Friday, March 30, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Bringin' the Cheese

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, March 30, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SUPREME COURT: The justices convened this morning (with no one else in their paneled conference room overlooking the corner of 2nd and A streets) to take their first votes on the fate of the health care overhaul. If consensuses emerge on the propriety of deciding the case, the legitimacy of the new Medicaid requirements on the states, the constitutionality of the individual mandate — and the future of the rest of the law if the mandate is struck down — the senior justices on each side will assign the opinion-writing. But the majority and minority alliances could shift as multiple drafts of opinions are circulated, and there’s no reason to expect the rulings to be announced much before the court’s term ends in 13 weeks.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is spending the day raising money and campaigning in two of the most reliably Democratic parts of New England. Air Force One just landed Burlington, where a $7,500-a-plate lunch for 100 donors at the Sheraton will be followed by a 2:30 rally at the University of Vermont. (Grace Potter and the Nocturnals is the warmup; student tickets are $44.) The president then heads to Portland for a speech at Southern Maine Community College and a fundraising dinner at the city’s art museum. He’s due back on the South Lawn before 10:30.

THE SENATE: Not in session; next convenes at 2 on Monday, April 16. (There won’t even be any pro forma sessions during the next two weeks under a deal reached yesterday, in which McConnell allowed the confirmation of six-dozen executive branch officials on a voice vote after Obama promised not to use his recess appointment power during the spring break.)

THE HOUSE: Convened at 11 for a brief pro forma session, but members are not expected back for 18 days; they also return Monday, April 16.

LOOK OUT BELOW: The dam may be about to break in front of Mitt Romney’s push toward the Republican nomination.

Four days before the Wisconsin primary — where Rick Santorum once looked decently positioned for a victory that would slow his rival’s path — a new poll puts Romney up by a solid 7 percentage points: He’s at 40 percent, Santorum is at 33 percent, Ron Paul is at 11 percent and Newt Gingrich is at 8 percent. And Paul Ryan is nowone of those people firmly and frontally in the Romney plurality. Just as the NBC/Marist poll was being released this morning, the pride of Janesville became the latest nationally prominent Republican to offer his formal backing. (His is also the 93rd congressional endorsement — meaning 32 percent of GOP House members and senators are now on board.)

Romney “has the skills, principle, courage, and tenacity to do what it takes to get American back on track,” said the chairman of the House Budget Committee, who expects Obama’s challenger will campaign this fall as a champion of the fiscal policies embodied in the budget that Ryan pushed to nearly-party-line adoption in the House yesterday. He also adopted the talking point favored by almost all the big guns of the GOP who have been rushing to Romney’s side in the past week — that the hotly contested primary season, while a productive party-builder to this point, is “entering a phase when it could be counterproductive if it goes on much longer.” (George Bush the elder made a similar point in offering his photo-op endorsement with Romney in Houston last night, gamely mangling the Kenny Rogers lyric about knowing when to hold and when to fold.)

Romney is in a position to sweep the 56 delegates at stake in the D.C. and Maryland primaries on Tuesday. If he also wins by a solid margin in Wisconsin (42 delegates), he would be on a clear path to securing the magic number of 1,144 delegates by the time the primaries end in June. The NBC/Marist survey nonetheless underlines the tough general election he could face; it has Obama leading Romney in the state by 13 points (52 to 35) — essentially his margin over McCain four years ago.

THEY MIGHT NEED ALL 90: Congress may have exceeded the conventionally cynical expectations by coming to terms on another stopgap public works deal more than two full days ahead of the moment when construction projects would have ground to a halt. But there is no reason to believe that yesterday’s 90-day truce is a harbinger of any rush to dealmaking when lawmakers return in two weeks.

The ultimate endgame is as elusive as ever. Senators in both parties are standing solidly behind their bipartisan plan to keep road, bridge and mass transit programs going for two years by tapping a hodgepodge of revenue streams — and one of them, Mary Landrieu, is insisting she’ll use all her considerable powers to block a 10th temporary extension of the current law even if that’s the only viable option come the end of June. House Republicans are insisting they are going to try again next month to find the votes they’ve come nowhere close to finding so far for Boehner’s more ambitious five-year plan — which some budget hawk Republicans think would spend too much and some Chamber of Commerce Republicans think wouldn’t do enough for crumbling infrastructure. And even if it gets through the House, the measure looks to be a senatorial non-starter because of its reliance for funding on revenues  from drilling in the arctic and on the outer continental shelf, which makes the environmentalists cringe.

At best, a long and intense round of negotiations is sure to last close to Memorial Day, by which point state engineers will have had to make their plans for the summer and fall good-weather-required projects (and the hiring decisions that go along with them) without any guarantee of help from Washington. And the struggle to agree on a multi-year bill has drawn out so long that the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for highway and mass transit projects, could be drained as soon as October.

