Friday, February 03, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: News Obama Can Use

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, February 3, 2012

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and has just finished for the week, after voting 248-169 for the final compromise on a long-overdue update of aviation programs. (The Senate will send Obama the bill next week.) The measure, authorizing $63.4 billion for the Federal Aviation Administration in the next four years, would slightly ease the path to unionization of airline and railroad workers, allow 16 more long-distance flights every day at Reagan National, accelerate implementation of the high-tech revamp of the air traffic control system known as NextGen and prohibit new subsidies on unprofitable routes. The FAA has existed on a series of stopgap measures since September 2007.

The House also voted 235-177 to prevent the Congressional Budget Office from incorporating inflation increases into its projected spending baselines. Republicans say their bill would curb a pro-spending bias in the congressional cost-accounting system; Democrats say it would freeze too many programs, which is why the Senate won’t ever take up the idea.

THE SENATE: Not in session

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is at the green, women-firefighter-friendly and otherwise state-of-the-art Fire Station No. 5 in Arlington, where he’s detailing his proposal for a new conservation program in which veterans would be hired to rebuild trails, roads and levees on public lands. He's also making clear his budget will seek more federal grant money for cities to hire police and firefighters.

The president’s other announced event is at 2:45 at the Jefferson Hotel, which has become his go-to downtown spot for re-election fundraisers. (The administration announced that British Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife, Samantha, would be in town for an official visit and state dinner March 13-14.)

BACK-TO-BACK DOUBLES: The White House must think it has a rally going on the jobs front. The election year started with a bang: a net increase of 243,000 payroll positions last month and a drop in the jobless rate to 8.3 percent, the lowest in almost three years. The January payroll increase was the second straight monthly gain in excess of 200,000. That puts the economy in the ballpark — if that pace can be sustained — of generating a sufficient number of jobs to bring unemployment down to a less politically challenging level.

The boost in payrolls the government reported this morning greatly exceeded economist expectations and resulted in a net gain of almost 2 million jobs since January of last year — and a net of 2.2 million jobs created by private employers. (The difference between those numbers is a loss of 276,000 government payroll positions over the past 12 months.) Still, Obama is not out of the deep woods, economically speaking. People are getting hired — factories added 50,000 jobs last month, for instance — but 12.8 million people remain officially unemployed. And almost 12 million more are willing to work (but aren’t actively looking) or are working part time because they can’t find full-time employment.

Moreover, although the economy boasts more than 132.4 million payroll positions in January, that number really just brings us back to the employment peak before the 2001 recession — more than a decade ago — when 132.5 million workers were on the rolls. It’s still a long way to the more recent payroll peak, 138 million in January 2008. And that will give the president’s critics plenty to complain about. Boehner did just that this morning, saying Democrats won’t follow the lead of Republicans and take steps to promote growth. “There’s welcome news in this latest jobs report as more Americans found work last month, but the fact is our unemployment rate is still far too high,” the Speaker said. “Our economy still isn’t creating jobs the way it should be and that’s why we need a new approach.”

The liberal Economic Policy Institute shares Boehner’s concerns, if not his prescription for a fix. “It’s important to keep this growth in context, however — the jobs deficit is so large that even at January’s growth rate, it would still take until 2019 to get back to full employment,” said EPI economist Heidi Shierholz.

KOMEN CHANGES ITS MIND: The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation reversed course this morning and said it would continue to help finance Planned Parenthood breast cancer screenings. Nancy Brinker, the founder and CEO of Komen, said the foundation would alter its new grant-making rules so that only organizations found guilty in a criminal investigation would become ineligible for funding. Earlier in the week, Komen said money would no longer go to organizations facing any government inquiry. (Planned Parenthood is being investigated by House Energy and Commerce for allegedly commingling money for abortions and for other services.) Komen’s move caused an intense national outpouring of criticism — including from 26 senators, who wrote yesterday to urge the group to reconsider.

CAPITOL HILL ROMANCE: A small and private summer wedding (no date yet) is in the works for Susan Collins. Maine’s 59-year-old Republican junior senator became engaged last weekend to Tom Daffron, who’s now the chief operating officer (but not a lobbyist, per se) at the Jefferson Consulting Group. The two have been dating for two years and bought a townhouse to share at 14th and East Capitol a year ago — but they’ve known each other since the 1970s, when both worked for Bill Cohen when he was a Maine House member. Daffron, 63, was chief of staff to Cohen when he was a senator and to two other GOP senators, Fred Thompson and Lisa Murkowski. After the wedding there will be only four never-married sitting senators: Barbara Mikulski, Maria Cantwell, Lindsey Graham and Herb Kohl.

