Wednesday, June 06, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Gas or Brake Before the Break?

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 for a day of speechmaking about the farm bill, while negotiations continue on setting parameters for a debate expected to last most of this month. (A cloture vote to get the ball rolling, and test the strength of the bill’s mostly Southern opponents, will come tomorrow.)

For rural America, the most controversial feature is a revamp of the crop subsidy system; $5 billion annually in direct payments to farmers — some who leave their fields fallow — would be replaced with a bolstered federal crop insurance system and a new “shallow loss” program that pays farmers for sustained annual losses on what they grow. (Southerners say the new system would hurt cotton and peanut farmers more than the wheat, corn and soybean farmers up north.) For urban America, the most controversial feature is a $23 billion cut in food stamps during the next decade.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and will be voting until close to 11. There are two dozen more amendments to be disposed of before a lopsided vote to pass the energy and water spending package. Another wide-open debate will then get started on the House’s fourth fiscal 2013 appropriations bill, providing $39 billion (a 1 percent trim) for the Department of Homeland Security and $5.5 billion for disaster relief. FEMA funding would be boosted, but the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement would be cut.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Air Force One is on the way to California, where Obama will raise money at a pair of events in San Francisco this afternoon and at two more fundraisers in Los Angeles this evening — one a Beverly Wilshire gala for gay and lesbian supporters paying $25,000 a couple.

MORE LANES, SAME TRAFFIC: The Republican majority is getting ready to deliver the House’s counteroffer to a comprehensive compromise plan on the highway bill put out by the top Senate negotiators yesterday. House Democrats are noticeably boxed out of the process, even though transportation has been one of the few policy areas that has resisted metastasizing partisanship in recent years — and even though the Senate offer came from lawmakers anchoring the ends of the ideological spectrum, Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer and top Republican Jim Inhofe.

The Oklahoma senator is emerging as this week’s version of the indispensable man in the talks. That's because a deal looks possible only if he  persuades fellow tea-party-style conservatives in the House that jump-starting highway and mass transit construction — in a measure including language streamlining environmental reviews — can be sold as a fiscally responsible position (because it will aid the economy and put people to work). State highway officials, construction industry groups and chambers of commerce are all making the same point, and have been for months.

But what’s standing in the way of a deal before the end-of-June deadline also hasn’t changed for months: Some in the GOP leadership are convinced an impasse is better politics than a deal — partly in the cynical view that a big burst of public works hiring before the election has to be prevented, so as not to help Obama with a campaign season jolt to the economy. Others insist they are willing to bury the entire highway bill unless it guarantees top-speed approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline (and maybe stops EPA regulation of coal ash). Those issues were purposely left out of the Boxer-Inhofe offer the House is now considering. So, too, is the all-important language about how to finance all the new construction at a time when gasoline taxes aren’t sufficient to cover the costs.

STAFFORD STANDOFF: The rationale for taxpayers paying for most of Obama’s latest West Coast fundraising trip will come tomorrow, when the president makes an official speech on a matter of policy — at UNLV, on the student loan impasse. The venue affords him a prime opportunity to claim credit for one of the last bipartisan legislative victories that can be expected before the election. He could do so by embracing one of the two new Republican offers for offsetting the $6 billion cost of extending the 3.4 percent interest rate on federally subsidized college loans for a year.

But don’t expect that to happen. Instead, the president is likely to offer some vaguely worded “we can work this out” language, maybe accompanied by the outlines of a counteroffer. Biden made clear yesterday that the administration isn’t close to declaring victory with fully three weeks left on the countdown clock — because, he said, the White House fears some sort of trap lies ahead. It was totally unclear what he was talking about, though, because all of the offset options are things the administration itself has been behind at various points in the last year of budget brinkmanship: increasing the cost to federal workers of their retirement benefits, limiting federal loan eligibility for part-time students, curbing Medicaid expenses a hair and combatting Social Security overpayments. None of those relatively minor budget tweaks faces anything close to top-flight opposition within the Democratic base, and it’s undeniably true that, if such rounding-error limits to  entitlements cannot be made in the cause of a hugely popular idea like keeping college costs in check, there’s no reason to hope that much bigger entitlement limits will ever be seriously considered in the name of politically painful budget discipline.

Boehner says he doesn’t expect a deal before the rate rises on July 1. It looks for now as though he’s right. For 7.4 million Stafford loan students, though, the good news is it will be a relatively painless bureaucratic matter to deal with a retroactive lowering of the rates back from 6.8 percent this fall — before any payments are due, but also probably after the election.

BLOWBACK: The revelations of the last week that Obama unilaterally launched a Stuxnet virus attack on Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, and personally signed off on al Qaeda drone attacks, have raised surprisingly few audible hackles in a Congress where members of both parties (but most of all, these days, Republicans) could have been expected to rail against an excessive use of unilateral presidential power. Instead, the rebukes over the disclosures have been almost all about the fact that there were disclosures.