SPEND MORE, MAKE LESS: Consumer spending climbed eight-tenths of a percentage point in February — a jump in the biggest piece of the gross domestic product (70 percent) that provided new evidence of a strengthening election-year economy. The increase exceeded economists’ expectations and was the biggest since last July.

But the Commerce Department also reported that Americans’ income grew by a relatively weak 0.2 percent for a second straight month. And, after taxes and adjusted for inflation, incomes actually declined 0.1 percent in February, the third decrease in the past four months. When the pace of spending outstrips the pace of income growth, one result is that savings starts drying up. And so the saving rate dropped to 3.7 percent of after-tax income in February, the lowest level since August 2009. (The rate averaged 4.7 percent last year.)

Consumers bought more autos, clothes and appliances in February. They also paid higher prices for gasoline, of course. (Yesterday’s national average for a gallon of regular unleaded was $3.93 — 65 cents more than when the year began, by AAA’s figuring.) If the numbers at the pump keep going up for long enough, they could slow economic growth by taking spending away from consumer goods and services. But, for now, people remain relatively optimistic about the economy. The Conference Board this week said its gauge of consumer confidence was off only slightly for this month after reaching its highest level in a year in February.

TRAIL TIPS: (Montana) Of the 10 Republicans who voted against the Ryan budget yesterday, only one is running for higher office — Denny Rehberg, the state’s at-large House member, who’s challenging first-term Senate incumbent Jon Tester in a race that’s one of the main GOP pickup opportunities this fall. And, unlike almost all the other critics of the Ryan budget (fiscal conservatives who said it was too timid) Rehberg is declaring the blueprint all wrong when it comes to its provisions for reining in Medicare. (The state has a high proportion of elderly people and its voters have a penchant for favoring more of a strong federal hand than many in the rest of the West.)

The other Republicans who voted against the budget were Justin Amash, Joe Barton, Jimmy Duncan, Chris Gibson, Tim Huelskamp, Walter Jones, David McKinley, Todd Platts and Ed Whitfield. Among those who missed the vote were Ron Paul and another Senate candidate, Florida’s Connie Mack.

(Maryland) In the hottest congressional primary next week, state Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola has won the backing of Gov. Martin O’Malley, but millionaire baker John Delaney says his own polling shows him walking away with the Democratic nomination next week to face veteran Republican Roscoe Bartlett. A poll taken Monday and Tuesday, shows him up by 26 percentage points (49 to 23), with Milad Pooran with 10 percent and 16 percent undecided. A Delaney poll earlier in the month, the candidate said, had him ahead by 17 points.

(New Jersey) He’s still the prohibitive front-runner to win a 13th term in his suburban Philadelphia district, but Rob Andrews has clearly run into the biggest public relations problem of his career. According to an analysis by The Associated Press, he spent $97,000 in campaign money on at least 18 trips to California in the last five years. And at least four of the trips coincided with appointments attended by his daughter, Josie, at her record label. Campaign finance reports show the senior Armed Services member raised about $260,000 in donations from California residents and political action committees during the trips.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Today, Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska (50) and Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia (62). Four more Democrats tomorrow: Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont and Rep. Barney Frank (both 72), fellow Massachusetts congressman Stephen Lynch (57) and Dennis Cardoza of California (53).

— 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 29, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Only the Shadow Knows

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and is calling a truce in this year’s public works standoff, voting along party lines for a 90-day extension of the law that delivers federal aid to highway and mass transit projects across the country. (By day’s end the Senate will acquiesce in the can-kicking until June on an update of surface transportation policy — assuring construction sites keep humming after the current stopgap law expires Saturday night.)

House members will be sent home for the next two weeks before 3:30, after voting to adopt the Paul Ryan budget. A dozen or more conservative Republicans are contemplating a “no” vote, viewing the Ryan plan as too timid on deficit reduction, but the roster is nowhere big enough to derail the GOP’s election-year fiscal policy platform. (No Democrats are going to vote for it.)

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and is voting now on a Democratic bill that would end some tax breaks for big oil and gas companies and give some tax breaks to renewable fuel and green energy enterprises. (Sixty votes are required to keep the measure alive, but “no” votes are guaranteed from a handful of energy-state Democrats and all 46 Republicans in town, who were rebuffed in efforts to amend the measure more to their liking.)

Senators will be allowed to leave for the spring recess once they’ve cleared the highway bill extension and given voice-vote assent to a passel of nominations. (Reid had hoped the list would inlcude Obama’s two picks for vacancies on the Fed, Jerome Powell and Jeremy Stein, but Louisiana Republican David Vitter has vowed to block their confirmations as long as possible, deriding them as “two more rubber stamps” for Bernanke’s “activist policies.”)