IT’S NOT USUALLY LIKE THIS: A five-year, $260 billion public works and surface transportation policy package will be on the House floor in two weeks, having survived an exceptionally heated and extraordinarily long (almost 18 hours) debate in committee. The vote as 29-24 along party lines at about 2:45 this morning. Democrats called the measure the worst highway bill ever and proposed almost 90 changes, almost all of which were rebuffed. The most important amendment that was adopted (by a vote of 33-32) dropped a provision that would have allowed states to increase their interstate truck weight and size limits and instead conduct a three-year study on the effects of heavier and longer rigs. The vote was a big win for safety groups and a big setback for the trucking companies.

A THINNER PACK: Heath Shuler’s decision to leave Congress after only three terms, and right as he’s turning 41, can hardly be called a “retirement.” (The former Redskins quarterback says he’s giving up politics for good and wants to make some serious money.) But his departure can be seen as the capstone of a decade in which the Democrats reclaimed the House majority with the help of fiscal and cultural conservatives such as Shuler, and have been put solidly back in the minority because so many of those Blue Dogs either couldn’t hold their seats — or didn’t really want to, given the polarized nature of the House and its now solidly liberal Democratic leadership. In Shuler’s case, the Republican-run remapping of North Carolina had made it highly unlikely he would be back in the House next year — and even if he was, he’d become something of a pariah in the caucus since his quixotic run against Pelosi for minority leader after the midterm.

Six other Blue Dogs who started the 112th Congress are now departing or already have departed the House: Mike Ross, Dan Boren, Dennis Cardoza, Joe Donnelly, Gabby Giffords and Jane Harman. But now the relative handful of Blue Dogs remaining are working, however haltingly, to rebuild their ranks through some careful recruiting and strategic fundraising. Utah’s Jim Matheson is running the nascent operation and has persuaded his colleagues to endorse five candidates: state Rep. Leonard Bembry in Florida, state Rep. Ted Vick in South Carolina, state Rep. Clark Hall in Arkansas, Iraq War veteran Brendan Mullen in Indiana and Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Wallace in Oklahoma. The group is promising more on the way — one of whom presumably would be Hayden Rogers, Shuler’s longtime chief of staff, who is likely to get in to the open-seat race. The two top Republicans already announced are Jeff Hunt, a local prosecutor, and Mark Meadows, a real estate investor.

GET ON WITH YOUR WEEKEND: There’s not much reason to stay up late Saturday night to await the results of the fifth Republican nominating contest. Not only do the Nevada caucuses end really late — 11 (D.C. time) in most of the state and more than three hours later in Las Vegas — but there’s also hardly any suspense about the outcome. Mitt Romney’s got all the organizational muscle and is going to brush past his rhetorically challenged post-Florida reputation at least long enough to prevail by about 20 percentage points. Look for Newt Gingrich to get about 25 percent support, if the final round of polling is to be believed. Rick Santorum, despite the endorsement of Sharron Angle, and Ron Paul, despite the endorsement of the working girls at the Bunny Ranch, will draw about 10 percent each. The state’s 28 delegates will be awarded proportionally.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Two back-bench House Republicans, second-termer Tom Graves of Georgia (42) and third-termer Rob Wittman of Virginia (53).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Thursday, February 02, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Progress? For Real?

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 9 for another day debating legislation to prevent lawmakers from trading stocks based on insights they glean behind closed doors at the Capitol. There’s still no deal to rein in the welter of potentially poisonous amendments and keep the measure on track toward passing — before too many senators get buyer’s remorse about the additional ethical strictures they’d be imposing on themselves.

At a minimum, the bill will be expanded to require top executive branch officials to quickly disclose all their stock trades. But there’s no future for proposals to endorse congressional term limits, force senators to divest all their holdings, require lawmakers to disclose their mortgage terms, bar former lawmakers from moving to K Street or impose a binding and indefinite ban on earmarks.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and this afternoon will begin debating the first two pieces of the 10-part Republican budget-process overhaul package. After rebuffing eight Democratic amendments, lawmakers will vote along party lines to compel the Congressional Budget Office to factor economic growth into its budgetary scorekeeping calculations on major legislation. Debate will then get started on a bill that would bar the CBO from incorporating inflation increases in its projected spending baselines. (Neither measure is going anywhere in the Senate.) The last vote of the day will be before 7.

THE WHITE HOUSE: “When I talk about our financial institutions playing by the same rules as folks on Main Street, when I talk about making sure insurance companies aren’t discriminating against those who are already sick, or making sure that unscrupulous lenders aren’t taking advantage of the most vulnerable among us, I do so because I genuinely believe it will make the economy stronger for everybody. But I also do it because I know that far too many neighbors in our country have been hurt and treated unfairly over the last few years, and I believe in God’s command to love thy neighbor as thyself,” Obama said this morning at the National Prayer Breakfast. “For me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.’ ”

The breakfast is an annual rite of winter hosted since the 1950s by members of Congress who meet to pray at the Capitol. (Mark Pryor and Jeff Sessions were the senatorial chairmen of this year’s event in the Washington Hilton.) The date was set long ago — but coincidentally afforded the president a high-profile opening to contrast his outlook to yesterday’s Mitt Romney sound bite: “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.”

