Friday, February 17, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Photo Op

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, February 17, 2012

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and has just voted, 293-132, to endorse the final, $143 billion version of legislation extending the 2-percentage-point payroll tax cut for 160 million workers through the end of the year, continuing but limiting benefits to the long-time unemployed and forestalling a 27 percent cut in Medicare reimbursements to doctors. The package was opposed by 91 Republicans and 41 Democrats.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and will clear the payroll tax cut, jobless aid and “doc fix” package within a few minutes — and an atypically lengthy 12 days before all three were set to expire. The vote is the last piece of business before all of Congress goes on recess for the next week. Look for a much closer vote than in the House, with a handful of conservative Democrats as well as a solid majority of Republicans  voting “no.”

Senators voted this morning against limiting debate on the two-year, $109 billion version of the highway, mass transit and freight rail policy rewrite that Reid is pushing, suggesting plenty of work ahead for senators interested in reviving the bill after the recess. The roll call was 54-42, but 60 votes were required. But senators brushed aside a handful of conservative GOP critics and confirmed Jesse Furman, a federal prosecutor and the younger brother of White House economics adviser Jason Furman, to be a federal judge in New York.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama takes off from San Francisco at noon (D.C. time) and heads to the mammoth Boeing Everett Factory north of Seattle, where 747s, 767s, 777s, and the new 787 Dreamliner are all built. It’s an obvious location for his 2:30 speech reiterating his views about the importance of manufacturing and exports to “an economy built to last,” which is the only non-fundraising stop of the day. Fresh off an announcement that he raised $29.1 million for his re-election campaign and for the Democratic Party in January, he’s got an event at 5 in the home of Susan and Jeff Brotman (a Costco co-founder) and another at 6:45 in the Westin Bellevue hotel. He’s due back in the family quarters at 1 tomorrow morning.

THE SUPREME COURT: The justices returned from a nearly monthlong recess and held a closed-door conference to deliberate several cases — the first such session since Breyer was robbed of $1,000 by a machete-wielding intruder at his Caribbean vacation home. (Oral arguments resume Tuesday.)

THE OTHER SIDE: When Barbara Boxer and Kirsten Gillibrand took to the Senate floor this morning, their rhetoric was a stark reminder that those who fail to appreciate history are doomed to repeat it. More than two decades after an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee decided it believed Clarence Thomas more than Anita Hill — and at a time when the number of women in Congress has plateaued at 17 percent — the two Democratic senators were able to have a political field day over Darrell Issa’s “just doesn’t get it” moment in the House yesterday.

The two needed to do nothing more than ask “Where are the women?” as they described the giant photo they had brought with them — of the five witnesses, all of them men, who testified as the first panel of experts on birth control before Issa’s House Oversight Committee yesterday. In so doing, the senators underscored how the culture wars can absolutely cut both ways — and are not always be won by the Republicans. The Thomas hearings were responsible for big gains by the Democrats, and especially their women candidates, in 1992 because voters tied antiquated chauvinism and the GOP together. The GOP’s efforts to make Terri Schiavo’s permanent vegetative state into a right-to-life caused totally backfired seven years ago — because the public thought the Republicans had gone way too far and had their eyes off the “real” issues. Those two lessons are on the minds of political operatives on both sides now, who wonder aloud whether the GOP is about to overplay its hand in the Obama birth control mandate, not only because women will rise up against them but also because voters of both genders think this year should be spent talking about the parties’ prescriptions for the economy and not about life in the bedroom.

EYEBALLING AN OVERHAUL: They may deride what they view as his occasionally flippant and all-too-frequent smirk, but House Budget Committee Republicans were delighted with one thing Geithner said yesterday: that the administration will soon offer a plan for a corporate tax overhaul. He said the president has not given up on those aspirations when the grand-bargain and supercommittee talks foundered last year. “We’ll have a chance to talk about this in the coming weeks,” the Treasury secretary said, and he promised  a “broad framework” for ending “dozens and dozens of the special preferences in the corporate tax code today” while preserving “a much narrower, targeted set” of corporate tax provisions aimed at “encouraging investment in the United States.” It’s highly unlikely the administration’s corporate tax plan will resolve partisan differences over tax policy — and certainly not in an election year. But the paper will give both sides something to ponder in anticipation of a significant tax-code overhaul debate next year if the present is re-elected — and a document filled with evidence the Republicans can use to criticize the president during the campaign.

NOT A FACTOR: The cost of living rose less than forecast in January, supporting the view that inflation is among the least of the nation’s election year economic worries. The consumer price index increased 0.2 percent after no change in December, the Labor Department says this morning. The so-called core measure, which excludes more volatile food and energy costs, also increased 0.2 percent, following a 0.1 percent uptick the previous month. (The absence of inflation is one reason for the the Federal Reserve’s decision to keep interest rates low through at least 2014.)

