Friday, March 16, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: IPO P.U.

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, March 16, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is off on a 14-hour, two-city, five-fundraiser trip that will net at least $1 million each for his campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Air Force One lands in an hour in Chicago, where the president will address small-dollar donors and then move to a reception for top-dollar givers at the Palmer House Hilton.  In Atlanta, his African American Leadership Council is holding a gala at movie mogul Tyler Perry’s studio with a performance by Cee Lo Green (tickets range from $500 to $10,000). Before and after, the president is attending $35,800-a-plate dinners in local mansions (Perry’s is one of them). Air Force One is due back before 1 in the morning.

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

THE HOUSE:  Convened at 10 for a two-minute pro forma session.

A PLUM JOBS: Leaving the so-called Jobs Act out in the sunshine for five days is the one chance the measure’s critics have for making it better for consumers. But the exposure to a weekend of scrutiny and criticism is unlikely to do anything but slow the bill down. Its name alone makes it too juicy a plum for a solid majority of senators to avoid — especially when they know Obama is willing to share the risk, which is that enactment will do little more than tempt a fresh wave of fraud in financial services.

The bill is all about “Jumpstarting Our Business Startups” — the clever title that yield the “jobs” acronym — and has nothing directly to do with putting more people to work; instead, the notion is that firms will take the capital they’ll be eager to acquire (because the regulators will be ordered to look the other way) and invest in ways that create new employment. What critics have been saying — but which is only getting a critical mass of attention at the eleventh hour — is that the rollback of securities regulations goes way too far and would benefit companies worth as much as $1 billion while exposing investors to just the sort of penny stock fraud abuses the SEC exists to prevent. Which is why SEC Chairwoman Mary Schapiro is urging that the bill’s balance between easier IPOs and the risk of Ponzi schemes be recalibrated — as has the AARP and the trade group that represents above-board financial advisers.

The quest is a long shot, at best. The White House has signaled essentially-as-is support for the bill, which the House passed a week ago with a whopping 390 votes — which is a main reason Reid has engineered a relatively quick parliamentary machine for getting things done next week. (He was also under significant pressure from Mitch McConnell, who was itching to accuse the majority of working to blunt a rare spurt of bipartisan momentum if Reid had allowed a wide open amendment process.) So instead, critics of the bill will get essentially one chance to modify it — and they’ll need to come up with 60 votes to do so. (They want  to hold the deregulatory benefits to genuinely small businesses and place new SEC restrictions on “crowdfunding,” which is using social media to raise startup capital.)

What the skeptics have been reduced to wanting is hardly the stuff of 30-second campaign spots, and the time is too short. They will not succeed. Instead, the only change to the bill will be the addition of a new section expanding the lending power of the Export-Import Bank so that more overseas buyers can get help with their big-ticket purchases of U.S. goods (jets made by Boeing, first and foremost.) That amendment will be adopted because at least 60 senators think that’s as much of a surefire job creator as anything. And the House will readily go along.

BELATED JUSTICE: That the longest-serving Republican senator in American history had his career ended by rogue prosecutors obsessed with a minor home-improvement scheme (and working for a GOP Justice Department, at that) remains one of the great under-covered stories of the past few years. And it will likely remain so, because the legendary victim is dead and the legal misbehavior that crushed him is hard to explain — even after reading the scalding 514-page report that came out yesterday from a special prosecutor, who said he could “prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that two of the prosecutors at the 2008 Ted Stevens trial, Joseph Bottini and James Goeke, had orchestrated a “systematic concealment of significant” evidence that would have almost assured the acquittal of the former Appropriations chairman and Senate president pro tem.

That prosecutors are supposed to share exculpatory evidence with the defense is a basic tenet of our justice system — as everybody who’s ever watched a “procedural” TV drama knows. So why aren’t Bottini and Goeke going to be put on trial for contempt? Because the trial judge, Emmet Sullivan, had not specifically ordered them to do what they’re required to do. Still, the Alaska prosecutors are likely to face career-ending punishment for their mistreatment of their home state legend as soon as a parallel Justice investigation is finished this spring. (Their lawyers have said their bosses are to blame.)

TRAIL TIPS: (New York) The Unsinkable II is weighing anchor — a huge surprise for both New York politicos and the dock masters of the Southwest D.C. marina, where Gary Ackerman has stayed aboard his beloved houseboat since his first craft (Unsinkable I — really) foundered in the Anacostia early in his congressional career. Ackerman stunned his Hill colleagues and fellow Democrats back home by announcing last night that he was retiring at the end of his 14th full term. No one as more surprised than state Rep. Rory Lancman, a fellow Democrat who had been pressed by Ackerman himself to get out of the race only a few hours earlier. Lancman will run now, but so will several other ambitious politicians — none of whom wears a white boutonniere every day, drives a 1966 Plymouth Valiant or would bring expert Borsht Belt comic timing to Congress. The candidate filing process will open next week, as soon as a federal court makes the redistricting map official. The district where Ackerman had staked his claim is solidly Democratic, has a non-white majority and is significantly different from the portion of Queens and Nassau County he’d been representing. Ackerman is the 15th House Democrat to announce his retirement this year. Nine Republicans have done likewise.

