Friday, January 27, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: The Importance of 3

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, January 27, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: “We are putting colleges on notice: You can’t assume that you’ll just jack up tuition every single year. If you can’t stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down,” Obama said this morning at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the final speech in his State of the Union highlights tour of five swing states. (The proposals he sketched out Tuesday night for overhauling the higher education financial aid system nonetheless face long odds in Congress.)

Air Force One is due at Andrews within the hour, when Obama will hop aboard Marine One for a quick trip to Cambridge, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. His speech to the House Democrats at their annual planning and bonding retreat is at 1:20. After a quick stop in the West Wing — where it’s Bill Daley’s final day on the job as chief of staff — the president’s final public event is a 4:30 fundraiser in the Mandarin Oriental on the Southwest waterfront.

THE HOUSE: Not in session.

THE SENATE: Not in session.

FASTER BUT NOT FAST ENOUGH: The news was good and not so good for the U.S. economy this morning.

The gross domestic product — the government’s measure of total economic output — accelerated in the final three months of last year to a 2.8 percent annual rate. That’s the strongest pace of quarterly growth since the second quarter of 2010, and it’s within striking distance of the 3-percent-plus rate that most economists say will need to be sustained to pull the current 8.5 percent jobless rate back down to a more acceptable level. Still, the Commerce Department said, growth for all of 2011 was much slower, at 1.7 percent, than the 3 percent recorded in 2010, and most projections show the economy expanding at roughly 2.5 percent for all of 2012. The Federal Reserve’s most recent forecast, released Wednesday, doesn’t expect a sustained 3 percent growth rate until 2013.

Investors were a tad disappointed this morning because expectations — or maybe they were hopes — were for fourth quarter growth to actually touch 3 percent. So U.S. stocks fell a bit in early trading. The most recent statistics contain a number of guesstimates, though, and the fourth quarter and full-year figures will be revised in coming months. If net exports or some other unclear data come in stronger than Commerce currently estimates, then the GDP figures might prove to be higher. The reverse, of course, is also possible.

Republicans, meanwhile, focused on the not-so-good half of the report and blamed Obama for making it so. “The economy simply isn’t expanding fast enough to generate a sufficient number of jobs to bring down the unemployment rate rapidly,” said Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the Joint Economic Committee.“It’s time this president understood that his economic policies are making the situation worse, not better. Instead of dividing Americans over their share of economic pie, the president should focus on making the pie bigger.”

STOCK ACT, COOKING: Momentum is gaining fast for the idea of cracking down on insider trading by members of Congress — so fast, it seems, that the only legislation won't pass the Senate next week is if it’s derailed by too many lawmakers clamoring to hitch extraneous proposals to the bill.

The measure has more than enough bipartisan support to survive its first test, on Monday night, when Reid has arranged for a 60-senator-majority-required vote to begin formal debate. Between now and then, he will be working to limit the temptation, in both caucuses, to propose amendments that have nothing to do with congressional ethics and could poison the well for one of the few moderately important legislative initiatives that has a chance of becoming law this year. (It also remains the only part of Obama’s finger-wagging package of State of the Union proposals for Congress to “reform” itself that has any hope of consideration.)

The measure, by Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, would allow both the Hill ethics committees and (much less likely) the Justice department to look at allegations that lawmakers bought or sold securities based on information they got in the cloakrooms about legislative or political maneuverings — in other words, tips not available to other traders about how congressional actions might boost or cripple a business. Senators and congressmen would already appear to be subject to the same SEC insider trading restrictions that apply to everyone, which are written with the use of non-public corporate information by people on Wall Street in mind. And some senators — Republican Tom Coburn most prominently — see the bill as unnecessary feel-good window dressing, because Senate rules already prohibit the use of public office for private gain. (The bill would, though, strengthen disclosure rules by requiring the publication of all lawmaker  transactions within 30 days — not just once a year.

If the bill gets through the Senate, the House Republican majority’s leaders would seem to have little choice, politically, but to go along. Cantor tried to slow-walk a markup last fall but says he was doing so only because the bill wasn’t ready for prime time. Now he says he’s ready to move — and 240 lawmakers have signed on as cosponsors.

MUCH IS THEORETICAL: The top brass of the Air Force and Army will explain more of the details (and offer full-throated endorsements) of the Pentagon’s budget highlights this afternoon — although the actual numbers remain under wraps for the next two weeks.

A day after Panetta rolled out the headlines, the reaction has been muted (meaning mostly acquiescent) from the bipartisan cluster of defense hawks who dominate the military spending debate at the Capitol. Most of the lawmaker resistance has been focused, predictably, on the idea of another round of base closings before the 2014 election. But that’s about the biggest potential parochial political pain in the budget so far — because so much of the savings called for in the coming year would be achieved on paper, by postponing (rather than ending) the purchases of such big-ticket weapons as the F-35 and a new submarine. The most readily-understood dramatic cut — saying goodbye to 100,000 ground troops — has been looming for years, and if it happens the total roster of soldiers and Marines will still be higher than on Sept. 11.