WHERE HAVE ALL THE GOOD TIMES GONE: It looks like next Wednesday’s debate in Mesa, Ariz., could be the 20th and last of the 2012 Republican presidential campaign. That’s because the debate scheduled  in Atlanta on March 1 was called off by CNN and the Georgia GOP yesterday when Mitt Romney said he wouldn’t be there — and Rick Santorum and Ron Paul quickly dropped out as well. The prospects for all four to show up at the PBS debate being planned for Portland, Ore., on March 19 look to be fading as well. The development could not come at a worse time for Newt Gingrich, consistently the best performer at such events in the past few months, who was hoping to revive his faltering candidacy with a strong showing in his hometown. (He’s spending five of the next 14 days in Georgia, his main Super Tuesday target. He has three campaign offices and a full-time staff of a dozen in the state — the biggest operation he’s set up since South Carolina, which is the one state he’s won so far.)

BIG LEAD: Scott Brown was solidly in front of Elizabeth Warren, 49 percent to 40 percent, in a survey taken this week and released last night by Suffolk University, the premier polling authority in Massachusetts. The margin of error in the poll of 600 voters was 4 points; only 9 percent were undecided. And among the all-important independents, who tend to decide such tossups, the incumbent Republican senator was way ahead, 60 percent to 28 percent. A poll out earlier this week had the race essentially tied — but it was focused on likely voters, while the new survey was of registered voters.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “I took a chance at the Apollo and I’m not going to take a chance again,” Obama said at his San Francisco fundraising dinner last night, where Al Green was the guest entertainer and there was enormous speculation the two might sing a duet. “Now, what is possible is, after reelection, I might go on tour with the good reverend. Be his opening act. But I don’t want to lose any further votes because of my singing voice.” (Still available from his campaign is a ring tone of the president  crooning  “I’m so in love with you” at the New York  fundraiser.)

ANOTHER QUOTE OF NOTE: “I’m not responsible for every comment that a supporter of mine makes,” Rick Santorum said on CBS this morning about his super PAC’s biggest benefactor, Foster Friess, who yesterday touted an aspirin tablet (held by the knees) as a low-cost and effective birth control method. “It was a bad joke, it was a stupid joke, and it is not reflective of me or my record on this issue,” said the presidential aspirant, who does say states should be free to ban contraceptive sales.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: House Republicans Randy Forbes of Virginia (60) and Jim Jordan of Ohio (48).

PUBLISHING SCHEDULE: Because of the Presidents Day congressional recess, there will not be a Daily Briefing next week unless significant news demands it. Regular production will resume Monday, Feb. 27.

— 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

Thursday, February 16, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: None of the Usual

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10, will start debating amendments after noon and by sunset will pass a bill designed to expand domestic energy production — with the expected lease revenue dedicated to public works spending.  The measure would resurrect a Bush-era system for leasing public lands in the West for oil-shale extraction while preventing the Obama administration from altering it.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 for a day of speechmaking and clock-watching on the highway bill, which appears stalled until the next procedural vote tomorrow. (The vote on whether to neutralize Obama’s contraception coverage mandate is off until after next week’s break.)

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama’s first fundraiser of the day is a breakfast at 10 (California time) in the Corona Del Mar home of Jeff and Nancy Stack. The second is three hours later, at the San Francisco Intercontinental Hotel. The third is a cocktail party for two dozen at the Mark Hopkins. The most lavish is a $35,800-a-plate gourmet dinner for 70 guests at the Pacific Heights home of novelist Robert Mailer Anderson. The finale is a concert at the Nob Hill Masonic Center featuring Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Audioslave fame.

HOW ABOUT THAT: The payroll tax package that negotiators and the leadership say they’re confident they finalized late last night will become that rarest of 2012 legislative creatures: an expensive, multifaceted money-policy bill that clears Congress with comfortable and bipartisan majorities. They should know that their optimism was merited by tomorrow evening.

Weary aides were still doing the final detail work this morning — but it was confined to only technical issues and the refining of legislative language. Both the top negotiators, Republican House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp and Democratic Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, said all the policy disagreements had been bridged and predicted the deal would win the signatures of a strong majority of the conference committee members by early afternoon. (Until then, no paperwork detailing the locked-down provisions will be available.) Reid said he expected the House would embrace the package sometime tomorrow — which would mean the GOP would have to work around its self-imposed rules about how long legislative language must sit in the sunshine before a vote. The majority leader said senators looked to be ready to clear the package almost as soon as it arrives. If opponents work to slow-walk the deal, though, he said the Senate would work into the weekend to get it done — suggesting at least the theoretical possibility of a delayed start to the weeklong Presidents Day break.

The biggest last-minute stumbling block was over how to make federal workers contribute $15 billion in the coming decade toward the cost of the deal. The two Maryland Democrats in the room, Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, objected strenuously to the idea of requiring all government employees (thousands of whom are their constituents) to put an additional 1.5 percent of their pay toward their retirement accounts. Initially, they pushed instead to hold down the size of the civilian employee COLA for next year. Ultimately, they agreed to raise the money by requiring federal workers hired in the future to contribute more (2.3 percent) to the defined benefit pension plans, while holding existing workers harmless.

