Monday, June 18, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: The Opposite of Progress

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, June 18, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SUPREME COURT: The justices gave the medical industry a victory today – but it had nothing to do with the constitutionality of the health care law. Instead, the court ruled, 5-4, that the nation’s 90,000 pharmaceutical sales reps don’t qualify for overtime. Also by 5-4, the justices upheld a rape conviction despite the defendant’s objection that he was unable to question the reliability of the DNA evidence against him.

The court’s final two scheduled days for announcing decisions are Thursday and next Monday, but there’s nothing stopping the justices from giving themselves an extension. Ten cases remain outstanding, including two headline makers beyond the health care challenge: whether the FCC’s broadcast decency standards are unconstitutionally vague and whether Arizona’s illegal-immigration crackdown law improperly steps on the federal role over immigration.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama arrived for the G-20 summit in Los Cabos last night and is meeting now with the host, Mexican President Felipe Calderón. After that he has a one-on-one, focused in part on trade, with Russian President Vladimir Putin of Russia. The first session of the summit starts at 5 (D.C. time) — and the water cooler talk among the world leaders will be all about yesterday’s election results in both Greece (where conservative Antonis Samaras won the right to form a pro-Euro coalition government) and Egypt (the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi won, but the generals announced they’re retaining most of his new presidential powers for at least a little while).

THE CHALLENGER: Romney’s bus tour into the rural reaches of six swing states is in its fourth and penultimate day. He went to a paint roller plant in Janesville, Wis., at 10 with hometown hero Paul Ryan. At 2:30 he’ll be in Iowa for a picturesque boat ride on the Mississippi near Dubuque, and four hours later he’ll be 60 miles downriver for a rally in Davenport.

THE SENATE: Convenes at 3 with no other formal business beyond a 5:30 roll call to confirm trial lawyer Mary Geiger Lewis as a federal judge in South Carolina. (Some Republicans complain she isn’t qualified, but mainly this is a “bed check vote” that affords Reid and McConnell opportunities to do a little whipping on other matters higher up on the legislative food chain.)

THE HOUSE: Convenes at 2 to pass nine non-controversial bills, one of which would make it a federal crime to traffic in counterfeit prescription drugs. (Roll calls won’t happen before 6:30 so lawmakers without any interest in the measures can spend the day traveling.)

GOING NOWHERE FAST: The two-week countdown clocks on both the highway bill and the student loan rate extension are starting to wind down toward nothing but stalemate.

The best bets now are that neither of June’s “must pass” measures will pass in June — which would put a desultory, if entirely predictable, coda onto this shortened election year season of purported legislating. The emptiness of the metaphorical wire basket labeled “2012 congressional accomplishments” is not a consequence of legislative passivity or procrastination, but rather the result of conscious decisions by both Republicans and Democrats that (albeit for opposite reasons) that they’d rather be out campaigning on their disagreements than on their alliances. Time and again, both sides have already concluded it’s better to have the issue than the bill — because neither party appears worried it will be held to account any more than the other for the dysfunction.

And while it is true that always becomes the rule rather than the exception in a presidential year, it is happening much earlier than usual — fully 20 weeks before Election Day. After that point in the calendar four years ago, for example, Congress finished the most recent rewrite of the farm bill, expanded the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act, agreed on the mental health parity mandate, endorsed a significant expansion of the GI bill, put Amtrak on a firmer financial footing and enlarged the American commitment to fighting AIDS overseas. (And that was all done before the first legislative responses to the economic meltdown that fall.)

The public works and college credit measures that will be the focus of the hand-wringing in the coming days would have had a tough time making it onto that 2008 list, so relatively routine would they have been. (So would the reauthorization of the flood insurance program that’s due by the end of July, or the updating of the FDA’s system for getting industry to pay for reviews of new drugs and devices before the September deadline, which are really the only other domestic policy bills with deadlines this year.)  

Voters at all points on the ideological spectrum, after all, want their roads to be smooth and their bridges to be safe and their commuter trains to run on time — and so (especially after nine extensions of the expired law) could be expected to do nothing more than yawn at news of a deal that lasts only two years and that, at about $100 billion, spends only a small fraction of what’s needed to keep the national infrastructure up to snuff. And there’s similar agreement across the land that keeping down the cost of college is a good idea — especially if the plan under discussion would cost just $6 billion, or about half of 1 percent the size of this year’s projected deficit.

HOSTAGE SITUATION: The more immediately consequential impasse this month is over the highway bill, because Boehner has drawn a very clear line in the sand against buying the negotiators any more time. In other words, no deal in the next fortnight means public works spending will stay flat and no new projects will put people to work before the election. House Republicans think this threat is the only way they can get what they want out of the bill — which is not only road construction without new revenue to pay for it, but also construction without so much environmental review, deregulation of coal ash and speedy construction of the Keystone pipeline.

Letting the Stafford student loan rate double, to 6.8 percent, would affect far fewer people — because the higher rate would only apply to the undergraduates who take out new subsidized loans after July 1. And, in theory, a deal on offsets later this summer could include retroactive language that holds harmless the students who take out their loans before the deal gets done.

FARAWAY FARM BILL: The longer the standoffs last on student loans and highways, the less likely it is that the always-a-long-shot farm bill gets done this year. Unless there’s a deal in the next day — which sets a limit on amendments, both germane and not at all so, and gets the Senate’s version of the legislation passed by the end of the week — then Reid will probably pull the measure off the floor and lawmakers will write up a bill that extends current food stamp and crop subsidy policies well into next year (so that farmers can have some certainty about their planting decisions next spring). House Republicans are not going to lift a finger on their farm bill until the Senate has proved it can pass its version.

AGAINST THE WALL: Three days after his surprise immigration announcement, it seems undeniable that Obama has put Romney and the rest of the GOP in a high-walled box on the issue. The presidential challenger declined five different invitations yesterday (from Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation”)  to come out against the president’s decision that his administration won’t keep deporting young illegal immigrants who are have graduated from high school or serve in the military and have clean criminal records.  Time and again, he would not say he would reverse the policy if elected; instead, he chided Obama for politiczing the issue and not forcing a long-term solution to the immigration morass during his term. It was a significant walk-back from a candidate who — back when he was fending off primary challengers on his right — said he would veto the very Dream Act on which the new Obama policy is based, and got considerable leverage over Rick Perry for supporting similar policies in Texas.

But, beyond pushing Romney into those rhetorical contortions, what Obama has done is essentially neutralize any efforts Romney or congressional Republicans might make to be proactive in advancing an immigration policy that could win over Hispanics. Marco Rubio has spent much of the past year putting up legislative trial balloons that are very similar to what the president is now doing on his own — and the GOP leadership did nothing to seize his initiative. Now the Florida senator has no chance at all to see his bill embraced by a party leadership that’s obligated to oppose whatever Obama’s in favor of, at least for the next months. And his chances of staying on the vice presidential short list are shriveling fast, because there’s no percentage in Romney picking a lawmaker whose signature legislation is now officially anathema to the party.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia (75), Republican Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska (62), and House Democrats Paul Tonko of New York (63) and Jerry McNerney of California (61).

— David Hawkings, editor

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

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