Friday, February 10, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Being Careful

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, February 10, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is due in the press briefing room at 12:15 to personally announce the administration’s plan for accommodating religious employers outraged by a proposed requirement that all health plans provide free coverage of birth control.

With Gabby Giffords at his side, Obama is about to sign her bill closing a legal loophole that had aided Mexican drug smugglers equipped with ultralight aircraft. (Reporters will press her afterward about whether she’s endorsing her old Arizona district director, Ron Barber, as only a special election placeholder or also in the November election.) The president’s regular Friday afternoon hotel fundraiser is at 3:30 at the Jefferson.

THE HOUSE: Not in session

THE SENATE: Not in session.

COVERAGE, COVERED: The president’s not going to call it a cave-in or a flip-flop or even a reversal; those labels will be left for women’s groups to embrace, probably more silently than aloud. Instead, Obama will say he’s making an “accommodation” to religious organizations by embracing a new policy in which they will not have to cover the cost of birth control coverage for their employees — the insurance companies will be directly responsible instead.

Under the plan hashed out last night and designed to quell a culture war uproar, regulations carrying out the preventive care enhancements of the 2010 health care overhaul will still have to guarantee free contraception (no co-pays or premiums) to women no matter where they work. But if Roman Catholic and other religious universities and hospitals declare themselves conscientious objectors, the companies that provide their employees’ coverage will be compelled to pick up the tab. The president will assert that the middle ground protects both the rights of women to have comprehensive health coverage and the rights of the church to its religious liberties. Administration officials said that leaders on both sides of the passionate three-week debate had helped forge the new proposed regulation and that they were confident the president had the authority to order insurers to provide the free coverage. The altered rule will take effect a year later than originally planned, in August 2013.

That the president himself was appearing before the cameras to explain the decision is clear evidence that he sees the controversy as casting a potentially big cloud over his re-election campaign, in which he is counting on doing almost as well with Catholics as he did four years ago, when he took 54 percent of their vote. But it's not clear yet whether today’s move will tamp down the angry rhetoric among his Republican rivals.

ALL DAY LONG: Rick Santorum offered a full-throated version of his socially conservative vision to an enthusiastic Conservative Political Action Committee crowd this morning — thereby creating an even more awkward atmosphere for Mitt Romney’s 1 o’clock arrival. “Conservatives and tea party folks: We are not just wings of the Republican Party — we are the Republican Party,” Santorum said.

The day could not come at a better time for the former Pennsylvania senator, who has a genuine shot at pushing Newt Gingrich out of the way, consolidating the culturally and religiously motivated voters in the GOP and becoming the only viable alternative to Romney. And the day could not come at a more challenging time for the former Massachusetts governor, who runs a genuine risk that his businessman’s steady approach to advancing his candidacy — and explaining his virtues — could collapse unless he can market his conservative bona fides better; otherwise, the half-hearted enthusiasm that has sustained his “inevitability” campaign so far could readily devolve into mostly dissatisfaction. (One extra awkward omen for Romney today is that it was at the CPAC gathering four years ago, in the same Marriott Wardman Park ballroom, where he abandoned his first campaign for the presidency.)

“I won among conservatives in New Hampshire. I won solidly among conservatives in Florida, won among conservatives in Nevada, and have the most delegates in this race,” Romney said on Fox last night, “so I wouldn’t say that I haven’t been able to get good support from conservatives” He suggested however, that he could do a better job highlighting some of the more culturally conservative moves on his resume, noting that he “led the charge” to reverse the Massachusetts state Supreme Court’s decision allowing same-sex marriage.

Gingrich, meanwhile, will appear at 4:10 and plans to offer an idea-packed speech calling for revamping the EPA into “environmental solutions agency,” overhauling the regulatory regime at the FDA, replacing NASA’s bureaucracy, reining in the federal judiciary’s powers and imposing a flat 15 percent income tax while ending capital gains taxes.

The biggest news of the convention could come tomorrow at 4:30, however. Sarah Palin is sending signals that she’ll use her CPAC concluding speech to announce her endorsement. (The results of the weeklong Maine caucuses, where Ron Paul is predicting a solid showing and maybe a victory, will be announced at about 7:30 that night.)

TIMING IS EVERYTHING: Of course it would be a major story if the Office of Congressional Ethics openly alleges that Spencer Bachus violated federal insider trading laws. But the fact that the office is looking at the Alabama Republican shouldn’t be all that surprising. The office is all about proving its worth as an independent investigative agency, and the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee long ago revealed his “hobby” as a day trader on his annual financial disclosure reports — just the sort of activity that the OCE was created to take a look at proactively, without waiting to receive a complaint as the House Ethics process generally requires. Had the office not opened an investigation after the “60 Minutes” report on insider trading last fall, in which Bachus’ fondness for stock options was a central feature, that would have been at least as big a development for watchdogs to worry about.

