Friday, March 02, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: The Dicks Factor

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, March 2, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama and Biden are meeting with Clinton at 11:45 to discuss the situation in Syria and Monday’s visit by Benjamin Netanyahu. (The secretary of State spent much of last week in Tunis at a conference of Western and Arab powers designed to pressure Bashar Assad to stop killing civilians as part of its crackdown on the growing insurgency. And she’s been working to persuade Israel to tamp down talk of a unilateral and preemptive assault on Iran to stop its nuclear weapons program.)

The president will arrive at 2:20 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he’ll spend 90 minutes in no-press-allowed visits with wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. His only on-camera appearance is a 5:15 appearance at an Interior Department conservation conference.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 for speechmaking only, with the highway bill the official focus of the day.

THE HOUSE: Not in session.

CARDINAL VIRTUES: Norm Dicks, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee for the past 14 months, announced his retirement this morning.

Dicks, 71, has represented the Olympic Peninsula of Washington since 1977. He is one of the most powerful and influential military hawks in his party and has had the top Democratic seat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee since Jack Murtha died. Like so many others who are retiring this year, he comes from an era when collegiality and bipartisanship were viewed as congressional virtues — not dangerous or disingenuous. In a statement, Dicks summed up his 18-term career by declaring that he was proud of his ability to bridge “the ideological and party lines that tend to separate us, and I have always believed that we can achieve greater results if we leave politics aside when the election season and the floor debates are over.”

If Marcy Kaptur wins her primary in Ohio against Dennis Kucinich, she will be in line to take the top Democratic seat on Appropriations next year. She would be the first woman ever in the post. If she loses, the extraordinarily low-profile Pete Visclosky of Indiana, who survived a set of ethical questions about his earmarking practices a few years ago, would become the top Democrat by virtue of seniority. Another woman, Nita Lowey of New York, is next in line after him. (On the Defense Subcommittee, the top Democratic seat will now be wide open.)

Dicks has served on Appropriations since his first term began 35 years ago, but his hand has been near the purse strings even longer, because he spent eight years as a top aide to fellow Washington Democrat Warren Magnuson on Senate Appropriations. A self-described fan of military hardware, his office sports models of planes and a submarine. He also has earned a reputation as the “congressman from Boeing,” the major defense contractor with big operations in the state. He has long been a champion of earmarks, once calling them “an important legislative tool."

The House district Dicks is vacating appears locked down for whichever Democrat wins the nomination. (The incumbent made no feint toward a preferred successor.) He becomes the 14th House Democrat, along with eight House Republicans, to annouce their retirements from public life, come December.

BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME: Reid moved this morning to make sure next week’s highway bill debate is about transportation policy, continuing his elaborate parliamentary maneuvers to limit the number of totally unrelated, but politically galvanizing, amendments that might be attached to the bill. He acted after the first full week of Senate debate on the highway bill resulted in just one vote, and it had nothing to do with roads, bridges, rail lines or buses — but was about whether top-tier vulnerable incumbents Jon Tester, Claire McCaskill, Dean Heller and Scott Brown were in favor of Obama’s contraception coverage regulation. (Both Democrats were, both Republicans were not.)

Behind the scenes, negotiations continue on which amendments about transportation will be allowed a vote, and how quickly, on the two-year, $109 billion bill. Reid has already assembled a collection of 37 changes to the bill that he’s willing to embrace as a package deal. He’s now working to head off such election year defining issue votes as whether senators are for or against the Keystone XL oil pipeline or the EPA regulations of industrial boilers. In the House meanwhile, the five-year, $260 version of the highway bill assembled by Boehner and Transportation Chairman John Mica remains totally bollixed up — so broadly opposed on so many fronts that the GOP leaders talked this week about essentially throwing it away and settling for an 18-month continuation of current public works policies. But now Boehner is getting pilloried for that within the GOP ranks, too.

The longer the highway bill remains the only big bill being considered in either the House and Senate — and remains stuck while roads and bridges keep crumbling and mass transit delays mount — the longer Obama will be able to use the impasse as the latest and one of the best examples of why he thinks members of Congress (truth be told, of both parties) are such worthy rhetorical whipping boys this year.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Republican state Sen. President Kevin Raye said this morning that he would not run for the newly open Senate seat in Maine but would stick with his current campaign in the vast, Bangor-centered House district — where his opponent will remain five-term Democratic incumbent Mike Michaud, who announced he was backing away from a Senate candidacy last night. Michaud is clearly convinced that trying to move up would have been no sure thing — and at the same time would have opened the door wide for Raye to pick up a rare New England congressional seat for the GOP. The current state of the jockeying means the state’s other House member, Chellie Pingree, and former two-term Gov. John Baldacci are the obvious front-runners for the Democratic nomination. (Another former two-term governor, independent Angus King, is also seriously weighing a bid to become Olympia Snowe’s successor and has some time under state law to decide.) The GOP field is lacking candidates with statewide experience or broad name recognition — unless big-time party fundraiser Georgette Mosbacher does what’s rumored and quickly buys some property so she can run.