The rest of the president’s day will be spent in meetings back in the Oval: a senior staff gathering at noon, lunch with Biden and separate sessions with Clinton and Geithner.

GETTING TO THE HARD STUFF: Negotiators this morning went back at work — out in the open, and for a second straight day — on legislation to extend the payroll tax cut, jobless benefits and the Medicare doctor payment system, all of which will otherwise expire in 27 days. Even before a word was spoken, the calling of the meeting was a sign that lawmakers in both parties are driving for a deal, and want to make quick work of harvesting all the easy-to-get compromises with time to spare for the hard bargaining on how to finance the $160 billion, 10-year cost. They did agree yesterday to continue the Social Security payroll tax break through December — assuring $1,000 in cash for the typical taxpayer and formally putting to an end the bilious impasse that had delayed the Christmas congressional holiday.

The headline out of today’s session looks to be an agreement by Democrats to accept some of the Republican ideas for improving the federal unemployment benefits system and reducing fraud. But a partisan impasse remains on whether the maximum jobless benefit should stay at 99 weeks in states with super-high unemployment and 79 weeks elsewhere. Democrats say yes; Republicans want to make 59 weeks the universal maximum benefit

ROAD HAZARDS: John Mica’s expansive public works package — which already has been poked at by fellow Republicans who think it looks too much like an economic stimulus bill — ran into a wall of Democratic resistance this morning just minutes after the House Transportation Committee markup of the legislation convened. After the Democrats were rebuffed in their effort to postpone the highway bill debate for a week, on the grounds they’ve had only a couple of days to see it, they announced that they would seek to offer almost 100 amendments — many designed to compel the panel’s Republicans to take politically uncomfortable votes on topics hardly related to roads, bridges and rail lines — employment benefits for veterans, for example.

HOT DOCS: Darrell Issa and Eric Holder talked to a standoff at this morning’s latest congressional hearing on the Justice Department’s maybe-if-the-bad-guys-have-our-guns-we-can-catch-them-easier operation known as Fast and Furious. The Oversight and Government Reform chairman lambasted the attorney general for not turning over more of the records the panel has demanded for its investigation of the operation — and he and other Republicans threatened to begin contempt of Congress proceedings if the papers weren’t delivered soon. But Holder said his department’s lawyers are still preparing their response to the subpoena and couldn’t be rushed any faster — but in no way are engaging in a cover-up.

SOME GAVE ALL: Worker efficiency slowed at the end of last year — not good news for corporate bottom lines, but good news for the jobless if businesses determine they’ve gotten all they can out of their workers and have to hire some more. Productivity (output for every hour of work) rose 0.7 percent in October, November and December, down from 1.9 percent in the third quarter, the Labor Department announced this morning. It said labor costs rose 1.2 percent in the fourth quarter, because compensation grew at a faster pace than productivity. Still, inflation-adjusted wages fell 1.2 percent for all of last year — the steepest annual drop since 1989 — even as total hours worked went up for the first time since 2007.

BIG BUCKS: The final 2011 fundraising numbers filed in recent days by all the major senatorial candidates make clear that the battle for partisan control of the Senate between now and November will be extremely expensive and probably incredibly close. Even the Democratic incumbents who don’t face big challenges are raking in the cash like lawmakers in too-close-call races. And the cash-on-hand numbers in the genuine tossups are astounding. Among them: Elizabeth Warren with $6.1 million in the bank and GOP incumbent Scott Brown with a whopping $12.9 million in Massachusetts. Incumbent Jon Tester with $3.8 million and Denny Rehberg with $2.1 million in Montana. Tim Kaine with $3.3 million and George Allen with $2 million in open-seat Virginia. Shelley Berkley with $3.7 million and appointee Dean Heller with $3.6 million in Nevada.

SHOWTIME: There are 180-degree conflicting reports this morning about what Donald Trump will say when he makes his “major political announcement” this afternoon in Las Vegas. Some insiders say they’re confident the real estate mogul and reality show star will endorse Newt Gingrich. Others say they are just as sure he will endorse Mitt Romney. (The betting line seemed to be tilting more in favor of the Romney nod late this morning.) There’s consensus, though, that he’ll back one of the Republican presidential candidates — meaning he’s putting an end, once and for all, to talk that he might run as a Perot-style, self-financed independent in November. The former Speaker has done much more to court The Donald than has the former governor — so a snub at this point would do far more harm to Gingrich than an endorsement would do him good.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “Even as fiscal policymakers address the urgent issue of fiscal sustainability, they should take care not to unnecessarily impede the current economic recovery,” Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke warned the House Budget Committee this morning. “Fortunately, the two goals ... are fully compatible,” he told the lawmakers — who have been at a partisan impasse for the past year on how to reduce red ink without returning to recession.

