Friday, March 09, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Uncommonly Soft

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, March 9, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is arriving in Richmond and will react to today’s February jobs report — 227,000 positions created, but the unemployment rate unchanged at 8.3 percent — in a 12:30 speech at a nearby plant where Rolls-Royce makes precision-engineered aircraft engine discs.

Air Force One will land in Houston at 5 (D.C. time) so the president can perform his traditional out-of-town fundraising two-step: An event for small-dollar givers in a cool venue (the Astros’ ballpark, in this case) followed by dinner in a local mogul’s mansion for donors willing to max out. He’s due back in the family quarters at 1 tomorrow morning.

THE SENATE: Not in session; next meets at 2 on Monday.

THE HOUSE: Not in session; in recess next week.

CHANGING TONE: The largely positive jobs report out this morning turned down the usual volume of Republican broadsides against Obama and the Democrats for not doing enough of the right stuff and doing too much of the wrong stuff to get the economy back on track.

The first GOP news release was issued a full 15 minutes after the Labor Department released the news — usually about 30 seconds after — and it was from the Republican Policy Committee, not Boehner or Cantor. The Speaker finally did offer his assessment a half hour after the news. And, while he chided the president, his tone wasn’t as harsh as usual. “It is a testament to the hard work and entrepreneurship of the American people that they are creating any jobs in the midst of the onslaught of anti-business policies coming from this administration,” he said.

It’s hard to be all that critical when almost a half-million people said they joined the labor force last month and almost all of them found work. (One of the peculiarities of the monthly jobs report is that statistics on workers don’t always track with statistics on employers — which is why the numbers show 227,000 new payroll positions in February, even as 428,000 more Americans said they were employed.) The data showed that both the labor force and the number of employed workers grew as a share of the population — both indicators that  the economy is gaining altitude and that people sidelined by the recession are gaining confidence they can find work. That, in turn, is why the jobless rate didn’t change.

For its part, the White House crowed that companies have added jobs for 24 straight months for a net payroll increase of 3.9 million. And it looks as if the state and local government job losses that were limiting the private gains have stopped. Just 7,000 government jobs have been eliminated over the past two months, while government payrolls shrank by an average of 22,000 a month over last year.

Still, the left and right agree that more needs to be done to bring the 8.3 percent rate down to something that is closer to full employment. At the current pace of job growth, that process will take years. And the complaints about the course of economic policy will continue on all fronts. The Alliance for American Manufacturing — while praising some of the president’s initiatives — objected that the latest trade figures prove there’s still not a “level playing field” for U.S. exporters. “The Administration’s effort on China is clearly falling short,” the group said.

NO REST FOR THE SPEAKER: Boehner is facing another wave of internal Republican discord even before he’s able to put the highway bill impasse behind him.

The Speaker is for now assuming that when the House returns the week after next, he can muscle through something akin to the two-year Senate public works plan, on the theory that most of his troops will acquiesce in that dissapointment-to-the-construction-industry approach because it’s the only viable alternative. (Boehner’s own grand highway plan is now poised over the ash heap of history because of so much dissent in the GOP ranks.) But even if he gets a small bump from that Plan B success, it will be of only minimal help for the budget battle ahead.

Republicans are splintering anew over two options for the amount of discretionary spending in the year ahead. The obvious one is to settle for the grand total of $1.047 trillion they agreed to as part of lasts summer’s tortured debt deal deliberations — which would allow some semblance of regular order for appropriations bills, which then would allow the GOP to send an election-year signal of governing competence, at least on the easy stuff. The other option — which is the one more and more freshman and other conservatives are glomming on to — is to reopen the budget wars and inflict plenty of political wounds by insisting on cutting that number by a whopping 1.8 percent (or $19 billion). Cantor, Paul Ryan and some other GOP leaders on the budget negotiated for an hour on this yesterday and got nowhere. But even if the conservative crusade wins the day in the House and hosannas go up from the tea party electorate, the result would be a deadlock-inducing-fight with not only the majority Democrats but also the Republicans in the Senate — who want nothing more than to recess for the campaign in early October with the spending bills done and without anyone uttering the phrase “threat of a government shutdown” along the way.

KEYSTONE STATE: Those who read only the headline about the Senate’s key vote yesterday on the Keystone XL pipeline — that it “rejected” language compelling federal approval of the project — missed an important point. The only reason the amendment was rebuffed is that 60 votes were required for adoption. In fact, a solid and genuinely bipartisan group of 56 senators voted “yes,” including all the Republicans and 11 Democrats who bucked some uncharacteristic (in this administration) in-person presidential arm-twisting. In other words, solid majorities in both halves of Congress are willing to disregard the environmental arguments about the pipe’s current route between Canada and the Gulf and get construction started ASAP.

Four of the Democrats who backed Keystone yesterday are running for re-election: Jon Tester of Montana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who are in tossup battles, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who look like relative shoo-ins. Two are retiring — Kent Conrad and Jim Webb. The others are Max Baucus, Mark Begich, Kay Hagan, Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor.

KAN-TORUM: A run of deceptively bad news for Mitt Romney kicks off tomorrow afternoon in Kansas, where Rick Santorum is going to dominate the caucuses. That’s because the gatherings will be packed with the anti-abortion social conservatives who are the core of the state GOP — and both Romney and Newt Gingrich know it, which is why they’ve essentially ceded the state. Ron Paul will get a handful of delegates by garnering more than 20 percent statewide, and Romney and Gingrich may as well, but Santorum should get at least 30 delegates because of his breadth of support. (The results will come in between 2:30 and 6, D.C. time.)