Beyond all that, the story about Bachus at the top of the Washington Post’s front page is — ironically — evidence to support the views of the tiny minority of lawmakers willing to label the so-called Stock Act as nothing more than self-serving political silliness. They say the core provision of the legislation passed by both the House and Senate is unnecessary, because there’s already a solid system in place to ferret out self-dealing by senators and congressmen. And that’s sure the way it looks in the Bachus case. He’s filed annual reports for years detailing all his trades; would filing such reports more frequently have drawn him scrutiny earlier? The OCE is looking into the matter; would an underscoring of the law that prevents anyone from trading on privileged information have made the agency act faster? The congressman says he was basing his trades on a layman’s understanding of the news, not on super-secret insights from talking to Ben Bernanke or Hank Paulson; would the Stock Act provide methods for refuting him? The clear argument seems in favor of “no” to all three questions.

ANOTHER WEEK DOWN: The status of the one bill that both parties have labeled “must do” this winter will remain “not close to getting done” until at least next week, which will start 16 days before the current payroll tax, jobless benefit and Medicare doctor payment formulas expire. With both the House and Senate sent home for the weekend, there are no serious talks possible today. And the ill will and frustration around the negotiating table grew considerably yesterday, when a proposal highly touted by Democrats as a genuine offer to step toward the middle ground was met with little more than derisive laughter by Republicans. (The offer was to end unemployment benefits after 93 weeks, down from the 99 weeks currently available in states with the highest jobless rates; the GOP was hoping to hear a number much close to its 59-week negotiating position.) Each side walked away accusing the other of not being serious about getting to a deal — and only being serious about trying to make the other look like the guilty party.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “How come liberals never admit that they’re liberal?” Marco Rubio asked to rousing applause at the CPAC convention yesterday. “They’ve now come up with a new word called ‘progressive,’ which I thought was an insurance company but apparently it’s a label.”

ANOTHER QUOTE OF NOTE: “Stephen Colbert used to be my friend. I even signed the poor baby’s cast when he hurt his hand. But since the day he started his Super PAC, taking secret money from special interests, he’s been out of control, even using his Super PAC money to attack my friend, Newt Gingrich. And if that weren’t enough, I hear he doesn’t even like kittens,” Pelosi deadpans in a video released yesterday that designed as a campaign spot to promote Super PAC transparency legislation. “I support this ad because Americans deserve a better tomorrow today. Join me in stopping Colbert and creating a new politics free of special interests. The first step is passing the Disclose Act.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Today, Walter Jones of North Carolina (69); tomorrow, another occasionally iconoclastic House Republican, Rob Woodall of Georgia (42), and a Democrat, Tammy Baldwin, who’s giving up her House seat to run for the Senate in Wisconsin (50).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Thursday, February 09, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Not Every Rule Is Sacred

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is getting ready to make remarks at 12:15 hailing the $25 billion foreclosure abuse settlement finalized overnight among the states, the Justice Department and five of the nation’s biggest mortgage lenders: Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Ally Financial. Under the deal, $17 billion will go toward reducing by $20,000 the principal that struggling homeowners owe on their notes, $5 billion will go to various state and federal housing programs and the rest will subsidize refinancing by underwater-but-up-to-date-on-their-payments homeowners.

The president will be in the East Room at 2 to announce his decision to free 10 states from many of their obligations under the No Child Left Behind education law. He will welcome Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti to the Oval at 2:45 for talks about the European financial morass, NATO policies and the complexities of the Middle East and North Africa. And he’s got a top-dollar fundraiser at 7 in an undisclosed Washington mansion.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and has gone home for the weekend after voting 417-2 for legislation that would make it easier to expose and punish government officials who buy securities if they don’t stop trading on congressional knowledge — the phrase that forms the convenient acronym in Stock Act. The dissenters were Republicans John Campbell of California and Rob Woodall of Georgia. No proposed amendments were allowed, so the bill is narrower in scope than the package senators embraced last week. (The main difference is that only the Senate bill would require new financial disclosures and lobbyist-style registrations by the burgeoning number of businesses that offer “political intelligence consulting” to Wall Street firms.)

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and at 2 will vote to brush aside dilatory moves and begin officially debating the $109 billion, two-year highway, rail and mass transit policy and projects bill — starting next week. (To get it passed before the Presidents Day recess, Reid will have to cut several preliminary deals with the three chairmen who share jurisdiction.)

PUSHED TO A RESPONSE: Obama is going to have to back down on his contraception coverage mandate well before Boehner and McConnell start forcing a reversal through legislation.

The president’s already going to be in the headlines twice today for politically popular moves, on education and mortgages, and may not want to muddy those messages. But it’s a safe bet that by sometime tomorrow he’ll announce some sort of modification of the new HHS rule. That’s because the politics of the imbroglio are rapidly spinning away from him, with Republicans quickly united and galvanized by what they see as a winning election-year return to the culture wars — and a growing number of centrist Democrats in politically perilous circumstances pressing the White House for a quick about-face on its decision.