(Indiana) Dick Lugar faces three less-than-palatable options since the Indianapolis elections board ruled yesterday (along party lines) that the senator is ineligible to vote at the address he’s used since his initial election in 1976 — the home he sold then so he could move his family to the Virginia suburbs. In theory, he can do nothing to try to get back on the rolls and just hope the story fades away. He can register anew, claiming as his residence a family farm of which he’s part owner. Or he can appeal the ruling to the state elections board, which has already ruled he can stay on the May 8 Republican primary ballot even though he has no true Indiana residence. (That’s the most likely, in part because three different state attorneys general have said he could stay registered at his old house while serving in Washington.) But under all three scenarios the tea party groups that have been challenging Lugar’s legal legitimacy — and their candidate to unseat him, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who’s focused on questioning the incumbent’s cultural legitimacy as a “true Hoosier” — are going to have a field day.

(Utah) The other Republican senator first elected in 1976, Orrin Hatch, proved last night that his roots back home are pretty deep. His organization helped get more than 125,000 Republicans to the party’s caucuses across Utah — more than double the record set last year. While the precise results can’t be known for days, that’s a good sign that he was able to get plenty of his allies elected to the state convention, where he’ll get the nomination April 21 if he secures three-fifths support. One sign of his success is that Dan Liljenquist, a former state senator who’s Hatch’s principal rival among 10 GOP challengers, was unable to get any of his allies elected delegate from his own home precinct; Hatch backers secured all three spots.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: House Democrats Joe Crowley of New York (50) and Ron Kind of Wisconsin (49).

— David Hawkings, editor

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

More congressional campaign coverage is on Roll Call’s At the Races politics blog

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Investing Carefully

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 to begin debating the House’s bill easing securities regulations to help small businesses raise capital, but votes on amendments won’t happen before next week. Senators will vote at 2 to confirm the first two District Court nominees to benefit from yesterday’s truce in the judicial wars: Gina Marie Groh, a six-year veteran of the state trial court in West Virginia, and Michael W. Fitzgerald, a white-collar defense attorney in Los Angeles.

THE HOUSE: In recess this week.

THE WHITE HOUSE: “There’s no such thing as a quick fix when it comes to high gas prices. We know there’s no silver bullet. And anyone who tells you otherwise isn’t really looking for a solution — they’re probably just looking to ride the political wave of the moment,” Obama said this morning at Prince George’s Community College, his latest speech touting an energy policy he says is designed to hold energy prices in check for the long haul. The motorcade will be back from the suburbs in plenty of time for the president’s meeting with Geithner at 2:15 and an Oval Office gathering of his senior team three hours later.

“Stated simply, we’re about promoting the private sector. They’re about protecting the privileged sector,” Biden said in his first major campaign speech this morning, at a Toledo UAW hall, its centerpiece a vigorous defense of the auto industry bailout. “We’re a fair shot, and a fair shake. They’re about no rules, no risk and no accountability.”

RISK ASSESSMENT: Democrats are going to insist on slowing the rush to judgment on the bill dubbed the “Jobs Act,” which is actually about loosening the federal requirements on small business that want to raise capital so they can get bigger.

But the best they can do (or really want to do) is alter it around the edges in the Senate in the coming week in ways that make life a little awkward for the Republicans and require another vote in the House. The ultimate hope of most Democrats is to create a delay that allows the public to come to realize the measure, while acceptable as far is it goes, is by no means the panacea for job creation that some in the GOP have been describing. A few senators, on the other hand, genuinely worry that the deregulatory moves could do investors so much harm that the bill could end up hurting the economy more than helping. And a few others — in the best congressional tradition — want to get something more or less unrelated in return for going along: An expansion of the Export-Import Bank’s powers, which threatens to split the GOP base.

A collection of Democrats (led by leadership lieutenants Durbin and Schumer) is readying a package of changes designed to bolster investor safeguards, but it has no chance of adoption in the face of united GOP opposition — and only the most tepid encouragement form the White House. But rather than mount an outright filibuster, these Democrats will acquiesce after getting a vote on their “we warned you” amendment, which will surely take aim at the measure’s provisions to permit “crowdfunding” — the use of social media and the Internet to sell stock in startups — toraise as much as $1 million without telling the SEC. Advocates say that’s a great way to put young investors and entrepreneurs together. Detractors say it’s a recipe for viral Ponzi schemes.

NO TREATY: It would be an overstatement to say that Reid and McConnell called off the election-year judicial wars yesterday. Instead, they just called a cease-fire that slowed them down a bit. All they agreed to was that the Senate will confirm two  totally non-controversial trial court nominees in each of the next six weeks it’s in session, and a couple of widely regarded appeals court nominees as well. But in return the Democrats appeared to have given up on five of Obama’s District Court picks who were going to get through under Reid’s original threat of nonstop cloture votes. Still, the deal at least forestalled the next ugly partisan showdown until May — because the anger on both sides over the recess-appointments mess has not abated. But for now, the truce allows Reid to flex some majority-leader muscle and allows the minority leader to chide his counterpart for “manufacturing a crisis.”

