Wednesday, January 04, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: He Didn't Wait

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Air Force One is landing in Cleveland, where Obama will announce that he’s ignoring the Senate and installing Richard Cordray as head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The defiant move, which he will justify in a 1:15 speech at Shaker Heights High School, is designed to underscore the president’s re-election campaign themes about working against a “do nothing” Congress in order to help expand the middle class — and to grab a headline away from all the Iowa caucuses cliffhanger coverage.

THE HOUSE: Not in session; next convenes for legislative business on Jan. 17.

THE SENATE: Not in session; next convenes for legislative business on Jan. 23.

HIS WAY: Obama is taking his “we can’t wait” for Congress crusade to a much higher level today, tempting a genuine constitutional showdown with his declaration that he has the unilateral executive authority to install Cordray as the nation’s new top consumer watchdog.

The move seeks to sweep aside decades of precedent that a president has the power to ignore the “advice and consent” requirements for his nominees only when the Senate is in a genuine recess lasting longer than three business days. That’s definitely not the case now; the Senate formally convened to start the new year yesterday, and another pro forma session is on tap for Friday. But White House lawyers (and political strategists) have concluded they will be able to get away with the president’s much more expansive interpretation of his recess appointment powers. That is in part because administration officials believe the public will take the president’s side in what it will view as a silly inside-the-beltway fight (and one in which Senate Republicans are flatly refusing to put anyone in charge of a new agency that many of them voted to create as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank law, which sounds pretty ridiculous on its face) and in part because the federal courts tend to shy away from balance-of-power fights that they view as ultimately political.

“Gimmicks do not override the president’s constitutional authority to make appointments to keep the government running.  Legal experts agree. In fact, the lawyers who advised President Bush on recess appointments wrote that the Senate cannot use sham ‘pro forma’ sessions to prevent the president from exercising a constitutional power,” White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said in a blog post this morning anticipating the arguments against the move, which will be trumpeted by GOP senators as well as on Wall Street, which is vehemently working to restrain the new agency’s regulatory reach.

McConnell’s office signaled that the move threatened to break one of the few bipartisan agreements about senatorial procedure that has held for decades, but did not immediately offer any plans to try to stop Cordray from taking up his post. (The former Ohio attorney general could assume the job later in the week and — if not tossed out by the courts — could serve through the end of 2013, assuming Obama wins re-election.) But the minority leader already had signaled that Obama would pay some price for the move — he blocked confirmation of a long list of nominees at the end of last month after the White House refused to promise to follow precedent in making recess appointments.

CASUALTY REPORT: Michele Bachmann bowed to reality a few minutes ago and suspended her fizzled-out campaign. With Rick Perry back in Austin and preparing to do the same, Newt Gingrich is now the only mainstream conservative alternative to the suddenly surging Rick Santorum in the most volatile Republican race in memory — freshly heralded overnight by the closest GOP nominating contest in history.

That Mitt Romney prevailed over Santorum by only 8 votes in the Iowa caucuses (out of 122,000 cast) is the obvious headline of the day. But an even narrower Romney margin may prove just as important, and predictive, in the days ahead. The former Massachusetts governor’s 30,015 total yesterday was actually 6 fewer votes than he received from Iowa Republicans four year ago — numbers that put a very bright highlighter over the view that Romney is and always will be the 25 percent man, unable to say anything or spend any amount that expands his base beyond the more moderate, business establishment wing of the party.

The countervailing view, of course, is that while Romney’s unflinching numbers were only good enough for second place in 2008, this time he got the big check mark next to his name — and did so even though he put much less sweat equity into Iowa than either Santorum or Ron Paul, who finished third with 21 percent. And all Romney’s money, organization and establishment backing (which got a big-time boost this morning with the endorsement of maverick-turned-party-mandarin John McCain) will make him impossible to stop — unless the 75 percent of Republicans who don’t cotton to him decide once and for all who to anoint as the alternative, and do so in time to give that candidate an outright victory in conservative South Carolina in 17 days and at least a strong runner-up finish in Florida 10 days after that. But that’s not going to happen unless the former Speaker can use his promised barrage of anti-Romney rhetoric to reignite his recently lost lustre, or the former Pennsylvania senator can lash his shoestrings to a surge of good coverage and finish in second place next week in New Hampshire. Absent the development of one of those who-woulda-thunk-it story lines, the wild and crazy Republican presidential race of 2012 will end in a most predictable way: with the second-go-round, next-in-line guy as the nominee by default.