And so the main votes against the package will be cast by the same Republican conservatives who have fought against the payroll tax and jobless benefits extensions since the start of last fall — and are galled that their leadership has not stuck by its guns and insisted that the entire $150 billion cost be offset elsewhere in the budget. (Only one-third of it will — from the pension change,  an equivalent $15 billion from auctioning to wireless companies a part of the airwaves  now reserved for TV broadcasters, another $15 billion in cuts to hospitals that rely on Medicare to make up the difference when people don’t pay their bills, and $5 billion from a new preventative health care program.)

In return, the bill would add about $1,000 to the 2012 take-home paychecks of a person making $50,000 — by holding at 4.2 percent (down from 6.2 percent a year ago) the amount taken to support Social Security. It also would stave off, at least until the end of the year, a 27 percent drop in payments to doctors who service Medicare patients. It  would continue 99 weeks of unemployment benefits through May for states hardest hit by joblessness. As many as 79 weeks would be provided through August and up to 73 weeks through December — but only in states where the jobless rate is above 9 percent. In the other three dozen states, the cap would be 63 weeks. States could (but wouldn’t have to) require drug screening of a limited group of people who get unemployment checks — mainly those who lost their last job because of drugs. There is language, pushed hard by GOP conservatives, to punish states that don’t prevent welfare recipients from using their benefit cards at liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs. And the deal may combine the spectrum sale language with a program to tie the nation’s public-safety radios together by allowing them to share one slice of radio frequency.

GUARANTEED SHOWDOWN: A Detroit News poll out today says Rick Santorum is leading Mitt Romney, 34 percent to 30 percent, among likely voters in the Michigan GOP primary — still a statistical tie, given the margin of error, but yet another indication that the Santorum surge is lasting, even in the state where the longtime front-runner was born. The voting is in 12 days. And the four years of tax returns the former Pennsylvania senator released last night should help in bolstering his image as the more lunchbucket of the two — at least in relative terms. While Romney’s returns were filled with eight-digit numbers, Santorum’s showed his income increasing steadily in the years after he lost his Senate seat and became a Washington advocate and consultant — from $660,000 in 2007 to $1.1 million in 2009, before slipping to $923,000 in 2010. He says he paid a combined tax rate of 28 percent over the four years. (Romney, remember, paid 14 percent because many of his earnings came from investments taxed at a lower capital gains rate.)

QUOTE OF NOTE: “My family has had the great privilege of serving Massachusetts before. They taught me that public service is an honor, given in trust, and that trust must be earned each and every day. That’s exactly what I intend to do,” 31-year-old state prosecutor Joe Kennedy III says in a video posted before his formal congressional candidacy announcement today. If he wins the seat from which Barney Frank is retiring, he’ll be the first person from the fifth generation in his family to hold federal office — starting when his great-great grandfather Honey Fitz Fitzgerald was elected to a Boston House seat 118 years ago.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No current lawmakers, administration officials or other people prominent in Washington life. But Kim John Il would be turning 70 were he still alive, and Sonny Bono would be 77.

— 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

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: 'Hold on Tight a Little While Longer'

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and this afternoon and will begin debating the energy provisions of the GOP highway bill. (The last amendment vote is promised before 7.) The package would expand offshore drilling for oil and gas, permit drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, approve the Keystone XL pipeline and create a shale-oil leasing program — with any resulting federal revenue dedicated to road and bridge projects.

Boehner appears to have the votes to pass this section of his overall package as a stand-alone bill, but he still faces significant opposition — from fellow Republicans and almost all Democrats — to the other two parts, one to limit federal pensions and the other to revamp highway, rail and mass transit policy for the next five years. As a consequence, he announced this morning that debate on those sections would be put off until after next week’s Presidents Day recess. “It’s more important that we do it right than that we do it fast,” he told a GOP caucus meeting, promising to allow lawmakers to air their grievances through a wide-open amendment process .

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30, will vote at noon to promote of Adalberto Jordan from the federal trial bench in Miami to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and will then spend the rest of the day on its version of the highway bill. But the first contentious amendment vote looks to have nothing to do with public works priorities; instead, it will be on Republican language that would allow any employer (not just religiously affiliated institutions) to opt out of Obama’s contraceptive coverage mandate. After that, attention may turn to proposals to either chide Egypt or cut off its U.S. aid because of its prosecution of Americans working to promote democracy.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is flying to Milwaukee, where at 1:40 (D.C. time) he’ll urge corporate leaders to make more investments and hire more people in America — from the factory floor at Master Lock, a favorite example of the president’s because it brought 100 manufacturing jobs back from China in response to rising labor and logistical costs in Asia. (Obama carried Wisconsin by 14 points in 2008, but since then a big GOP surge in the state has made his chances this year a tossup.)