Santorum’s big goal of the next week, though, is to win on Tuesday in either Alabama or Mississippi, because Gingrich’s campaign (although not the former Speaker himself) has declared he must win both those primaries to justify staying in the race. If Gingrich drops out, then Santorum thinks he has at least a shot at consolidating all the more-conservative, anybody-but-Romney voters in the coming weeks and at least blocking Romney from amassing the 1,144 delegates he needs for mathematical nomination certainty.

Romney will add to his delegate total in both places — especially in Mississippi, where Gov. Phil Bryant last night promised some organizational muscle along with his endorsement. But he won’t win either one, for sure, now that he’s made the politically unpardonable mistake of speaking a truth about his chances: “I realize it’s a bit of an away game,” the candidate with New England, Midwest and Mountain West home bases conceded last night. But unlike, say, the Washington Capitals — who play poorly on the road and could see their playoff chances dashed for good after playing six out of the next seven games elsewhere — Romney has plenty of time, money and organizational grit to revive himself in Illinois on March 20 and beyond.

IS THAT ALL? While all the buzz was building this week about “Game Change” among the D.C. media elite — several hundred of whom turned out for last night’s Newseum premiere — the conservative crowd was panting to see a different movie: Video of Obama’s student days that his 2008 campaign purportedly worked to hide, but which, just before his death, Andrew Breitbart promised to release. But the clips released Wednesday night by have produced nothing but yawns and so-what shrugs even from the president’s most ardent critics. If the Big Gotcha is that the first black president of the Harvard Law Review was filmed embracing one of the school’s first black law professors — Derrick Bell, whose “radicalism” is arguably tamer than that of Bill Ayres or the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — then it’s a huge disappointment to the right. On the other hand, one of Breitbart’s best marketing techniques was to release his second-best stuff first in every scandal he was seeking to cultivate, so that the impact of his most newsworthy releases was all the more magnified.

GOING WITH THE NEW GUY: Cantor is breaking with the GOP leadership’s past practice and taking sides in this year’s first primary showdown between a pair of incumbent House Republicans: He wants freshman Adam Kinzinger to defeat Donald Manzullo a week from Tuesday, when they will face off in a district in mostly rural northwestern Illinois that was drawn after the state lost a seat in reapportionment. Although the new map was drawn by Democrats to reverse the balance of power in the delegation, the winner of the primary will have an easy time of it in the fall.

It’s unusual for members of the leadership in either caucus to openly intervene in primaries, particularly when they involve two members, and the majority leader’s decision is all the more noticeable because Manzullo is a past committee chairman (Small Business) and a current subcommittee chairman (Asia and the Pacific at Foreign Affairs.) But Cantor’s endorsement made clear he views the newcomer as more a team player than the 10-term veteran. “We work on a regular basis with both,” he said in a joint statement with another Illinois Republican, John Shimkus, and Kinzinger “is the right choice to keep advancing our conservative movement.”

It probably will be a while before it’s clear whether Cantor will endorse in the other three member-versus-member GOP primaries, because they’re all in August: freshman Sandy Adams against Transportation Chairman John Mica in Florida, Ben Quayle against fellow freshman Dave Schweikert in Arizona and freshman Jeff Landry against Ways and Means Oversight Chairman Charles Boustany in Louisiana.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: The next lawmaker’s birthday is on Sunday, when Jesse Jackson Jr. turns 47 — nine days before he squares off in the Illinois primary against fellow Democrat Debbie Halvorson, who’s seeking to return to the House after one term away.

— David Hawkings, editor

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Thursday, March 08, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: It's Halftime for John Boehner

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 with a commitment to dispose of 10 amendments to the highway and mass transit bill before turning out the lights tonight, and to consider just 20 more alterations before passing the two-year, $109 billion legislation next week.

Under a deal cut last night, the impasse on the bipartisan bill was broken when both sides agreed to vote on only a dozen proposals unrelated to transportation policy — and under rules that require 60 votes for adoption. Most are being offered in the name of reducing gasoline prices and many will be debated today. They include a Republican move to compel federal approval of the Keystone XL pipeline between Canada and the Gulf of Mexico; Democratic language to bar the export of any oil carried by the pipeline; Democratic efforts to expand tax breaks for renewable-energy companies and eliminate other tax breaks for offshore corporate investments and operations; and Republican proposals to ease EPA regulation of industrial boilers, open parts of the outer continental shelf to oil drilling and end some “green” energy  tax breaks. Look for the first roll call at about 2:15.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and will be done for the next 10 days before 1, after passing legislation that would roll back securities regulation for smaller, privately held companies. A rare lopsided bipartisan majority will vote “yes” — because Obama backs the package, a signal to Democrats that it makes election-year sense to acquiesce in the GOP argument that the bill is necessary to boosting investment in new ventures and, in theory, generate some new jobs. Reid is planning to unveil a slightly different Senate version soon. But some experts say investor protections could be jeopardized.

THE WHITE HOUSE: After a noon meeting with senior advisers, Obama is affording President John Evans Atta Mills of Ghana an Oval Office courtesy call at 3:30. Two hours later, the president and first lady are having an early-bird-special dinner at a Washington restaurant (name not disclosed yet) with winners of a campaign contest.

HE’S TRYING: While Reid and McConnell have finally unstuck the Senate’s highway bill after a month in limbo, the House’s version remains a weighty legislative cross for Boehner to bear. And for a third straight week the Speaker has been totally unable to shed the strain.

Boehner tried the “tough locker room talk with the team” approach yesterday, telling his House Republicans that they could either quickly agree to accept the leadership’s five-year, $260 billion package or else he would press them to swallow whatever measure the Senate sends over — and they have to make that choice soon after next week’s recess, when there will be only a dozen days before the current law lapses and the words “government public works shutdown” start appearing on the cable TV news programs just as congressional re-election campaigns are kicking into high gear. While some of his aides insisted the appeal had done some good, they conceded that it had worked only a bit — and that it remained very much in doubt that the House could pass either of the options he talked about.