THE $19 BILLION QUESTION: It’s looking almost certain that House Republicans will restart the spending wars next week by advancing a budget resolution that would hold discretionary programs $19 billion below the grand total they supported (177 to 66) when they voted for the debt limit deal last August.

Paul Ryan is on course to unveil the language early next week, and his Budget Committee will adopt it along party lines a couple of days later — with Democrats complaining again and again that the other side is reneging on the hardest-fought compromise of the past year, and Republicans arguing that they’ve always viewed the current $1.047 trillion number as only a ceiling, not an agreement. (Ryan, Boehner and Cantor  are also making it clear that the lower number is an essential compromise with their most conservative colleagues in the Republican Study Committee, who wanted to drive the number down to as low as $930 billion.)

Re-litigating the top line is a horrific reversal of fortune for an election year that was supposed to be relatively easy when it came to the routine business of appropriations — at least until after the election, when the debate over the future of the  across-the-board sequestration cuts is set to take place. Instead, the House’s new, $1.028 trillion number — because it has no chance whatsoever of being matched by the Senate — means the two halves of Congress will start moving down very different tracks from the start on their dozen spending bills. The resulting impasse, predictable as it is, will once again push Washington toward the brink of another threatened government shutdown when the current fiscal year ends — six Sundays before Election Day.

PREGAME POLL: As the last briefs were filed before the three days of oral arguments on the constitutionality of the health care overhaul — which start a week from Monday — 75 percent of the public said in a new Bloomberg poll that they believe this summer’s Supreme Court ruling will be influenced by politics. (Only 17 percent said the decision would be based solely on legal merits; the rest said they weren’t sure.) The perception that politics will play a role in the decision crosses party lines — 80 percent of independents believe so, as do 74 percent of Democrats and 67 percent of Republicans (but also a whopping 81 percent among people who identify with the tea party). The poll also sought opinions of the health law: 37 percent favored repeal, 11 percent said it should be left alone and 46 percent agreed the law “may need small modifications, but we should see how it works.”

HIS REALITY: While the chorus of conservative voices urging Newt Gingrich to step aside grows bigger and louder —  Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council has now joined in — the candidate himself sure seems convincing in seeming not to notice. While his aides are following the history professor’s lead and concocting Tampa scenarios based on the 1860 GOP convention that nominated a long-shot Abraham Lincoln, the former Speaker declared time and again yesterday that the calls for him to drop out of the presidential race are a media fabrication — even at an event in Illinois when his traveling press corps significantly outnumbered the supporters who actually showed up. But he probably will persist in that notion as long as Sheldon Adelson is willing to double down on his $10 million super PAC investment — presumably on the thin reed of hope that Rick Santorum somehow disappears and allows Gingrich to take on Mitt Romney mano a mano.

But if the obvious though heretofore improbable scenario plays out — which is that Gingrich yields to Santorum — the benefit to the former Pennsylvania senator (he consolidates all the conservatives) may not be as straightforward as the conventional wisdom has it. A Fox News poll out last night found that, while Santorum’s standing among the GOP candidates would go up by 7 percentage points if Gingrich dropped out (to 39 percent) Romney’s would go up by a within-the-margin of error 5 points (to 43 percent). Ron Paul’s numbers would stay essentially the same at 13 percent.

Romney, meanwhile, changed plans and decided to postpone some fundraisers and head to Illinois tomorrow, not wait until Monday. (Tuesday’s primary is worth 54 delegates and Santorum now has a theoretical shot at all of them, because state officials have decided to overlook his petition signature shortcomings in 10 of the congressional districts.) But he has not changed his plans to stay away from debates from here on out  — staring with the long-planned and national-party-sanctioned event in Oregon on Monday. Officials in Portland are likely to call of the event today.

FLANKS COVERED? Tonight may be the most important moment in Orrin Hatch’s campaign for a seventh Senate term — and his final one, as he promised yesterday. (The top Republican on the Finance Committee turns 78 next week.) Four thousand delegates will be chosen tonight for the Utah GOP caucuses, and in four weeks they will essentially decide if he gets the nomination. (He’ll need 60 percent of the caucus votes to avoid a June primary.) His campaign to avoid the fate of his former colleague Bob Bennett — who was ousted two years ago by a tea-party uprising — has included checking-in calls to almost 100,000 Republicans across the state, plus recruiting and training thousands to run as delegates. His organization is being countered by state Rep. Chris Herrod and former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist (the most prominent Hatch challenger) as well as FreedomWorks, which has spent $575,000 to gin up opposition to the incumbent.