The big numbers are $525 billion for the regular defense budget (which is only about 1 percent less than is being spent this year) and $88.4 billion for Afghanistan and other “overseas contingency operations,” which is a considerable drop. The Pentagon says its long-term plan, meanwhile, is to keep increases in spending slow enough that they would amount to a slight decline once inflation is factored in — and it’s in those “out years” that the Pentagon will surely face even more emphatic calls for reduction, whether across-the-board sequestration reductions happen or not. Another war would change the picture, however.

FIRED UP: An assertive, on-his-toes but not petulant-sounding Mitt Romney so totally dominated an almost-addled Newt Gingrich in last night’s debate that he put himself in solid position to win the Florida primary in four days. And if that happens, the ex-governor once again will be hailed as the clear and almost-unstoppable frontrunner. Even before the debate, the tide in the state seemed to be turning in Romney’s favor; the daily Quinnipiac tracking poll for Thursday showed him with 38 percent support among likely GOP primary voters, to 29 percent for the ex-Speaker. (The day before, the two were in a statistical tie.) Ron Paul was at 14 percent and Rick Santorum at 12 percent in the Thursday survey.

The best news for Gingrich was that 32 percent say they might change their mind by Tuesday — although there won’t be any statewide stage between now and then where Gingrich might take another shot at countering Romney’s new tone, which seemed to ring truest last night when he talked about their differences on immigration (“Repulsive,” Romney called Gingrich’s anti-immigrant attacks) and on space (“You’re fired,” Romney says he’d tell Gingrich if they were in a business meeting on the subject). The next debate is not for four weeks — hosted again by jeering-and-cheering-encouraged CNN on Feb. 22, six days before the Arizona primary.

Rick Santorum, meanwhile, said this morning that he was getting off the stump for a couple of days and wouldn’t do any more campaigning in Florida before Sunday – an acknowledgement that, despite a widely hailed debate performance last night, he has no chance of winning the state’s winner-take-all contest and would by getting some rest and raising some money to keep his candidacy afloat in some less-costly states. Weekend fundraisers are planned in both his native Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia, where he lives with his wife and seven kids. Santorum says he plans to try to complete his own taxes this weekend, too.

THE ONE THAT THEY WANT: One of the longest-lasting conventional wisdoms of the topsy-turvy campaign — that Marco Rubio is almost assured of the Republican vice-presidential nomination, no matter who’s at the top of the ticket — gained ample on-camera support last night. Both Romney and Gingrich made clear the 40-year-old freshman Florida senator was at the top of their running mate short lists. And they said so despite a Reuters report, earlier in the day, that Rubio was “upside down” on his Miami home — owing more on his mortgage than the property’s worth. (That news, however, was largely overshadowed by the fact that the wire service has already issued five corrections of other portions of the profile.)

Rubio will get the chance to raise his profile a notch more tomorrow, when he’ll provide the official Republican response to the president’s weekly radio address — meaning he’ll get to reprise his excoriations of the State of the Union (and test out some rhetoric he might use on the stump this fall if he’s playing the traditional veep-candidate “attack dog” role) before a national audience. That McConnell tapped him for the task right before Rubio’s home-state primary is a clear sign the GOP establishment wants to do what it can to keep him happy and in the limelight. Rubio hasn’t endorsed anybody but has said several things critical of Gingrich this week.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “It is now time to take a stand before it is too late. If Gingrich is the nominee it will have an adverse impact on Republican candidates running for county, state, and federal offices. Hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him and that fact speaks for itself. He was a one-man-band who rarely took advice. It was his way or the highway,” Bob Dole says in a statement posted on the National Review’s website last night. “In my run for the presidency in 1996 the Democrats greeted me with a number of negative TV ads and in every one of them Newt was in the ad. He was very unpopular and I am not only certain that this did not help me, but that it also cost House seats that year. Newt would show up at the campaign headquarters with an empty bucket in his hand — that was a symbol of some sort for him — and I never did know what he was doing or why he was doing it, and I’m not certain he knew either.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Chief Justice John Roberts (57); Republican John Mica of Florida, the House Transportation chairman (69).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Pentagon Pruning

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama spent the night in Las Vegas, where at 1 (D.C. time) he’ll give a State of the Union encore at the local UPS complex focused on his “all of the above” ideas for expanding domestic energy production. His staff is promising a different-sounding energy policy speech at 5:30, after he arrives at Buckley Air Force Base outside Denver. Air Force One is wheels up for Detroit at 6:15.

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and at noon will rebuff the move by Republican conservatives to block the latest increase in the Treasury’s borrowing limit. (The vote was arranged under the deal that ended last summer’s budget standoff just before a default.) Absent a congressional vote of disapproval, the national debt ceiling will be raised by 9 percent tomorrow, to $15.2 trillion.

THE HOUSE: Not in session. (Democrats are at their annual strategy and planning retreat, at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Golf Resort, Spa & Marina on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.)