(2) For the first time this year, a member-versus-member House campaign is in court. A state judge in Pennsylvania is hearing arguments today on petition signatures in the Democratic primary contest in the state’s southwest corner between Mark Critz (who’s the underdog in the polling) and Jason Altmire. Critz challenged his opponent’s right to be on the ballot after Altmire filed 1,651 nominating signatures — just a few hundred more than the requisite 1,000 valid names of voters in the district — and 385 of the signatures were collected by campaign staffer Abby Silverman, whose residency in the district (as required by state law) is under question. Whoever loses before the judge is certainty  appeal to the state Supreme Court — but the ballots for the primary are supposed to be printed a week form Monday.

(3) Chad Condit is running as in independent for the House in California’s Central Valley, which his father Gary represented for 14 years before losing the 2002 Democratic primary because of his relationship with Chandra Levy; the intern had disappeared the previous spring and the congressman was being uncooperative with the police. The elder Condit was replaced by Dennis Cardoza, who is retiring this fall. But the younger Condit, a 45-year-old longtime staff aide in Sacramento who ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 2001, has decided not to run for that open seat. Instead he’s going after the nearby district — redrawn for the coming decade to contain much of the territory his dad represented — where Republican Jeff Denham is seeking a second term and already faces a top-tier Democratic challenger in former astronaut Jose Hernandez. An all-candidate primary June 5 will decide which of the two moves on to the fall campaign.

(4) State Rep. Steve Farley is the new top Democratic contender for a full 2013-14 term in the reconfigured Tucson-centered House district where Gabby Giffords would have run. He does not have the former congresswoman’s official endorsement, but Farley says he cleared his candidacy with her husband, Mark Kelly, and has signed on Danny Hernandez — the Giffords intern who was instrumental in saving her life after the assassination attempt — as his campaign manager. Farley’s move is a clear indication  that Ron Barber, the Giffords aide who is running in the June 12 special election using current district boundaries, will not be a candidate for a full term. Republicans have an unsettled field for both elections, but because of the altered demographics of the redistricted seat, the GOP has a clearer shot at winning in November.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “I recommend you watch the recent debates. We’re thinking about just running those as advertisements — little snippets, without commentary. We’ll just sort of — here you go, this is what they said a while back,” Obama told the $10,000 donors at last night’s fundraiser in the Upper East Side penthouse of interior designer Michael Smith, who did the current Oval Office, and HBO executive James Costos. (It was the fourth and final event in an evening that raised $5 million for the re-election campaign — and the 100th fundraiser Obama’s been to since the campaign formally began last April, according to unofficial presidential statistician Mark Knoller of CBS.)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (57); House Democrats Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut (69) and Hansen Clarke of Michigan (55).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Thursday, March 01, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Death of a Muckraker

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and is just about to narrowly reject a Republican move to allow businesses and insurers to avoid mandates in the 2010 health care law by citing religious or moral objections. The language was designed mainly to undo Obama’s recently unveiled requirement that free birth control be a part of all employer-provided health plans. Senators of both parties are delighted with the notion of using the entire week (which was supposed to be spent on the highway bill) in the debate — because Democrats see the issue as helping them with women and independents come November, and Republicans are just as confident the discussion will rally religious conservatives.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and has already gone home for the week, having voted 418-0 to create an oral history of House members who played roles in the civil rights movement — a tribute, as much as anything, to Atlanta’s congressman since 1987, John Lewis, who led the historic and bloody march for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma 47 years ago next week.

The House also voted 417-1 to condemn Iran for its persecution and imprisonment of Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Air Force One is due to land in New Hampshire (4 tossup electoral votes) at 5 minutes after noon, and at 1:30 Obama will use a speech at Nashua Community College to promote his “all of the above” approach to reducing American reliance on foreign oil and holding gasoline prices in check. He’ll also renew his call on Congress to end $4 billion in annual subsidies to oil and gas companies.

Obama arrives in New York at 4 to attend four fundraisers, two at private homes and two others at the ABC Kitchen near Union Square. He’s due back home shortly after midnight.

DEATH OF A MUCKRAKER: Andrew Breitbart died this morning, just as he was he was positioning himself as the premier conservative Washington muckraker of the social media age.

“A supernova has gone dark,” editor Erick Erickson said of his friend — who was 43 and had an apparent heart attack while on an after-midnight walk near his house in Los Angeles’ Brentwood neighborhood. He died at UCLA Medical Center. (He is survived by his wife, Susannah Bean Breitbart, and four children.) Condolences also poured out from prominent Republicans on Twitter, a favorite Breitbart medium. “RIP ‘O Mighty Warrior!'” Rick Perry posted. Mitt Romney used his 140 characters to lament “the passing of @AndrewBreitbart: brilliant entrepreneur, fearless conservative, loving husband and father.”

Breitbart — who was an influential force at both the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report and then had five websites of his own — became perhaps best known as a vituperative critic of the mainstream media and its perceived liberal bias. But he had caused more than his fair share of consequential fear and loathing in official Washington in the past couple of years. He scored his most sensational coup last June, when he orchestrated the release of the sexually explicit tweets and photos by and of Anthony Weiner —  who then devolved, after a couple of tortured weeks of semi-denials and additional revelations, from a powerful House Democrat and potential next mayor of New York into a former congressman and the butt of hundreds of late-night comic routines and pun-infused tabloid tales. Breitbart was also at the center of two other controversies that involved videotape. In July 2010 Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod was fired after Breitbart leaked a video of her making what appeared to be a racist remark — although the tape, when shown in full, made clear she was telling a tale about racial healing. The year before, he produced a hidden-camera sting video that brought embarrassment to the community group ACORN. The tape showed staffers offering advice on taxes and other issues to actors posing as a prostitute and pimp.