HIS HAIR WAS PERFECT: Rod Blagojevich had alerted the Chicago media that he would emerge from his Ravenswood Manor home at 5 (Central time) this morning — and, with his legendary political showman’s timing intact, he was right on time for his ride to the airport. (Patti and the girls were not with him this time.) “Saying goodbye is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” the former governor and congressman said in what would be his final press scrum for the next 14 years. “I’m leaving with a heavy heart, a clear conscience and I have high, high hopes for the future.” He went through security at O’Hare 40 minutes later, and in two hours he’s due at the federal prison in Littleton, Colo., to begin serving his sentence for a cavalcade of corrupt acts.  While he becomes inmate No. 40892-424, though, the most prominent Illinois politician to whom he tried to auction Obama’s old Senate seat, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., is cruising toward re-election.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Morgan Griffith, the freshman GOP House member for the Virginia panhandle (54).

— David Hawkings, editor

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

More congressional campaign coverage is on Roll Call’s At the Races politics blog.

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

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Down, but Not Out

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama and Cameron will hold a joint Rose Garden news conference at 12:05, after two hours of meetings (first alone, then with senior advisers) to discuss ways to coordinate their approaches to the NATO and G8 summits in May as well as the thorny problems with the global economy and in Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and the Middle East . “We believe that there is time and space to pursue a diplomatic solution,” they wrote about stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions in a Washington Post op-ed yesterday

The British prime minister was formally welcomed to the White House with a 19-gun salute and all the trappings of a state visit — gorgeous spring weather included — even though (as “Game Change” tragicomically reiterated) Cameron is the head of government and the queen is head of state. The pomp starts to crescendo at 7, when several hundred guests (including “Homeland” star Damian Lewis) start pouring into an enormous tent on the South Lawn for Obama’s sixth state dinner. The menu and roster of entertainers hasn’t leaked yet.

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and will pass its two-year, $109 billion highway bill – with a minimal number of dissenting votes — within the hour, sending the measure to a still-up-in-the-air future in the House. (The final roll call was put off last night so senators could make it to their colleague Susan Collins’ engagement party.)

Unless Reid and McConnell reach a deal to speed things along, starting at 2:30 there will be a series of 17 votes — each on whether to limit debate on the nomination of a federal district court judge. Their confirmations would fill two trial court vacancies in Texas and Illinois, and others in Arkansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Nevada, Ohio, South Carolina, Utah, West Virginia and D.C.

THE HOUSE: In recess this week.

DOWN, BUT NOT OUT: Rick Santorum’s upset victories in both of yesterday’s Southern primaries gives him terrific evidence for his argument that it’s a two-man Republican field and he’s entitled to ride his conservative momentum as long as he wants. Mitt Romney’s 20-point win in the Hawaii caucuses and his close third-place finishes in Alabama and Mississippi give him the most delegates of the night, which is fresh evidence for his argument that he’s the inevitable man.

And in the contest between perception and math, Newt Gingrich is left out: His runner-up finishes give him hardly any reasonable rationale to keep running “toward Tampa” — his carefully constructed phrase for where his campaign is going next. Which is why the traditional Republican establishment is going to rise up in the coming days and press him to give up — led by the dozens of members of Congress who have no fond memories of the Speaker Gingrich era and are really starting to worry that the drawn-out battle is boosting the odds of a second term for Obama, and that the president’s re-election is almost assured if the nomination comes from a Florida floor fight. These lawmakers are confident that, even though most are with Romney, their public slamming of Gingrich will actually help their standing with the tea party groups, the evangelicals and the other parts of the new, conservative GOP establishment — because forcing him out will work, at least in the short term, to boost the credibility of their cause by enhancing the stature of Santorum.

Either way, the campaign will last well beyond next week’s primary in Illinois, where Romney now has a clear but hardly lopsided lead. Once again, the story will be whether the ex-governor’s enormous organizational and monetary advantages will be enough to give him a win at all — let alone his first with an outright majority of the vote. (He doesn’t even plan to appear personally in Illinois until Monday — he’s in Puerto Rico today — but he’s already purchased $935,000 in TV time in the state during the next week, most of it in Chicago, to pump up support from the white-collar workers and well-off suburbanites who are his base.) But his allied super PAC, Restore Our Future, has raised its on-the-air investment to almost $4 million.) The state looks like an ideal place for Romney to get back on top of the story arc, because the GOP there remains more in the thrall of economic conservatives than social ones. (That said, Rep. Tim Johnson kept his contrarian reputation alive today by endorsing Ron Paul.)

DEFINING THE ISSUE: The culture warriors did not get good news from a Bloomberg poll out today, in which 77 percent said the recent debate over employer-provided contraceptive coverage should have no place in the political arena — and more than three-fifths defined the issue as about women’s medical care, not religious freedom. (Among Republicans, though, 54 percent said they saw the issue as about religious liberty, and 42 percent said it was about access to health care.)   

The poll also found discomfort among voters about mixing religion and policy: 58 percent overall said a president’s religious beliefs should never influence an administration’s decisions; 55 percent agreement came from Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who support Romney, while 29 percent of Santorum supporters sided with that view.