THE SQUEEZE: Panetta will unveil the highlights of his has-to-be-tight Pentagon budget proposal this afternoon: Base closing and realignment rounds next year and in 2015, the elimination of as many as 13 of the Army’s combat brigades (meaning 80,000 fewer soldiers), a 30 percent boost in the number of drones, a 10 percent increase in the number of commandos, a delay in production of dozens of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, scrapping the next-generation Air Force surveillance plane, and slow-walking the modernization of the Humvee fleet and the construction of some warships.

The top lawmakers on the two Armed Services and Appropriations committees were given advance word of the most controversial proposals over dinner at the Pentagon last night, and so they’ll be ready with their reactions as soon as Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey step off the stage. Republicans will lament that the proposals would stretch the military too thin to take on potential problems in all the world’s trouble spots simultaneously. Democrats will say that, especially with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, it’s time for the Pentagon to make a bigger contribution to fiscal discipline.

The comprehensive, line-by-line numbers won’t come out until the rest of Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget submission to Congress, now postponed until Feb. 13. The top line for national defense (not including war spending, but including Energy Department spending on nuclear weapons) cannot be more than $546 billion, as deemed by last summer’s federal-default-avoidance deal. Look for Panetta to announce that he’s calling for $5 billion to $10 billion less than that limit.

TURNING SOME CORNERS? Two reports out this morning suggest the economy was gaining momentum at the start of the year. Orders for durable goods — products expected to last three years or longer — rose 3 percent last month, the Commerce Department said. (Orders for so-called core capital goods, which are viewed as a good measure of business investment, rose 2.9 percent in December, to a record month of $68.9 billion.) And the Conference Board said its index of leading economic indicators rose 0.4 percent last month following a revised 0.2 percent increase in November and a revised 0.6 percent gain in October. (Seven of the 10 indicators that go into the report made positive contributions last month.)

The steady if modest flow of decent economic news appears to be translating into a better mood among the voters, according to parts of the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released this morning: 37 percent now predict the economy will improve in the next year, not get worse — a 16-percentage-point  move toward optimism in three months (17 percent say they expect a downturn; the rest say the economy will stay about the same). Only 30 percent see the country as on the right track (versus 61 percent seeing it headed in the wrong direction), but that number is up 8 points from a month ago.

The trends are clearly good news for Obama: The poll shows him with a 48 percent approval rating, the highest since June. (On the other hand, the president seems to be steadily losing his State of the Union audience. Only 37.8 million Americans tuned in this time, Nielsen reported today, down from 42.8 million last year, 48 million in 2010 and 52.3 million for his address to Congress a month after taking office.)

WOLF'S PACK: Debate No. 19 is in Jacksonville from 8 to 10 tonight. Newt Gingrich is once again hoping his rhetorical skill will boost a late pre-primary surge. A pair of polls out yesterday both show him in a statistical dead heat against Mitt Romney. The voting’s over Tuesday, and thousand of ballots have been cast early, but if the exit polling in the previous primaries is any guide, then almost half the Republicans who will go to the polls still haven’t firmly made up their minds.

If the former Speaker is looking to use the CNN moderator as his foil, he may be disappointed; the network has tapped Wolf Blitzer for the assignment instead of John King, who got so badly bashed by Gingrich a week ago. (CNN will also allow clapping, hooting and hollering — unlike the NBC command for quiet on Monday — which should work to Gingrich’s advantage.) Either way, look for Romney to poke at Gingrich about his billionaire Super PAC backers (Sheldon and Miriam Adelson), his moon-shot aspirations, his tumultuous Speakership and the details of his sure-looks-like-lobbying work for Freddie Mac. Look for Gingrich to poke at Romney about his Swiss bank accounts, his Cayman Island investments and his shifting they-can-deport-themselves attitudes toward illegal immigration. And look for both Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, who have essentially bypassed Florida, to cede the stage to the guys at the center podiums.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Bev Perdue won’t run this fall for a second term as governor of North Carolina. Fellow Democrats say she will make the announcement in Raleigh this afternoon — bad news for the Obama re-election campaign, which was hoping for her help in the state this fall. (Perdue will now be nothing more than a lame-duck host at the Democratic convention in Charlotte in September.) In 2008 she became the first woman elected governor in the state’s history, but her poll numbers have been in a steady decline in the past year and she was facing increasingly bleak prospects of winning again — especially if she was in a rematch against Pat McCrory, a Republican former mayor of Charlotte. When Perdue won the last time — by 3 percentage points, the state’s closest gubernatorial outcome  in 36 years — it was largely on the coattails of Obama’s sustained efforts to defy the odds and carry the state, which he did by three-tenths of a point.

(2) Brad Miller of Raleigh announced this morning that he would retire this fall rather than wage an uphill fight against fellow Democrat David Price of Chapel Hill in the May 8 North Carolina primary. The two were forced into the same territory under the state’s redistricting map, written by the Republican legislature to turn the comfortably Democratic territory Miller had represented for a decade into a GOP redoubt. The map is also designed to make re-election difficult for incumbent Democrats Larry Kissell, Heath Shuler and Mike McIntyre — but  Price, the 71-year-old top Democrat on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, is now essentially assured of a 13th term. “I do not have an agreement with David to step aside now and run in two years when he retires, as has been widely rumored, nor have I tried to strike any deal,” Miller wrote to supporters. “In two years, maybe it should be someone else’s turn.”