Many Republicans don’t like the way the Senate bill is shaping up, and they like the idea of an 18-month status quo extension even less — because it would remind voters of the current congressional penchant for kick-the-can-down-the-road policy measures enacted as a consequence of gridlock. But the resistance to the big Boehner bill also remains somewhat surprisingly rock-solid, with his fellow Republicans opposed to it for so many different reasons: Too much spending, not enough spending, lack of earmarks, insufficient support for mass transit, or its reliance on offshore oil drilling revenue to pay for it all.

The morass is so deep and broad that — even though it’s not about something so fundamentally significant to the party’s brand as last year’s debt limit fight, government spending showdown or payroll tax snafu — it could yet become the internal dispute that’s remembered as the straw that broke the camel’s back for Boehner’s leadership. Speakers of the House for the past half-century have been able to get their troops to line up behind a flawed but ultimately essential public works package. If this Speaker is unable to do so, and soon, he may be providing his critics inside the Capitol the last bit of evidence they need for their argument that he’s lost control of his caucus — and the public the last piece of evidence it needs to support the view that Republicans are out of their depth when it comes to governing. To the typical voter, a rutted interstate or crumbly bridge or creaky commuter train at a time when unemployment is above 8 percent is a very tangible sign that something’s wrong in Washington. Coming up with a highway bill that restores even a few percentage points to the congressional approval rating is almost surely a better bet, politically, than fighting over whether to reopen last summer’s deal on the discretionary spending ceiling or reigniting the totally symbolic (and gender-polarizing) debate over the contraception coverage mandate.

MORE PRESSURE: Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin wants the Armed Forces Network to drop the Rush Limbaugh program from its radio and TV feed to bases around the world. “I would hope the people that run it see just how offensive this is and drop it on their own volition,” he told CNN last night, but he said he was not likely to move legislation that would mandate the move. More than 40 advertisers have pulled their spots off Limbaugh’s show since he called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for advocating insurance coverage of contraceptives. But the Pentagon says it has no plans to drop the show because of its policy of broadcasting shows that “reflect a wide range” of opinion.

TRAIL TIPS: (Alabama) Whether the Campaign for Primary Accountability proves to be a lasting force in congressional campaigns this year will become more clear Tuesday, when the upstart anti-incumbent super PAC’s next target, Financial Services Chairman Spencer Bachus, stands for the Republican nomination for an 11th term in Alabama. Bachus is vulnerable to defeat because of his role in writing the 2008 financial bailouts and the ethical questions related to his day-trading habits. But even though his opponent, state Sen. Scott Beason, has tea party backing, he’d raised enough to spend only $37,000 in the first six weeks of this year. Bachus has spent 20 times that amount. But the late involvement by the super PAC could tip the balance, as it seemed to have with Jean Schmidt's defeat in Ohio this week. The Houston-based group has purchased $59,000 worth of TV ad time in Birmingham in the coming days and is reportedly planning to spend $250,000 against Bachus overall.

(Maine) The biggest political question in Maine now is whether any viable Democrat will run for the Senate — or whether the party will, either overtly or by default, throw in behind independent Angus King, the popular former governor who stands as a potentially pivotal frontrunner to succeed Olympia Snowe. (A Public Policy Polling survey out yesterday gave King a 62 percent to 24 percent favorable-unfavorable split — and even among Republicans it was 43-38.) When Chellie Pingree announced yesterday that she would seek a third term in the House rather than run statewide, she said her main objective was to make sure that a three-way Senate race would not result in an upset Republican winner — which is what happened in the governor’s race two years ago. Democratic campaign leaders say they didn’t push the congresswoman aside and have cut no deal with King, but his record suggests he would line up behind Reid and Co. far more often than not. (Republicans, meanwhile, are facing a potential fight for the nomination among three statewide officials: Secretary of State Charlie Summers, Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and Attorney General William Schneider.)

(Nebraska) Chuck Hassebrook, the Democratic state university system regent who had been recruited to run for the Senate when Bob Kerrey promised he wasn’t, is getting out of the race today. At the same time, Kerrey is saying the only enticement he got from Reid before reversing field last week is that “he would respect my previous 12 years of previous service in the Senate, with no specific promise about seniority.” Kerrey declined to explain things further, but the declaration would suggest that if he wins, he would be allowed to go ahead of many other current Democratic senators — and all the newcomers — in choosing committee seats. Kerrey says he wants to get back on the Agriculture panel, where he was prominent in the 1990s, and also take seats on Appropriations  and Armed Services.

(Florida) James Jett, the Clay County court clerk who is a second-tier challenger for the Republican nomination against Cliff Stearns in nothern Florida, is accusing the 12-term congressman of offering a state-level government job, GOP convention passes or a position with the state party in return for dropping out of the race. The claim is “totally unfounded,” the congressman’s press secretary Paul Flusche said in a statement last night. “No one is authorized to make any claims or concessions on behalf of Rep. Stearns. He has not communicated with Mr. Jett at any time to get out of the race. This is a pure and simple political maneuver by Mr. Jett to illegally entrap former friends for vindictive reasons.” Jett says he’s gone to the FBI with his allegations and offered to wear a wire to try to substantiate them; the agency won’t comment. Twenty years ago, Jett was a county commissioner who used taped calls to win a conviction against a constituent who had offered him a bribe.