GROUNDHOG DAY: Punxsutawney Phil emerged from his lair northeast of Pittsburgh this morning, saw his shadow and thereby predicted six more weeks of winter — which has hardly gotten started yet across much of the Northeast.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: John Cornyn of Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (60).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Wednesday, February 01, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: The Importance of 46

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and will spend the day on the congressional insider-trading bill. A vote is expected on a Republican proposal to apply the legislation’s new restrictions and disclosure requirements to executive branch officials — which would be in line with what House GOP leaders want.

But Reid says he’s already lost patience with all the tangential and totally unrelated proposed amendments — term limits for members of Congress, no bonuses for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac executives, no government pensions for lawmakers-turned-lobbyists etc. — that he in effect invited by promising a wide open debate. He may try to get 60 votes for cutting off the debate within the next two days.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and at noon will begin debating as many as five different measures, with all the roll calls clustered between 5 and 7.

Because Republicans have set up a two-thirds-vote-required process for a pair of budget-cutting bills, one is likely to be defeated: It would freeze pay for all civilian federal workers for a third straight year. Many Democrats think the half-a-point COLA proposed by Obama for 2013 is appropriate; the question is whether, for political reasons, they will vote for the measure anyway — because it would also apply the freeze to the lawmakers themselves (and their aides). Lawmakers will vote overwhelmingly, though, for another 5 percent cut in their committee overhead. (Science will take an 11 percent hit and Agriculture’s budget will be trimmed 9 percent in order to provide a 20 percent hike to the Ethics panel.)

The House also will vote to cut welfare grants to states that fail to prevent beneficiaries from spending the money in liquor stores, strip clubs or casinos. And it will take up a bill to repeal a sliver of the 2010 health law called the Class Program, which provides $2 million annually in subsidies for some long-term-care services.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is at the James Lee Community Center in Falls Church to tout his proposal for helping people who are current on their payments refinance their mortgages even when they owe more than their homes are worth. “This housing crisis struck right at the heart of what it means to be middle class in America — our homes,” he said. “We need to do everything in our power to repair the damage and make responsible families whole.” The administration estimates that 3.5 million underwater borrowers could benefit from an expansion of the Home Affordable Refinance Program and would save an average of $3,000 a year because of lower interest rates. But Congress is destined to spurn the idea because of the $5 billion or more cost, which the president would cover with a new fee on large banks.

The president is due back in the Oval at noon for a senior staff meeting, the only other event on his public schedule.

STATEMENT, MADE: It’s tough to find dark spots on the silver cloud that carried Mitt Romney out of Florida — the state that’s as good a microcosm as any of the national GOP electorate and also by far the biggest of the November swing-state prizes.

He cleared his own 12-percentage-point threshold of expectations — defeating Newt Gingrich by 14 points. He got 46 percent overall — tantalizingly close to the absolute majority number that will make his “weak front-runner” yoke fall away. He became the first Republican to win Florida after losing South Carolina. Exit polls show he won among men and women, and that he dominated the Hispanic vote. He carried every age group. He won the three-fifths of the electorate who say the economy is the top issue and the one-quarter who think it’s the deficit. He even won among the 36 percent who described themselves as “somewhat conservative.” And he was ahead by 25 points among those for whom electability is the No. 1 quality Republicans want in their nominee — which may be most important of all, because that group was 45 percent of Florida’s voters. (The sense of inevitability surrounding Romney grew this morning, when the Secret Service agreed to his request for regular protection — not because of any special threat but because his crowds are getting pretty big.)

But there are just enough blemishes on the Romney juggernaut to give Gingrich a decent rationale for his vow to stick around until the end. (If he does, though, he might want to remember his principal opponent’s name, which he wasn’t able to bring to his lips in his hardly-a-concession-speech last night.) He ran 11 points ahead among the one-third of Floridians who label themselves “very conservative,” a clear sign that the tea party crowd is still in his corner. He edged Romney by 5 points among the one-fifth who said having “the right experience” is the most important quality in a nominee — meaning the establishment favorite is not getting away with labeling himself the outsider and the ex-Speaker as the real insider. Gingrich also had the edge (albeit by just 2 points) among evangelicals. And he prevailed by 6-to-1 among the two-fifths of voters who don’t view Romney as conservative enough.