THE WHITE HOUSE: “Instead of taxpayer giveaways to an industry that’s never been more profitable, we should be using that money to double-down on investments in clean energy technologies that have never been more promising,” Obama said a few minutes ago in a Rose Garden photo op arranged to highlight the standoff in the Senate over energy policy. (It was the only event on his public schedule today.) “That’s the only way we’ll break this cycle of high gas prices that happens year after year after year.”

THE PIECES MATTER: This afternoon’s vote to adopt the Ryan budget may not be quite the damp squib as originally thought.

While it remains true the document won’t ever be taken up by the Senate — and that its spending totals will only delay the annual appropriations process — there are provisions that may well prove extremely influential in shaping the deficit reduction deliberations that will be launched in the lame duck.

After the election, Congress will have only seven weeks to disarm the draconian, across-the-board spending cuts (sequestration) that were put in place as self-imposed punishment for the failure of the congressional supercommittee last fall. Without an even more emphatic budget-cutting alternative, $98 billion in indiscriminate, meat axe reductions will be triggered in early January. Republicans and many Democrats are eager to replace that approach with one involving more overt and discriminating choices. And that’s where today’s House budget comes in. It instructs six committees — Agriculture, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, Judiciary, Oversight and Government Reform, and Ways and Means — to spend April finding a collective $261 billion in cuts to mandatory programs over 10 years. Those recommendations will then be put to a vote in the House in early May, a move that is designed by Republicans to put big-time pressure on the Democratic Senate to respond, if not before the election then soon thereafter.

By launching what Republicans are dubbing a “shadow reconciliation” process in the spring, they say, they should be able to gain significant leverage in the lame duck — when Congress will more or less have to come up with some sort of bipartisan package that resolves the campaign season standoffs over fiscal 2013 spending, the extension of the Bush-era tax rates and the looming sequester.

NO DOUBT ABOUT IT: Over the long term, however, the most important vote in this week’s House budget debate remains last night’s roll call on a package emulating the bold and balanced recommendations from the Simpson-Bowles commission at the end of 2010. The proposal (by Democrat Jim Cooper and Republican Steve LaTourette) was so badly crushed — 382 votes against it and only 38 in favor — that several unmistakable and important signals were sent: Members of both parties are equally unwilling to jump off the budgetary bridge unless they absolutely have to. Both sides are equally willing to talk about the need for a bold and balanced approach but are super scared of matching their demagoguery with their voting cards. There will be no grand bargain involving both tax increases and entitlement cuts unless all the other alternatives have been taken off the negotiating table – and so Obama was (politically, at least) correct when steered clear of the recommendations from the very panel he had created.

Besides LaTourette, the 15 Republicans willing to go on record for going bold were Charlie Bass, Ann Marie Buerkle, Charlie Dent, Bob Dold, Chris Gibson, Tim Johnson, Cynthia Lummis, Pat Meehan, Tom Petri, Todd Platts, Tom Reed, John Shimkus, Mike Simpson, Frank Wolf and Don Young. The 21 Democrats besides Cooper were Rob Andrews, Dan Boren, Leonard Boswell, John Carney, Jim Clyburn, Jim Costa, Henry Cuellar, Chaka Fattah, Jim Himes, Ron Kind, Rick Larsen, Dan Lipinski, Ed Perlmutter, Collin Peterson, Jared Polis, Mike Quigley, Kurt Schrader, Allyson Schwartz, Heath Shuler, Pete Visclosky and Mel Watt.

TRAIL TIPS: (Ohio and Florida) Polling taken a week ago and released today by Quinnipiac University is very good news for the Democratic senators seeking re-election in both states — each of whom has been viewed as vulnerable, if not quite top-tier endangered. And both have women to thank for their solid political standing. In Florida, the surveyors found Bill Nelson leading in his bid for a third term by 12 percentage against Rep. Connie Mack (44 percent to 36 percent). The two were tied at 41 percent among men but Nelson was up by 14 (46 to 32) among women. (Mack still faces an intense Aug. 14 primary against former Sen. George LeMieux.) In Ohio, the Q Poll found Sherrod  Brown leading in his bid for a second term by 13 points (46 to 36) over GOP state Treaserer Joseph Mandel, with the two statistically tied among men but with the incumbent up by 17 points (48 to 31) among women.