MADE FOR TV: Commuters hoping to get off Capitol Hill quickly and at a reasonable hour beware: There will be significant limo lock around the Newseum at rush hour, because that’s the location of tonight’s Washington premiere of “Game Change” — and the hoopla starts at 6 with a red carpet arrival scene that’s supposed to feature appearances by such boldfaced names as Tom Hanks (an executive producer), Julianne Moore (Sarah Palin) and Sarah Paulson (the 2008 vice presidential candidate’s minder, Nicolle Wallace). Those uninvited can catch the much ballyhooed movie — which has become a partisan Rorschach test long before most partisans have actually seen it — on HBO on Saturday, Sunday or Monday nights.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY:No current lawmakers, but previous members include Republican George Allen, the former Virginia governor who’s hoping to return to the Senate seat after six years away (60), and two influential House Democrats form the 1980s,  Jim Chapman of Texas (67) and Mike Lowry of Washington (73).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Wednesday, March 07, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Giving Romney His Due

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Air Force One is approaching Charlotte, and after touring the nearby Daimler truck manufacturing plant Obama will deliver a speech at 12:45 touting his views about the economy and energy efficiency — with an emphasis on his moves to boost car and truck fuel efficiency standards. (The text will be similar to the energy and jobs addresses he’s given in the past two weeks in two other swing states, Florida and New Hampshire.) The two-hour visit to North Carolina (15 electoral votes)  is the only public event on the schedule, which puts him back in the Oval at 3:15.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 with apparently nothing to do in light of yesterday’s filibuster-sustaining vote on the highway bill; negotiations to appease a crucial bloc of Republicans are continuing.

The Senate will break for an hour at 5 for a closed-door briefing on cybersecurity; officials have not offered further details, but one obvious topic is the vulnerability of the Senate’s own network, recently exposed by a loose-knit network of hackers.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and this afternoon will pass legislation (over environmentalist objections) to speed and relax Bureau of Reclamation reviews of hydropower development projects. Debate will then get started on an Obama-endorsed measure (dubbed the Jobs Act by the GOP) to ease access to capital markets for small and medium-size companies. But lawmakers will be sent home by 7, before all proposed amendments have been considered.

GAME OVER? Mitt Romney really did use Super Tuesday to just about wrap up the GOP nomination — mathematically, if not in the hearts of the electorate. It’s just that those Republican voters and their three lingering conservative favorites aren’t facing up to it yet, and the saturation cable coverage and the spin doctors are keeping the sense of suspense going as long as possible.

The candidate calmly and succinctly explained the truth of the matter this morning — “We’ve got the time and the resources and a plan to get all the delegates, and we think that will get done before the convention,” he said on CNBC — and at this hour his campaign team in Boston is walking reporters through a detailed explanation of what he’s talking about. In a nutshell, their inevitability argument boils down to this: Rick Santorum would need to get more than two-thirds of the remaining delegates to win, and that’s not going to happen — even if the ex-senator succeeds in persuading Newt Gingrich to bow out in an effort to give conservatives a single alternative.

And that’s not going to happen, either, the ex-Speaker said this morning; instead he said he will “wait and see how the race goes” in the next round of voting — which is concentrated in the South, where both his victories have been notched. He has a solid shot at Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, while Santorum is looking to win Missouri and Kansas. That means for the next 10 days Romney could go without an outright victory (Hawaii is a jump ball). So his next chance for a victory looks to be Illinois in two weeks. Still, all the while he should be maintaining his margin in delegates; the six states he won yesterday — capped by his 12,000-vote, 1-percentage-point after-midnight squeaker in Ohio — doubled his number of delegates to about 420, which is more than a third of the 1,144 he needs. And more than all the others combined. Which is why Cantor went on several morning shows to argue the Romney nomination was inevitable and that his party should embrace it sooner rather than later. That’s because the others, he said on CBS, “have not demonstrated an ability to do what needs to be done” to win — and besides, Romney is “the only candidate in this race who’s got a plan to turn this economy around,” which is the politic phrase for “defeat Obama.”

SENT PACCING: The biggest upset of Super Tuesday had nothing to do with the presidential race — and arguably the most important bellwether returns from Ohio didn’t, either. In both cases, top honors go to the defeat of Jean Schmidt in the Cincinnati suburbs – a loss that signals both the tea party’s continued influence and the swift rise to dispositive influence of an anti-House-incumbent super PAC.

Schmidt, a senior Republican on the Transportation and Agriculture committees, had seemed to solidify her initially balky hold on the seat and was universally expected to cruise toward a fourth full term. Instead, she was ousted in the primary by foot surgeon Brad Wenstrup by a decisive 5,200 votes, taking just 43 percent to his 49 percent in a five-person field. Wenstrup, who lost a bid for mayor of Cincinnati three years ago, spent $70,000 of his own money on the victory, which allows him to pack to move to Washington in January because the seat is a GOP redoubt.

But his self-funding and his tea party support may have been equaled in influencing the outcome by the little-known Campaign for Primary Accountability. The super PAC, based in Houston and financed mainly by conservative builder Leo Linbeck III, spent $49,000 to defeat Schmidt — and has already set its sights on at least five other lawmakers from both parties who until now had appeared to be in safe seats. The reasons in all cases are not clear, although the PAC’s leaders have said their annoyance is not about ideology as much as it is about entrenched incumbents using their political leverage to make their re-elections too easy. The group’s website makes clear that its next target is House Financial Services Chairman Spencer Bachus, who is clearly in trouble headed into next week’s Republican primary in Alabama because of questions about his securities trading habits. After that, the group is seeking the defeat of eight-term Republican Judy Biggert, who is otherwise expected to cruise past Jack Cunningham in a reconfigured exurban Illinois district in the March 20 primary. And the PAC has already said it will work to defeat a pair of veteran Texas House Democrats in the May primary,  Silvestre Reyes of El Paso and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas.

GO WEST: Dennis Kucinich has six weeks to decide whether to try to perpetuate his four-decade reputation for at least trying to make improbable comebacks by seeking one of the three open congressional seats in Washington — each of which would at least theoretically be receptive to his quirky brand of populist and peace-full politics. (Jay Inslee is leaving the House to run for governor, Norm Dicks is retiring, and reapportionment gave the state a new, 10th district that has been drawn with a majority of minority-group voters.) The candidate filing deadline is not for 10 weeks, but the former boy mayor of Cleveland would have to pick up stakes and establish residency on the West Coast by April 18 if he wants to qualify for the ballot.