But where does Gingrich go to try to stage his third big comeback of the campaign, with 46 states to go? Not the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, which Romney has in hand thanks to the organizational help of fellow Mormons. Not Tuesday’s caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota, where he’s done minimal work. Not Missouri’s non-binding primary, where Rick Santorum is making a significant push. Not Maine, where Ron Paul has reason to hope for an actual caucus win. Not the primaries four Tuesdays from now in Arizona (where John McCain has Romney’s back) or Michigan (where Romney is still a favorite son). It won't be Virginia, where he's not even the ballot. The best answer is probably Texas — assuming Rick Perry follows through with his promise to do whatever he can to help Gingrich reap as many of the 155 delegates as possible. But that’s not until April 3.

THAT'S CONSTRUCTIVE: Two more reports out this morning bolster the view of a strong economic start to the year. Boosted by a rise in new orders, factory output grew in January at the fastest pace in seven months (and for the 29th straight month), according to the Institute for Supply Management, a trade group of purchasing executives. Separately, the Commerce Department said spending on construction projects rose 1.5 percent in December, the fifth straight monthly gain. That pushed spending to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $816.4 billion, the highest level in 20 months. (Still, for all of last year construction spending dropped 2 percent from all of 2010.)

STILL IN THEIR HANDS: The headlines out of the year-opening forecast from the Congressional Budget Office are somewhat obscuring the bottom line in the report — which is that Congress is right back to where it’s been since the Great Deficit Debate was rejoined a year ago: It can make the politically tough choice to allow taxes to rise at the end of this year — and watch the ocean of red ink start to recede while the economy seizes up. Or it can do the politically expedient thing by allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to keep going and loosening its self-imposed spending restrictions — and watch the red tide spread while the economy continues to recover. The top line from the CBO is that the deficit is going to top $1 trillion for the fourth consecutive fiscal year — although it will be down for the year ending in Septemeber by about $200 billion from the year before.

STILL BOOKING A FLIGHT: Suzanne Bonamici will probably wait until next week to fly from Oregon to Washington and formally take her spot as the newest member of Congress. With almost all the votes counted totally-by-mail special election, the Democratic state senator is ahead by 29,000 votes — a 14-percentage-point margin of victory that’s about in line with recent past results in the district. (Republican businessman Rob Cornilles was at 40 percent, and he took 42 percent when he lost in 2010 to David Wu, who resigned last August once allegations of sexual misconduct were added to an expanding pattern of just plain weird behavior.) Bonamici, who told supporters last night she was “humbled by this awesome responsibility” and would do whatever she could “to put people back to work,” will be assigned to a committee or two once she arrives at the Capitol. She should have no trouble continuing her new career come November, because the district — which stretches from Portland to the rural Pacific coast — was not markedly altered in the remapping for the new decade.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Mike Enzi, the top Republican on the Senate HELP Committee (68).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Burton Is Drawn Away

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and (just before the weekly party caucus lunches) will cast a vote that sets up a wide-open debate on the bill to tighten rules against lawmaker insider trading. Reid’s decision to allow unrelated amendment proposals amounts to offering senators a choice: Move to pass the bill quickly in hopes of plumping up the congressional approval rating, or give in to the temptation to offer all manner of poison pills and political posturing proposals. Expect the Senate to choose the latter, at least for the next week.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at noon and will vote at 6:30 to formally open negotiations with the Senate on long-term legislation to update aviation programs. The roll call will come 10 months after each chamber passed its initial version of such a bill — and two hours after the conference committee’s first formal meeting. (A deal on the bill is largely done, now that a compromise has been reached making it a little easier for rail and airline workers to unionize.)

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is conducting his first formal Cabinet meeting since October. Panetta will return at 4:30 for an Oval Office one-on-one. The only other lines on the president’s announced schedule are a pair of evening fundraisers — a cocktail party at the downtown St. Regis at 7:15 and a dinner at 9 in a mansion (address kept under wraps) elsewhere in the city.

Administration officials are previewing at 2 some of the economy-boosting ideas in Obama’s budget proposal, which won’t be made totally public for two weeks: A one-year capital gains tax holiday for investments in small businesses, a one-year extension of the immediate-depreciation deduction for equipment and software purchases, a new 10 percent tax credit for small business that add jobs or increase wages, and easier rules for small startups that want to go public.

EXIT STAGE RIGHT: Dan Burton will announce his retirement today. He faced an increasingly tough road to winning the Republican nomination in a largely suburban Indianapolis district that’s not all that familiar with him — and not all that fond of his combative style of conservatism, which long ago put him outside the House GOP power structure. (Two years ago he garnered just 30 percent of the vote to win a seven-way primary.) Burton will become the seventh Republican House member to announce his departure from public life — and the second-longest-serving to do so. He is in his 30th year in Washington, is past chairman of the Oversight Committee and is also among the longest-serving Republicans on the Foreign Affairs panel.