SENATE OVERDRIVE: The dynamic on this week’s marquee legislative action is by now well understood: This afternoon’s lopsided vote for the Senate’s transportation bill will put significant pressure on Republican leaders in the House, who will return from the current recess with just two weeks to either accept the Senate version or else break their intraparty deadlock and come up with their own passable alternative.

But at the same time, Reid has decided to cut the GOP House a big break on the next top-tier item on the very short election year legislative agenda: a package of proposals to ease securities regulations for smaller companies. The majority leader now says the Senate will take up — and clear pretty quickly and with another lopsided vote — the version the House passed last week, which won Obama’s endorsement. When that happens, all the players will have a second campaign season notch of memorable accomplishment on their belts. And both will suggest to the public that bipartisan agreement remains possible on measures — albeit pretty limited in the case of both the small-business IPO and public works bills — that claim to spur job growth at a time of persistently high unemployment.

The bill will probably come before the Senate as soon as the judicial confirmation fight is finished. The main sticking point could be an effort to attach legislation that would reauthorize the Export-Import Bank with a higher lending limit. The bank (which is due to hit its $100 billion lending limit within three weeks) finances purchases of U.S.-made goods overseas when private credit is unattainable or unaffordable. The Chamber of Commerce wants an expansion – but conservative groups such as the Club for Growth want the bank closed, viewing it as a distortion of the free market.

THINK LOCALLY: Bernanke told a convention of community bankers in Nashville this morning that their industry is gaining strength faster than the overall economy. The Fed chairman said community bank profits were higher in 2011 than in 2010 and that bad loans were decreasing. He also said they have built up cushions against loan losses. Bernanke did not mention the Fed’s interest rate policies in his speech — which was on video – but yesterday the central bank reiterated its plan to keep short-term interest rates near zero through 2014.
 
TRAIL TIPS: (Alabama) Spencer Bachus made it look easy. The House Financial Services chairman  took a whopping 58 percent to win the Republican nomination for an 11th term in central Alabama yesterday, besting his most serious of three opponents — state Sen. Scott Beason, who challenged the incumbent’s day-trading ethics and commitment to conservatism, by 31 percentage points (and 35,000 votes). The race looked much closer after the late involvement of the Campaign for Primary Accountability, the anti-incumbent super PAC that helped finance Rep. Jean Schmidt’s GOP primary defeat in Ohio last week, but in the end Bachus was able to brush the challenge aside with a 20-to-1 spending advantage.

(New York) Bob Turner has decided to run for the Senate against Kirsten Gillibrand, choosing an up-or-out course for political advancement after realizing he isn’t going to have the option of staying in the House seat he’s held for six months. The sort-of-accidental interim Republican congressman for parts of Brooklyn and Queens has almost no shot at unseating Gillibrand — who looked like sort of an accidental interim Democratic senator when she was appointed three years ago, but is now on rock-solid political footing. But acting as a loyal GOP “sacrificial lamb” looks to be a fine choice now that Anthony Weiner’s old seat is being dismantled as a consequence of redistricting. The latest iteration of boundaries drawn at the federal courthouse in Manhattan, released Monday night, looks almost certain to stand because the divided Legislature can’t agree on anything else. (The other two big losers under the map would be another special-election freshman, Democrat Kathy Hochul, who would be forced to run in the most heavily Republican of the remaining 27 districts, and GOP freshman Chris Gibson, who would face a much-tougher-than-expected upstate contest.)

(Michigan) The DCCC is recruiting centrist Republican Joe Schwarz, who represented south-central Michigan in the House in 2005 and 2006, to switch parties and challenge the much more conservative Rep. Tim Walberg this fall. Schwarz, an outspoken critic of the tea party, has not accepted the invitation yet but is sounding like he will. If he does, it will make the redrawn district much more of a pickup opportunity for the Democrats. It would also mark the third face-off between the two. Schwarz defeated Walberg in a crowded GOP primary in 2004, and went on to win the open seat in the fall. But Walberg won their primary rematch two years later and took the seat. (Walberg, in turn, was ousted in 2008 by Democrat Mark Schauer — who had Schwarz’s backing — but got the seat back two years ago.)

(Illinois) Jesse Jackson Jr., the only incumbent House Democrat who faces a hotly contested primary in Illinois next week, has released a poll he commissioned that shows him with a seemingly insurmountable 36-point lead — with 59 percent to 23 percent for Debbie Halvorson, who’s looking to return to the House after one term and one term away. Their territories were blended in the state’s redistricting, and the district now stretches from his base in southern Chicago to rural Kankakee County. The district is heavily Democratic, so the primary victor is assured of a seat in the House next year. Jackson, who sits on Appropriations, has been in office since 1995 but at least initially looked vulnerable because of his involvement in the Rod Blagojevich pay-for-a-Senate-appointment scandal.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma (64).

— David Hawkings, editor

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

More congressional campaign coverage is on Roll Call’s At the Races politics blog.