(3) Michele Bachmann’s announcement yesterday that she’ll run for a fourth House term — rather than challenge Amy Klobuchar for the Senate or leave the Capitol to leverage her conservative celebrity into a media career — by no means assures she will still be in Congress a year from now. The northern Twin Cities suburbs she represents are growing fast enough that her district will need to be reconfigured. The tentative map would protect her GOP base, but it’s facing a court challenge. If it’s tossed out then, Democrats will work to draw her into the same district as 12-year Democratic veteran Betty McCollum. Whoever she runs against will have some tangible evidence — only 64 percent attendance at House votes last year, and hardly at all after September — for the argument that Bachmann has lost touch with the home folks and their concerns. And it’s likely she burned through almost all her congressional campaign fund reserve during her White House run.

(4) In his final media play before the totally by mail Oregon special election ends Tuesday, long-shot Republican businessman Rob Cornilles is trying to make the main issue the disgraced lawmaker who vacated the seat last fall. “The same people who covered up for David Wu are now deceiving you about Rob Cornilles,” the announcer says, “because Suzanne Bonamici is wrong on the issues.” Bonamici, a five-year veteran of the state legislature, remains the heavy favorite in the Portland-based district, which has been held by Democrats for four decades. But, just to make sure, a pair of national party committees have poured $1.6 million into the race. National Republicans haven’t helped nearly as much.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: House members Albio Sires of New Jersey (61), his fellow Democrat Xavier Becerra (54) and Becerra’s California colleague Kevin McCarthy, the Republican majority whip (47).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: SOTU Coda: SEAL Edition

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is off on the traditional presidential post-State-of-the-Union trip far outside the Beltway to sell the public on the proposals touted in the speech. He’ll spend the next three days in five battleground states: Michigan (16 electoral votes), Arizona (11), Colorado (9), Iowa and Nevada (6 each).

Today he will underscore his ideas for promoting both old-line and high-tech manufacturing. Within the hour Air Force One will land in Cedar Rapids, where Obama will tour Conveyor Engineering & Manufacturing, which makes screw-type conveyors for moving feed, grain and chemicals. Six hours later he will be at an Intel chip-making plant that employs 9,700 people in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and is done for the week, having voted 408-0 for legislation that would apply anti-smuggling laws to the ultralight aircraft that have become the mule of choice for moving drugs from Mexico into the Southwest.

The bill was a longtime priority of Gabby Giffords, who cast her final vote in favor of her measure — just after handing in her letter of resignation during an extraordinarily emotional half an hour of tributes on the floor. “I will recover and will return and we will work together again,” the Arizona Democrat declared in her letter, which was read by her friend Debbie Wasserman Schultz.  Giffords did not come to the microphone, but walked haltingly to the top of the rostrum to hand her resignation paperwork to Boehner, who was far from alone in openly sobbing at the sight.

THE SENATE: Not in session.

HOLLYWOOD ON THE POTOMAC: In the latest case of life imitating “The West Wing,” the country learned this morning what Obama seemed so pleased about when he arrived at the Capitol — “Good job tonight!” he shouted out to Panetta as he came down the House chamber’s center aisle — but never even hinted at, despite all his praise for the military in his State of the Union speech: A daring Navy hostage rescue operation in Somalia had climaxed just minutes before the president headed to the Hill.

The official reason the president didn’t mention it is that he hadn’t had a chance to inform the families of the rescue. But, as a matter of presidential politics and stagecraft, the rationale is pretty obvious: Unveiling the dramatic tale of the commando raid on prime-time TV would have squandered the headlines generated by the promises and proposals in his speech. (And the Pentagon said this morning that the operation had not fully concluded — with everyone back on safe ground — until after the address was finished.)

Two crews from SEAL Team 6, the same outfit that killed Osama bin Laden last spring (but not the same people), had used helicopters to swoop into another fortified compound and rescue a pair of humanitarian relief workers, 32-yar-old American Jessica Buchanan and 60-year-old Dane Poul Hagen Thisted. They had been kidnapped at gunpoint by ransom-demanding Somali militants in October. Obama had approved the mission on Monday after intelligence reports came in that Buchanan’s health was declining.

“The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people, and will spare no effort to secure the safety of our citizens and to bring their captors to justice,” the president said in a predawn statement “This is yet another message to the world that the United States of America will stand strongly against any threats to our people.” Panetta said the hostages were unharmed and that no SEALs were killed or injured. (But nine Somali kidnappers were killed.) “It takes your breath away, their capacity and their bravery,” Biden said of the special forces on ABC. “These guys and women are amazing.”

KNOWING THE AUDIENCE: Obama didn’t just offer a blueprint for “an economy built to last” in the State of the Union; he made clear he was talking to a Congress he was eager to blast.