(Arizona) The Democratic field has cleared for Richard Carmona, who national party operatives view as having the best shot of picking up the state’s open Senate seat. (Republican Jon Kyl is retiring.) Don Bivens, a well-funded former state party chairman, dropped out of the race for the nomination yesterday. That means Carmona, who was surgeon general under George W. Bush, won’t have to worry about spending time or money on an Aug. 28 primary. Instead, he can husband his resources for the fall campaign — and hope that the Republican contest, between Rep. Jeff Flake and Wil Cardon, an independently wealthy investor, becomes as nasty and expensive as it looks like it might. For now, Flake remains decidedly favored to be the GOP nominee and somewhat favored to win in the fall.

(Florida) For the record, Marco Rubio waited until 55 days after the state’s presidential primary before formally endorsing Mitt Romney on Fox News last night. The senator said he was joining the bandwagon now (he’s the 18th GOP senator and 92nd member of Congress) because he’s concluded Romney offers the best chance of defeating Obama and that a continued divisive primary season would help boost the president’s re-election prospects. (Also for the record, the 40-year-old tea party favorite and most prominent Latino Republican in the nation said he didn’t expect to be asked to be Romney’ running mate.)

QUOTE OF NOTE: “I don’t mind being out of order if it means standing up for truth and justice,” Bobby Rush said yesterday after he was chastised by the presiding officer ( Mississippi Republican Gregg Harper), for wearing a hoodie during a one-minute speech deploring Trayvon Martin’s death. The Chicago Democrat — who founded the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers in 1968 and later served six months on an illegal weapons charge — added: “Many people have given their lives so I can be here and once I got here I can’t forget whose shoulders I’m standing on.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No incumbent members; the most prominent living previous lawmaker is Republican Larry Pressler (70), who represented South Dakota in the House and then Senate for 22 years before losing 16 years ago.

— 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 28, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Looking for Plan B

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SUPREME COURT: The justices just finished a 90-minute argument about whether none, some or all the health care overhaul should be left in place if they decide to strike down the individual insurance mandate. The opponents (26 states and the NFIB) say the whole thing should go. The government says only the provision requiring insurers to ignore pre-existing conditions should go. A lawyer appointed by the court maintains the rest of the statute can stand on its own.

The justices return at 1 for an argument about the law’s Medicaid expansion (to cover everyone under 133 percent of the federal poverty level), under which states will be barred from the program if they decline to go along. The government says that language is within Congress’ power to set conditions on federal aid; the states say it puts an excessive burden on their strapped budgets. At 2, Roberts will conclude the extraordinary and historic three-day session with the customarily simple words, “The case is submitted.”

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10, will start legislative debate at noon and plans to hold its final vote of the day before 3 — but that could  change if there’s a breakthrough in the highway bill standoff. Unable to find the required votes, GOP leaders in the previous two days dropped proposals for 90-day and 60-day stopgaps — while more and more moderate Republicans have joined the Democrats in pressing to clear the Senate’s two-year, $109 billion package as the best way to give states a modicum of certainty about their public works budgets.

Debate will also get started on the annual budget resolution, but the party-line vote to adopt Paul Ryan’s Republican plan (and the votes to reject alternatives from six other points on the ideological spectrum) will come tomorrow.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and will spend the day debating legislation to carry out what Obama has dubbed the Buffett Rule — setting a minimum effective tax rate for top-dollar earners (so that they pay at least as much as their secretaries). Senators will vote at 6 to confirm two new federal trial judges: labor lawyer Miranda Du for a vacancy in Reno and commercial litigator Susie Morgan for the vacancy in New Orleans created by the impeachment and removal of G. Thomas Porteous on corruption charges in 2010.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama has nothing on his public schedule — and is presumably spending much of the day recovering from his back-from-Asia jet lag (and maybe listening to this week’s audiotapes from the Supreme Court).

The first lady’s office announced that Michelle Obama would make three college graduation speeches — at Virginia Tech (the state has 13 tossup electoral votes), North Carolina A&T (15 up-for-grabs EVs) and Oregon State, where her brother Craig Robinson is the men’s basketball coach.

WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The depth of skepticism that Kennedy and Roberts (not to mention Scalia and Alito) have now publicly expressed about the individual mandate is already prompting advocates on both sides of the health care divide to start asking their allies in Congress about Plan B.  

And they are learning that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have even started making contingency plans — which is entirely understandable, for several reasons: The Supreme Court is not expected to decide the case before June. Despite the extraordinarily intense and widespread parsing of every word in this week’s oral arguments, there is nothing close to certainty about whether all the justices have been telegraphing their final views, searching for rationales or playing devil’s advocate. (Kennedy, the legendary bellwether, gave some decent signals that he’s willing to accept the mandate so long as the court finds some limiting principle for such a sweeping congressional action — and in the end pointed to the unique nature of the health care market as maybe being what he’s looking for.)

