Monday, July 23, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: A Dangerous Topic

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, July 23, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2, when Reid is expected to tip his hand about what else he’ll try to get done in the two weeks before the August recess — and in what order. (Top on his list for this week is a test vote on the Democrats’ plan for extending and limiting some of the Bush tax cuts, probably followed by debate on the compromise cybersecurity bill unveiled last week.)

Senators will vote at 5 to advance the nomination of Michael Shipp, a federal magistrate in Newark since 2007, to a trial court judgeship. Republicans have insisted on a cloture vote — not because they oppose Shipp, but because they want to slow the judicial confirmation pipeline as much as possible until after the election. (Four noncontroversial appeals court nominees and 17 other District Court nominees are also awaiting floor votes.)

THE HOUSE: Convenes at 2 to tackle 18 bills, including legislation naming six post offices, three federal courthouses and a wildlife visitor center. Votes are put off until 6:30. Lawmakers will clear legislation expanding the legal rights and appeals process for private-plane pilots who get disciplined by the FAA. (The bill is a pet cause of Sen. Jim Inhofe, who says he was wronged by the agency — he was made to take remedial flying lessons — after landing his Cessna 340 on a closed runway in Texas two years ago.)

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama spent the night in San Francisco after his stop in Aurora; he’s getting ready to fly to Reno to tout his record on veterans’ issues in a lunch speech (3:35 D.C. time) to the annual VFW convention. Then he’s off to Oakland for a trio of fundraisers: a $38,500 “roundtable” for 25 tech entrepreneurs, a dinner for 60 (with the same price tag) at the Piedmont home of real estate developer Wayne Jordan and his wife, Quinn Delaney, and a low-dollar reception at the downtown Fox Theater.

THE CHALLENGER: Romney was also in San Francisco last night and is headed to Southern California — first for a fundraising breakfast at the Hyatt in Irvine, then for not-for-money, on-camera roundtable (at 1:30 D.C time) for Orange County small business owners at Endural, a plastic industrial container manufacturer in Costa Mesa. He’s also taping an interview with CNBC’s Larry Kudlow. (Romney will speak to the VFW tomorrow before starting his overseas trip.)

STATUS QUO: The nation got its first glimpse of the suspected movie theater mass murderer a few minutes ago, when James Holmes walked into a Colorado courtroom to hear the charges against him. His prosecution is expected to take months. But at no time during that process will Congress come even remotely close to taking any action designed to prevent such massacres.

There is no political torque at all for gun control of any kind — not legislation to restrict sales of the sort of high-capacity magazines that Holmes allegedly used in killing a dozen people and wounding 58 others in a matter of minutes, and certainly not a revived ban on the assault rifle that was the centerpiece of his arsenal. (Both his AR-15 semiautomatic and ammunition clip were banned for a decade that ended in 2004, and there has been no serious effort since to revive those restrictions or impose any others — not after Virginia Tech, and not after Gabby Giffords.) That dynamic will not change before the election; afterward the country may well have collectively put aside its sporadic interest in reining in the most violent aspects of society — and, no matter who wins, will have a president who has professed little recent interest in taking on the NRA. (In other words, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s highly publicized calls on both candidates to take tougher stands against gun violence will be totally ignored — with the president planning to turn his campaign attention back on the economy and the challenger about to head overseas in hopes of burnishing his foreign policy credentials.)

Obama was a gun control advocate as a state legislator and an Illinois senator. As a candidate four years ago he called for reinstating the assault weapons ban, and after Giffords was almost gunned down last year he promised to propose legislation that would “keep those irresponsible, law-breaking few from getting their hands on a gun in the first place.” But he has never fulfilled that promise, and yesterday the White House made abundantly clear that no such proposal was coming. “We need to take steps that protect Second Amendment rights of the American people but that ensure that we are not allowing weapons into the hands of individuals who should not, by existing law, obtain those weapons,” Jay Carney said as the president flew to Colorado to visit with families of many of the victims of Friday's Batman-movie melee. “The president’s view is that we can take steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them under existing law. And that’s his focus right now.”

Mitt Romney also has evolved on gun control. As a Senate candidate in 1994 he said he didn’t want the backing of the gun rights lobby, and as governor of Massachusetts he signed legislation to indefinitely extend a ban on assault weapons sales in the state. He also came out for a waiting period for gun purchases. But as a presidential candidate this year he told the NRA essentially the same thing as what the president’s spokesman said yesterday: “We need a president who will enforce current laws, not create new ones that only serve to burden lawful gun owners.”