THE NEXT LEVEL: “I’ve got a big target on me now,” Romney said this morning as he prepared to fly to New Hampshire — with a bankroll of $18 million to spend there and elsewhere, even before the new fundraising he’s guaranteed because of his Iowa showing. “I’ve got broad shoulders. I’m willing to handle it.” And the most recent New Hampshire poll, taken Sunday and Monday by Suffolk University and Boston’s Channel 7, shows Romney with a commanding 43 percent lead, followed by Ron Paul with 16 percent, Jon Huntsman (who didn’t run in Iowa) at 10 percent, Gingrich at 9 percent and Santorum at 5 percent.

Paul is rivaling Romney for the most TV time reserved on stations that broadcast into New Hampshire, and he signaled this morning that he has every intention of staying in the Republican race all winter and spring — while declining to pledge, definitively, to support the eventual GOP nominee and to forswear talk of a third-party candidacy. That possibility grows more remote, however, every day that the Texas congressman is accompanied on the stump by his son Rand. He knows that his own fresh career as a Republican senator from Kentucky would effectively be destroyed if his dad runs in November as an independent — because he probably would drain more than enough support from the Republican candidate to assure Obama’s reelection.

Santorum, meanwhile, is working to figure out how to sustain and expand his support among conservatives. That will mean (if not in New Hampshire then surely in South Carolina) doing more than relying on his rock-ribbed credentials as a culture warrior and explaining some of his more centrist positions in the Senate — including his votes for some measures pushed by organized labor, his support for appropriations earmarks and his longtime allegiance to Arlen Specter.

THE HOLIDAYS ARE OVER: A giant cherry-picker was on the West Lawn soon after sunrise this morning to take down this year’s Capitol Christmas Tree, which was a 65-foot Sierra White Fir from California’s Stanislaus National Forest.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Dan Liljenquist, a 37-year-old conservative who resigned from the Utah Senate last month, announced today that he would oppose Orrin Hatch’s bid for the Republican nomination to a seventh Senate term. Liljenquist — who worked as a legislator to limit the state pension system and reduce Medicaid outlays — is just the sort of fiscal conservative that has been sought by the tea party groups who are so disenchanted with Hatch, and who were deeply disappointed when Rep. Jason Chaffetz backed away from his expected Senate challenge last summer. These groups are also supremely confident they can repeat their feat of two years ago, when they bounced Bob Bennett from his Senate seat at the GOP convention and replaced him with Mike Lee. But Hatch, 77, seems much better positioned to withstand a challenge, in part because he’s seen it coming for two years, has more than $4 million in the bank and has worked to bolster his fiscal-conservative bona fides.

(2) It’s looking more and more like a sure thing that Joe Kennedy III will declare his candidacy for Congress next week, running in the Massachusetts district that was redrawn in a way that pushed Barney Frank into retirement. The 31-year-old Kennedy, who’s now a Middlesex County prosecutor, has been making the rounds with Democratic power brokers — and making a good impression — while his family and its retainers line up fundraising and work to at least partially clear what will otherwise be a crowed  primary field. If Kennedy ends up winning, it would mean only a two-year break in the Kennedys-in-Congress streak. Until Patrick Kennedy retired from the House in 2010, the family name had been on a Capitol nameplate (with only a two-year break in the early 1960s) since 1947.

(3) The West Virginia legislature has two weeks to come up with a new congressional map. The deadline was set by a panel of three federal judges yesterday when they threw out the first redistricting plan, in August — on the grounds that there was too much population variation (about 5,000) between the districts drawn for the benefit of the two Republicans in the delegation, veteran Shelley Moore Capito and freshman David McKinley. (Democrat Nick Rahall’s district isn’t much affected.) If the lawmakers miss the deadline, the judges will impose their own map, but they did not say when — and the candidate filing deadline is Jan. 28.