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: South Regional Bracket

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 10, and this evening by a solid bipartisan majority will vote to pass a two-year, $109 billion revamp of highway and transit programs. The bill, which the House may clear as soon as next week, would give states more flexibility in spending federal transportation money and streamline environmental reviews so projects get started quicker.

Senators will vote at noon on two amendments — one giving states even more flexibility, the other tinkering with the formula for apportioning aid to the states; after their weekly caucus lunches they will vote on as many as 20 more — including proposals to allow states to put toll booths on interstates, create tax credits for cars fueled with natural gas and permit more flights over the Grand Canyon.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 for a brief pro forma session.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama just announced that his administration, the EU and Japan have banded together to press an unfair trade practices case against China. They want the WTO to get the country to end export restrictions on tungsten, molybdenum and “rare earth” elements. The minerals are used to make hybrid car batteries, flat-screen TVs, wind turbines, mercury vapor lights, smartphones and camera lenses.

The president is spending the bulk of the rest of the day combining re-election politics, global diplomacy and his intense interest in March Madness. He and British Prime Minister David Cameron will leave the Ellipse at 4:20 en route to Ohio (18 jump-ball electoral votes) — plenty of time to make the 6:30 tipoff at the University of Dayton between Western Kentucky and Mississippi Valley State in the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Air Force One will get the two back to Washington by 10:35. (Michelle Obama is doing her part for the “special relationship” by taking Samantha Cameron to a summer-Olympics-in-London-themed “Let’s Move” event for school kids at American University.)

DIXIE DANCE: The top three Republican presidential aspirants are all facing campaign-defining moments in the Deep South tonight, and the outcome for all of them remains far too uncertain to predict.

Mitt Romney has the most to win and the least to lose. He has a strong shot at finishing first in the Alabama primary and could come out on top in a close three-way contest in Mississippi as well. (The last round of tracking polls show him within the margin of error in each.) If he wins both, he’ll be able to crow convincingly that he’s at last sealed the deal on his nomination — by matching the inevitability of his delegate math with an outright victory in the region that’s been the least hospitable to him. If he edges out front only in Alabama, he’ll still be able to credibly claim that he’s managed to overcome his own cultural shortcomings in the South (where people like their cheese grits, not “cheesy” ones) and become the only candidate with victories nationwide — from Arizona to Florida, with Michigan and Ohio along the way.

If Newt Gingrich loses both primaries — after he was ahead in both states a week ago — his candidacy will be done for. If he wins just one, he’ll still have enough of a claim to his Southern base that he can keep going a while longer. If he wins both, he’ll silence Rick Santorum’s call to get out of the way and allow a two-person race. If Santorum wins both (the least likely outcome), it would hugely strengthen his argument that he’s consolidated cultural and fiscal conservatives, shown his appeal is nationwide and become the only candidate with a shot at stopping Romney — even if it the last battle is fought on the convention floor.

But if the ex-senator and the ex-Speaker end up splitting the anybody-but-Romney vote, a clearly possible outcome is that neither wins either contest, meaning both Dixie blue ribbons will go to the candidate with the most questionable hunting history — but the superior organization (in Alabama, Romney has former Gov. Bob Riley and former state House Speaker Mike Hubbard on his side) and the better than 3-to-1 spending advantage over each of his rivals (once the super PAC outlays are included). For a candidate who has yet to do better than 30 percent in any of the other Deep South states so far (South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee) that would be a breakthrough accomplishment.

THE LOGISTICS: The polls close at 8 (D.C. time) in both Alabama (47 delegates) and Mississippi (37); both primaries are open to voters regardless of party; results from the caucuses in American Samoa (6 delegates) and Hawaii (17) won’t be available before 2 tomorrow morning. In all three states, some delegates are awarded based on statewide performance and others to the best performers in congressional districts.

WATCHING HIS BACK: A late surge in advertising and a decent on-the-ground organization will surely propel Spencer Bachus to first place in the only reasonably close congressional primary today. But there’s still a chance that the Financial Services chairman will not get the majority of Republican voters required to avoid an April 24 runoff in the central Alabama district he’s held for two decades; and if he’s held to a plurality, that would keep the door open for the virtually certain runner-up tonight: — state Sen. Scott Beason, who has the support of tea party groups and an anti-incumbent Campaign for Primary Accountability PAC. He has been hammering away at the incumbent’s support for the Wall Street bailouts and the aggressive stock-trading habits that have prompted an insider-trading investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics. But the advantages of incumbency and a committee gavel would likely propel Bachus in the second round, because any element of surprise would be gone — and Bachus would likely maintain his 45-to-1 spending advantage so far, including spending almost $2 million on Birmingham TV ads.

WEST WING WORRIES: Today’s potential pivot point in the GOP race comes as a New York Times/CBS poll shows both Romney and Santorum losing to Obama (albeit by 3 or 4 percentage points, so within the margin of error) even though the president’s approval rating has fallen a dramatic 9 points in the past month, to just 41 percent — his lowest level ever in that poll. (Among the all-important independents, Obama was ahead of Romney by 9 points in the head-to-heads and ahead of Santorum by 10.)