The congressman and his aides have steadfastly refused to rule out the possibility of the geographic maneuver, which might compel Kucinich to resign his current seat (because the Constitution says clearly that House members must live in the state, if not the district, they represent.) But party leaders are clearly not enamored of the idea; Pelosi this morning issued an unusual statement that sought to usher him off the congressional stage with a curt “We thank Congressman Kucinich for his 16 years of service to the people of Ohio.”

Clearly, the lopsided nature of his loss to Toledo’s Marcy Kaptur – he took 40 percent to her 56 percent, a 12,500-vote difference even though the two were largely similar on economic issues and the demographics of the 120-mile-long lakeside district favored her only slightly — stung the congressman more than any of the seven other elections he has lost since 1972: one for re-election as mayor, four for the House and two for president. His concession speech just after midnight was notable for its lack of grace notes. “I would like to be able to congratulate Congresswoman Kaptur, but I do have to say that she ran a campaign in the Cleveland media market that was utterly lacking in integrity with false statements, half-truths and misrepresentations,” he said.

Kaptur is now the overwhelming favorite to remain the longest-serving woman in Congress by winning a 16th term against Sam “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, a populist GOP icon of the 2008 presidential campaign.

BEATTY UP: Ohio is going to have a second African-American in its delegation next year, for the first time ever. Joyce Beatty, the vice president for community outreach at Ohio State and a former state House minority leader, won the Democratic primary yesterday in a newly drawn district that takes in almost all the Democratic precincts of Columbus. In so doing, she stopped cold one of the most widely expected congressional comebacks of the year — by Mary Jo Kilroy, who lost a swing-seat district taking in Columbus after just one term in 2010 to Republican Steve Stivers. Beatty won with 38 percent to 35 percent for Kilroy. (The state's other black lawmaker, Marcia Fudge, is a lock to win a third full term representing Cleveland.)

JUDGED: Both political parties and other affected parties rushed to the federal courthouse in Brooklyn this morning to meet a 9 o’clock deadline for filing comments on a magistrate’s remapping of New York’s congressional seats. The boundaries of the 27 districts (down from 29) drawn by Judge Roanne Mann will be the basis for a map that a three-judge panel will impose on the state unless the divided Legislature (Democratic state Assembly, Republican state Senate) breaks its own impasse on the matter in coming days. It would eliminate the sprawling mid-Hudson Valley district now represented by retiring Democrat Maurice Hinchey, and it would redistribute to other districts the Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods that Republican Bob Turner has represented since taking Democrat Anthony Weiner’s seat in a special-election upset last year — essentially the two most politically painless moves available, and the ones expected for months. But her boundaries would also spell potential trouble for two upstate freshmen, Republican Chris Gibson (whose sprawling seat was made more Democratic) and Democrat Kathy Hochul (whose home was drawn into territory assigned to four-term Democrat Brian Higgins.)

RETURN OF THE KING: Angus King’s decision to run for the Senate as an independent has roiled the Maine political landscape anew. On the one hand, the still-popular former two-term governor says he doesn’t have any interest in being a spoiler and will drop out at any time if he doesn’t think he can win. On the other hand, Democrats are liking his chances well enough that their Senate campaign chief, Patty Murray, hasn’t ruled out the possibility of backing him — on the assumption he would be at least as reliable a freelancer-who-goes-to-Democratic-caucus-meetings as Joe Lieberman has been. Beyond that, Chellie Pingree is waiting on a poll (the results are expected today) before deciding whether to run — which would mean giving up her House seat and campaigning against one of her better friends. (King was her guest at Thanksgiving dinner last fall).

BAD OMEN: The first poll taken in Nebraska since Bob Kerrey got back in to the Senate race does not bode well at all for the Democratic hopes of holding Ben Nelson’s open seat in the reliably Republican state. A Rasmussen survey of 500 likely voters over the weekend found Kerrey getting thumped in his comeback bid by all three of his potential challengers: The front-runner in the May 15 primary, state Attorney General Jon Bruning, would win 55 percent to 33 percent if the election were now. Tea party-backed state Treasurer Don Stenberg would win by 52 percent to 34 percent, and state Rep. Deb Fischer would prevail 46 percent to 34 percent. (An internal GOP primary poll commissioned by Bruning, meanwhile, has him with 52 percent, Stenberg at 19 percent and Fischer at 11 percent.)

LONG WAIT: The special election to replace Don Payne will almost certainly be the same day as the November general election, meaning one of New Jersey’s House seats will remain vacant until the lame duck. The eight-month delay would follow a state tradition against spending money on special elections. The district Payne represented at his death on Tuesday is very much like the 10th District drawn for the coming decade — overwhelmingly Democratic and centered in Newark and Jersey City — so many voters will be called on to vote twice in the all-important June 5 Democratic primary, once for the short-term vacancy nominee and once for the 113th Congress candidate. Donald Payne Jr., who is both a Newark councilman and Essex County freeholder, is the obvious front-runner. Also likely to run are state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, who considered the elder Payne a mentor, and Newark Councilman Ron Rice, who considered him a rival.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “As I say, anything is possible. And I don’t close any doors that perhaps would be open out there. So, no, I wouldn’t close that door. And my plan is to be at that convention,” Sarah Palin said last night when asked by CNN at her Alaska GOP caucus in Wasilla if she would be open to a draft if Republican delegates deadlock in Tampa. She also said she voted for “the cheerful one, Newt Gingrich” — who finished last, with 14 percent statewide.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Republican Elton Gallegly of California (68), who is retiring, and fellow House member  Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania (44), whose spot on the April primary ballot opposite fellow Democrat Mark Critz survived the first round of a court challenge this week. 