Air Force One takes off at 3 for Los Angeles, where tonight the president will appear at the first two events in an eight-fundraiser, three-city West Coast tour — a $250-a-head reception and Foo Fighters concert for 1,000 at the home of soap opera impresario Bradley Bell, followed by a $35,800-a-plate dinner in the mansion for 80 hosted by Bell and the actor Will Ferrell .

HOW IT CAME TO THIS: Negotiators continue to haggle today over the fine print of the legislative package extending the lower Social Security payroll tax through the end of the year, maintaining long-term unemployment insurance and paying doctors who care for Medicare patients at the current rate — but with spending cuts totaling no more than $60 billion and probably closer to $50 billion, which would be less than one-third the overall expense.

A deal was close enough, however, that House members were told to expect a vote on Friday. The last major political obstacle faded there this morning, when Boehner got solid if hardly unanimous support for his not-too-many-offsets capitulation from the most conservative members of his caucus. The Senate is also likely to clear the measure by the end of the week, even though McConnell has been publicly cool to the notion of extending the payroll tax cut without paying for it — and seemed to have been taken by surprise at the House GOP leadership’s about-face.

“We have a good framework, but there are still some important details yet to go,” Chris Van Hollen, one of the House Democratic negotiators, said at mid-morning. “It ain’t over till it’s over, so everyone needs to hold on tight a little while longer.” The conference committee has agreed to set 73 weeks as the maximum extension of jobless insurance in the 14 hardest-hit states (down from 99 weeks now) and 63 weeks in all the others (down from 93 weeks). The Republican efforts to require drug tests or a GED as a condition of getting a benefits check have been scuttled. The offsets would come from broadcast spectrum sales, some new fees on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, cutting Medicare payments to hospitals where too many patients skip out on their bills, trimming a fund to combat chronic diseases and setting some new federal pension limits — which, problematically, overlap with some pay-fors in the House highway bill.

But if the measure goes to Obama by the weekend, it would bring to an end one of the most tortured and protracted fiscal policy standoffs in a year that has been replete with them — and just in time for lawmakers to boast back home (during next week’s recess) that they’d put aside their well-known reputations for bickering, brinkmanship and ideological high-handedness long enough to reach bipartisan consensus on a budget bill with tangible, real world implications — and with fully two weeks to spare. (The payroll tax break — which means $20 a week to someone making $50,000 a year — the jobless aid and the “doc fix” are all set to lapse on Feb. 29.) With polls still showing their collective approval rating flirting with single digits, and the election nine months away, members of Congress were under significant pressure to set aside their dysfunctional ways on the three-part extenders package — which in other years would be barely a footnote but which may stand as one of the year’s most high-profile legislative accomplishments. And Republicans, especially, can take some cold comfort in the notion that any anger from the base about their flip-flop on offsets won’t last as long as the anger they would have stirred up nationwide, had they held firm against a continued tax break for the middle class.

PLUM POSITION: Robert Zoellick told the World Bank’s board this morning that he would not seek a reappointment and would step down June 30, when his five-year term as president ends. (During his tenure the bank says it provided more than $247 billion to help developing countries boost their economic growth and combat poverty.) Zoellick, a former deputy secretary of State and U.S. trade representative, is only 58 and would be a top candidate for several Cabinet posts under any Republican who might win the White House this fall. In the interim, his departure will compel the Obama administration to decide whether the United States will insist on holding on to the job — which has been held by an American since the international lending organization was created 68 years ago. Water-cooler speculation in the global banking world has focused on Hillary Clinton and Larry Summers as the highest-profile Americans who might want the post.

NOW AND LATER: The latest good polling news for Rick Santorum comes from Ohio — which, like Michigan, is an industrial Midwest battleground not only in the Republican primaries but in the fall as well. A Quinnipiac Poll out today shows the ex-Pennsylvania senator ahead there by 7 percentage points — with 36 percent to 29 percent for Mitt Romney. (Newt Gingrich, who had identified Ohio as one of his better Super Tuesday opportunities, is at 20 percent, and Ron Paul is at 9 percent.) In a potential fall matchup, the Q poll shows Obama edging Romney in Ohio by 2 points, Santorum by 6 and Gingrich by 12 — even though his approval rating in the state remains a hair below his-new-national average 47 percent. (The Ohio vote is March 6, a week after Michiagn.)

The less-obvious good news for Santorum comes from Texas, where the Byzantine court battle over congressional redistricting has now forced another postponement of the GOP primary. It was supposed to be part of Super Tuesday. Then it was pushed to April 3. Yesterday that date was scratched as well, with the party instead asking judges in San Antonio to permit a May 22 date. But that, too, will become impractical if the redistricting fight drags on, and under some scenarios the vote could be as late as June 26. Almost certainly someone will have secured a majority of the delegates by then, but if not, the 155 coming from Texas would be an enormous prize. And the bulk of them almost surely go to the most conservative candidate left standing. For now, Gingrich seems to be counting on it — in part because he’s got promises of enthusiastic help from his former rival, Gov. Rick Perry. But if Gingrich is out of the race by late spring, Santorum could claim an enormous prize.