In Congress, meanwhile, there are almost no lawmakers in swing districts who will be willing to abandon their support of the NRA and come out for gun control now. In part, recent polling supports that reticence; in the most recent annual Gallup poll on the topic, 55 percent said the laws should stay the same or be made more lenient, while 43 percent said gun control should be intensified (that's a 35 percentage point drop in two decades). Only safe-seat Democrats — among them Ed Perlmutter, who is Aurora’s congressman — are calling  on Congress to reinstate the assault weapons ban.

AREAS OF MILD AGREEMENT: The parties remain fundamentally at odds over how to tackle the fiscal cliff, but they are coming together on two tangential matters.

First, Reid and McConnell appear close to an agreement to clear the House’s version of legislation demanding that Obama provide a detailed accounting of what the sequester would mean — domestic and military, discretionary and mandatory, agency by agency, for every program, project or activity. And if the vote comes this week, the required report would be due well before the election, and also with plenty of time before the presidential nominating conventions. (The bill sets a deadline of 30 days after enactment, so in theory the president could delay the inevitable for only a couple of weeks by waiting to sign the measure until the last available moment.  There’s no way he would veto it — especially if it gets through the Senate on a voice vote after getting through the House 414-2.)

There’s a widespread belief that the administration hasn’t done much, if any, detailed planning to carry out the sequester, on the expectation that Congress will come up with some work-around, delaying tactic or deficit-reduction alternative before the Jan. 2 deadline. (If not, the law requires that Obama start the government on a spending diet designed to shed $100 billion, equally from domestic and defense programs, during the final nine months of the fiscal year.)  

The reason there’s such nearly unanimous eagerness at the Capitol to see the details is that lawmakers want to understand just what economic danger and government-services calamity they voted for last summer, when they made the across-the-board cuts their self-imposed punishment if their supercommittee could not come up with a more discerning deal. The details, in theory, will give both sides an incentive to use the lame duck to make some politically tough decisions to disarm the sequester. The basic calculus is that, if Obama wins and his victory helps the Democrats hold the Senate, Republicans will have little reason to postpone their trip to the relative wilderness — and so will buckle and agree to avoid the sequester by ending the Bush tax cuts on the richest 2 percent. But if Romney carries a GOP Senate on his coattails, the president and congressional Democrats will work to make the most of their final weeks in power, holding the sequester (and the possible expiration of all the Bush tax cuts) as hostages to their demand for more revenue in any sequester-avoiding  deal. Under that scenario, the cuts could well take effect — at least on paper — for the first few weeks until the inauguration puts the GOP in position to press its alternatives.

Second, GOP conservatives and Democratic leaders are coming together on a plan to quickly postpone the most immediate of the budget deadlines — on appropriations for the budget year staring Oct. 1 — well past the election and maybe into the lap of the next Congress and the presidential winner. That’s because both sides have every incentive to avoid blame for even the threat of a yet another possible electorate-rattling government shutdown five weeks before the voting. The deal would involve a big swap: Republicans would agree to live with the discretionary spending limit in last summer’s debt deal (not the $19 billion-less-than-that they have wanted) and would support funding to carry out the health care law, while Democrats would essentially cede their power to drive the annual spending debate to its conclusion at a time when they were guaranteed to control both the White House and the Senate. (This means the deal would involve a stopgap bill, or CR, lasting six months — until the end of March.)

The Republicans like this deal because they really think they might have both the presidency and the Senate next year and could reorder budget priorities accordingly. Democrats may embrace the six-month funding measure because they are similarly willing to bet that their power won’t be diminished next year — and in the meantime the spending level will be to their liking.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Today, tries-to-phone-every-constituent Tim Johnson of southern Illinois (66), who gave up his seventh term bid after winning the Republican primary this spring — but also after realizing that redistricting had given him 400,000 or so new calls to make. Yesterday, House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson of Connecticut (64), retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas (69) and two fellow Republicans in the House, Steve LaTourette of Ohio (58) and Bob Aderholt of Alabama (47).

PUBLISHING NOTE: The Republican convention opens in Tampa five weeks from today, and the Daily Briefing will be there and at the Democratic convention in Charlotte the following week. The email will be sent later than usual — at about 4, to allow more timely updates and insights into the day’s developments and forecasts of the session ahead. These special briefings will be delivered Sunday, Aug. 26 through Thursday, Aug. 30 and Sunday, Sept. 2 through Thursday, Sept. 6.

— 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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