HAPPY MEAL: Obama did more to make Republicans happy yesterday than feed McConnell and Boehner some particularly tasty salmon risotto. The president essentially embraced the GOP proposal, rolled out just on Tuesday and set to pass the House next week, designed to create jobs by easing federal regulations on small business. But the president’s effusiveness does not automatically mean smooth sailing for the bill in the Senate after that. Because Reid, who got the same fish dish, remains extremely reluctant to allow the Republicans to score such an easy victory just when the electorate seems locked down in its perception that the do-nothing Congress label is entirely the GOP’s fault. If anything, the majority leader is going to want to slow-walk the legislation for a while, then offer at least some cosmetic changes that allow him to underscore that there are plenty of Democratic ideas in the package — which, to be sure, is relatively narrow in scope and would have only an arguably modest impact on spurring employment.

STOCK, STUCK: The other top-shelf bill that could become law before the congressional spring break, and would benefit both parties about equally, is the so-called Stock Act – the one designed to thwart and more easily punish insider trading by members of Congress and their aides. Such a measure could be on Obama’s desk sooner than the small-business package, if Reid is willing to acquiesce and persuade the Senate to go along with the much narrower version the House passed last month.

But the odds are that the majority leader won’t do that — mainly because there is considerable bipartisan support on his side of the Capitol for two provisions in the Senate-passed version that Cantor explicitly ordered dropped from the House measure. One would strengthen penalties for public officials convicted of self-dealing, in light of a Supreme Court case that made it tougher to prove that sort of corruption. The other would require people to register and make disclosures the same way lobbyists do if they’re in the relatively new business of “political intelligence consulting” (gathering information on congressional maneuvers and legislative prospects through back channels for the exclusive use of hedge funds and brokers). That’s the real rub: Most senior senators of both parties are ready to drop it — in the face of a sustained lobbying barrage and some genuine First Amendment concern — but are wary of doing so because of the good-government outrage that might ensue.

CYBER DUEL: The cybersecurity package unveiled by top Senate Republicans today offers a sharp distinction from the Democrats’ package on the central question in the debate: How much power should the federal government have over the computer networks that are owned by banks, utilities and other businesses whose operations are central to a smooth functioning of the national economy? The GOP legislation would not give Washington any meaningful new authority, while the Democratic version would, by telling the Department of Homeland Security to set and enforce new federal security requirements on the corporations that own the most vital and vulnerable servers. Unless a middle ground is found in that fundamental disagreement about the appropriate regulatory reach of Washington in the digital age, there are few prospects for the other ideas for bolstering computer security that both parties agree on: more information sharing between businesses and the government, fortified security for the government’s own networks, boosted penalties for cybercrimes and more money for cybersecurity research.

LESS IS MORE: There are more official indicators out this morning that the economy is on the right track. The roster of people seeking jobless benefits shrank by 4,000 people last week to 351,000, matching the figure of a month ago, which was the smallest weekly number in four years. And the four-week average of applications also fell last week, to 354,000, also the lowest in four years, the Labor Department said. The Commerce Department, meanwhile, reported that consumer spending increased 0.2 percent in January — an improvement over the totally flat spending number in December and sufficient to keep the economy growing at a modest pace. The department also reported that Americans’ income rose 0.3 percent in January, the second straight monthly increase. For all of last year, after-tax incomes adjusted for inflation rose only 1.3 percent. Except for during the recession of 2009, when the number fell, it was the the smallest annual uptick in 20 years.

CHANGING RULES: The race between Pete Sessions of Texas and Doc Hastings of Washington to become the next chairman of the Rules Committee will be a low-key and behind-the-scenes affair — at least for the next several months, House Republicans say.

It’s not that members of the caucus are afraid of measuring the drapes eight months before the election; they’re genuinely confident they will remain in control of the House. But they say it’s a bit too early to presume who their Speaker will be in 2013 — which is an essential ingredient in the campaign, because ultimately it’s the Speaker who has the power under the current rules of the caucus to pick the chairman, who has the all-important insider’s power to decide questions about the procedures for deliberating and amending each piece of legislation. There is considerable reason to believe that, if the GOP majority shrinks considerably, Boehner might not choose to stick around, or else might be pressured hard by Cantor to get out of the way. And so, in light of the internecine jockeying, lobbying out loud to become successor to David Dreier — who’s had the party’s top seat on Rules since 1999 — would be impolitic and a tactical no-no. And besides, the rationales for each of the top contenders are so obvious as to barely need out-loud articulation: Sessions has been a solid chairman of the House GOP campaign organization through two cycles and is more than ready for a promotion into the policy leadership ranks, while Hastings has done almost nothing to make any Republican unhappy during his time in the top GOP seat on both the Ethics and Natural Resources committees.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Randy Hultgren, the GOP freshman among the five from Illinois with the clearest path to a second House term (46).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Onward to Super Tuesday

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama and Biden are having lunch (in the smaller dining room on the state floor) starting at noon with the top congressional leaders of both parties. The purpose is “to discuss ongoing efforts to find common ground on legislative priorities that will create jobs and strengthen America’s economy,” the president’s press office says, and there’s an outside chance for a handshake deal on a small-business job creation package similar to what the top House GOP brass unveiled yesterday.