CITY HALL TO CONVENTION HALL: Antonio Villaraigosa was tapped today to be chairman of the Democratic convention starting in Charlotte the day after Labor Day. The position is akin to being master of ceremonies (assuming the convention remains a choreographed Obama love-fest and doesn’t degenerate into party infighting), and so it affords the two-term mayor of Los Angeles three evenings in prime time to raise his profile as a leading spokesman for the entire party, not just the Latino community. Beyond that, it underscores the party’s efforts to generate an especially heavy turnout for Obama among Hispanics in four of the swing states — Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. Usually the chairman’s job goes to a senior member of the congressional leadership, but DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the Obama campaign have made clear they want this convention to shake off some of its more old-fashioned traditions.

HASTINGS RULING: Winsome Packer may continue to pursue her sexual harassment suit against the Helsinki Commission, but a federal judge has ruled that Alcee Hastings and a former chief of staff, Fred Turner, may not be held personally liable in the case. Packer worked for the Europe-policy advisory commission in Vienna and claims the Florida Democrat made frequent unwanted sexual advances when he visited as a leader of the commission from 2007 until last year — and that Hastings and Turner retaliated against her after she complained. “This whole thing is ridiculous, bizarre, frivolous, and has wasted — and is still wasting — a whole lot of folks’ time and money,” the congressman said in a statement. “I am glad to see that these bogus allegations have finally been dismissed.” But that’s actually not true. Judge Barbara Rothstein’s ruling yesterday makes clear that Hastings may still be put under oath to describe his version of his encounters with Packer.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No current lawmakers, but  at least two former Cabinet members: James Schlesinger, Defense secretary for Nixon and Ford and then Carter’s first Energy secretary (83), and John Block, Reagan’s first Agriculture secretary (77). And former House GOP Conference Chairman John Anderson of Illinois, who won 5.7 million 1980 presidential votes (90).

— 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 14, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: More Than Meets the Eye

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: “You're starting to hear voices talk about how we can go ahead and make this happen in a timely way on behalf of the American people,” Obama said this morning about the new Republican offer to support a payroll tax cut extension without offsets. “But in Washington, you can’t take anything for granted.”

The president has started a 90-minute meeting with Xi Jinping, who is China’s vice president now but is set next year to begin a decade as president — during which both the economic interconnectedness of and the military rivalry between their countries will intensify. While hoping to develop some personal chemistry with Xi, the president (with Biden at his side) is expected to press American concerns about China’s trade-rule violations, intellectual property theft, currency valuation, treatment of political dissidents and approaches to Tibet,  North Korea, Iran and Syria.

Starting at 3, the president will tape interviews designed to promote his budget priorities with TV anchors in Las Vegas, Atlanta, Tampa and Charlotte. He’ll get an update on the military’s posture around the world from Panetta at 4:45.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and looks to be held hostage all day by Rand Paul, who is vowing to delay as long as possible both a non-controversial judicial confirmation (Adalberto Jordan for the 11th Circuit) and debate on the highway bill — unless he’s promised a vote on whether to suspend all aid to Egypt until the release of the nongovernmental Americans working there to promote democracy. If Reid does not relent, the Jordan vote could come after midnight.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at noon and starting at 2 will debate three post office naming bills, with votes put off until 6:30 to allow lawmakers a full day of travel.

GIVE AND TAKE: Top Democrats are reacting with skeptical optimism today to the House Republican leadership’s surprise new offer on the Social Security payroll tax.

On the one hand, they are thrilled in their view that Boehner & Co. have blinked, big time, in a debate that has bedeviled both parties since last fall. “This is a major step forward in these negotiations,” Schumer said this morning, just before Obama offered encouraging words of his own. But at the same time, the Democrats are plainly worried that — if they agree to extend the 2-percentage-point reduction in the payroll tax through the end of the year without offsetting the $100 billion cost — they will be seriously jeopardizing their leverage over the other two parts of the package stuck in conference negotiations: an extension of unemployment benefits and a continuation of the current Medicare doctor reimbursement rate. The president, notably, did not embrace the House GOP offer at the hastily arranged photo op a few minutes ago.

The president made clear that preventing a payroll tax increase for 160 million Americans on March 1 (meaning $40 weekly for the typical paycheck) was his top priority in the talks, with the jobless benefits second. (Extending those would cost $30 billion at least for the rest of the year.) But Democratic leaders in Congress are almost as interested in maintaining the current payment system for doctors, which could cost another $30 billion this year, and they worry that they could be stumbling into a negotiating trap on the jobless aid and the “doc fix” if they take “yes” for an answer too quickly on the payroll tax. On the one hand, they see the GOP move as an acknowledgment that it has lost the messaging war on the payroll question — and that GOP conservatives (who started endorsing the leadership’s proposal today) have concluded their political wellbeing on this one trumps their ideological desires. And so, if anything, the Democrats’ tendency will be to press the GOP to accept no additional offsets on the other two big tickets in the package, as well. But if the Republicans hold fast against that idea, and those two provisions expire in 15 days, that would amount to the Democrats snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Put another way, Republicans may have taken away the Democrats’ leverage by preemptively agreeing to the payroll tax, but in so doing it looks like they are taking the jobless money and the Medicare fix hostage.