So, despite how it sounds in the media echo chamber, the constitutionality of the individual mandate remains up in the air — and, as of today’s deliberations, so does the question of whether some of the rest of the law will survive even if the insurance purchase requirement does not. And, no matter what the outcome, there is no way even modest legislation aimed at reviving, replacing or redoing any parts of the 2010 law will get beyond the starting gate in the eight or nine weeks after the ruling when Congress will be in session, or in the lame duck afterward.

As a practical matter, that’s because the situation is so fluid and complex that there will not be the time for such legislating. And the problems with soaring medical care costs and the 32 million uninsured have been so intractably well known for so long that waiting until next year can hardly make matters worse. But beyond that, as a crass and self-serving political matter both parties will want to spend the summer and fall trumpeting the righteousness of their cause in light of whatever the court decides. (Both sides have warmed up the messaging wars from the courthouse steps this week — with Tom Harkin and John Dingell prominent for the Democrats and Mike Lee, Ron Johnson and Michele Bachmann particularly visible for the GOP.) If the law is kept intact, Republicans will campaign on their commitment to a repeal it if they’re put in charge in November, while Democrats will campaign on their authorship of one of the great pieces of social policy engineering in the modern era. If the law is thrown away or taken apart, Republicans will hail a vindication for their commitment to preserving individual freedom, while Democrats will argue that voters need to keep them in power so that they might take another shot at fixing one of the nation’s biggest economic problems.

DEAL DYSFUNCTION: Today at noon, the countdown clock before a freeze on the flow of money from the Highway Trust Fund will say 84 hours. And there’s no evidence that an agreement to stop the ticking is in the offing. Letting road and mass transit construction projects grind to a halt on Saturday night and forcing thousands of workers to pack up their lunchboxes and go home — especially at the start of a congressional recess in an election year — may sound politically unthinkable to veterans of Washington. But the current standoff is a reminder that the old rhythms of bargaining and concession can not be counted on in this new dysfunctional era — when the aphorism “They’ll get a deal in the end, like they always do” has been sorely tested half a dozen times in the past two years.

As of this morning, Cantor has done nothing to warn House members that they may have to stay in town in Friday, one day longer than scheduled, and with each passing hour it looks more and more likely to be logistically necessary to do so to carry out any deal.  While Democrats are using the countdown as leverage to press for a vote on the House version of the bill the Senate’s already passed, there’s little time left for debate on a measure so many Republicans dislike. A possible deal could see the House pass a ninth stopgap lasting six weeks or less — along with a process for stating formal House-Senate talks on a several-year bill.

. . . AND MORE DEAL DYSFUNCTION: Lost amid all the other health care, highway bill, energy taxes and budget resolution developments is that one of the few remaining measures Congress is genuinely hoping to get done this year — a revamp of the Postal Service to stabilize its shaky finances — got off to a lousy start yesterday. Advocates came up nine votes short on the first break-a-filibuster test vote on what had been hailed as a genuinely bipartisan bill, meaning a few weeks back at the drawing board before another effort is made to get the measure through the Senate. (Postal officials said the measure would not have done enough to help them cut costs; postal union leaders said the bill would have made the mail service’s financial situation even worse.)

NEWT’S LAST STAND: Back in 1998, when impeachment-driven Republicans suffered nearly unprecedented midterm losses in the House, Newt Gingrich decided to make himself the sacrificial lamb and resigned as Speaker — gambling that he had many more years for a political rebirth. He was right. But now that his career in public life is at its true endpoint (whenever Mitt Romney formally wraps things up), he is looking at hunkering down in the bunker for as long as there’s oxygen in the hope that Romney and all the other prominent Republicans will somehow disappear and the party will turn to him in the end as their presidential nominee. His sore-loser strategy threatens to sully what would otherwise go down in history as one of the great stories of revolutionary leadership and thinking outside the box in modern American politics.

With Republican voters in the latest poll urging him to get out of Romney’s way, 60 percent to 39 percent, Gingrich yesterday decided instead to lay off a third of his staff and abandon most of his travel plans so he can hold on to just enough money for his final effort — wooing delegates to his corner in the event that, before the primaries end in June, Romney does not quite get to the 1,144 needed to be assured of nomination on the first ballot in Tampa. Even though another poll out today found 50 percent of all Americans (and 52 percent of registered voters) with an unfavorable view of Romney, that alone will not be enough to stop him.