Among the Republicans already lined up for the May 8 primary are David McIntosh, a conservative darling who gave up an adjacent House seat after three terms to run unsuccessfully for governor in 2000; former U.S. attorney Susan Brooks, former Marion County Coroner John McGoff and attorney Jack Lugar. Democrats are enthusiastic about the candidacy of state Rep. Scott Reske, but without Burton as his opponent he’s expected to quickly fade into obscurity.

IN THE AIR TONIGHT: Mitt Romney is so confident of victory tonight that he’s doing more than offering a so-so rendition of “America the Beautiful” on camera; he’s setting a 12-percentage-point margin of victory as his definition of a successful outing in Florida. And a broad array of polls show that such a lopsided win is within reach.

His newly bold self-confidence remained little match for his main rival, though. Newt Gingrich told reporters outside an Orlando polling place this morning that the race for the Republican presidential nomination would not be over for at least another five months — “unless Romney drops out earlier.” Behind the scenes, however, he and his aides were reportedly making some strategic decisions designed to keep his candidacy viable at least through Super Tuesday in five weeks, including essentially bypassing the contests in Mormon-heavy Nevada and Romney’s native Michigan. Instead, Gingrich will make forays into Minnesota and Colorado, where the voting is in a week, and Arizona, which votes on Feb. 28, a week after the next debate.

The campaign’s clear hope is that, so long as the former Massachusetts governor’s percentages in the coming contests stay in the 40s, the former Speaker can vault in front if he can remain in the race long enough to consolidate the conservative, anybody-but-Romney vote. And that, in simplest terms, means raising enough money to outlast Rick Santorum — who reiterated yesterday that he has no intention of yielding the field anytime soon. (He and Ron Paul have conceded Florida and are campaigning elsewhere today.)

Most polls in Florida close at 7 (D.C. time), but the panhandle counties are in the Central time zone and close an hour later. State GOP officials are expecting turnout to exceed 2 million, which would break the record 1.9 million who voted in the GOP contests four years ago (when John McCain bested Romney by 5 points). Fifty delegates will be awarded to the winner, none to anyone else. Romney and the super PACs backing him have spent more than $12 million on ads in Florida — about six times what Gingrich and his backers have spent.

SHOVEL-READY: House Republicans are unveiling their election-year ideas for remaking surface transportation policy today — knowing full well that the chance of a new highway bill getting done this year (and creating thousands of jobs) is very small, because there’s no consensus on how to pay for it all.

The bill that Transportation Chairman John Mica will unveil at 3 (and which his committee will approve in two days) would spend $260 billion by 2017, which would be about the current pace of spending even though gasoline and diesel fuel tax revenue is not keeping up — meaning the bill won’t come before the full House unless Ways and Means comes up with a way to fill that revenue gap. (Republicans are talking about getting the money from new natural gas and oil drilling leases — including in the ANWR — which Democrats will resist.) The measure also would shift much of the authority over how road and bridge money gets spent to the states and away from the Department of Transportation — including reducing Washington’s power to stop projects because of environmental concerns, which also will raise Democratic hackles. So will the bill’s call for significantly increasing the maximum weight of trucks, which the industry wants but safety advocates are fighting. The legislation would allow states to set up more toll booths on their interstates if the money collected was dedicated to infrastructure.

Even if a version of such an ambitious plan gets through the House, it’s likely to be reduced in scope by the Senate, where the Democratic majority is unifying behind only a two-year, $109 billion package — on the grounds that the current budget can only afford that much.

WHERE’S THE FLOOR? Home prices fell for a third straight month in almost every one of the cities that account for half the nation’s housing — and the overall sales figures are 33 percent below the peak of the housing bubble three years ago, essentially back to 2003 levels. Prices dropped between October and November in 19 of the 20 cities surveyed for the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller home-price index, the survey’s organizers said today. Phoenix was the exception. The biggest declines were in Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit. Only Washington and Detroit posted year-over-year increases. Prices in Atlanta, Las Vegas, Seattle and Tampa fell in November to their lowest points since the housing crisis began.

PORTLAND TRAIL: Suzanne Bonamici will comfortably hold for the Democrats the Portland-area House seat that the disgraced David Wu vacated last summer. The Oregon state senator should be able to declare victory right after 11 tonight (D.C. time), which is the deadline for getting mail-in ballots to the local county courthouses. (By yesterday, registered Democrats had returned more than 67,000 ballots, 50,000 had been delivered by Republicans and about 25,000 from non-affiliated and minor-party registrants.) Those numbers are a reminder that the district is reliably Democratic; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $1.3 million there, anyway, determined to prevent a repeat of last fall’s huge upset loss of the New York City district that Anthony Weiner had to quit because of his own sex scandal. Republican businessman Rob Cornilles, who campaigned as a centrist who could create jobs, got minimal logistical or financial support from the National Republican Congressional Committee.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) The NRCC made more clear today where it does plan on putting its resources, announcing that it had tapped 10 more incumbents for its “Patriot Program,” which provides a special measure of fundraising and organizational support to particularly embattled House Republicans — so long as those members first prove their own mettle at raising money and setting up a viable re-election campaign. Added to the roster were Dan Lungren, Gary Miller and Brian Bilbray in California, Scott Tipton and Mike Coffman in Colorado, Joe Walsh and Tim Johnson in Illinois, Rick Crawford in Arkansas, Roscoe Bartlett in Maryland and Dan Benishek in Michigan. Twenty other incumbents from 13 states had previously been chosen.