— David Hawkings, editor

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Tuesday, March 06, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Math Men

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama will use his first full-on news conference since November, starting at 1:15, to announce two more mortgage-crisis-recovery moves. He’s ordering the FHA to halve (to 0.55 percent) the annual fee charged on the balance of refinanced loans — a move he’ll say could save as many as 3 million borrowers $1,000 a year. And he’s struck a deal with major lenders to compensate veterans and active-duty service members who were wrongfully foreclosed upon, denied lower interest rates or forced to sell their homes at depressed values because of military reassignment.

The meeting with reporters, arranged only yesterday, assures the president will get a decent amount of coverage even though it’s Super Tuesday. His only other scheduled events are off-camera: This week’s re-election fundraiser at the Jefferson Hotel is at 5:30. Ninety minutes later the president will arrive at the Newseum to meet with 90 CEOs who belong to the Business Roundtable, who will to press him on the corporate tax structure and deregulation.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and at noon will cast its first substantive vote on the surface transportation bill — on whether to even take up Reid’s version of the two-year, $109 billion legislation. It’s touch and go whether seven GOP senators will vote “yes” and push the magic number to the required 60. Most Republicans object that they haven’t been guaranteed all the votes they want on amendments unrelated to road, bridge, rail and bus policy — including on forcing approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and blocking EPA regulations for industrial boilers.

After the weekly caucus lunches, the Senate will confirm a pair of veteran federal prosecutors, Beth Phillips of Kansas City and Thomas Rice of Spokane, as U.S. District Court judges in Missouri and Washington.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and will be done for the day by 2:30, after passing legislation authorizing the continuation of punitive tariffs on 23 categories of imports from China. (The bill would close a loophole found in December by a federal appeals court, which said Congress hadn’t explicitly authorized Commerce to assess countervailing duties on products made by state-run economies.)

PILING THEM UP: Mitt Romney is on the cusp of becoming the de facto Republican presidential nominee tonight.

Even if his current momentum in Ohio does not quite get him to an outright victory in that marquee Super Tuesday contest — and it probably will — Romney is virtually assured of winning almost twice as many delegates as Rick Santorum. That’s because the former governor is on track to win most of the votes in six of the states — Virginia (where it’s just him and Ron Paul), Massachusetts, Idaho, North Dakota, Alaska and Vermont. He’ll also get plenty of delegates from Tennessee — and might even win, although both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are working hard there, too. Santorum's best shots are Oklahoma and Tennessee. Gingrich looks to be a lock to win favorite-son status in Georgia, and that's all. Paul will get a few dozen delegates from the caucus states (Alaska, Idaho, and North Dakota) and will do OK in Vermont.

In other words, by tomorrow morning Romney could be about where John McCain was four years ago, John Kerry was in 2004, Bob Dole was in 1996 and Michael Dukakis was in 1988: Undeniably in control of his own destiny after Super Tuesday. (It only may seem otherwise because last time the multi-state extravaganza was in early February.) And it means the roller-coaster ride of the 2012 Republican presidential race is about to return the customers to the same spot from which they left almost four years ago. When Romney conceded to McCain then, he made clear he would create an organizational structure and a fundraising machine that allowed him to keep alive the proud tradition in modern GOP politics of making the runner-up into the front-running-winner the next time. And that’s what he’s done. He already has more than 200 delegates in his pocket (some still unofficially) and looks to double that number tonight, which would give him 35 percent of the magic number needed (1,144) to cinch the nomination. None of the other three can catch him if that happens — and all of them know that the longer they keep trying, the more it could tarnish the GOP brand for November. Ron Paul doesn’t care, but the other two do — especially Santorum, who has the longest potential future as a national conservative figure. If he wins Ohio’s popular vote (he can’t win in delegates because of an organizational lapse), he can keep things going at least into April. If not, it may be bow-out-gracefully time.

TV GUIDE: Ten states will report results tonight that determine the awarding of 419 delegates (18 percent of the total). Wyoming starts county conventions today, but they won’t be done until the weekend. The poll-closings (in D.C. time) for the primaries are 7 in Georgia, Virginia and Vermont; 7:30 in Ohio; and 8 in Massachusetts, Tennessee and Oklahoma. The caucuses will finish at 8:30 in North Dakota, 10 in Idaho and midnight in Alaska.

THE OTHER OHIO BATTLE: Marcy Kaptur is on course to defeat Dennis Kucinich today in the first of the 13 member-vs.-member congressional contests now on tap for this year. The Democratic primary is in a district connecting most of her Toledo base with a slice of his Cleveland constituency; the Republican-run Ohio Legislature drew it last year to account for one of the state’s House seats lost in reapportionment. The two veteran lawmakers used to be genuine allies, but the tone of their campaign has devolved in recent weeks to pettiness; they have strained to sound ideologically different and focused instead on such matters as whether Kaptur’s campaign pilfered Kucinich yard signs and whether Kucinich had disparaged the intelligence of some Kaptur constituents.

The outcome, which is tantamount to re-election, is important to the congressional power structure because Kaptur, who is in her 15th term and is the longest-tenured woman in Congress, would be in line for the top Democratic seat on Appropriations once Norm Dicks retires in January. (That is assuming that Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn — all of whom are technically on leaves of absence form the panel — don’t decide to leave the leadership and stake claim to the spending post.) Kaptur has sought to use her pending step up the ladder to her advantage in recent days; Kucinich maintains she would never be given the assignment because the rank-and-file thinks she’s too close to the defense contractors and sugar processors. (If he loses, he still has not unequivocally ruled out moving to the Seattle area and seeking a ninth term there.)