The collective and quick calculation is that the government’s preservation of religious freedom is a much more popular idea than a government guarantee of access to free birth control — at least at the all-important center of the national political spectrum, where the independents who decide elections are. Those are the voters who will decide Virginia’s tossup open-seat Senate race — a statistical dead heat in five straight polls, including one this week — which is why former Democratic National Chairman Tim Kaine has come out against the new health care regulations. Same for Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who don’t want their relatively clear shots at re-election sullied by the brouhaha and are urging the president to back down. The four other Catholic Democratic senators up this fall — Claie McCaskill, Maria Cantwell, Bob Menendez and Kirsten Gillibrand — are behind the White House so far but would be thrilled if the issue went away. And all of them are wondering why the president didn’t take the advice of the two most prominent Catholics in the administration at the time the decision was made — Biden and Bill Daley, who both warned emphatically of the political peril.

And yet the polling offers decent evidence that a softening of the HHS rule may be a snap decision that’s beyond what’s politically warranted. While Roman Catholic leaders are lambasting the regulations — which they see as an affront to their rights to run their hospitals, schools and other charities under their own moral rubric — there’s widely circulated polling that shows rank-and-file Catholic voters are solidly supportive of a birth control coverage requirement. And even if the Democrats slip below 50 percent in their support from Catholics at the polls, standing solidly behind the mandate should have no trouble boosting their support among women and younger voters.

DIFFERENT SCALES: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee are the states being released from many of the No Child Left Behind law’s requirements because they’ve come up with viable alternatives for improving their educational systems and methods for evaluate student achievement. The announcement makes good on one of the first pieces of Obama’s “We can’t wait” agenda, in which he’s promising unilateral executive branch actions in the absence of congressional activity — and earning the enmity of many Republicans on the Hill who see him as over-reaching. (There’s almost no chance that Congress will rewrite the elementary and secondary education policy law this year; the Senate HELP panel approved a plan last fall that the White House didn’t like, and negotiations in the House Education and Labor Committee long ago devolved into partisan name-calling.)

No Child requires all students to be proficient, for their grade levels, in reading and math by 2014. Critics say the goal is unrealistic, produces too much “teaching to the test” and means too many schools are punished as failures. The states given waivers will get a break on that mandate in return for providing detailed plans for preparing their children for college and careers, setting new targets for improving student achievement, rewarding high-performing schools and getting help to the under-performers. (New Mexico also asked for a waiver now but was told it had more work to do; 28 other states are also getting waiver applications ready — an obvious sign that dissatisfaction with the law is spreading far and wide.)

THE NEW LINE: Three of the top-ranking members of the Senate majority leadership — Harry Reid, Dick Durbin and Patty Murray — are all veteran appropriators who want to protect the congressional power over the purse from any further weakening in an era of shrinking discretionary budgets, earmark bans and looming sequestration. But they won’t be able to resist for very long the growing bipartisan pressure for the line-item veto proposal the House enthusiastically embraced yesterday. The enormousness of the deficits and the political mandate for lawmakers to look like they’re cutting wasteful spending have combined to push the appropriators off their long-running preeminence in the congressional power structure.

The leadership won’t be compelled to put the House bill on the floor for a clean up-or-down vote. Instead, they will probably acquiesce in the idea that the measure be attached as an amendment to some other likely-to-be-enacted bill. That’s what its two principal Senate sponsors, Tom Carper and John McCain, want to do — confident that they can grow their roster of supporters comfortably beyond the current list of 27 Republicans and 16 Democrats. (Rob Portman, the Ohio senator who ran the White House budget office five years ago, agrees that the handwriting’s on the wall that the line-item veto’s time has returned — after 14 years off the books, and after laborious negotiations to come up with a reliably constitutional procedure.)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Departing Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia (66); Democratic Rep. Jay Inslee of Washington (61); House GOP freshmen Renee Ellmers of North Carolina (48) and Todd Rokita of Indiana (42).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Copyright 2012 CQ Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved | Privacy Policy

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Can't Ignore 'im

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and this afternoon will cast a rare lopsided and bipartisan vote in favor of a budget bill. The measure would give presidents a form of line-item veto power that its authors are convinced is constitutional — because it would subject his packages of proposed rescissions from appropriations laws to up-or-down congressional votes. (A 1996 line-item veto law was struck down by the Supreme Court two years later because it gave the president unilateral power to excise line items  from statutes.) Obama has endorsed the House bill (which will be amended to shield Corps of Engineers projects from rescissions) and it’s got broad backing from senators, too — but not Reid, a former appropriator, who thinks the bill would yield too much legislative power over the purse and is likely to keep the measure off the floor.