Republicans and Democrats alike went into the House chamber last night preparing to be chided for the institution’s calcifying partisanship and corrosive legislative dysfunction — and they heard what they were prepared for. What they were not expecting was to be hectored by the president for their own internal ethical and procedural laxities. And soon after the speech was over it became clear that among the presidential proposals that were likely to be shelved almost immediately were three aimed straight at Congress. He called for legislation that would bar “any elected official from owning stock in industries they impact” — which sounds like a comprehensive ban on lawmakers owning any securities at all, even Treasury bills. He asked his old Senate colleagues for a rules change that would lead to a simple-majority vote within three months on every judicial and executive branch nomination — which sounds like his price for giving up on his newly assertive use of the presidential recess appointment power. And he demanded that so-called campaign bundlers (the people who collect a bunch of smaller donations and direct them to House and Senate campaign coffers) be prohibited from lobbying Congress — which would mean either getting rid of campaign money or getting rid of lobbyists, neither of which is going to happen.

There is one idea the president embraced, however, that still has a chance for enactment this year as the one bit of good-government, self-policing legislation that could become law as an effort to shield some members from anti-incumbent anger this fall: The so-called Stock Act, which would bar members from trading stocks based on the insider-type information they receive because they’re in Congress.

STRICTLY FOR WISHING: It’s not a simplistic overstatement to say that Obama’s speech was about launching his re-election campaign, not about launching a legislative program. Almost nothing on his laundry list is going to get done in 2012.

Enacting the “Buffett rule” is not going to happen, because no Republicans are going to vote to essentially set a new alternative minimum tax for millionaires such as Mitt Romney, who would see his effective tax rate double to at least 30 percent. The president's corporate tax overhaul, including a minimum tax on income earned abroad, isn’t going to happen without a more sweeping overhaul of the code — and that won’t happen before next year, at the earliest. Legislation to help more homeowners refinance in light of record-low interest rates will get caught up in a predictable buzzsaw of argument about Fannie Me and Freddie Mac. And Obama's one new big idea — splitting the budget savings from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan between infrastructure spending and deficit reduction — is a long shot in part because not enough lawmakers see those on-paper savings as real. As for an immigration overhaul (or even a version of the Dream Act) and more clean energy research, forget it. And his call to make quick work of the Social Security payroll tax cut extension had already run into the conference committee’s roomful of molasses by the time he spoke.

LIGHTING IT UP: Sort of predictably, tweeting surged last night when Obama talked about college affordability, green energy investments and Steve Jobs — topics close to the collective heart of the Twitter generation. Surprisingly, though, Twitter reported this morning that the biggest spike of all occurred at 9:51 — when 14,131 tweets were sent when Obama made his one overt attempt at a joke: “We got rid of one rule from 40 years ago that could have forced some dairy farmers to spend $10,000 a year proving that they could contain a spill — because milk was somehow classified as an oil. With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk.” No way of knowing, though, whether deregulatory humor was hailed or lambasted by the twitterati.

THE MISSING: Agriculture’s Tom Vilsack was the Cabinet member designated to stay away from the State of the Union last night — in case a catastrophic attack killed everyone else in the Capitol and essentially decapitated the federal government. The tradition dates to the Cold War but has gained more attention in the decade since Sept. 11; the official who’s tapped by the president usually watches the speech from home, albeit with a full phalanx of Secret Service protection for the evening. Vilsack’s job makes him sixth in the line of presidential succession. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano (18th in line) was also a no-show — but she’s in Switzerland this week at the World Economic Forum.

SUNSHINE STATE SHOWDOWN: Newt Gingrich’s surge appears to be continuing in Florida, where the winner-take-all primary is Tuesday but hundreds of thousands of early votes already have been cast. A Quinnipiac University poll out today — its phone calls started two days before the South Carolina primary but continued for two days after Gingrich’s upset win there — showed the ex-Speaker in a statistical tie with Mitt Romney, with 34 percent to 36 percent for the ex-governor. (There’s a 4-percentage-point margin of error.) Rick Santorum is at 13 percent and Ron Paul is at 10 percent. In a “QPoll” Two weeks ago, Gingrich trailed Romney by 12 points.

Gingrich’s cluster of 11 congressional backers will be using the new numbers in a  meeting today with other House members and senators who are so far uncommitted but thinking about endorsing him. (Romney continues to dominate in congressional endorsements, with six dozen.) The lawmakers backing Gingrich, all House members, are Texans Joe Barton and Michael Burgess, Trent Franks of Arizona, Dan Burton of Indiana, Dan Lungren of California, Andy Harris of Maryland and fellow Georgians Phil Gingrey , Jack Kingston, Tom Price, Austin Scott and Lynn Westmoreland.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Eighth-term House Democrat Bill Pascrell of New Jersey (75); freshmen House Republicans Andy Harris of Maryland (55) and Richard Hanna of New York (61).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Mitt's Contribution

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama will arrive at the Capitol at about 8:45 to deliver his third formal State of the Union address. (The speech he gave to Congress a month after taking office doesn’t get that title, because it’s considered presumptuous for a new president to know what the “state of the union” is so soon.) Capitol Hill will be on high-security lockdown, with cars barred from all the close-in streets, starting at 6.