In other words, Congress seems more concerned about finding and punishing the messengers — the officials who may have leaked classified information to The New York Times and other journalists — than about debating the merits of the little-known policy messages their stories put in the sunshine. While the FBI has reportedly opened its own investigation of the leaks, the bipartisan outrage has been more transparent in the Senate. Yesterday John McCain and fellow Armed Services Republican Saxby Chambliss called for a special prosecutor and a hearing on the issue, while Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein vowed to amend her version of the annual spy powers bill to require that Congress be told about authorized disclosures of classified information and insist on stronger investigations of unauthorized leaks.

CLINTON AND THE CLIFF: The latest CBO warning about the country’s long-term fiscal illness is serving as a Rorschach test for lawmakers sizing up the fiscal cliff. Same goes for the latest somewhat-off-the-reservation comments by Bill Clinton.

Boehner, McConnell and almost every other Republicans crowed today that the former president had given them all the ammunition required to lock down an extension of the Bush tax rates — at least for another year. Clinton told CNBC last night that the national economic predicament was rocky enough that tinkering with the tax code before next year (meaning in the lame duck) was unwise. That goes directly against what Obama and many Democrats have said they’re after, which is some higher taxes – either for the sort-of-rich and above or only the very rich – starting in January. (But Clinton’s office later walked back that comment, saying that he doesn’t believe in any more extensions of the “tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans” and that all he meant to do in the interview was make the obvious point that any grand budget bargain would have to come after the election.)

Extending the current tax rates for families with income above $250,000 would cost about $850 billion in the next decade — meaning that, if those tax cuts were allowed to expire, budget negotiators would be about a quarter of the way toward their “grand bargain” target of $4 trillion in cumulative deficit reduction (and attendant debt growth slowdown). And that’s where the latest long-term CBO forecast comes in. The report detailed two alarmingly different scenarios. Extending the Bush tax rates and skipping out on the plans for  automatic spending cuts would allow the debt to grow from three-quarters the size of the GDP, which it is now, to twice the size of the economy 25 years from now. If the tax cuts are allowed to expire and the sequester takes place, the debt would shrink in the next quarter-century to half the size of the GDP.

House Budget was grilling CBO chief Doug Elmendorf about the report today, with each side in predictable form — blaming the other for intransigence on addressing the coming budgetary chasm.

TRAIL TIPS: (Wisconsin) Scott Walker’s recall rebuff was undeniably decisive — he won by 7 percentage points and 173,000 votes, an even better showing than when he beat Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett 18 months ago — but the results also suggest the special election was less of a national referendum (or a harbinger of the presidential race in Wisconsin) than Republicans are claiming today. The exit polls showed Obama carrying the state’s 10 electoral votes by 7 points in the state at the moment, 51 percent to 44 percent. And the state’s 6.7 percent jobless rate remains well below the national number on which much of the campaign will be fought. But that did not stop RNC Chairman Reince Priebus from declaring that the party “infrastructure and enthusiasm” that propelled Walker’s victory can be readily redeployed and that Romney will now contest the state with vigor. (Although Obama carried the state by 14 points, John Kerry and Al Gore each won it by less than a point.)

(New Jersey) Whether it was Bill Clinton’s backing or his own old-fashioned organizational skill, Bill Pascrell effectively won a 9th term yesterday by almost 20 points — trouncing his former Democratic congressional friend and newly testy rival, Obama-backed Steve Rothman, on the strength of a 9-to-1 triumph in his home base of Passaic County. In the closing days, Pascrell also worked to energize Latino and black voters by deriding Rothman’s efforts to challenge questionable absentee ballots — and by calling him a carpetbagger in a district that was essentially drawn to combine chunks of territory each had represented for the past decade. (Don Payne Jr. easily defeated fellow Newark councilman Ron Rice in the primaries that will determine who holds his father’s seat in the lame duck and next year.)

(California) Brad Sherman ended up with only a 10 percentage point (42 percent to 32 percent) lead over fellow Democrat Howard Berman in the most expensive member vs. member race in the country this year — ensuring that the second, general-election round of their contest to represent the San Fernando Valley will be even more intense and expensive. In the Bay Area, Pete Stark only came out 6 points ahead of local official and fellow Democrat Eric Swalwell (42 percent to 36 percent) ensuring that the 80-year-old, four-decade incumbent will have the campaign of his life this fall. But the closest an incumbent came to finishing second in his own "jungle" primary in the state was east of Los Angeles, where Gary Miller took only 27 percent in territory almost entirely new to him — and will be chased hard until Nov. 6 by fellow Republican Bob Dutton, a state senator with a local base who took 25 percent.

(New Mexico) Martin Heinrich defeated state Auditor Hector Balderas with 59 percent to take the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat Jeff Bingaman is leaving behind. Heather Wilson took the GOP nomination with 70 percent against Las Cruces businessman Greg Sowards. And the Democratic nomination for the Albuquerque House seat that Heinrich now holds (and Wilson had previously) went to County Commissioner Michelle Lujan Grisham; he won with 40 percent in an upset in the three-way field. (State Sen. Eric Griego was backed by major labor unions and liberal organizations, while former Albuquerque Mayor Marty Chavez was the Bill Clinton candidate.)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Majority Leader Eric Cantor (49) and another House Republican, Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn (60).

— 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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