The president is welcoming about 200 Iraq War veterans and their guests to a black-tie dinner in the East Room at 8:20. The guest list was made to be a demographic cross-section of the more than 1 million who served; there are servicemembers from all 50 states, soldiers in their 20s and Marines in their 50s, troops who did one tour and others deployed half a dozen times — and a widow to represent the 4,500 in uniform who died.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and will take up as many as four bills this afternoon, with the last vote before 7. The measures would boost California water reliability, tinker with D.C.’s special-election procedures, speed construction of a new bridge connecting Wisconsin and Minnesota, and condemn Iran for its persecution of religious minorities and the detention of Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani.

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 for a day of speechmaking only. Some of the talk will be about the officially pending legislative business, which is a two-year highway bill. But much of it will be setting up tomorrow’s vote on whether to allow religious organizations to become conscientious objectors to the new birth control insurance coverage mandate.

ONWARD TO SUPER TUESDAY: Mitt Romney skirted disaster yesterday, because his 3-percentage-point primary victory in his home state of Michigan and his 20-point margin in Arizona were sufficient to quiet — probably for good — all the talk in the Republican leadership and fundraising offices about recruiting Jeb Bush or Mitch Daniels or Chris Christie or Paul Ryan to be the white-knight savior for the party. But Romney looks to end up with almost the same number of delegates out of Michigan as Rick Santorum, a bright reminder that the two of them are going to be at it for the next month or more – and that at best the ex-governor of Massachusetts has claimed an edge in momentum going into Super Tuesday, where none of the states awards its delegates winner-take-all. He’s a little less of a weak front-runner than he was a couple of days ago, but he’s still no stronger of a front-runner than he’s ever been.

Next week, Romney’s a lock to win Virginia, where he and Ron Paul are the only ones on the ballot because only their camps could navigate the state’s complex petition signature procedure. (The Texas congressman’s best shot is Alaska.) Romney can count on Massachusetts and Vermont, too, and is the favorite at the moment in North Dakota and Idaho. Santorum, though, will push hard against Newt Gingrich’s southern strategy and has decent chances in Tennessee and Oklahoma — and could yet best the native-son ex-Speaker in Georgia.

All that makes Ohio the big bellwether prize. (The candidates and their super PACs have already spent a combined $5 million on TV ads there.) A University of Cincinnati poll released last night put Santorum ahead by 11 percentage points, while a Quinnipiac University survey out that day had him up by 7 points. A lopsided amount of attention will be paid to the outcome there in the next week, even though a win by either of the top-tier candidates would not prompt the other to back away.

LOOKING UP: The economy expanded at a 3 percent annual rate in the final quarter of last year, the Commerce Department reported this morning, the fastest pace since the spring of 2010. The growth rate exceeded the previous estimate of 2.8 percent and also bested the 1.8 percent growth rate in the third quarter of 2011. The October-November-December growth number was revised upward because consumers spent more than first estimated, businesses cut spending by less and imports rose by a smaller amount. Today’s report also showed that after-tax incomes rose in the second half of last year by more than previously estimated: 1.4 percent in the fourth quarter (double the first estimate) on top of 0.7 percent in the third quarter (the earlier estimate was a 1.9 percent drop.) And Americans saved 4.5 percent of their incomes in the October-December quarter — also an upward revision (the first estimate was 3.7 percent.)

SEEKING SEQUESTER REMEDIES: Panetta is going further than any other administration official has gone in public to signal that  Obama is eager to work on a way to avoid starting in January 2013 the almost $500 billion in mandated defense cuts over the next decade. “We will work with you to try to develop some approach that can de-trigger sequestration before it happens,” the Defense secretary told Senate Budget yesterday. While he has repeatedly come out against the sequester, his remarks went beyond where the White House has been willing to go in calls for reversing it.

Obama has said he would veto any legislation overturning sequestration unless it contains a plan for reducing the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Essentially, Panetta’s comments are an affirmation of what has become more and more of the congressional conventional wisdom this winter — that, to avoid the across-the-board cuts, a lawmaker plan for that amount of deficit reduction will be the priority of the post-election lame duck, and will also be used to sweep up so many other pieces of unfinished business from the previous 23 months, from the renewal of expired tax breaks to the future of the Bush tax cuts to — the latest entrant, this week — a plan to keep public works spending going for longer than the length of another stopgap highway bill extension.

SNOWE STORM:  There’s a reason Susan Collins used the phrase “absolutely devastated” to summarize her reaction to Olympia Snowe’s retirement; the other senator from Maine now looks to remain genuinely all alone as the only old-school moderate Republican left on the north side of the Capitol come January 2013 — unless Scott Brown somehow survives to win a full term in Massachusetts and then decides to hang on to his positioning in the center, or Chris Shays succeeds in his odds-against effort to mount a political comeback by winning the open seat in Connecticut.