Obama will start talking soon after 9, following the customary back-to-back standing ovations when he enters the House chamber and then when the Speaker introduces him. Administration officials will start leaking talking points, and their favorite sound bites, at mid-afternoon.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and at noon will start debating five non-controversial bills, including an extension of FAA programs only until Feb. 17 — a deadline designed to force a deal on a long-term reauthorization. The final roll call is promised before 4, and the chamber will be closed before 5:30 for the pre-speech security sweep.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 for nothing other than six hours of speechifying — with a break at lunch for the first party caucuses of the new year.

HAPPY RETURNS: Obama could not have asked for better timing: His still-likeliest Republican opponent is coughing up hard evidence of his card-carrying membership in the 1 percent — an effective tax rate of 14.5 percent on nearly $42.6 million in income the previous two years — hours before the president calls for a more equitable tax code as the centerpiece of his re-election-year State of the Union.

That Mitt Romney kept some of his millions in an honest-to-goodness Swiss bank account (and closed it only when he committed to this presidential campaign) is a little bit of catnip in the tax forms his campaign released this morning — a detail his opponents can use to underscore how at least one presidential candidate is different from almost every other American. Romney made all his money in 2010 and 2011 while essentially campaigning full time, without a salary — but with plenty of his wealth invested profitably, so almost all the $6.2 million in taxes in those two years were at a 15 percent rate, on the capital gains he realized when he sold securities to pay his bills and write his tithing checks to the Mormon Church.

That lower rate for unearned income is one of the provisions in the tax code that will soon expire, and which Obama will call for altering as part of his crusade for economic fairness as the route to long-term prosperity. (Look for him to repeat the theme from his highly touted middle-class revival speech in Kansas last month — “This country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules” — tonight and many nights this year, through his Charlotte convention speech in September and beyond.) The president also is expected to promote his ideas for making college more affordable, restoring stability to the mortgage business and persuading manufacturers to create more jobs. He’ll offer some lip-service to the notion that he’s open to Republican ideas — knowing full well that he’s counting, politically, on the GOP thwarting him at every turn and thereby giving him openings to use his executive authority at the margins while lambasting an obdurate Congress.

FACES IN THE CROWD: Obama is not going to mention Romney by name in his discussion of the tax code — but instead will revive his talk about “the Buffett rule,” the notion that billionaire investors should always pay taxes at a higher effective rate than their secretaries. (Warren Buffett’s personal assistant, Debbie Bosanek, will be in the spectator’s gallery for effect; so will Mark Kelly, who will watch as his wife Gabby Giffords appears on the House floor a final time before her resignation.)

But if the vivid Romney illustration about the growing income divide catches fire with the public, the White House can be expected to make one final push for a“millionaires’ tax” to offset the cost of the yearlong Social Security payroll tax cut, unemployment benefits and a sustained Medicare “doc fix.” The idea may well be different from the simple surtax Reid was pushing all fall; instead, Democrats may turn to the idea of ending the “carried interest” tax law, which allows private equity managers — like the people who work at Bain — to see almost all their income taxed at the lower capital gains rate. (The first formal conference committee meeting on the extenders legislation is at 2:30; the negotiators are looking at an end-of-February deadline.)

NO HOLDING BACK: The official Republican response to Obama’s speech will come from Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana. But the party’s leaders are already offering their “prebuttals”— none more stinging than the one from McConnell. “While we don’t yet know all of the specifics, we do know the goal,” he said as the Senate opened this morning. “Based on what the president’s aides have been telling reporters, the goal isn’t to conquer the nation’s problems. It’s to conquer Republicans. The goal isn’t to prevent gridlock, but to guarantee it.”

Other members of the party are focused on the news yesterday that the president’s fiscal 2013 budget proposal, which by law is supposed to come out Feb. 6, won’t be released until a week later — a sign, in the GOP view, that the president has no serious interest in fiscal restraint this year. (OMB offered no reason for delay, but it’s not unusual for the administration to push back the date. And the agency’s life is complicated this winter because its director, Jack Lew, is about to move to the West Wing as chief of staff.) Lamenting the delay, however, does give Republicans a news hook for talking about their long-shot plans for a process overhaul.

KIRK UPDATE: Mark Kirk’s return to the Senate is almost certainly months, not weeks, away. And so for all intents and purposes, McConnell will only have 46 Republican votes at his disposal for much of this year’s legislative maneuvering.