PAYNE DIES: Don Payne, the first African-American ever elected to Congress from New Jersey, died this morning. He was 77 and had been a liberal and low-key representative for Newark and surrounding areas since 1989. He announced just last month that he had colon cancer, and on Friday he checked out of George Washington University hospital and was flown home.

A former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Payne was best known as an advocate for robust spending on both education in poor urban areas and foreign aid — particularly to combat AIDS and promote human rights and economic development in Africa. His entry into politics was his election in 1970 as the first black president of the National Council of YMCAs in 1970. He was later community affairs director for the Newark-based Prudential Insurance and served as a county councilman. He tried twice to unseat Peter Rodino in the Democratic primary, then won his seat when the Watergate-era Judiciary chairman retired in 1988.

As reconfigured for the coming decade, the district where Payne hoped to run again will remain overwhelmingly Democratic. Whether a special election is held this summer or the seat is left vacant until fall, a long roster of ambitious and well-organized politicians will look at the race. Most prominent among them will be Donald M. Payne Jr., who is both the city council president in Newark and an Essex County councilman.

McCAIN’S SHIFT: John McCain has won over his two favorite Senate partners in hawkishness, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, to the view that the United States should lead an alliance that bombs Syria sufficiently to take out President Bashar Assad’s air defenses, protect civilians and create a safe haven for opposition forces. But the Armed Services ranking member's change of heart — until now he’s favored nothing more aggressive than back-channel assistance to the revolutionaries — is not likely to create a senatorial groundswell for another military intervention any time soon. At least for the next month, almost all the bellicose energy in Congress will be devoted to talk of putting the Air Force to work preventing Iran from advancing its nuclear weapons program any further.

Still, talk by any members of Congress about air strikes on Syria will add pressure on Obama to become more forcefully involved in the longest-lasting and bloodiest flowering of the Arab Spring. (The administration says it wants to hold off in light of the disarray among opposition fighters, questions about their identity and allegiances, and worries about spillover violence that could upset the delicate situation across the Middle East.) And of course McCain’s voice remains of paramount importance — not only for the obvious political reasons, but also because he says there’s an even more clear national security interest in forcing Assad to leave power than there was a year ago in Libya, where McCain also took the congressional lead in supporting intervention. But it’s far more likely that Congress will move at least in the short term to impose new economic sanctions on Syria; House Foreign Affairs will start moving such a bill tomorrow.

SHUSTER TIME: Boehner has signaled the limits of his well-understood — and more than occasionally unsuccessful — policy of letting the House and its chairmen work their will. So frustrated has he become with the collapse of support for the highway bill among fellow Republicans in the House that he’s side-carred Chairman John Mica and turned to a much more junior member of the Transportation Committee — and one with a storied name in the history of GOP public works policy — to rescue the package: Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, whose father Bud was the all-powerful chairman of the panel in the 1990s before ethical transgressions brought him low. If the younger Shuster can figure out a way to get all his caucus colleagues behind a package, he will have rescued the Speaker (who made the bill his signature goal of 2012) from one of his most embarrassing setbacks yet. If not, Boehner’s own standing will be further jeopardized by the somewhat-justified resentment from Mica and all the other committee chairmen.

House Republicans will discuss the measure today in a special caucus at the Capitol Hill Club, and it is slated to be the sole topic of discussion tomorrow at another closed-door meeting of all House Republicans. During that meeting, party leaders are expected to lay out options for getting the bill passed.

BOARD WITH IT: House Republicans will push legislation through the Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce committees by the end this week to close down IPAB — the 15-member Independent Payment Advisory Board created in the health care overhaul law. It has powers to hold down increases in Medicare spending, but Republicans describe the commission as one of their least favorite parts of “Obamacare,” because in their view it shifts too much power over to political appointees and away from patients and their doctors. Democrats say the commission is the best way to keep Medicare’s soaring costs in check without slashing benefits. The bill is likely to pass the House along party lines in two weeks but be nothing more than a campaign talking point beyond that, because the GOP has nowhere close to the Democratic votes needed to overcome Reid’s blocking maneuvers in the Senate.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No current lawmakers, but Washington notables include former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan (86) and D.C. Councilman Marion Barry (76).

— David Hawkings, editor

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Monday, March 05, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Leading Edge

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, March 5, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: "The United States will always have Israel's back," Obama said in welcoming Netanyahu to the Oval Office this morning, where the president’s singular objective is to calm fears about an Iran on the cusp of building nuclear weapons — and to back Israel away from what he last night termed "loose talk" about a pre-emptive attack on Tehran. Obama and the prime minister are meeting alone until noon, when they will convene a working lunch with senior staff in the state Dining Room.

Obama also has a 3:45 with Geithner and a 4:45 with Panetta. (Netanyahu will detail his reaction to the meeting in a dinnertime speech at the AIPAC convention.)

THE HOUSE: Convenes at noon and at 2 will debate bills to name the federal courthouse in Anchorage for the late James M. Fitzgerald, a prominent Alaska jurist for half a century, and also a pair of post offices. If a roll call vote is required, it will come at 6:30.

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 to make speeches and watch the requisite hours tick away before the first test vote on the highway bill — at noon tomorrow, when senators will decide whether to limit debate on a new version designed by Reid to woo at least a handful of Republicans.

LEADING EDGE: Congressional endorsements don’t really mean that much in modern presidential politics — unless they’re a surprise, are delivered at an opportune time, can actually influence an election’s outcome and come from a lawmaker well known for having his finger on the pulse of his party. The backing Mitt Romney got yesterday from Eric Cantor and (to a slightly lesser extent) Tom Coburn meets the test on all four fronts.