THE SENATE: Not in session. Democrats are holding a daylong political and legislative strategy session at Nationals Park. Republicans are doing the same, but in the Capitol.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is headed to the baseball stadium at 2, but his pep talk to the senators will be off camera. He’ll be back in the Oval at 4 to talk with Clinton about the world’s lengthening roster of diplomatic hot spots.

GUESS WHO’S BACK: Justifiably emboldened by last night’s extraordinary three-state sweep, Rick Santorum declared today that he would “plant the flag” in Mitt Romney’s ancestral backyard of Michigan and make an all-out bid to win the primary there three weeks from now. With the help of a post-upset fundraising burst (his campaign reported raising $250,000 in a few hours this morning)  he said he was confident he would triumph by portraying himself as an outsider who was a more reliable advocate for blue-collar values of personal opportunity and moral conservatism — and Romney as “a well-oiled weather vane.”

The former Pennsylvania senator’s surge to solid victories in the Colorado caucuses (his biggest upset, by 5 percentage points over Romney) the Minnesota caucuses (by 18 points — over Ron Paul) and the Missouri beauty contest (by 30 points, and without Newt Gingrich on the ballot) was matched in remarkableness by the former Massachusetts governor’s swoon — and just when it seemed he was genuinely on the cusp of making good on his promise of inevitability. Romney had won both Colorado and Minnesota in 2008, and in those states as well as Missouri (which has a big asterisk because it’s non-binding this time), his vote totals were significant drop-offs from four years ago — 20,000 fewer in Colorado, 18,000 fewer in Minnesota and 109,000 fewer in Missouri. The unmistakable takeaway is that he’s less popular in all three than he used to be — especially when he doesn’t put his still-superior organizational operation and bank account to work for him.

Even if he doesn’t win in Michigan, Santorum should have no trouble getting some delegates there. (The other contest on March 28, in Arizona, is winner-take-all, and Romney has a solid organization in place.) And the timing for his burst of momentum is hard to beat, coming as it does just when Obama is being pressured to reconsider new rules on contraception coverage in the face of Roman Catholic objections, the Komen-Planned Parenthood flap has people thinking about abortion rights again, and the California gay marriage question is back on the front page. Santorum probably still won’t end up speaking on a Thursday night in August from the sports arena in Tampa, but he may well end up as the other person in the two-man race that slows Romney’s path to the nomination until Memorial Day.

CANTOR’S TAKE: The version of the Stock Act the House will debate tomorrow is significantly different from the government ethics package the Senate passed last week. The biggest difference is that the bill Cantor unveiled late last night has no provisions requiring the people in the “political intelligence consulting” industry to register like lobbyists. Senators added such language to their version last week, and since then the grumbling from K Street and financial services companies — which use such intelligence reports to shape their trading decisions — has grown intense, in part because the provision was written to define intelligence-gathering in a pretty vague and expansive way.

Unlike the Senate bill, Cantor’s measure would deny government pensions to lawmakers convicted of a felony. It would expand restrictions on how executive branch officials handle negotiations with prospective private-sector employers and make it a crime for those officials to retaliate against companies that don't hire them. It is more specific than the Senate’s about the new disclosures it would require of executive  branch officials — and makes clear that it would apply to about 30,000 administration officials.  And it essentially would prevent lawmakers from participating in initial public offerings — language clearly written to poke at Pelosi, whose husband bought stock in the 2008 Visa IPO while she was Speaker and the House was considering a bill to lower credit card fees. Both bills, however, are the same at the core: They would make clear that lawmakers and aides are subject to prosecution (or ethics committee punishment) if they trade securities based on information about legislative strategies or pending decisions that aren’t available to the public.

The bill is likely to sail through the House tomorrow — because members are eager to do something that sounds like they get the message about why the public holds Congress in such low regard — although Democrats will complain loudly that they were not consulted by Cantor even though the legislation's central piece really was their idea first.

STILL FIGHTING: The other collective mea culpa that Congress may yet turn into enactable legislation this year is a prohibition against earmarks. What “60 Minutes” did to spur on the insider-trading bill, The Washington Post is now doing to put the practice of pet projects back under the spotlight — with its series this week showing that some earmarks look to be for lawmakers’ personal benefit, not just for parochial political aggrandizement. The leaders of the Senate effort to enact a true earmark ban, Pat Toomey and Claire McCaskill, are increasingly confident the newspaper’s stories will pressure their colleagues into voting to add the legislation as an amendment to the highway bill. (They say the binding ban is needed because Senate appropriators’ self-imposed moratorium on earmarks for the coming year is readily circumvented). But even if that happens, the idea seems stuck for the foreseeable future in the House. The leader of the cause there, Jeff Flake, was rebuffed in his request to be allowed to offer an earmark ban as an amendment during tomorrow’s Stock Act debate.