(2) Republicans are thrilled with a new poll showing Montana’s at-large House member, Denny Rehberg, with a 53 percent to 42 percent lead in his Senate race against Democratic incumbent Jon Tester. That a sitting senator would be so far below 50 percent support 10 months from the election — and 11 points behind his challenger — is grim news for the Democrats, because getting Tester a second term is central to their algorithm of maintaining Senate control this fall. But Tester’s campaign downplayed the poll, which was paid for by the conservative group American Crossroads — the sister of Crossroads GPS, which already has spent heavily on pro-Rehberg TV ads. The survey of 400 likely voters was taken Jan. 9-10 and has a 4.9-point margin of error.

(3) State Treasurer Richard Mourdock has doubled, to $200,000, the amount of his own money he’s dedicated to his highly touted but financially struggling conservative challenge to Dick Lugar — who will be assured of a seventh term as an Indiana senator if he wins the May 8 Republican primary. Last week Mourdock reported raising only $386,000 in the final three months of last year and staring January with essentially that amount in the bank. Lugar raised $750,000 in the fourth quarter and kicked off the election year with $4 million in cash on hand.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: House Democrats Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland (66) and Larry Kissell of North Carolina (61); House Republican Bill Huizenga of Michigan (43).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Monday, January 30, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Reid's Big Subroutine

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, January 30, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 and will vote resoundingly at 5:30 to take up legislation designed to aid prosecution (or at least ethics committee investigations) of lawmakers who make stock trades based on information only a member of Congress might know. Reid is working to limit amendments in hope of passing the bill this week.

THE HOUSE: Not in session.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is conducting his first senior staff meeting since Jack Lew became his top West Wing aide on Friday. At 2:15 he’ll welcome Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to the Oval Office and reconfirm U.S. support for the country’s territorial integrity. (Georgia went to war with Russia four years ago over two separatist provinces.) After dropping by the annual East Room reception for the diplomatic corps, the president will go back to the West Wing at 5:30 to answer questions about his agenda for the year in an interview live-streamed through Google+ with questions submitted via YouTube.

CYBER SUCCESS: Odds are getting better by the day that multifaceted legislation to bolster the nation’s cyber defenses will become one of the few can-do, big-ticket items of this Congress.

A bipartisan Senate deal looks to be only a day or two away and could be ready for a floor debate within a couple of weeks, with aides negotiating some final details but almost all of the most contentious issues resolved. The issue has become enormously important to Reid, who has put in considerable behind-the-scenes time brokering agreements on provisions that have been stuck for years — largely because of turf battles between several federal agencies, especially between the White House and the Department of Homeland Security. He’s also got a deal on an update of the law that governs protection of federal computer systems. To get this close to an accord, though, the majority leader has won a tentative agreement that the Senate won’t try to legislate the most controversial cybersecurity policy question now before Congress: What if any power should the president have to dictate business practices in order to prevent or minimize a data breach that could cripple the economy — by shutting down utilities, for example, or causing the nation’s electronic banking system to seize up. (Language that would allow business and the government to share information about cyberthreats is still being refined.)

Of course, some of the deals that have propelled the debate to this point might be undone by amendments once the measure is debated by the full Senate. And the White House has not given its blessing to the package. Neither has the Republican leadership in the House, which for now is pursuing a piecemeal approach of advancing narrowly crafted and minimally controversial cybersecurity changes.

INCOMES UP; SPENDING, NOT SO MUCH: Another morning of mixed messages from the government’s economic record keepers. The good news was that personal income rose 0.5 percent last month, the biggest increase since an identical jump nine months before. But a not-so-hopeful report, also from the Commerce Department, was that consumer spending was unchanged in December, following weak gains of 0.1 percent in both the previous two months. Consumer spending is closely watched because it accounts for 70 percent of the nation’s total economic activity — and when people don’t spend, it means growth slows and fewer jobs get filled. But unless income grows more rapidly, consumers will be forced to cut back further on spending.