(4) Mississippi’s congressional map for the next decade will be only minimally different from the current one, meaning three House seats that are reliably Republican and one (in the rich-soiled Delta) favoring an African-American Democrat. Three of the incumbents are expected to cruise to re-election; the fourth, freshman Steven Palazzo, will remain vulnerable to a Republican primary challenge at least until the candidate filing deadline in 10 days. A panel of three federal judges issued the new map over the holidays (meaning there’s no Voting Rights Act problem) because the state legislature could not agree to a plan — the same scenario that played out a decade ago.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No lawmakers today, but two House Democrats tomorrow: Carolyn McCarthy of New York (68) and Mark Critz of Pennsylvania (50). On Friday, House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma (52).

PUBLISHING SCHEDULE: With Congress in recess, the next Daily Briefings will be next week — on Tuesday, to preview that day’s New Hampshire primary, and Wednesday, to assess how the results have altered the presidential race’s dynamic.

— David Hawkings, editor

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Tuesday, January 03, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Right Into It

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Air Force One landed at Joint Base Andrews at 6:50 after an 8-hour, 12-minute flight from Honolulu (where it was 45 degrees warmer than pre-dawn Washington when Obama’s 10-day break ended). The first family was back in the residence half an hour later. After a senior staff meeting that starts at noon, lunch with Biden and an afternoon meeting with Panetta, the president will go to the Capitol Hilton for an 8:15 video teleconference with about 250 of the supporters he’s pressed to show up at Iowa’s Democratic caucuses.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 11 for a four-minute pro forma session opening the second half of the 112th Congress.

THE SENATE: Convenes at noon for its pro forma beginning of the second session.

MITT AND RICK: Iowa Republicans are eight hours away from convening for the caucuses that will either make Mitt Romney into this year’s de facto Republican presidential nominee, or cement Rick Santorum’s standing as the fifth and final mainstream conservative alternative to the long-standing front-runner.

One of them will end up with about 25 percent of the vote, the other with 1 or 2 percentage points less than that. Given the perfect timing of Santorum’s surge (he was in single digits at Christmas) and the stuck-in-a-rut nature of Romney’s five-year candidacy (he got 25 percent in Iowa in 2008), the best bet at the last moment is to predict an upset win by the former Pennsylvania senator.

Romney sort of hinted at that this morning, when he backpedaled from the uncharacteristically bold prediction of a first-place finish that he made only a few hours before. “It’s hard to predict exactly what’s going to happen,” the former Massachusetts governor said on MSNBC, pointing to polling that revealed at least a third of Iowa Republicans had not yet firmly made up their minds. “I think I’ll be among the top group,” he said, which would be good enough for “the kind of send-off we need for a pretty long campaign season.”

Even if Santorum’s strong showing in Iowa stops short of victory — and even if he wins but his momentum proves evanescent after that — it will mark an astounding career redemption for a politician who lived by the phrase “compassionate conservative” long before George W. Bush made it his own. Santorum rose to be one of the most influential young congressional conservatives of his generation in the 1990s, when he catapulted from two terms as a suburban Pittsburgh congressman into the Senate and then became almost immediately a top-tier voice for issues important on the social right, not only opposing abortion in all cases but also taking on such leading-edge conservative causes as providing federal aid to faith-based groups. Despite an abrasive approach that turned off Republicans almost as often as Democrats, his public messaging skill got him a seat at the leadership table in his second term. And he was poised to become GOP whip in his third — had he not been crushed in 2006 by fully 18 percentage points by Bob Casey.

IT'S FOURTH THAT MATTERS: Ron Paul is on course to finish third with about 20 percent. Thanks to a better organization and plenty of support from young people (they like his views about legalizing drugs, especially), that would be double his Iowa share of four years ago. But it would nonetheless cement his role in the final year of his public career (he’s not running for his House seat in Texas) as the same as it’s been since the 1970s — that of the nettlesome if good-natured protest politician.

Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich are in a tight race for fourth place — which is actually important this time, because the “winner” will have the ability to run as the only credible conservative alternative to Santorum in South Carolina, where the primary is three weeks from Saturday. Although the Texas governor spent $4.3 million on TV ads in Iowa, the decided edge here falls to the former Speaker.