THREE MORE WEEKS: The current payroll tax, jobless aid and Medicare doctor payment formulas all expire three weeks from today, when the fifth public negotiating session between Senate Democrats and House Republicans is planned on the bill that would extend all three through the end of the year. In public, there’s been very little evidence that the two sides are each making moves toward the middle on the fundamental question of how to offset the $160 billion expense — and plenty of evidence that each side is still blaming the other’s bullheadedness for the impasse. That could change a little once Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus unveils what he’s promising will be a genuine overture to Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp on long-term unemployment payments, which the GOP is pushing hard to rein in while setting school requirements for beneficiaries. If the House conferees take the offer, that would mean there’s a decent chance the talks could get off the dime and be done before the Presidents Day recess starts at the end of next week. If not, then Reid will be ready to put another short-term extension before the Senate when the recess is over.

STEVENS REPORT: Federal Judge Emmet Sullivan denied motions today from two unidentified people seeking to keep a permanent seal of secrecy on a 500-page report detailing widespread misconduct in the prosecution of Ted Stevens — who was convicted of corruption in 2008, lost his bid-for reelection as the longest-serving Republican in Senate history a few weeks later and then saw his conviction thrown out the next spring. Instead, the judge ordered the report’s release on March 15.

NOT WEDDED TO IT: It’s clear that the Supreme Court eventually will be asked to be the final arbiter of whether gays and lesbians can get married, at least in California. But it’s not clear the court will agree to settle the question, and it’s way up in the air what the justices would decide if they end up taking the case; they could rule only on narrow and somewhat technical grounds affecting only the reach of referendums in California, or they could issue a sweeping ruling that decides one of the defining civil rights debates of the age — whether same-sex couples may be constitutionally denied the same right to wed as opposite-sex couples. But, until the high court has had its say (or decided not to), the current prohibition will remain on gay marriage in the nation’s biggest state.

The next step is for the backers of Proposition 8 — approved with 52 percent just five months after the state Supreme Court legalized gay marriage — to decide whether to ask the full 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider yesterday’s 2-1 panel ruling against them, or whether to turn right away to the Supreme Court. The latter option would put the case in the calendar for the term starting in the fall, when there’s a high probability all nine of the current justices will still be sitting. Pursuing the interim step would run the risk that the ultimate appeal wouldn’t reach Washington for another year, by which time some retirements and the presidential election result could have tipped the court’s ideological balance to the left or the right.

WHO'S NEXT? Republicans are totally confident they will hold the newly redrawn congressional district that wraps around Charlotte even though Sue Myrick is leaving Congress this fall, when she will turn 71 and complete her ninth term. Myrick yesterday became the 20th House member (and the seventh Republican and the third North Carolinian) to announce a voluntary departure from politics in 2012. A senior member of both the Energy and Commerce and Intelligence panels, she was a reliable vote for the party leadership and a down-the-line conservative alumna of the “Contract With America” takeover class of 1994 — with one notable exception: After surviving breast cancer in the late 1990s, she began working regularly with Democrats to promote more federal spending on research.

Her departure creates an opening that will probably be fought over by a long roster of Republicans, although word is that Myrick is going to endorse Jim Pendergraph, a Mecklenburg County (Charlotte) commissioner. That could complicate the aspirations of state House Speaker Thom Tillis, state Rep. Ruth Samuelson, state Sen. Bob Rucho and Charlotte City Councilman Andy Dulin. So would a decision by former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory to switch from a run for governor to a run for Congress.

DINNER TIME: The publishers of the Daily Briefing are buying the first round (or two or three) before tonight’s 68th Washington Press Club Foundation dinner — which once again kicks off the annual procession of self-congratulatory big ballroom awards banquets where lawmakers, lobbyists and reporters wash their surf and turf down with overly oaked chardonnay. The foundation’s Congressional Dinner is known for inviting a handful of lawmakers to bolster their reputations for being funny — confident that most of them will bomb instead. Taking their chances this year are Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Democratic Rep. Linda Sanchez of California and freshman GOP Rep. Billy Long of Missouri. The boss’ cocktail party at the Mandarin starts at 6:30.

CORRECTION: Yesterday’s edition got off on the wrong foot with the newest House member by misspelling her first name. It’s Suzanne Bonamici.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Republican Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Florida (49).

— David Hawkings, editor

Become a Facebook fan at facebook.com/DavidHawkingsDC. Or follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/davidhawkings.

Copyright 2012 CQ Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved | Privacy Policy

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Money, Money, Money, Money!