There’s also a reason that McConnell, Senate campaign chief John Cornyn and the rest of the Republican congressional establishment are similarly devastated (not to mention surprised). Snowe’s decision to follow in the Maine tradition of leaving the Senate on a high note of influence — as Democrat George Mitchell did in 1994 and Republican Bill Cohen did two years later — totally blindsided her colleagues, especially since she had already put almost $3.4 million in the bank and driven her more nettlesome tea party primary rival from the race. And her decision to retire after three terms has transformed what was a locked-down, safe seat for the GOP next year into a highly likely takeover for the Democrats. What fellow (albeit Democratic) Senate moderates Kent Conrad and Ben Nelson did to give the GOP solid pickup openings in North Dakota and Nebraska, Snowe has now done for the Democrats in Maine. The end result is a Senate political handicapping seat where it looks much less likely than it did a day ago for the Republicans to score the net gain of four seats they would need to claim a guaranteed Senate majority next year.

(The only other move that could make the GOP big-shots any angrier is if Snowe lives up to the reports in today’s rumor mill and throws in with Americans Elect, the group that is working to draft a bipartisan presidential ticket and just yesterday signed on one of Snowe’s old Senate Democratic centrist partners, University of Oklahoma president Dave Boren.)

For the moment, the Senate GOP field in Maine belongs to underfunded tea party businessman Scott D’Amboise. But state Senate President Kevin Raye, who was an aide to Snowe for 17 years, is likely to drop his House campaign now and go after the Senate. And the coming fight for the Democratic nomination will complete the upending of the state’s political hierarchy. Both House members — liberal icon and former Common Cause President Chellie Pingree, who’s in her second term, and the more centrist Mike Michaud, who was first elected a decade ago — are almost certain to run in the June 12 primary. And their candidacies will push the three current aspirants — former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, state Sen. Cynthia Dill and state Rep. Jon Hinck — to look for other things to do in the coming months.

Snowe’s retirement also means the No. 3 and No. 4 chairs for both parties on the tax-writing Finance Committee will be open next year. The other retirees from that panel are Conrad, Jeff Bingaman and Jon Kyl.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) David Dreier faced up to the politically inevitable this morning and formally declared that he would not seek a 17th term this fall. He also indicated he would not wager his considerable political bank account on a long-shot challenge to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The announcement broke with common practice because he delivered it from the House floor, not his home district — which underscored the fact that the redistricting of California had essentially left him without a home district. The portion of the northeastern Los Angeles suburbs he now represents was carved up among several other districts. (Three other GOP veterans in the state — Jerry Lewis, Wally Herger and Elton Gallegly — have already decided to retire for similar reasons.) Dreier, the longest-serving chairman of the Rules Committee in modern times, declared himself a “proud institutionalist” and said Congress is as great as it has ever been. Dreier, who turns 60 in July, said he had considered leaving three years ago but chose to stay around to focus on cutting spending, getting free-trade bills passed and enhancing national security.

(2) The latest Texas congressional map, issued yesterday by a panel of federal judges in San Antonio, looks to survive as a final compromise — meaning the state will probably be able to hold its twice-delayed primary on May 29. The map would give each party a fair shot at winning a pair of the four new House seats the state gets this decade (for a new total of 36) because of its surging population, the growth of which was more than three-quarters Hispanic. Democrats and voting rights groups say that demographic reality should have resulted in three new seats drawn to elect a Latino, and they may yet go back to court for one more long-shot effort to press their discrimination claims. But Republicans are lining up to endorse the newest map, even though they believe their solid majorities in Austin should have allowed them to draw boundaries that would have produced at least three new GOP House members.

(3) Another top-tier electoral clash of congressional incumbents became a sure thing yesterday, when Russ Carnahan filed papers seeking a 5th term in the same redrawn St. Louis district as fellow Democrat Lacy Clay, who’s represented about three-quarters of the people in the district since 2001. Both are scions of two of the most storied families in modern Missouri politics, and so their race will test loyalties in the city that date back decades. That’s why senior House Democrats — led by Pelosi, DCCC Chairman Steve Israel and Congressional Black Caucus chairman Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City — pushed hard to get Carnahan to run in a neighboring suburban (but Republican-held) district. Both he and Clay are loyal lieutenants to their caucus leaders and have largely similar ideologies; Carnahan is likely to have the advantage in fundraising while Clay has the better on-the-ground political organization. The primary, which will be tantamount to re-election for the winner, is Aug. 7.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: None of the world’s 5 million or so leaplings are currently in Congress; the last was Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak, who retired two years ago after nine House terms (60).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: What Romney Won't Do

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is speaking to a United Auto Workers conference at the Marriott Wardman Park, where he’s touting his formal creation this morning of an office for coordinating government efforts to detect and then challenge unfair trading practices in China and elsewhere. The latest slice of the president’s “We can’t wait” for Congress campaign is a partial make-good on his proposal to consolidate operations at the Commerce Department and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

Obama and Biden are having lunch at 12:45 and will reconnect for a 4:30 with Panetta.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10, will open legislative business at noon and will be done for the day by 6, after passing legislation to repeal a pair of Obama regulations put in place last summer to create national quality standards for for-profit colleges and reduce the rate of student loan default by students at those institutions. (The measure stands no chance of consideration in the Senate.) The House will also pass another Republican bill designed to effectively bar states and cities from using their eminent domain powers for economic development projects. (It’s a non-starter in the Senate, too.)