NO MORE DRAMA? It’s one month before the latest deadline for extending the payroll tax holiday, continuing jobless benefits and preserving the current Medicare payment rates for doctors. That’s not much time in current congressional terms — especially because Congress will be in recess the last full week before the current extensions run out — but Boehner declared yesterday that he’s not worried. “I’m confident that we’ll be able to resolve this fairly quickly,” he said on ABC’s “This Week."

On the surface, though, there’s only mixed evidence to buttress that sanguine view — and it will be on display the day after tomorrow, when the conferees hold their second public meeting on the bill. On the one hand, Republicans set aside their ideological and strategic reservations before Christmas and have agreed with Democrats that the Social Security payroll tax rate for workers should stay at 4.2 percent through the end of the year, that some benefits for the long-term jobless should be kept and that another “doc fix” is unavoidable. On the other hand, there’s really no public consensus at all how to come up with the $160 billion over 10 years required to do those things. Yes, it’s true that Democrats have set aside their call for a "millionaires’ tax" to provide the offset — because they’ve decided it makes more political sense to argue in favor of using that money to pay for other aspects of Obama’s election-year agenda. And it’s also true that McConnell, on CNN yesterday, didn’t totally rule out some sort of revenue raisers to end up in the legislative mix. But so far there’s no offset on which everyone’s agreed. Even the least controversial — raising about 10 percent of the cost from auctioning more of the broadcast spectrum to wireless companies — is becoming bogged down in a dispute over FCC regulatory powers.

FLORIDA MATH: The polls show Mitt Romney cruising toward victory in Florida tomorrow — probably by more than 10 percentage points.

Half a million have already voted, and in the NBC News-Marist poll out this morning, Romney is ahead of Newt Gingrich by a whopping 22 points (49 percent to 27 percent) among the early balloters. (He’s leading overall by 15 points in that poll.) Although most of the headlines from Gingrich over the weekend were about how he’ll take his campaign to the GOP convention in Tampa this summer, no matter what the outcome this week, He conceded yesterday that he’d have a tough time raising sufficient money for that quest without a strong showing in the Florida primary. (He calculated that, to win, he’d have to get 52 percent of the votes cast on Tuesday.) His best shot would appear to be that he holds Romney’s victory margin to single digits — then tries to raise money off that exceeds-expectations showing, along with the formal endorsement from Herman Cain this weekend and the still-not-quite-an endorsement words of encouragement from Sarah Palin.

Florida became a true two-man contest today. Rick Santorum announced that his 3-year-old daughter Bella was in a “miraculous” recovery from double pneumonia and so he was ready to get back to campaigning — but that he was not returning to the Sunshine State. Instead he’s headed to Minnesota, Missouri, Colorado and Nevada, all of which have caucuses that might award him delegates with a relatively small investment of time and resources.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) The big political shakeup in North Carolina is starting to shake out. Bob Etheridge, who lost one of the biggest House upsets of 2010 to Republican Renee Ellmers, is sending clear signals he wants to make a comeback bid by running to succeed fellow Democrat Bev Perdue in the newly open governor’s race. (He was an elected statewide official, state schools superintendent, for eight years before coming to Congress in 1997.) Etheridge’s candidacy would likely box out another Democrat, Brad Miller, who was forced by redistricting to call an end to his congressional career last week. But the new congressional map is so favorable to Republicans that 80-year-old Howard Coble announced over the weekend that (despite being hospitalized for respiratory problems just a month ago) he was committed to seeking a 15th term in territory that’s substantially different from what he’s represented for the past decade.

(2) Suburban Philadelphia businessman Steve Welch was the solid favorite among Republican insiders at the state party convention over the weekend to be Bob Casey’s challenger this fall. But his path to the Senate nomination is not quite clear, because at least four more conservative aspirants are vowing to press ahead toward the April primary with the help of tea party activists — all of them complaining that Welch’s No. 1 patron, Gov. Tom Corbett, is overplaying his hand as party kingmaker. (The group includes lawyer Marc Scaringi, former state Rep. Sam Rohrer, entrepreneur Tim Burns and former coal industry executive Tom Smith.) No matter who ends up as the GOP nomination, however, Casey is a lopsided favorite to hold the seat for the Democrats for a second term.

(3) Four Democrats are now seeking to challenge Olympia Snowe’s bid for a fourth Senate term in Maine. In recent days State Sen. Cynthia Dill and home builder Benjamin Pollard doubled the size of the field, which had previously been confined to state Rep. Jon Hinck and former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap. Whoever wins the nomination — probably at the state party convention June 12 — will be a decided underdog against Snow, who is expected to breeze past the two far-more-conservative Republicans challenging her renomination, Scott D’Amboise and Andrew Ian Dodge.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Today, Frank Wolf of Virginia (73). Three other House Republicans yesterday: Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin (42), Lee Terry of Nebraska (50) and Chip Cravaack of Minnesota (53).

— David Hawkings, editor

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