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 for opening speeches about a two-year, $109 billion update of highway, rail and transit programs — with a break for the weekly party caucus lunches. The central dispute is, as usual, how to offset the cost of the new spending — in this case, the $12 billion left uncovered by projected gas tax receipts. And the next chapter in that increasingly partisan dispute will play out at a Finance Committee meeting at 3, when Chairman Max Baucus will promote a plan he unveiled this morning in hopes of mollifying ranking Republican Orrin Hatch. How quickly the offset fight is resolved will determine when Reid moves to kick the floor debate into high gear.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and by sundown will pass two Republican bills, one to speed up the process for selling unneeded federal real estate and the other to boost the value of government loans and loan guarantees on the federal balance sheet. Susan Bonamici will be sworn in at about 1 as the newest member of Congress, the 192nd House Democrat and the only woman in the Oregon delegation.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is using the backdrop of his second State Dining Room science fair to announce that his budget will call for creating an $80 million Education Department grant program for colleges that provide innovative math and science teacher-training programs. He proposed something similar a year ago but it went nowhere in Congress; he hopes to spur lawmakers to give him what he wants by announcing $22 million in commitment from private companies willing to partly match  the federal money.

The president’s other announced events are lunch with Biden and a 4:30 meeting with the vice president and Panetta.

NOT-SO-NEW PRIORITIES: Obama’s decision to countenance fundraising by a super PAC will subject him to intense criticism that he’s become just the sort of politician he’s always railed against — willing to allow electoral necessity to become the mother of blatant hypocrisy. But one of the most obvious flip-flops of his presidency will have a benefit that could readily outweigh the ridicule: His re-election campaign should be able to benefit (without any coordination, of course) from the $100 million or more that Priorities USA Action will have little trouble raising and then spending on the president's behalf.

Obama is clearly betting that he won’t be doing anything that ticks off the vast majority of voters, who are already disgusted about the dominant role of money in politics but have only the vaguest notion of how it all works. And there’s good evidence to support that view: Polls show that very few of the people who backed him four years ago are even aware that he decided to forgo public financing for the general election — and thereby single-handedly neutered one of the great post-Watergate “good government” efforts. He’s also concluding, presumably, that so long as he maintained his position of “unilateral disarmament” for himself as a way of protesting the Citizens United decision, his party’s congressional fundraising operations would continue to suffer as well. Now there are sure to be House and Senate Democratic super PACs aplenty. And Republican ones, too. Like the early days of the nuclear arms race, it will be years before the notion of mutually assured destruction takes hold and prompts both sides to back away from their commitments to having far more in their arsenal than they could ever hope to use.

MESSAGE CONTROL: David Axelrod, Obama’s top political adviser, made quick work of rationalizing the super PAC decision this morning before turning to a topic that he signaled could do more harm to the president’s second-term chances — the administration’s new regulation requiring church-affiliated employers to cover birth control for their workers within the next year. Roman Catholic leaders are pushing back especially hard, arguing that the rule is a clear-cut First Amendment violation that forces the church to choose between upholding its doctrine and carrying out its commitment to helping others at its schools and hospitals.

Although Axlerod now works for the campaign, he made clear that he’s pushing his colleagues still at the White House to move fast to back away from the absolutist-sounding position and come up with a middle ground. “We have great respect for the work that these institutions do, and we certainly don’t want to abridge anyone’s religious freedom,” and so the administration is at work finding a new stance that “guarantees women the preventive care they need” but also respects the prerogatives of religious institutions, he said on MSNBC. “This is an important issue. It’s important for millions of women around the country,” he said. “We want to resolve it in an appropriate way and we’re going to do that.”

SANTORUM’S LAST STAND: Under the admittedly convoluted and a bit arbitrary conventions of presidential campaign coverage, Rick Santorum has become the Republican to watch tonight — and he’s in the catbird seat for reasons not entirely of his own choosing. But, ready or not, this will be portrayed as either the day he revived his candidacy, or the day he slipped toward oblivion.

It’s true that he skipped Florida and Nevada in order to focus on these contests in three November bellwether states — caucuses awarding 36 delegates in Colorado and 40 more in Minnesota, plus a non-binding “beauty contest” primary in Missouri. And it’s also true that the decision has resulted in a boomlet of momentum aided by conservatives who are still determined to press for a nominee who’s not Mitt Romney (and who weren’t paid much mind by Newt Gingrich in these three states). But what’s really tuned the spotlight on the former Pennsylvania senator is the Romney campaign itself, which has rolled out a multifaceted set of criticisms of Santorum in recent days while working to prop up the front-runner’s own socially conservative bona fides. So, in order to “win the night,” Santorum is under pressure to actually score an upset victory in the two places he seems to have the best shot, Minnesota (where the first results from the caucuses will be posted at 9 D.C. time) and Missouri (where the polls close at 8 D.C. time). The results from Colorado, where Romney is spending the day, won’t start coming in before 10:30 Eastern.