The only number in the poll that seems to offer an explanation for Obama’s turned-upside-down approval number is the one connected to gasoline prices. Fully 54 percent said they believe a president can do a lot to control the cost of refueling a car — rejecting Obama’s argument (which is supported by most economists) that short-term price fluctuations are way beyond his ability to control. The average for a gallon is about $3.80, the highest ever for this time of year. Unfortunately for the president, all the white papers the West Wing has churned out arguing the long-term benefits of his multifaceted energy strategy (more domestic production of fossil fuels but also more effort on renewables) are not getting nearly as much attention as those prices — or the clever attacks of his rivals (Newt Gingrich has taken to calling Obama “President Algae”).

THE COST OF THE FUTURE: The highway bill the Senate will pass tonight will do nothing affirmatively to hold down gasoline prices — but it won’t do anything to drive them up either. Which is one of the aspects of the legislation that makes advocates for a vigorous public works program frustrated.

The federal excise tax on gasoline — which now accounts for 18.4 cents on every gallon sold — creates the bulk of revenue for the fund that pays to repair and build roads, bridges, buses and commuter trains.  Keeping the tax at that level will generate the money required for the $109 billion in spending the bill envisions by the end of next year. But it’s not nearly enough to finance the spending that two congressional commissions have said is needed to fully maintain the current system and start expanding it to meet population-growth expectations. (That’s especially true because the revenue also has been in decline — because of the slow economy and because the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks is getting better.) So while it may be true that the measure would create nearly 3 million jobs, it is also true that holding the gas tax where it’s been means far fewer jobs than are needed to bring the nation’s infrastructure into the 21st century. (That’s countered somewhat by one of the bill’s bigger innovations — a credit assistance program designed to leverage private investment for transportation projects would be increased tenfold, to $1 billion.)

A NEW GRIND: Once the highway bill is finished, Reid plans to spend the rest of the week reviving the judicial wars in a new and time-consuming way. He took some extraordinary procedural steps to confirm 17 federal trial court nominees — even if it takes three dozen roll call votes and three weeks of long nights to get there and leaves other Democrats vulnerable to the charge they have their eyes off the main topics on the minds of voters this year (jobs and gasoline). The majority leader’s dramatic move might backfire for that very reason: McConnell could hold fast to his recalcitrance and call Reid’s bluff because the minority leader concludes that it’s the Democrats who will be blamed for paying more attention to the inside baseball of judicial confirmations than the GOP is. Of course, Reid is betting the opposite — that his move will underscore the theme of GOP “obstructionism” that he’s been working to drive home. In the end, the likeliest outcome is that the passion play will play out on one or two judges, and then the two leaders will work out a truce that allows each of them to claim a political victory.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Freshman Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota (55).

— David Hawkings, editor

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

More congressional campaign coverage is on Roll Call’s At the Races politics blog.

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

Monday, March 12, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Anxiety in Afghanistan

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, March 12, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama was briefed this morning on the rising levels of antagonism and anxiety in Afghanistan since an American Army sergeant left his post early yesterday morning, gunned down nine children and seven adults in three Kandahar villages, then set their bodies on fire.

Since 11 the president has been promoting his efforts to reduce American reliance on foreign oil in Cabinet Room interviews with TV news anchors from Los Angeles, Denver, Austin, Des Moines, Orlando, Cincinnati, Las Vegas and Pittsburgh. At 2:50 he’s meeting in the West Wing with a group of mayors in town for the annual National League of Cities congressional fly-in.

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 for speechmaking only; the next amendment votes on the highway bill are tomorrow.

THE HOUSE: In recess this week.

ANXIETY IN AFGHANISTAN: The murderous middle-of-the-night Panjwai rampage will dramatically increase the volume of calls for an accelerated and comprehensive withdrawal of U.S troops from Afghanistan — from the American public, their lawmakers and the Afghan people, too. It’s been less than a full day since the sergeant’s alleged shooting spree made headlines around the world, but it’s already clear the politics in both countries will make it extremely unlikely a significant number of U.S. forces will be on the ground a year from now — let alone by the end of 2014, the deadline NATO now has for finishing the transfer of security responsibility to the Afghan government.

A Washington Post-ABC poll released Sunday (but taken last week) found 54 percent support for pulling the troops out even before Afghan troops are prepared to take over security. (In a first, Republicans in that poll were split on whether the decadelong war has been worthwhile.) The numbers are going to soar now that the sergeant (he has not been named publicly) has been taken into custody, the Taliban is vowing quick and bloody revenge, and President Hamid Karzai is saying the killings “cannot be forgiven.” And the same goes for congressional sentiment; last week 24 senators signed a letter signaling their readiness to oppose more money for Afghanistan’s government and security forces — even as tens of thousands of U.S. troops remain deployed there. That bipartisan number will go up by nightfall.