In his TV appearances this morning, Gingrich also backed away from his bold prediction of yesterday — which was that he had no chance of winning. Conceding that his aides had upbraided him for his candor, he asserted he has a chance for an upset because the electorate is so volatile.  He also doubled down on his promise to set aside his no-negative-attacks approach from now on — by saying “yes” when asked if he was going start calling Romney a liar. “I just think he ought to be honest with the American people and try to win as the real Mitt Romney,” Gingrich said on CBS. “He ought to be candid and I don’t think he’s been candid.”

STRAW BEDDING: It’s hard to see how Michele Bachmann finishes anywhere but in small-single-digit last place among the big six, an amazing decline from her summertime Ames straw poll triumph. Even though she insisted again this morning that she’ll take her campaign to South Carolina no matter what, it’s more likely she will wake up tomorrow and book a flight to Minnesota — where she’s got a surprising amount of work to do if she wants a fourth House term, starting with some legislative lobbying to get a redistricting plan that gives her a favorable congressional seat to run in.

Bachmann’s final hope for a last-minute boost evaporated last night when one of her best friends and closest ideological soulmates in Congress, Iowa’s Steve King, decided he would not make any presidential endorsement. (He had ruled out Paul, lambasting his isolationist views, but had hinted he could offer last-minute backing to either Romney, Santorum or Bachmann.) Neither of the state’s other GOP members of Congress, Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. Tom Latham, endorsed anyone, either.

HOW IT WORKS: The 1,774 separate precinct caucuses get started at 7 local time (8 on the East Coast) in 809 different locations, and clear but cold conditions are forecast across the state after nightfall. The first returns will start coming in about an hour later, with a final tally likely two hours after that.

Officials predict turnout will surpass the record 119,000 who voted last time (21 percent of those registered) — in part because on-site registration with the GOP is allowed and there’s no contested Democratic caucus to compete for the attention of people on the partisan fence. Each campaign is allowed one surrogate to speak for 5 minutes. Attendees then cast votes by writing the candidate’s name on a slip of paper that’s deposited in an envelope or box. The counting is public and may be observed by representatives of the campaigns. Caucus officials transmit the results to state party headquarters in Des Moines.

MOUNTAIN MEN: No matter what happens tonight, Romney, Gingrich and Santorum all plan to depart immediately for New Hampshire — where the nearly favorite son Romney holds such a commanding lead in the polls a week before that primary that much of the rhetoric will be aimed at TV watchers in more conservative South Carolina. Paul, who looks best-positioned to finish second in New Hampshire, won’t show up there until later in the week. Perry and Bachmann are essentially skipping the contest.

IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS: Obama is beginning the year with an (albeit small) concession to conservative Republicans at the Capitol. Over the weekend he decided to accommodate the congressional recess schedule by briefly delaying his formal request for the latest increase in the federal debt. Under the Rube Goldberg-like system for increasing Treasury borrowing power that was part of last summer’s default-avoidance deal, Congress has 15 days after a formal presidential request to pass legislation turning him down. But if Obama had submitted the paperwork yesterday or earlier, the legislative deadline would have lapsed before the scheduled return of all the lawmakers to the Capitol. (The House, which is where the GOP majority wants every chance it can get to express its displeasure at the debt, is due back two weeks from today; the Senate, which is happy to be done thinking about the debt until after the next election, returns Jan. 23.)

Treasury calculated that the debt was $15.083 trillion on the last business day of 2011, and another increase is needed once it gets to $15.2 trillion. Under the August law the president can ask for another $1.2 trillion at that juncture. The administration has not said precisely when the request will be made — but it will essentially do whatever the Hill leadership wants, because Obama is dead certain the votes are symbolic only and that another default is not in the offing.

The next tranche of borrowing power should satisfy Treasury’s needs until after the election, especially if the economy improves. The amount was designed to match the minimal size of the deficit reduction package that might have been produced by the supercommittee — or else match the size of the across-the-board spending cuts that are on tap to start a year from now because the special committee came up empty-handed.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No lawmakers since New Year's Day, when three celebrated: Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey (58) and a pair of House members who turned 47: Democrat Terri Sewell of Alabama and GOP Rep. John Sullivan of Oklahoma.

— David Hawkings, editor

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