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 with no agreement in hand for debating amendments to legislation that would update road, bridge, rail and mass transit programs for the next two years. Party leaders are pushing to set a schedule by this afternoon, after their weekly caucus lunches.

THE SUPREME COURT:  Hears arguments on whether foreign victims of war crimes and other human rights violations can sue U.S. companies for alleged complicity in the atrocities.

WHAT HE WON’T DO: The characteristically cautious Mitt Romney is deploying some particularly colorful rhetoric today against Rick Santorum — palpably aware that an upset loss in his native Michigan in a few hours would severely cripple his already hobbled path toward the GOP presidential nomination.

Romney used some of his most unusual language to explain the limits of what he’ll do to distance himself from his more conservative rival: He promised not to light his “hair on fire” to try to win over skeptics or otherwise make the sort of “incendiary” comments that have gained Santorum so much attention from fellow culture warriors in recent days — from his declarations that JFK’s separation-of-church-and-state ideas make him want to “throw up” to his declaration that Obama is “a snob” for wanting all Americans to be educated beyond high school. The ex-governor also accused the ex-senator of working to “kidnap” today’s all-important contest with a “terrible dirty trick” — an “outrageous and disgusting” robocall in which a union-friendly-sounding voice urges Democrats to vote in the state’s open primary.

The chairman of the Michigan GOP says the race is too close to call — but that Romney has battled back to contend in a state he once took for granted, helped along by a super PAC advertising wave. Polls close in most of the state at 8 (D.C. time) but stay open until 9 in the Upper Peninsula. Thirty delegates will be awarded — two for the statewide winner and two each to the winner in each of the 14 congressional districts. The other contest, in Arizona, where the polls also close at 9, is winner-take-all and Romney seems assured of taking all those 29 delegates.

FLINGING IT TO SPRING: The decision by Boehner to go back to the drawing board on the House’s version of the highway bill means that — even if Reid can survive a Nevada highway earmark showdown and the Senate passes its version this week — no comprehensive package of any length will get done before the current stopgap law lapses at the end of March. So the Transportation Department is already preparing for Congress to produce, just before departing on its Passover-Easter recess, another couple-of-months temporary extension.

And an extension until Memorial Day still might not be enough time if LaHood succeeds in his campaign to whip state transportation leaders into a lobbying frenzy in favor of an expansive and expensive highway bill — which is just what Republican leaders are now shying away from in the face of so much rank-and-file conservative opposition to their initial more-drilling-to-pay-for-more-roads approach. Such a successful Obama administration effort would then be another troublesome anecdote in the two-year history of Boehner’s Speakership, in which he has been regularly whipsawed between his desire to cultivate a bottom-up management ethic and the requirement that he step in and assert his authority when all his delegating leads his troops into a legislative morass. The fact that this latest poke at his authority would be orchestrated by LaHood, a former GOP congressional colleague, would be an especially problematic sign for his long-term viability at the helm.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS: Bob Kerrey is genuinely reconsidering his decision to stay away from Nebraska’s open Senate seat. But he knows that the revival of his long-running Hamlet act (Second presidential run? Mayor of New York?) will shift from delighting fellow Democrats to infuriating them if he doesn’t make up his mind, once and for all, by tomorrow. And he has to by Thursday, which is the candidate filing deadline.

The better bet, but only slightly, is that Kerrey will hang on to his New School-issue black turtleneck and his Greenwich Village apartment and won’t seek to return to the senatorial life he gave up a dozen years ago — and disparaged plenty at the time. That’s because, while his re-entry would make the race to succeed Ben Nelson one of the hottest in the country this fall, he would nonetheless begin as the clear underdog in the reliably Republican state. (The top contenders for the GOP nomination are state Attorney General Jon Bruning, state Treasurer Don Stenberg and state Sen. Deb Fischer.) He’d have to overcome significant carpetbagger concerns and do plenty of the fundraising he disdains. And, even if he won, he’d be unlikely to persuade the other Democratic senators to give him back his seniority and his old committee assignments (Finance, especially). Without Kerrey, the default nominee will be University of Nebraska regent Chuck Hassebrook.

SIX SHOOTER: The economic stimulus package being unveiled at 3 by the top four House Republicans is designed to lure congressional Democrats and Obama into something like an unavoidable election-year trap. The bait is simple: The legislation combines six bills to relax federal securities regulations in order to steer more capital toward smaller companies and spur job creation — and all of them have either passed the House with significant Democratic support or cruised through Financial Services on a bipartisan wave. Several of them have the president’s backing, as well.

The measure aims to provide the House Republican majority with a fresh set of pro-active priorities that would help them, in the fall campaign, obscure the memories of their early opposition last fall to the extension of the payroll tax cut, especially if it was not matched with offsetting spending cuts. And the biggest objection the Democrats seem ready to raise against the package — other than the general commitment of the Senate Democrats to thwart whatever the GOP House sends their way — is that the consequences of the deregulatory moves have not been studied sufficiently and might still leave investors improperly vulnerable.