In other words, what was once the centerpiece of the global war on terror has now become the most pressing international headache for Congress, Obama and his would-be GOP successors. (Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich signaled an interest yesterday in a speedy withdrawal; Mitt Romney did not.) The shootings come right on the heels of a series of “green on blue” incidents where Afghans killed U.S. military personnel, and amid the still-smoldering Afghan rage over the recent Koran burnings at Bagram air base.

RACE TO THE TOP: Rick Santorum predicted today that he would win the presidential nomination if he can prevent Mitt Romney from securing a majority of delegates before the convention opens 24 weeks from today. Newt Gingrich said he would continue his campaign all the way to Tampa even if he doesn’t win both of tomorrow’s Southern primaries — a reversal of what his aides had said in recent days. And Public Policy Polling surveys over the weekend (both with 4-percentage-point margins of error) show the contests in both states as three-way statistical ties: In Mississippi, the numbers were Gingrich 33, Romney 31, Santorum 27 and Ron Paul 7. In Alabama, it was Romney 31, Gingrich 30, Santorum 29 and Paul 8.

“They are not going to nominate a moderate Massachusetts governor who’s been outspending his opponent 10-to-1 and can’t win the election outright,” Santorum said about the convention voters on NBC’s “Today.” “What chance do we have in a general election if he can’t, with an overwhelming money advantage, be able to deliver any kind of knockout blow to other candidates?”

The Republican nominee has to win at least 1,144 delegates, and Romney has amassed about 40 percent of that total. (He won 39 this past weekend by doing best in a pair of territorial contests, while Santorum secured 36 on the strength of his decisive win in Kansas.) Santorum’s delegate total is 19 percent of the magic number, Gingrich has 9 percent of what’s necessary and Paul 4 percent. “We’re closing the deal, state by state, delegate by delegate,” Romney said on Fox this morning, while Santorum told NBC that the election is “not about math, it’s about vision.”

Either way, the former Pennsylvania senator’s best shot at scoring the biggest come-from-behind win in modern GOP presidential history would come if Gingrich drops out and leaves him as the only mainstream conservative alternative to Romney. The former Speaker’s team had been signaling that would happen if he did not win both the Alabama and Mississippi primaries tomorrow. But Gingrich now says he’ll keep campaigning even if that doesn’t happen (and he declined yesterday to predict that it would). His campaign, meanwhile, is trying a new gambit for igniting his candidacy — spreading word that Gingrich is considering asking Rick Perry to be his running mate in coming days. (Ronald Reagan made a similar move much closer to the convention in 1976, but promising to have the much more moderate Sen. Dick Schweiker of Pennsylvania on the ticket did not boost him past President Ford.)

A CHANCE FOR RECONCILIATION: With one week to go before the promised rollout of Paul Ryan’s latest budget blueprint, Republicans remain nowhere near consensus on the any of the top three issues that require agreement for the party to shape the fiscal policy debate this election year: Should domestic programs be pushed to live with even less than was agreed to last summer? Is the campaign season the right time to engage on the future of Medicare and other entitlements? How should Congress move to reclaim ownership in the deficit reduction process in order to avoid across-the-board cuts of $109 billion (half to defense) 10 months from now?

With the House in recess this week, it’s tough to see how Ryan and the rest of the majority’s leadership will be able to gauge caucus sentiment on these questions with sufficient precision to come up with a budget plan next week. But they insist the process is on track — and they are actively considering a budget that calls for a deficit-reducing reconciliation bill this spring that seeks significant slowing in the rate of growth for both Medicare and Medicaid. (The move would be a hollow gesture toward bold election year action, though, since Reid has made clear the Senate won’t even consider a budget, and adoption there would be a requirement for getting the reconciliation process started.) As for the best way to avoid sequestration, the Republicans want to compel the House to vote on a plan to cut the deficit by the same amount with deeper-than-planned domestic cuts and trims from mandatory spending. Democrats want to adopt the Obama budget approach, which is to replace the automatic cuts with mandatory savings and revenue increases.

PERFECT TIMING: Jay Inslee’s Puget Sound congressional seat will remain vacant until the end of the year. The eight-term congressman ensured that by waiting until the weekend to announce he was resigning to focus on his gubernatorial campaign against Washington’s Republican attorney general, Rob McKenna. A special election would have been required had Inslee left the House before March 6; his resignation will take effect next Tuesday. (The timing means there won’t be a replay of what happened the last time a veteran Democratic congressman quit so that he could avoid the time-consuming cross-continental flights between the Capitol and the gubernatorial campaign trail; when Neil Abercrombie left the House in 2010, his Hawaii seat was occupied for several months by a Republican.) Recent polls have shown Inslee trailing McKenna, but about a third of the state’s electorate still says it doesn’t know enough about either of them to have an opinion in the race. Both campaigns have more than $2 million in the bank.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Mitt Romney (65); Budget Chairman Kent Conrad, a Democrat who’s retiring after 24 years as a senator from North Dakota (64).

— David Hawkings, editor

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

More congressional campaign coverage is on Roll Call’s At the Races politics blog.

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