Obama’s favorable in that Washington Post-ABC poll is at 53 percent — and yet another set of polls, by Quinnipiac University, shows the president ahead of Romney in three of the most important battleground states : 49 percent to 42 percent in Florida, 47 to 41 in Ohio and 45 to 42 in Pennsylvania.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “Clearly the president is overseas — he’s at a conference — and while the president is overseas I think it’s appropriate that people not be critical of him or our country,” Boehner said yesterday when asked if he agreed with Mitt Romney’s sharp critique of Obama’s approach to Russia, which he termed the  “No.1 geopolitical foe” of the United States. (Soon after the Speaker’s brushback, Romney reiterated his criticisms when he taped last night’s Jay Leno appearance.)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Republican Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia (65) and Democratic Rep. Nydia Velázquez of New York (59).

— David Hawkings, editor

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

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Nobody Said It Would Be Easy

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SUPREME COURT: Today’s two-hour oral argument — over the constitutionality of the individual mandate that’s the heart of the health care overhaul — will be over at noon.

Obama’s lawyers are maintaining that Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 – the language giving Congress authority to regulate interstate commerce — permits the law’s requirement that almost all Americans have some form of medical insurance starting in 2014 or else pay an annual penalty. The lawyers on the other side are contending that a decision not to do something — to not get coverage, in this case — is economic inactivity and that the Commerce Clause allows regulation only of economic activity. (Precedents are clearly with the president; not since the New Deal has the court struck down a law with an economic motive as exceeding that congressional power.)

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10, will open legislative debate at noon and will be done before 7 — after a lopsided bipartisan majority waves off a growing chorus of anxiety from liberal and consumer groups and clears the so-called Jobs Act, which would ease the regulatory regime governing smaller businesses that want to raise venture capital. Obama is eager to sign the measure, viewing it as a potential stimulant of new employment.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and will spend the day debating a Democratic bill that would kill several tax breaks benefitting the big five oil companies and apply much of the recouped revenue to an extension of tax breaks for renewable energy, electric cars and energy efficient houses. (There will be a break for the weekly caucus lunches and the annual fish-eye official photograph.) Republicans agreed to take up the bill in hopes of debating some of their own energy ideas.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Air Force One is out over the Pacific. Obama is due back in the family quarters just before 10 tonight, 14 hours after taking off from Seoul. (There will be refueling stop in Alaska.) The nuclear summit in South Korea ended last night with the president and the leaders of almost five dozen other countries committing to try and secure, or at least account for, all nuclear material within two years.

UNEASY FEELING: House Republicans caucused this morning over what to do about the deep highway bill hole they’ve suddenly thrown themselves into — and can't escape without an unusual bit of Democratic help.

The leadership signaled no resolution to the GOP's latest internal revolution after a meeting with the rank-and-file broke up. They have made parliamentary provisions allowing them to revive debate this afternoon on a 90-day extension of the current law governing road, rail, subway and bus programs. Debate on just such a bill was called off last night — when it became clear the stopgap had nowhere near the two-thirds majority required (290 votes) to get through under the expedited, no-amendments-allowed process the leaders want to use. Republicans have only 242 votes at the moment, and probably 40 in the caucus are so annoyed at the highway bill impasse that they are not inclined to vote for a ninth extension of the status quo. That means close to half the Democrats could be called on to vote to bail out the GOP — something they are disinclined to do, not only because they generally favor a much longer and more expansive public works program than the GOP has in mind, but also because they are all too happy to see the Republicans sweat for as long as possible.

But the time for brinkmanship without consequence is growing short. If the current stopgap law is not continued after Saturday night, the flow of federal cash to construction projects across the country will be turned off, idling tens of thousands of workers — just as lawmakers arrive back home for a two-week spring recess.

The likeliest outcome is that Boehner and Cantor unite behind moving the three-month stopgap bill later in the week under a simple-majority-is-sufficjent process — probably as the last order of business before the break, after the budget resolution is adopted. A handful of conservatives would follow the Heritage Foundation’s lead and vote no, but not enough to derail the measure — even without any Democratic help. And the classic “cramdown” would put significant pressure on Reid to acquiesce one more time in the kick-the-can-down-the-road process that everyone disdains — by allowing the Senate to clear the 90-day bill just before turning out the lights. He would be plenty annoyed (in part because he did his part and assembled a solid bipartisan majority in the Senate for a bill lasting two full years), but at least he could portray himself as the who disarmed the latest countdown-to-disaster clock.

SLIPPING SUPPORT: The national war weariness is impossible to ignore in light of the New York Times/CBS News poll out today. It found 69 percent of Americans saying the United States should not be at war in Afghanistan — up from 53 percent only four months ago. And the distaste for the decadelong military campaign is totally bipartisan: Fully 60 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of Democrats describe the war as going somewhat or very badly. Not surprisingly, GOP voters were nonetheless more likely than Democrats to support remaining in Afghanistan until the country is stabilized. But it's still important to note that fully two in five Republicans said the Pentagon should speed up its plans to bring the troops home by the end of 2014. The drop in public support comes at a pivotal time for the war, with the administration considering options for accelerating its withdrawal timetable and the world reminded of U.S.-Afghan tensions by the accusation that Staff Sgt. Bobby Bales killed 17 Afghan civilians.