After that, the complaints so far devolve into pettiness relatively quickly — and center mainly on the decision by the GOP to include a bill written by one of their own, tough-primary-ahead Arizona freshman Ben Quayle, instead of a nearly identical version written by a Democrat (Jim Himes of Connecticut) that’s already passed the House, 420-2. Both contain an identical core provision to increase the number of shareholders that a community bank may have before being required to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission. And both are identical to a measure with bipartisan support in the Senate, where Reid says he will wait until the summer before unveiling an alternative package of small-business boosters on behalf of the Senate Democrats.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Ron Barber will be the only Democrat in the special House election in Arizona to replace his old boss, Gabby Giffords. The 66-year-old former district staff director, who was wounded in the 2011 shooting spree, collected 11 times more than the necessary number of petition signatures to get on the April 17 primary ballot. The filing deadline was last night. The four Republican candidates will be state Sen. Frank Antenori, college sports broadcaster Dave Sitton and military veterans Martha McSally and Jesse Kelly. (He challenged Giffords in 2010.) For sentimental reasons, Barber will be the favorite in the June 12 election. But by the fall, the contours of the district will be redrawn to the benefit of the GOP, and he still sounds disinclined to seek a full term.

(2) The Republican effort to make a competitive race out of this fall’s Senate contest in New Jersey is not off to a robust start. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll of 914 registered voters out today gives incumbent Democrat Bob Menendez 44 percent to 22 percent for his recruited and touted challenger, state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos. The good news/bad news piece of the poll for the GOP comes from the Kyrillos reputation numbers: 80 percent say they have no opinion or are unsure how they feel about the 23-year veteran of the legislature; the rest are evenly split into favorable and unfavorable camps. So, as a candidate he has both plenty of room to grow into a favorable presence — but also an enormously long way to go.

(3) Now that Lt. Gov. John Sanchez has dropped out of the race, Heather Wilson looks assured of at least winning the Republican nomination on her second try for an open senate seat in New Mexico. The former congresswoman scored 81 percent support for the primary in a Public Opinion Strategies poll of 500 GOP voters just after Sanchez bowed out and left conservative businessman Greg Sowards as the only other candidate. She did almost as well among tea party voters and others who said they were “very conservative” — suggesting she has overcome her political positioning problems of four years ago, when she lost the primary to a more conservative House member, Steve Pearce, who then lost to Tom Udall. The June 5 primary winner will face either Rep. Martin Heinrich or the much less well -funded state auditor, Hector Balderas. The race to succeed Jeff Bingaman is in the top-tier of national Senate tossups.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Energy Secretary Steven Chu (64).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Monday, February 27, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Michigan Survivalist

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, February 27, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: “We know what it means to govern — what it means to make tough choices in tough times,” Obama told the nation’s governors a few minutes ago in the East Room, where he reiterated his pledge to work more closely with them this year. The 29 Republicans, 20 Democrats and one independent were invited back for the final session of the National Governors Association winter meeting, just a few hours after departing a black-tie dinner of ribeye steak, garden salad, crab mac & cheese and pear tart.

The president has a 3:15 with Geithner before heading off for his weekly fundraiser at the Jefferson Hotel.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at 2 and at 6:30 will pass legislation (designed to blunt a 2005 Supreme Court decision that Republicans find particularly onerous) that would bar states and cities receiving federal economic development funds from using their eminent domain powers to seize land for economic development.

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 to hear the 119th consecutive annual recitation of Washington’s Farewell Address. By tradition a first-term senator (New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen this year) is assigned to read the 4,400-word discourse, in which the first president laid out his vision of a strong federal government that was free of permanent foreign entanglements and limited in its partisanship.

Senators will vote at 5:30 to confirm veteran federal prosecutor Margo Kitsy Brodie as a federal judge in Brooklyn.

HANGING ON: Mitt Romney is heading into tomorrow’s Michigan primary — which will either sustain or derail his candidacy — with just enough minimal momentum to make him the slightly better bet to win.

It looks as though his steady reliance on positioning himself as the successfully above-the-economic-fray businessman (two Cadillacs and all) will be enough to help him edge Rick Santorum and his happy-culture-warrior crusade. The latest numbers, from a weekend survey by Public Policy Polling, give Romney a tiny, inside-the-margin-of-error lead of 39 percent to 37 percent. But the poll shows that the ex-governor has gained 6 points in the last week, while the ex-senator’s number has stayed the same. Beyond that, it found that Romney is ahead, 62 percent to 29 percent, among the one-sixth of the Michigan electorate that has voted early. And it also found that while Santorum’s favorability rating has sunk across the state, Romney’s has stayed exactly the same. (Arizona, where Santorum made little effort, looks to be a Romney blowout; the PPP weekend poll there put him out front by 17 points. He also nabbed Gov. Jan Brewer’s endorsement yesterday.)