The 52-year-old freshman senator remains in intensive care in Chicago three days after suffering a significant stroke, because doctors need to be constantly monitoring the bleeding that caused sufficient swelling in his brain to require the pressure-relieving removal of a piece of the right side of his skull. The possibilities for complications — from infection, especially — are intense in the short term. In the long term, the senator faces a long and difficult period of physical and occupational rehabilitation — and despite the therapy, his doctors predicted yesterday, he may never recover the full use of his left arm (he’s left-handed) and have some lasting facial paralysis. The good news, neurosurgeon Richard Fessler at Northwestern Memorial said yesterday, is that the location of the blockage means Kirk’s prospects are strong for an eventually complete mental recovery. (South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson, who suffered a brain hemorrhage in December 2006, spent several weeks in a medically induced coma and did not return to the Senate until the following September, but he’s now well enough to chair the Banking Committee.)

Until Kirk returns, his aides will be substantially but not completely limited in what they can do to advance the boss’ agenda. As in the case of other lawmakers who have been incapacitated, their staff my seek help from like-minded senators and congressmen to promote legislation, and from home-state colleagues to complete constituent casework.

NO SIR, THAT’S JUST A MONEYBOMB: The TSA may have picked the wrong senator for a full-on pat-down. Rand Paul is a member of the Homeland Security Committee, has a reputation for doggedness when it comes to defending civil liberties — and is eager to start distinguishing his own version of tea party Republicanism from that of his father (because the senator is already thinking about a presidential run four years from now, when his dad will be 80 and has promised to be out of public life). The senator says his experience at the Nashville airport yesterday — when he was prevented from getting on his first-choice flight after he triggered a magnetometer alarm and then refused to be touched by TSA agents — could spur him to offer legislation requiring the agency to allow airport passengers a second chance to go through screening machines.

After Paul bought a ticket on a different flight back to D.C. and cruised through a different checkpoint, he and TSA Administrator John Pistole talked — and agreed that maybe pat-downs should not be the only option for secondary screening. How fast Pistole moves now will determine how long Paul can make legislative hay from the contretemps.

LUNCHTIME CHATTER FODDER: Martin Scorsese’s fantastic Paris adventure tale “Hugo” received 11 Academy Award nominations this morning, more than any other movie; the silent film “The Artist” was second, with 10. Both were put up for best picture along with “The Descendants,” “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” The Help,” “Midnight in Paris,” “Moneyball,” “The Tree of Life,” and “War Horse.” (Because of a change in the nominating rules, the best-picture field is one fewer than in the previous two years.)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Two California Democrats with (for now) nearly abutting Northern California House districts: John Garamendi (67) and Mike Thompson (61); HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan (46).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Monday, January 23, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: What Tomorrow Will Bring

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, January 23, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SUPREME COURT: The justices decided unanimously that police must have a search warrant before using GPS technology to track criminal suspects — a potentially landmark ruling in favor of preserving some measure of personal privacy in the digital age.

The court overturned the drug conspiracy conviction of D.C. nightclub owner Antoine Jones, concluding that the main evidence against him — a monthlong log of his whereabouts on a tracking device the police hid on the bottom of his car — was obtained in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights to be protected from an unreasonable search. “By attaching the device to the Jeep," Scalia said, “officers encroached on a protected area.” His opinion was joined by Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas and Sotomayor. Alito, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan signed a concurring opinion that suggested the same ground rules should be applied to mobile phones.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is spending the bulk of his day refining and rehearsing tomorrow’s State of the Union speech. His only scheduled on-camera event is a 1:40 photo op in the East Room with the reigning Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at 2 to debate whether to create a Web-based system for issuing permits to hunt on federal land (aka “duck stamps”) and whether to make an ecologically interesting spot on the Northern Mariana Islands part of the National Parks system. Votes to pass both bills will be at 6:30.

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 with no scheduled business other than the confirmation of John Gerrard, a 16-year veteran of the Nebraska Supreme Court, as a federal trial judge.

FAMILIAR SCRIPT: Congressional Republicans are prepared to wait until tomorrow, in the hours before Obama arrives at the Capitol, to unleash their opening salvos in their election-year war on almost everything the president and his Democratic allies do or say.

Before Obama can use his national State of the Union TV audience (about 45 million, probably) to lambaste Congress for its past year of dysfunction — and to chide the lawmakers in advance for this year's expected more of the same — the GOP will seek to turn the rhetorical tables back on him. Republicans in both chambers will make a great deal of the fact that Tuesday will mark 1,000 days since the Senate adopted a budget, which they will say is, more than anything, evidence of the president’s lack of leadership. Republicans in the Senate will start talking angrily, if not in any detail, about punishing Obama  (by delaying many of his nominees) because of his newly aggressive use of his presidential recess appointment powers. And Republicans in the House, especially, will return to their really hard bargaining positions on the package of wrapup legislation that was left behind at Christmas — promising to do the fiscally responsible thing by shaving back long-term unemployment benefits and blocking any tax on millionaires to pay for a 10-month payroll tax cut extension, and do the economically responsible thing by forcing the president to reverse field on the Keystone XL pipeline.