BACK WHERE THEY STARTED: Home prices have fallen in most major cities for a fifth consecutive month — and dropped between December and January in 16 of the 19 markets assessed in the latest S&P/Case-Shiller index, out today. Washington, Miami and Phoenix were the exceptions, while the biggest declines were in San Francisco, Atlanta and Portland. (Charlotte wasn’t in this month’s study because of problems with the numbers.) The group’s nationwide index of prices has fallen 34 percent since the housing bubble exploded and is now at 2002 levels, although process are back to where they were in 2000 or earlier in eight places: Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Las Vegas, New York, Portland, Seattle and Tampa. The index is important because it studies more than half of the national residential real estate market.

GOING AWAY: Six years after he gave the phrase “cold cash” a new meaning — when the FBI found $90,000 in ill-gotten gains stuffed inside packages of frozen pie and burgers in his Capitol Hill apartment freezer — Bill Jefferson is one step away from federal prison, where the former nine-term Democratic congressman for New Orleans has been sentenced to 13 years for widespread public corruption. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday affirmed all but one of 11 guilty verdicts from his 2009 trial, rejecting arguments that prosecutors did not live up to a new Supreme Court standard for proving a quid pro quo in a bribery case. (He was convicted of demanding payments to use his Ways and Means leverage  to help get business contracts in West Africa.) There’s almost no chance the high court will take an appeal.

TRAIL TIPS: (New York) Three months before what could be his most difficult Democratic primary ever, Charlie Rangel is working anew to try to make his ethics cloud dissipate before he asks New Yorkers for a 22nd term. He and his campaign have agreed to pay a $23,000 civil fine to settle a complaint that he used a rent-stabilized apartment in Harlem as his campaign headquarters — effectively an illegal campaign contribution from the owner, because such real-estate is rented at below-market rates. The apartment rental was only tangentially connected to the welter of 11 ethical violations for which Rangel was censured by the House two years ago, when he was also stripped of the Ways and Means chairmanship. His rapid decline in congressional clout is one of the reasons he faces a concerted primary challenge from state Sen. Adriano Espaillat.

(Florida) Not one but two books telling the story of Marco Rubio’s first 40 years will be in stores June 19 — just 10 weeks before the opening of a Republican convention where the freshman senator from Florida will be on everyone’s lips as a potential vice-presidential nominee. Rubio got his publisher to advance the date for his memoir in hopes of getting it in stores two weeks before “The Rise of Marco Rubio,” a more critical assessment by Manuel Roig-Franzia of the Washington Post. But yesterday that book’s publisher, Simon & Shuster, announced that its book would come out the same day as the autobiography.

(Pennsylvania) The next member vs. member congressional primary — in southwestern Pennsylvania four weeks from today — is getting much more expensive by the day. Mark Critz essentially has bet his entire campaign bank account (about $600,000) on television advertising time to promote his slight-underdog candidacy, while fellow Democrat Jason Altmire has bought about half as much TV time. The winner in the dramatically redrawn, hammer-shaped district will be in a tossup race this fall against Republican attorney Keith Rothfus.

(California) While there have been two independents in the Senate for the past six years, and probably will again next year — the House hasn’t had one since 2006. But that may well change next year, because Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks is swiftly becoming a frontrunner for an open and very politically competitive seat in Southern California. She is a registered Republican (and a former Democrat) who has decided that an unaffiliated bid is her best path to Congress under the state’s new and unusual congressional election system. And a new poll her campaign commissioned shows her drawing enough votes in the all-candidate June 5 primary to move into the November final round against Republican state Sen. Tony Strickland. That survey’s results will probably hold as long as four Democrats stay in the race; the party is working to winnow the field to one — Assemblywoman Julia Brownwely of Santa Monica.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No sitting lawmakers but at least a half-dozen former House members – including Susan Molinari (54), a Republican who represented Staten island from 1990 to 1997 and was put in charge of Google’s D.C. lobbying office last month.

— 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 26, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: First Up: Deciding Whether to Decide

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, March 26, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SUPREME COURT: The justices are finishing the first of this week’s historic oral arguments over health care and the reach of federal power — a 90-minute session about whether it’s too early to decide the constitutionality of the insurance overhaul (because it will be 2015 before anyone is called on to pay — a fine or a tax, depending on your point of view — for not having medical coverage). Both the administration and the law’s opponents say it’s appropriate for the high court to rule now, but one of the lower appeals courts said an 1867 law makes a ruling premature.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at noon and will vote after 6:30 to extend the current surface transportation law a ninth time — this time for 90 days, hoping that’s the final can-kick required to get a deal on a longer-term rewrite of road, rail and mass transit policy. (It’s still not a sure thing the Senate will go along; the law lapses Saturday night.)

