one district almost all the Democratic precincts in the rural northeast quadrant, another conservative Democrat who voted against the health care law, Tim Holden, is on the precipice of being ousted after 10 terms. The probable primary winner is a relatively liberal attorney, Matt Cartwright, who has poured more than $400,000 of his own money into the campaign and been aided by a $300,000 investment against Holden by outside groups including the League of Conservation Voters and the anti-incumbent Campaign for Primary Accountability. Holden and his forces have spent less than that, and the congressman is also critically hampered by the demographic fact that 80 percent of the electorate is new to him.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Georgia Republican Jack Kingston, chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee (57).

— David Hawkings, editor

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

More congressional campaign coverage is on Roll Call’s At the Races politics blog.

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