KIRK MAKES PROGRESS: Mark Kirk’s condition has been upgraded from "fair" to "good," and the Illinois Republican’s doctors say he’s almost well enough to tolerate that next big step in his recovery — the reinstallation of the section of his skull removed after his stroke two weeks ago. His return to the Senate is still many weeks away — almost surely not before the April recess — but if the surgery goes well he will be able to begin the physical therapy that will determine how much of his mobility can be restored.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Bob Kerrey announced this morning that he won’t run for his old Senate seat, essentially guaranteeing Republicans can count on Nebraska as one of the four seats they need to be assured of a Senate majority next year. “For many reasons I nearly said yes. In the end I choose to remain a private citizen,” said Kerrey, who had described himself as a decided underdog had he chosen to make the race. “To those who urged me to do so, I am sorry, very sorry to have disappointed you. I hope you understand that I have chosen what I believe is best for my family and me.” Kerrey retired in 2000 after two terms as a senator (he was governor before that), moved to New York to become president of the progressive New School and was succeeded by Ben Nelson, who’s now retiring rather than stage an uphill fight for a third term. The May 15 Republican primary field for the seat remains crowded: state Attorney General Jon Bruning, state Treasurer Don Stenberg, state Sen. Deb Fischer and investment adviser Pat Flynn. Gov. Dave Heineman has said no again and again to entreaties from D.C. Republican power players that he run — and he seems settled on not getting in, even with Kerrey out.

(2) Ron Barber, a Gabby Giffords aide injured in the January 2011 shooting rampage, is now almost ready to announce he’s running in the special election to succeed her but would not be a candidate in the redrawn Arizona district in November. The only thing he’s waiting for is Giffords’ up-front endorsement, which for the Democrats has been frustratingly slow in coming. Every day she waits, more momentum could build for Republican Jesse Kelly, the ex-Marine who came within 4,200 votes of defeating Giffords two years ago. The primaries are April 17, and the special election June 12.

(3) Another incumbent-versus-incumbent matchup was launched yesterday in Arizona: Ben Quayle will run for his second tern against fellow freshman Republican Dave Schweikert. Quayle made good on his threats because so much of his old Phoenix district was drawn into the same solidly Republican district that is home to Schweikert — although the former vice president’s son lives in an adjacent district that’s a political tossup. Quayle is viewed as the weaker candidate among establishment Republicans, who say he’s not done much to shed his reputation as a congressman who got to Washington on the family name and hasn’t done much with it since.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: One retiring Democratic senator, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin (77); one House committee chairman, Natural Resources’ Doc Hastings of Washington (71); three House GOP freshmen: Allen West of Florida (51), Michael Grimm of New York (42) and Steve Fincher of Tennessee (39). The first two are both facing tough re-election battles — West because of the state’s redistricting and Grimm because of reports of campaign fundraising improprieties.

— David Hawkings, editor

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Monday, February 06, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, February 6, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama says he has a “very good estimate” of when Iran would have its nuclear bomb ready to go — but little clarity about who in Tehran would have a finger on the button. “Knowing who is making decisions at any given time inside of Iran is tough,” he said in an interview broadcast on NBC’s “Today.” The president said that although he believes diplomacy can still get Iran to suspend its nuclear program, the administration is planning a range of alternative options. He unveiled some later this morning — new U.S. sanctions on the government of Iran, including its Central Bank.

Obama will get the latest from Iran, Syria, Egypt and the rest of the word during his daily intelligence briefing at noon. (He’ll hear an insider report about how the U.S. Embassy in Damascus was closed today, with its last 18 diplomats being brought back to Washington.) He has nothing else on his public schedule beyond a 2:30 meeting with senior advisors.

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 and will vote at about 5:30 to clear legislation updating the government’s aviation policies and programs and authorizing $15.9 billion in spending during each of the next four years. The vote comes 50 weeks after senators passed their initial version of the bill, and 52 months after the last comprehensive FAA authorization law expired. Obama’s signature is not in doubt.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at noon and starting at 2 will debate three non-controversial measures, one of which would allow a new natural gas pipeline to cross some federal parkland in Brooklyn. If roll calls are required for passage, they’ll be delayed until 6:30.

MORE THAN A FEELING: Mitt Romney cracked an important symbolic ceiling this morning, when Republican officials in Nevada declared he’d won the caucuses with 51.1 percent of the vote — his first outright majority in the first five contests of the 2012 campaign, and his second straight decisive victory. Newt Gingrich survived a balky tally of Saturday’s caucus ballots in the precincts along the Las Vegas Strip to finish second, with 21 percent — but with only 779 more votes than Ron Paul. (Turnout was only 75 percent what it was four years ago, continuing an overall trend in the early GOP contests.)

The final result shows how the alternative story line about Romney — that he has a political glass jaw that would eventually be broken by an energized wave of the most socially and fiscally conservative voters — is starting to be refuted. The GOP electorate appears to be coming around to settling for perceived electability over ideological purity — the prevailing prediction all along.