MARCH OF THE AGENCY HEADS: Administration officials began their annual trek to Capitol Hill this morning to offer their obligatory spirited defenses of the Obama budget proposal — and rebut the Republicans who excoriated the document at almost every turn.

The $614 billion Pentagon plan, which would mean a 5 percent cut in defense spending, “will maintain our military’s decisive edge and help sustain America’s global leadership,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey told Senate Armed Services. No, replied John McCain, the top panel Republican, it “continues the administration’s habit of putting short-term political considerations over our long-term national security interests.” Senators of both parties also complained that the administration has made no plans to deal with the additional defense cuts that will be mandated if sequestration takes effect next January. Panetta said he hoped that — now that the draconian nature of those across-the-board cuts is clear — Congress will make deep enough cuts on its own to avoid them.

Acting Budget Director Jeffrey Zients defended the president’s priorities and fiscal math at Senate Budget, where Republicans asserted the budget was using deceitful accounting methods to make its claim of $4 trillion in deficit reduction during the next decade. He said the budget was making good on the president’s efforts to cut the deceit in half during his term — but said it’s taking longer than promised because the economic situation is far worse than the administration had anticipated. (The budget calls for total spending next year of $3.8 trillion — just three-tenths of a percent more than this year.) Geithner went before Senate Finance to defend the president’s continued promotion of his tax agenda.

CLOSER THAN EVER: As of this morning there’s a third straight poll that puts Rick Santorum statistically tied with Mitt Romney among Republican voters nationwide. The newest one, from CBS and The New York Times, shows the spread between them is within the margin of sampling error: 30 percent for the surging former Pennsylvania senator and 27 percent for the stagnating former Massachusetts governor. (Ron Paul is at 12 percent and Newt Gingrich is at 10 percent.) The other two surveys taken since Santorum’s big night a week ago show him and Romney within a statistically insignificant 2 points of each other, with Gingrich trailing by either 11 points (Pew Research Center) or 14 (Gallup). But still, the trend is clear that Santorum has become the conservatives’ latest preferred alternative to Romney — his name joining a roster of four other rightward Republicans who have surged into the lead in such national polls: Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Gingrich. All but the former Speaker are gone, of course, and he’s the only one who’s slipped off the top of the pedestal but later returned — a history of resurrection that means it’s still probably too soon to declare it a Romney-versus-Santorum race. (Gingrich himself said yesterday he doesn’t see it that way and scoffed at a National Review op-ed  urging that he drop out.)

It’s also the case that only a modicum of good news tends to propel the fickle waves of not-Mitt momentum — and every time that’s happened so far, Romney has come back with some good news of his own. Which is why Michigan’s primary two weeks from today now looms as such an important contest. As of now, Santorum has a remarkably lopsided lead there, 39 percent to 25 percent, according to a poll out yesterday. If Romney can use his surprising underdog status in his own home state to his advantage in the coming days and leverage his financial and organizational superiority into a big win, then he could go a long way to restoring the narrative of himself as the good-enough conservative and inevitable nominee. If he falters to Santorum in Michigan, his path to Tampa will become downright troubled.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Republicans in Alabama say the insider trading investigation of Financial Services Chairman Spencer Bachus by the Office of Congressional Ethics is seriously complicating his effort to win renomination for an 11th term. The quickly emerging consensus is that, unless Bachus can use his $1 million campaign bank account and his establishment organizational muscle to win an outright majority in the first-round of the GOP primary — four weeks from today — he is highly vulnerable to losing an April 24 runoff to the almost-certain runner up on March 13: Scott Beason, a state senator since 2007 (and a state representative for eight years before that) who has significant tea party support. “Going along and getting along has gotten us where we are, and I’m for turning the country around” is the challenger’s message — although he only declared his candidacy a month ago and so far he has raised so little money to broadcast his message that the FEC hasn’t asked for a report.

(2) The California Democratic Party has endorsed Janice Hahn in her campaign for a full term against ethically embattled Laura Richardson in a reconfigured House district south of Los Angeles. The endorsement — made because Hahn won 79 percent support among the district’s delegates to the state convention — will be listed on sample ballots sent to every registered Democrat in the he district before the June primary. (The party made no endorsement in the other California race featuring two Democratic incumbents, Howard Berman and Brad Sherman.) Richardson, who also came to Washington in a special election, back in 2007, has been under the Ethics Committee’s scrutiny almost ever since; questions about her real estate dealings were dropped, but the panel is now looking into a set of allegations that she compelled members of her congressional staff to do political work and personal tasks.

