Thursday, June 21, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Last Exit Before the White House

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SUPREME COURT: The justices decided (without dissent) to strike down as too vague the FCC’s system for sanctioning TV broadcasters that allow curse words and nudity on air, but they declined to issue a broad ruling on the constitutionality of the agency’s indecency policy.

The court also ruled 5-4 that criminals arrested but not yet sentenced for crack cocaine crimes should be eligible for the new sentencing guidelines set by Congress, which decided two years ago to match penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses.

Six cases have yet to be decided, including the constitutional challenges to the 2010 health care law and the Arizona immigration crackdown. That number of unannounced judgments is big enough to make it obvious the court will extend its term until at least a week from today. (Monday was supposed to be the next and final day for announcing decisions.)

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama just announced that he’s accepted the resignation of John Bryson as Commerce secretary — 10 days after he took an indefinite medical leave of absence after declaring that a seizure had been responsible for three southern California car accidents within five minutes and a hit-and-run charge the previous weekend. The president’s statement signaled he won't nominate a successor before the election (Senate confirmation would be tough no matter what) but that instead Deputy Secretary Rebecca Blank would stay on as acting secretary.

After a senior team meeting and lunch with Biden, the president will come to the East Room at 1:40 to make another pitch for keeping the subsidized Stafford undergraduate loan rate at 3.4 percent for the next year. Ten days before that interest rate is set to double, Republicans and Democrats seem nowhere close to a deal on how to cover the $6 billion cost.

THE CHALLENGER: Romney, at the new Disney resort outside Orlando, is delivering a noon speech to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials convention. Aides are promising he’ll say something about his evolving immigration positions, but his message will mainly be about why Hispanics should embrace him for his economic message.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10:30 and will be done for the week by 3, after voting overwhelmingly to pass its bill remaking agriculture and food aid policy for the next five years. (House Agriculture has nonetheless decided to put off the drafting of its farm bill until July.)  Senators are working now through the final eight amendments, five of which have nothing to do with the farm and so will need 60 votes to catch a ride. (John McCain and Patty Murray could breach that threshold if they can compromise their proposals for forcing the administration to detail its plans for carrying out the scheduled January sequester.)

Senators will also decide whether to take up or bury legislation rewriting the government flood insurance program. Sponsors appear to have the 60 votes they need after Gulf Coast lawmakers cut a side deal last night on provisions affecting levees and flood control.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and will be done for the week before 2, after passing the latest Republican package for boosting domestic fossil fuel extraction – a central plank in the party’s campaign platform for combating high gasoline prices and creating jobs. (Most every Democrat will vote “no,” viewing the package as a massive giveaway to the oil and gas industries, and so the measure faces no future in the Senate.) The bill would increase the federal land available for energy production, streamline the drilling permit process, limit environmental review of exploration projects, curb lawsuits against energy companies and press for an opening of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

THE FINAL STRETCH: Look for a handshake agreement on the highway bill between John Mica and Barbara Boxer by tomorrow evening.

All the indications are that both those top negotiators and their House and Senate leaders are starting to lower their hard lines on almost all the contentious issues — meaning federal transportation policy may yet get remade this summer to last through the end of next year. Yesterday’s whopping 386-34 vote in the House directing conferees to wrap up their work by the weekend is a clear sign that conservative resistance to a new public works package is fading fast and that Boehner and his fellow leaders have decided they want the bill more than the issue. The one disagreement that could yet cause the momentum to reverse is whether (or precisely how) the bill will be used to spur construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. (Boehner and Reid are likely to keep that negotiation to themselves.)

Democratic negotiators yesterday sounded near agreement to give the House a measure of satisfaction on environmental streamlining rules for road projects, consolidating Transportation Department programs and giving states more options to shed federal mandates for roadside enhancements. Even more importantly for the prospects of a pre-Independence Day deal, the conferees seemed to be getting very close to language that would prevent the EPA from designating coal ash as a hazardous material — since roadbuilders say a hazmat tag could cause many customers to shun the product, which the industry loves to use as a cheap but also worthy cement additive.

FURIOUSER AND FURIOUSER: Eric Holder labeled the House’s move to hold him in contempt “unwarranted, unnecessary and unprecedented” this morning, while asserting that he’s still willing to negotiate a settlement that gives Darrell Issa those subpoenaed papers that Obama doesn’t view as protected by executive privilege.