Previously dubbed the “25 percent man,” Romney will now seek to cement his inevitability by claiming an outright majority in both of the delegate-awarding primaries in decent-sized states (Michigan and Arizona) three weeks from tomorrow. But he won’t do all that decisively well this week. He may top 50 percent in only one contest — in Colorado. But in tomorrow's other caucus, in Minnesota, he and Rick Santorum are statistically tied in recent polling, with Gingrich and Paul each not far behind. Santorum also has a shot in Missouri, but it’s a “beauty contest” primary that awards no delegates, and Romney hasn’t tried too hard there. In Maine, where the caucuses end Saturday, Paul’s organizational effort could push him to a victory. Gingrich made clear yesterday that his latest “back to the future” move will be a return to that old Republican chestnut, the Southern Strategy, which means his next target of opportunity is his home state of Georgia on March 6.

The obvious looming problem for the GOP, then, is that the longer the also-rans keep running, the more potential their attacks have to wound their likely nominee in ways that last until the fall. Signs of that coming true are in the Washington Post-ABC News poll out today: 55 percent of those surveyed who say they’re closely following the campaign disapprove of what the GOP candidates are saying — and more than two-thirds say they like Romney less the more the learn about him. In part as a result, the poll shows Obama winning a head-to-head matchup against the former Massachusetts governor, 51 percent to 45 percent. (To be sure, the poll also suggests Romney is still looking more viable in the fall than Gingrich; the polls says the ex-Speaker would lose by 11 points to the president.)

LEDGER TROUBLE: The worst news of the day for the Republican field, though, is confronting the Paul campaign. The Texas congressman’s reputation as a vigorous advocate for fiscal prudence and hard-edged accounting for every federal dollar spent is being challenged by a evidence that he’s done some double-dipping on his expenses. The top story in Roll Call this morning is that Paul looks to have been paid twice — by the taxpayers and by his network of libertarian political and nonprofit groups — for at least eight flights in the past dozen years, and perhaps for a dozens more where the available records aren’t quite so clear. Paul’s congressional office denies any impropriety but says it’s possible Paul received double reimbursements by accident once in a while.

FORGET ABOUT IT: It’s been known for a couple of weeks that the president’s budget proposal for fiscal 2013 (which starts Oct. 1) would not be sent to Congress today, as the law requires. (It’s promised next Monday.) Now comes word that the federal budgeting timetable — which has notably broken down in so many other ways in recent years — has now been pro-actively tossed out the window by the Democrats who run the Senate. Rather than continue quietly enduring the taunts from the GOP about his caucus’ inability to produce a document in either of the last two years detailing its spending and revenue priorities, Reid went an offensive (of sorts) on Friday afternoon. He promised that the full Senate won’t ever debate a budget resolution this year, either — not before the April 15 statutory deadline, and not afterwards. He asserted such a document was not necessary in light of the top-line spending numbers agreed to in last summer’s default-avoiding debt limit deal. The decision is a slap not only at the regular order but also at Budget Chairman Kent Conrad, who’s retiring this fall after 26 years of trying to pull the country back from the long-term budgetary brink.

GOING SLOWLY, HOWEVER NICELY: The public negotiating resumes tomorrow on the payroll tax, unemployment and “doc fix” package — but there’s still no sign that the return to an emphasis on complying with the civics textbooks and the manners manuals is producing anything resembling a deal. The current extension of the Social Security tax break, jobless benefits and Medicare reimbursement rates lapses in 23 days — and Congress will be in recess for five of them (Presidents Day week). If the leadership is going to rely on a conference committee to get the final deal, they will soon be pressed to unveil their Plan B (yet another short-term extension) for when the talking drags on until the final hour. Reid has already ordered up the drafting of such a bill — its length remains under wraps — because he’s grown impatient that his main agent in the talks, Finance Chairman Max Baucus, doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere close to cutting a deal that the leadership would bless. Republican leaders meanwhile, are benefiting from all the longwindedness in the conference — because it buys them time to bolster the forced unity they’ve imposed on the rank and file to stick with an extension of a tax break and a social program that many of them don’t like.

NOT BACKING DOWN: A coalition of Detroit’s African-American preachers called today for Pete Hoekstra to apologize for his Super Bowl campaign ad in which a young Asian woman uses stereotypical broken English to describe Debbie Stabenow’s economic views. But the Republican former congressman went on the radio this morning and called his ad a “home run” that is only “insensitive” to the spending philosophy of his Senate opponent and Obama. “Clearly China is one of many countries benefiting from our irresponsible spending. To highlight that is absolutely appropriate,” he said. The 30-second ad debuted across Michigan during last night’s game and is scheduled to run statewide for the next two weeks on cable TV shows aimed at GOP voters. “Debbie spends so much American money. You borrow more and more from us. Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs. Thank you, Debbie Spenditnow,” says the actor , who’s posed on a bicycle amid rice paddies. The ad concludes with Hoekstra on camera saying, “this race is between Debbie Spenditnow and Pete Spenditnot.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No current lawmakers share a birthday with Ronald Reagan (Feb. 6, 1911 – June 5, 2004).

— David Hawkings, editor

Become a Facebook fan at facebook.com/DavidHawkingsDC. Or follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/davidhawkings.

Copyright 2012 CQ Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved | Privacy Policy