(3) The latest polling in Indiana suggests that Dick Lugar has shaken off the most serious challenge of his Senate career. The survey taken last week (by Lugar’s campaign) showed him ahead of state Treasurer Richard Mourdock 55 percent to 30 percent among likely voters in the May 8 primary. Mourdock began the campaign as one of the highest-profile tea-party-backed challengers to a GOP incumbent anywhere, but he’s never been able to raise the money to match the hype.

(4) The latest poll in Hawaii shows Mazie Hirono with 56 percent support to 36 percent for the man she succeeded in the House six years ago, Ed Case, in the race for the Democratic nomination for the open Senate seat. The primary is Aug. 11. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser survey showed both aspirants winning in the fall by 20 percentage points against Linda Lingle, who Republicans have touted as having a more than decent shot because she remained popular through two terms as governor.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: The only Valentine’s Day congressional birthday belongs to Richie Neal of Massachusetts, the No. 6 Democrat on House Ways and Means (63).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Join us this Thursday: CQRC Forum on the Taxation

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Interviews by: John Cranford, Managing Editor for Enterprise Reporting, CQ Roll Call

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2012 appears to a banner year for tax policy.

The second session of the 112th Congress begins with a renewed fight over the expiring payroll tax cut enacted in December 2010. Major portions of the individual tax code -- lower tax rates for all income classes and special lower rates for investment income -- will expire at the end of the year. The estate tax is scheduled to revert to pre-2001 law. And, as corporations clamor for a tax overhaul to make U.S. law competitive globally, even President Obama wants to change the way companies are taxed.

There is much to talk about, even though conventional wisdom about the polarization on Capitol Hill implies that little will happen before the end of the session -- if then. Congress has a shelf full of tax ideas to consider and an overwhelming need to do so soon.

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Monday, February 13, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: On Layaway

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, February 13, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: “We must transform our budget from one focused on speculating, spending and borrowing to one constructed on the solid foundation of educating, innovating and building,” the presidential budget proposal formally sent to the Capitol this morning declares. Obama was making the same point in a speech at this hour at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale.

The president will be in the East Room at 1:45 to preside over the annual National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal ceremonies. The eclectic group being honored includes actor Al Pacino, pianist André Watts, country musician Mel Tillis, painter Will Barnet, poet Rita Dove and the USO — for “lifting the spirits of America’s troops and their families through the arts.”

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 and will vote at 5:30 to cut off debate and move toward confirming Adalberto Jordan, who’s been on the federal trial court in Miami for 12 years, as the first Cuban-born judge on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Republicans don’t object to the promotion but are threatening to filibuster many Obama nominees to protest his recently assertive use of recess-appointment power.

Reid is working to smooth the prospects for passing the highway bill, although probably not until after the Presidents Day recess, and gauging whether conference negotiations are so stalled that he needs to try and move another short-term extension of the payroll tax break.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at 1 for a pro forma session.

SAVE IT FOR LATER: Nobody in the capital views the Obama budget as an agenda for congressional action this spring, summer and fall. Instead, it is much closer to a draft platform for the Democratic convention in September — and a briefing book for the lame-duck session in November and December, when almost all the year’s consequential fiscal policy decisions will be made in response to the outcome of the election. That is when the future of the about-to-expire Bush tax cuts will be settled, along with the fate of the across-the-board spending cuts that are about to take effect.

The president’s proposal — all the details of which were made available only at 11 — is in essence a restatement of the “grand bargain” he sought to sell Boehner last summer and the package he then sent to the deficit-reduction supercommittee. It calls for reducing deficits a combined $4 trillion over the next decade — with $1.5 trillion of the gap closed with new revenue and the rest with discretionary-spending restraint and trimming entitlements at the multibillion-dollar margins. The short-term bottom line would be a reduction in the annual deficit from $1.33 trillion this fiscal year (8.5 percent the size of the economy) to $901 billion (5.5 percent of GDP) in budget year 2013, which starts in October.

His revenue plan centers once again on ending the Bush tax cuts in December for families making more than $250,000 a year. It also would eliminate several tax deductions for the wealthy, require million-dollar-earners to pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes (the so-called Buffett rule), impose $61 billion in new taxes on banks to recover costs from the financial bailout and reap $41 bllion from ending some oil, gas and coal company tax breaks.

His spending plan counts on $1 trillion in savings over a decade from abiding by the August debt limit deal’s discretionary spending caps — albeit with decent boosts for transportation infrastructure (high-speed rail, especially) and education, with proposals for modernizing 35,000 schools, hiring thousands of new teachers and creating a  new $8 billion fund to help  community colleges and businesses to train workers in fast-expanding industries. (Such plus-ups would be offset by on-paper savings from the wind-downs in Iraq and Afghanistan, from cutting big-ticket domestic agencies such as EPA and NASA and by freezing many programs at the NIH.) The budget would leave Social Security alone but derive $360 billion in savings from Medicare and Medicaid mainly through reduced payments to health care providers, and $278 billion more from trimming non-health entitlements — mainly farm subsidies and government retirement benefits.