Both are from states that will vote on Super Tuesday. (Romney will likely sweep all 49 Virginia delegates, because Ron Paul is the only other candidate on the ballot, and he’s also expected to get most of Oklahoma’s 43 delegates.) But much more importantly, both have positioned themselves to be among the tea party movement’s favorite members of Congress. And both have reputations for good political timing — which includes waiting until just the right moment before unleashing a proposal or an opinion so it can have maximum leverage over a debate. And so what the two endorsements suggest is that more and more prominent conservatives are concluding that Romney is sufficiently on their side — on both economic and social policy — to merit their support, and sufficiently in the delegate math driver’s seat that he’s not going to make his late-stage backers look stupid.

This is especially important to Cantor, who’s the first member of the House GOP leadership to take sides. His reputation rests largely on his ability to count votes and gauge party sentiment well enough to set strategies with a solid chance of success — and so he would not be going on an ultimately unnecessary presidential-endorsement limb unless he was quite sure the move would prove prescient and do his own career good in the end. For all his reputation as a tea party stalwart, in this instance Cantor is playing the ultimate congressional insider’s game: His power is maximized if he’s on the winning side and if he gets credit for helping engineer the victory. Beyond that, his own aspirations — he says he doesn’t want the vice presidential spot this time, but he still clearly wants to be Speaker relatively soon — are helped by having the strongest possible general-election candidate as the nominee; Rick Santorum at the top of the ticket, Cantor has surely concluded, would contribute to a significant shrinking of the House majority he’s trying to lead.

STAFF SHAKEUP: Despite initial appearances, Cantor’s long-term aspirations may actually have been helped more than they were hurt by the other news out of his office over the weekend — that top aide Brad Dayspring had suddenly left the staff, apparently after a public row over jobs legislation strategy with senior colleague Mike Ference. But Dayspring is hardly leaving the majority leader’s orbit; instead, he’s going to work for a super PAC created to assist Cantor’s Young Guns program, which gives money to and then seeks loyalty from top House prospects.

POLL POSITIONS: Polling over the weekend shows that Romney is on course to win close to a majority of the delegates that will come from the 10 Super Tuesday states — even if he doesn’t win the primary in Ohio, which is getting so much of the attention because it’s a general-election bellwether with a big cluster of delegates (66) that’s in Santorum’s political backyard. The latest poll in Ohio, out this morning from Quinnipiac, shows Romney gaining momentum in the state — because he’s now ahead of Santorum, 34 percent to 31 percent, and a week ago those numbers were essentially reversed. Both outcomes were statistical ties, though, because of the margin of error, and the NBC News poll over the weekend also showed the pair deadlocked — Santorum at 34 percent and Romney at 32 percent. (The poll also shows Obama beating both of them in the state by double digits, though.)

In Virginia, NBC has Romney over Paul 69 percent to 26 percent. And in Georgia, where Newt Gingrich has staked the viability of his continued candidacy, the ex-Speaker is at 38 percent to 24 percent for Romney (who nonetheless will win some of the 76 delegates because he’ll carry a handful of House districts).

STILL TALKING: There’s no reason for budget hawks to get their hopes up — and probably there won’t be at least until after the election. But it’s at least worth noting that not one but two different sets of bipartisan congressional negotiations toward a deficit reduction grand bargain have been going on behind the scenes in recent weeks. (The very existence of such talks is arguably better news for fiscal policy purists than any development on the formal budget-making front — in which the main debate is whether House Republicans will push a budget blueprint for the coming year that calls for spending a few billion less than has previously been agreed to.)

In the House, the sub rosa talks are being led by rising Republican force Mike Simpson of Idaho and on-the-way-out North Carolina Democrat Heath Shuler, who banded together last year to get a genuinely bipartisan group of 140 lawmakers to put their signatures on a document calling for a revenue-raising tax code overhaul, and cuts to both entitlements and discretionary programs, that would cut deficit projections $4 trillion in the coming decade. That’s what they’re still after. Meanwhile, the Senate’s Gang of Six has quietly resumed meeting over the past few months to refine their thinking on a similar package. The House group is in contact with the Senate gang. And, although the two groups decided they could not logistically meet as one, they are sharing ideas. The likeliest scenario is that the two groups will try to keep their doings a secret until the coming lame-duck session, when the post-election window will afford a rare chance for collaboration on a bold budget move — not only because the political pressure will be at its ebb, but also because the future of the Bush tax cuts and the impending sequestration will essentially require some sort of legislative response.

TRIPLE CROWN: A third consecutive poll in Massachusetts shows Scott Brown ahead: The latest, by the Springfield Republican, shows the incumbent GOP senator ahead 49 percent to 41 percent for Democratic consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren. All three polls also show Brown with a solid lead among independents — this time, 58 percent to 29 percent.

GOOD SPORTS: A scrappy Mike Quigley scored on a solid slap shot, 68-year-old John Kerrey was a determined and pretty graceful top-line center on his new artificial hips, former NHL referee Pat Meehan took a slashing penalty, Brian Higgins and Eric Paulson did nothing to disgrace themselves and Larry Bucshon sat out with a torn ACL. Those three Democrats and three Republicans were the only lawmakers who suited up in red jerseys at the Verizon Center yesterday for the fourth congressional charity hockey game. Backed up by a cadre of younger Hill aides — including Steve Hedger, a Claire McCaskill staffer who claimed the goalie’s job from Anthony Weiner (who was pretty good, actually) — the lawmakers defeated a team of lobbyists, 5-3. But the star of the game came from the K Street squad: Andrew Mills of Capital Management Initiatives scored twice.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Two Pennsylvania House members today, Democrat Tim Holden (55) and Republican Todd Platts (50). Three GOP House members over the weekend: New Jersey’s Chris Smith (59) and Oklahoma’s Jim Lankford (44) yesterday and Arizona’s Dave Schweikert (50) on Saturday.

— David Hawkings, editor

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