If Romney wins both contests, he’ll head toward Super Tuesday once again wearing the mantle of balky inevitability — because the victory will show that, with enough of the old-fashioned advantages of money and organization, he is capable of tamping down a sufficient amount of Republican buyer’s remorse to survive until he’s the nominee. If he loses Michigan, even by a hair, there will be nothing short of pandemonium in the GOP establishment — especially because none of the people being mentioned by anxious party leaders as potential last-minute saviors (Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie) have shown any wavering about their decisions to stay out of the fray. “The fact is, there is an outside possibility” the nomination might not be settled until the convention in Tampa in August, Haley Barbour said on CBS this morning. But Barbour (who’s dropped off the list of possible white knights because of his pardon spree before leaving the Mississippi governorship) says he’s not worried because “whoever we nominate, Barack Obama is the great uniter of Republicans.”

Two polls out today offer varying levels of evidence to contrast that view. A George Washington U.-Politico Battleground poll has 53 percent next to Obama's name in three important places: his approval rating and his share of the vote in matchups against both Romney and Santorum. But a USA Today/Gallup survey has Obama and Romney tied at 47 percent each.

JUST A DANCE: Republicans will push a budget through the House by the end of next month that calls for less discretionary spending than what’s allowed ($1.047 trillion) under last summer’s debt limit deal. They haven’t said how much precisely, but odds are the grand total will be at least $5 billion less, which would mean a hair under the 10-digit number for the current year. That would be politically important for freshmen and other conservative GOP candidates hoping to campaign on the notion that they’re all about continued shrinking of the budget. But it’s likely to prove only symbolic, because the numbers in the House budget resolution won’t have any immediate force, by themselves, mainly because the Democrats have made clear they will not call up a budget for debate in the Senate. (Kent Conrad’s Budget Committee is going to draft something, anyway. It probably will resemble a grand-bargain-style plan for long-term deficit reduction.) The actual top line for discretionary spending will be fixed under last summer’s budget deal unless there a bipartisan agreement to change it — and that won’t happen before the election, when all sides will be focused intently on warding off the across-the-board sequestration.

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan is nonetheless pushing his party to make budget differences a big issue in the presidential campaign, saying he believes fellow Republicans would win the debate. To do so, though, the GOP would have to explain away a study out last week from the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which found that the Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum agendas would significantly increase deficits over 10 years, the Ron Paul plan would greatly shrink the red ink, the Mitt Romney approach would essentially be a wash over a decade — and the Obama plan would lower deficits by about $2 trillion.

Steny Hoyer, meanwhile, took the unusual step today of calling for negotiators to resume talks even this election year on a grand bargain — a proposal that somewhat contradicts the House minority whip’s reputation as a master of legislative realpolitik. “Contrary to what some believe, we cannot afford to set this work aside,” he said in a speech this morning. “There is never a time when the next election is not looming before us — never a moment when we are free from the constraints of our politics. It is not going to get easier to reach an agreement. In fact, it will only get more difficult as time passes and our debt grows. That’s one reason why I will keep pushing to reach an agreement before November — and why everyone concerned about our debt ought to do so as well.”

ANOTHER ROUTE: The highway bill will return as the marquee piece of legislation before the Senate this week, but in a change of GOP plans, there won’t be any debate on such a bill in the House before next week at the earliest. But the postponement is a sign of progress, not impasse, because it makes clear that Boehner and his team have set aside their ambitions for an extensive, long-term bill that would pay for more roads and bridges (but not subways and buses) with oil-drilling revenue — and are instead willing to settle for something like the Senate’s two-year, $109 billion reauthorization of the status quo. To ease concerns among Republicans representing suburban districts (and to tamp down outrage by urban Democrats), GOP leaders are dropping their idea of dismantling a four-decade promise of guaranteed funding for mass transit. And to help coax votes from conservatives, the leaders plan to reduce overall spending levels.

TRAIL TIPS: (1) Scott Brown is sticking with the first controversial radio ad of his Senate re-election campaign in Massachusetts, in which he says he and his predecessor Ted Kennedy share the same view about providing religious exemptions to some health care providers. The late senator’s ex-congressman son, Patrick, says that claim is “misleading and untrue” and asked the Brown campaign yesterday to take the ad off the air. Brown is among those pressing to allow Roman Catholic hospitals a comprehensive exemption from the new mandate that employer-provided medical insurance policies pay for birth control. He noted that in the 1990s Kennedy pushed hard for a “patients' bill of rights” that would have allowed insurers to limit what their policies would pay for based on religious or moral convictions.

(2) Jessica Ehrlich, who has worked on Capitol Hill for lawmakers of both parties, is announcing her candidacy today for the Democratic nomination in the Tampa Bay district where Republican Bill Young would be seeking his 22nd term. (The 81-year-old congressman still hasn’t formally announced but has been doing some fundraising and seems inclined to run again.) Ehrlich is a lawyer who worked for Florida Republican Clay Shaw on the Social Security Subcommittee of Ways and Means, then went to work for Massachusetts Democrat Steve Lynch on Financial Services. She would likely emerge as a solid favorite if Young decides to retire, because the new contours of the St. Petersburg-centered seat would have gone 53 percent for Obama last time. But Young, a former Appropriations chairman, remains highly personally popular and won his current term with 66 percent in very similar Democratic-leaning territory.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Freshman Republican Adam Kinzinger of Illinois (34), who’s three weeks from facing off against 10-term veteran Don Manzullo in the first member-versus-member primary of this post-redistricting election year.

— David Hawkings, editor

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