THE UNAVOIDABLE TRUTH: Virtually everything in that summary has been proposed by the president before and stopped by congressional Republicans before. That dynamic won’t change before the election. The GOP majority will push through a budget resolution through the House this spring that will project more assertive deficit reduction mainly through something similar to the Medicare revamp Paul Ryan promoted a year ago. Of course, it will call for retaining the Bush tax rates. In the Senate, the Democratic majority won’t ever put a budget proposal on the floor — neither the president’s nor its own. But McConnell will be able to force a vote that symbolically rejects the president’s package (the result will be along the lines of last year’s 0-97 ballot).

That political positioning will keep Congress occupied into the spring, at which point attention will be focused almost entirely on appropriations — apportioning money to the programs that would feel almost all of the brunt of a sequester at the end of the year, which is emphatically on course so long as the president’s blueprint is stashed on a high shelf at the Capitol. (His budget would make the across-the-board cuts unnecessary, administration officials say.) While the sequester would dictate a $16 billion cut from Medicare starting in January, it would mandate $39 billion in cuts from non-defense appropriations and $55 billion from the military. There is almost no way, politically, for lawmakers to clear legislation before the election that would unshackle themselves from those strictures — and even if they did, Obama says he’d veto it. But there’s only a slightly better chance that before Nov. 6 lawmakers will be capable of agreeing on the tough choices that would take the place of the across-the-board cuts. That is why the seven weeks between Election Day and New Year’s Day look to be among the least pleasant in post-election congressional history.

THE VALUE OF SECRETS: Preliminary negotiations will get started this week on the piece of legislation that has captured the public’s attention so far this year — the so-called Stock Act. The main issue is not whether the final version will put a highlighter over the notion that members of Congress and their aides are subject to the same laws against insider trading as everyone else — meaning they can’t buy or sell securities based on information they learn from behind closed doors at legislative or political strategy meetings. The key question now is whether Congress will require political intelligence consultants to register the same as regular-old lobbyists — which is what a bipartisan majority of 60 senators wants but Cantor did not allow the House to vote on. The financial services industry, which counts on these consultants, is going to fight with all its might against the Senate language — and the outcome will offer a signal as to how well-toned that industry’s muscle has become in the years since the financial meltdown.

IT’S OH SO QUIET: Candidates looking to spin members of the national political press corps will be largely out of luck for the next 11 days; many of them will be taking some rare time off to do laundry, return personal e-mail and get some decent nights’ sleep during the current lull in the Republican presidential campaign — which began after Mitt Romney escaped the weekend with plurality wins in both the CPAC straw poll (38 percent to 31 percent for Rick Santorum) and the Maine Caucuses (by 194 votes over Ron Paul).

The next set piece in the campaign is a debate in Phoenix sponsored by CNN on Feb. 22; six days after that are the winner-take-all primary in Arizona, which Romney seems to have in the bag, and the delegates-awarded-proportionately contest in Michigan, where Santorum is pushing hard with the help of a $3 million fundraising boost since last week’s three-state sweep. “We think this is a two-person race right now,” Santorum asserted on CNN yesterday. And the most recent national tracking poll out from Gallup, on Saturday, showed the former Pennsylvania  in solid second place among GOP voters, with 24 percent to 34 percent for Romney, while Newt Gingrich had slipped back to 17 percent. The former Speaker is counting on solid showings on Super Tuesday (March 6) in his home state of Georgia and Ohio.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Don Payne is battling colon cancer but nonetheless plans on seeking a 13th term this fall, when he will be 78. The New Jersey Democrat, a former Congressional Black Caucus chairman and a senior member of the Foreign Affairs and Education committees, remains a safe bet for re-election; his Newark-centered district was minimally redrawn for the coming decade. The congressman’s namesake son, who’s president of the Newark City Council, says that his father’s prognosis for a full recovery is solid and that he announced his illness to raise public awareness about prevention and early detection.

(2) The game of political musical chairs started by Florida’s all-but-formally-signed congressional redistricting plan has taken an unusual turn: The state may be getting two additional House seats, but that’s not preventing at least one member-versus-member primary matchup. Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica made clear over the weekend that he would seek his 11th term in the same reconfigured district north of Orlando where fellow Republican Sandy Adams plans to run for her second term. The district is mashup of the two lawmakers’ current constituencies — with 51 percent of the people Adams now represents and 42 percent of Mica’s current district.

(3) John Conyers, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and the House’s second-most-senior member, has been endorsed by Obama for a 25th term — which is unusual and noteworthy because Conyers is looking towards a potentially contentious primary, and presidents generally refrain from publicly picking sides in intraparty fights. The four other Democrats running for the Detroit seat are state Sen. Glenn Anderson, state Sen. Bert Johnson, state Rep Shanelle Jackson and lawyer Godfrey Dillard. The state’s redistricting process put the incumbent’s home outside the boundaries of the district where he’s running, though he’s been representing most of the people who live there.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Freshman Democratic Sen. Dick Blumenthal of Connecticut (66).

— David Hawkings, editor

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