In other words, for at least this week, until the actual must-do business gets started, the Republicans will be on-message as 100 percent unified in saying whatever the other side wants is bunk. Which is totally unsurprising and precisely the message Obama’s annual speech to Congress will seek to rebut. The president will say that it’s only such knee-jerk recalcitrance that’s preventing a better and fairer economy for the middle class — and a more responsible Washington budgeting process that relies on tough decision-making instead of sequesters. (He’s likely to offer only a warmed-over outline of his deficit-reduction plans, withholding the details until his budget submission in two weeks.)

JOINING THE MARCH: Boehner will be the kickoff speaker at noon, when the annual “March for Life” rally gets under way on the Mall. Several thousand people are expected to brave the soggy weather and attend the rally, then march up Constitution Avenue to the Supreme Court. Abortion opponents have staged a rally every year on this day since 1974 — the first anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that the Constitution gives women the right to have abortions. But it’s unusual for members of the congressional leadership to participate. The Speaker says he’s going to tell the crowd how proud he is to be the leader of the House’s “bipartisan pro-life majority.”

GLOVES OFF: Tonight’s debate, on NBC starting at 9 at the University of South Florida in Tampa, is the 18th of the Republican presidential campaign — and really might be the most important one yet. It will be the first such encounter since the race became — at least for the next week — a two-man affair. (Rick Santorum is reserving his dwindling resources for a last stand in a less expensive, not-winner-take-all state, and Ron Paul is similarly looking down the road to more hospitable contests — meaning caucuses, where his organizers with passion can shine.)

The Republican establishment will be looking on, with a worried if not-quite-arched eyebrow, to see whether Mitt Romney is really back on track after two consecutive wobbly debate performances that will be remembered mainly for his verbal contortions about keeping his tax returns under wraps. (He’s now promising that details of his 2010 return, and an estimate of his 2011 return, will be made public by tomorrow night.) GOP elders and donors will be looking to see how forcefully and convincingly Romney will say to his rival’s face what he said about him on the stump yesterday: that Gingrich was qualified to be a talk show host, but not president, because it “was proven he was a failed leader” after his four years as Speaker, when “he had to resign in disgrace” because of his ethical reprimand and the loss of confidence of the Republicans who knew him best — the rank-and-file members of the House. (The former governor offered another preview of his new and more confrontational approach this morning, when he called on Gingrich to give back the $1.7 million he’d been paid by Freddie Mac to atone for his alleged lobbying culpability in the housing crisis.)

The assignment for Gingrich, meanwhile, is to parry the Romney brickbats with such elegance and cool that he fortifies the newest story line he’s written for himself — that his 12-percentage-point upset thumping in South Carolina on Saturday means he’s the better bet to take on Obama in the fall, and that the registered Republicans in Florida may as well get in on his self-professed inevitability. (In the shortest term, he wants to perform solidly enough that the money keeps pouring in. Yesterday his campaign reported a post-primary haul of $1 million.) Gingrich continued this morning to deny that he was ever a lobbyist, and he said his campaign was working with the Center for Health Transformation — which he founded but no longer runs — to release records proving that. His surge, he added on ABC, means “you’re going to see the establishment go crazy in the next week or two.”

GRACEFUL EXIT: Gabby Giffords is bringing some symbolic closure to her congressional career today, meeting with other victims — as well as law enforcement officials, rescue workers and bystanders — who were at the “Congress on Your Corner” supermarket parking lot meet-and-greet where the congresswoman was shot 54 weeks ago. She’s also got a session planned with local officials and community leaders, and she’ll visit a family assistance center at a local food bank recently created with $215,000 donated in Giffords’ honor. Her office says today will be her last in Tucson before she hands in her resignation letter to Boehner later in the week. She’s expected at the State of the Union tomorrow night — where her presence will, at least for a few minutes at the start, put a sheen of good feeling on what will otherwise be a predictably partisan hour of political theater.

It had become conventional wisdom in recent weeks that Giffords realized she had not recovered sufficiently to run for a fourth term this fall. But her decision to resign now was known only to a small circle of her closest advisers and took the Arizona political establishment by surprise. As a result, the public field of would-be Democratic successors is totally empty, and probably will be for at least another week — although state legislators Linda Lopez, Matt Heinz, Paula Aboud and Steve Farley, along with Pima County Supervisor Ramon Valadez, are all expected to be starting back-channel efforts to assess the potential for their candidacies. Three Republicans already have started testing the waters: state Sen. Frank Antenori, college rugby coach and sports broadcaster Dave Sitton and 2010 nominee Jesse Kelly.

Complicating the political calculations is the reality that the special election — the primaries will be in April and the final round in June — will be in the 8th District as it’s been configured for the past decade, which has a nearly down-the-middle partisan split, but the regular election five months later will be in a newly drawn (and newly numbered, as the 2nd) district with a clear if not lopsided Democratic lean. The redistricting means that — if Giffords meant what her most ardent fans hope she meant on her resignation video yesterday, when she said “I will return” — her political territory would be more amenable than it has been.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: The oldest senator, New Jersey’s Frank Lautenberg, is now 88. Two fellow Democrats, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware and Rep. Joe Baca of California, are each turning 65. House GOP freshman Bobby Schilling of Illinois is 48.

— David Hawkings, editor

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