The attorney general’s stick-and-carrot comments, at a meeting with EU officials in Copenhagen, are highly unlikely to alter the “Fast and Furious” dynamic, in which yesterday morning’s unexpected privilege claim has only rock-hardened the partisan lines in advance of next week’s vote by the full House to embrace what the Oversight panel proposed yesterday afternoon.  Republicans will invoke Watergate in declaring that the cover-up is becoming worse than the crime (professional malfeasance in allowing thousands of weapons to walk toward a Mexican drug cartel) while the Democrats will invoke McCarthyism in declaring that a political witch hunt is under way.

And, after that vote, there’s no reason to believe the Justice Department will do anything other than what other Justice Departments in other balance-of-power clashes with other presidents have done, which is to slow-walk or outright stonewall its response to the contempt order. (Federal prosecutors, in other words, are not going to move against their own boss to make him turn over the records the House GOP wants.) And at that point, Boehner and the other GOP leaders are extremely unlikely to escalate the standoff by suing (or sending the House sergeant-at-arms to arrest the attorney general) because what they really want is to use the contretemps to illustrate their view that it’s the fault of Obama and the Democrats that Washington is a non-functioning cesspool.

ON THE EDGE OF THEIR SEATS: Republicans waiting with bated breath for the Supreme Court to give them an opening to “repeal and replace” the health care law are getting some guidance from the electorate about what to do instead — and the bottom line is, go slow and easy. In a Bloomberg poll out today, a 43 percent plurality favored retaining the 2010 law with only small modifications. (Fifteen percent said the measure should be left alone, and one-third aid the whole law should be wiped off the books). The poll results are likely to be cited by the GOP leadership as a rationale for taking some time to come up with an alternative if the justices say there’s a need for one — a decision made politically easier by the party’s confidence that it will have more power in Washington next year, with expected gains in both the House and Senate and Romney in striking distance of the White House. Still, almost seven in 10 Republican poll respondents said the law should be repealed; support for keeping it in place with minor changes was expressed by 43 percent of independents, 17 percent of Republicans, and 64 percent of Democrats.

TRAIL TIPS: (New York) There’s unexpectedly a second heated congressional contest in the city (after Charlie Rangel’s post-censure bid for a 22nd term) that will also be decided in Tuesday’s primaries. Democrats in much of Brooklyn and a slice of Queens will decide who will succeed Ed Towns, who’s leaving after 30 years. For months, it seemed as though 41-year-old state Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries had the seat in the bag. But party leaders and operatives are increasingly worried that the expected very low turnout has opened the door wide to an underfunded upset by City Councilman Charles Barron, an ardent opponent of Israel whose reputation for incendiary rhetoric stands out in a city that’s legendary for its opinionated people. (In his candidacy announcement, for example, he labeled both Muammar el-Qaddaffi and Robert Mugabe “my hero” and pledged to never salute the American flag.) In the latest effort to motivate Democratric regulars, yesterday Sen. Chuck Schumer broke with his past pledges of neutrality in all primary contests and endorsed Jeffries.

(Pennsylvania) In the state’s closest congressional race this year, Democratic incumbent Mark Critz released an internal poll yesterday showing him with a 10-point advantage (46 percent to 36 percent) over Republican attorney Keith Rothfus, who came within 4,000 votes two years ago of winning a differently drawn and slightly less GOP-friendly district in the state’s southwestern corner. (He lost to Jason Altmire, who then lost the post-redistricting primary this spring to Critz.) Both parties have  put the seat high on their list of priorities this fall and have already reserved a combined $3 million in fall TV airtime in the region. Republicans have already aired their first spots targeting Critz, who is hoping to catch a ride on the coattails of Sen. Bob Casey’s surprisingly easy re-election bid.

(Wisconsin) With Paul Ryan’s name now a  part of every cable TV veepstakes discussion — whether Romney is vetting him or not — local Republican leaders in the state’s southeastern corner are starting to mull the potential candidates in a special election to replace the Budget chairman in the House. (State law means Ryan would remain the nominee in the district even if he’s also at the top of the ballot). All alone in the top tier on every list are Robin Vos, the chairman of the state House Finance Committee and the presumed Speaker starting next year, and national party chairman Reince Priebus. The demographics mean the district is likely to stay in GOP hands no matter what, although Democrats say they are very high on their nominee for the fall, small-business man and Kenosha County Board Supervisor Rob Zerban.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Two of the more famously incendiary House Republicans, retiring-after-15-terms Dan Burton of Indiana (74) and safe-for-a-13th-term Dana Rohrabacher of California (65).

— David Hawkings, editor

Become a Facebook fan at Or follow me on Twitter @davidhawkings.

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

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