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 and will cast a pair of filibuster-ending votes at 5:30. After effectively killing Democratic legislation to repeal some tax breaks for oil and gas producers, more than 60 senators will vote to instead begin debating legislation designed to put the Postal Service on firmer financial footing.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is asleep in Seoul — where it’s just after midnight Tuesday, which will be the second day of a 50-nation nuclear summit. “Your provocations and pursuit of nuclear weapons have not achieved the security you seek, they have undermined it. Instead of the dignity you desire, you are more isolated,” the president said to North Korea (which is preparing to mark the South Korean meeting with a rocket test firing) in his dinner speech on Monday night. The president also told outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (when neither knew the microphones were hot) that he would have more political “flexibility” after the election to deal with missile defense.

HEALTH CARE'S DAY IN COURT: It’s impossible to overstate the potential for the Supreme Court to reshape the contours of this year’s presidential campaign — and how people receive medical care, as well as the reach of congressional power, for many more years —  by the way it decides the health care case. That’s why dozens sat through a rainy weekend to get a seat inside today, while dozens more from both sides chanted and held placards aloft on the court’s plaza. But those looking to this morning’s argument for clarity about what the justices will do are almost certain to be disappointed.  

Most obviously, that’s because the first 90 minutes — the audio tapes will be released at 1 — have only been about whether the court should decide that it’s time to decide the case. (The main event, the argument about the constitutionality of the individual mandate, comes tomorrow.) But beyond that, it’s a basic tenet of oral arguments that the justices cannot be relied upon to telegraph their thinking about a case — and that people who try to derive big-time meaning from the questions do so at the risk of considerable eventual embarrassment. Almost certainly, the thinking that each of the nine has been doing about the case is very, very far along in its subtlety and refinement — if not quite its conclusion. (They have, after all, had 13 dozen briefs and four lower-court opinions to digest for months.) And so, if past patterns follow, the inquiries from many on the court — including Kennedy, the most closely watched potential swing vote, and Scalia, the most voluble at such sessions — will have pushed toward some of the more obscure merits of the case and won’t center on the basics.

THE LESSER EVIL: The GOP leadership sounds confident the Ryan budget will be adopted by the House with a minimum of fuss this week – because almost all the conservatives will vote for it as the best alternative once their own blueprint, the Republican Study Committee budget, is given a vote and rejected. The 165-member RSC will unveil its plan tomorrow; it projects a path to balance in 10 years by calling for much deeper cuts in discretionary and mandatory spending than the Ryan plan, which by the congressional scorekeeper’s estimate could take 26 years to produce a balancing act. (The chairman disputes that number vigorously, saying it doesn’t account properly for the economic growth that would come from adopting its fiscal policies. Most notably, the RSC budget calls for spending $97 billion (9 percent) less on discretionary programs than the Ryan budget. Chris Van Hollen will also put out an alternative for the Democrats by this evening.

The Republican leadership recognizes that its $3.5 trillion budget proposal is fraught with political peril — but they are sticking by their confidence that they can use “political bravery” as an antidote to the Democratic attacks about “dismantling Medicare.” And so they are already turning their attention toward the coming war over appropriations. It will begin once their budget is adopted and they begin moving bills that amount to $19 billion less than what the Senate plans to spend — which is the number in last summer’s debt deal. That discretionary number is the main concession to the so-called tea party freshmen and other conservatives who wanted something bolder out of Ryan, but are now content to take this partial victory as sufficient this election year.

CONFIDENCE GAME: Bernanke said this morning that he still views the jobs market as weak (despite three months of strong hiring) but predicted the Fed’s near-zero interest rate policies would change the situation by boosting consumer spending and business activity. While recent private sector hiring — an average 245,000 jobs in each of the previous three months — has helped increase consumer confidence and incomes, “we have not seen that in a persuasive way yet,” the central bank chairman said in response to a question at the National Association for Business Economics spring conference in Arlington, Va. “The job market remains far from normal.”  He said the Fed would “remain cautious” in deciding what its next moves should be. (The plan has been to hold short-term interest rates at next to nothing through 2014; the next meeting is April 25-26.)

SIGNED AND SEALED: Two more premier congressional endorsements of Mitt Romney — by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy today and by Senate tea party favorite Mike Lee yesterday — offer plenty of fuel for the accelerating consensus that the race to be Obama’s challenger is past its tipping point. They are the latest in a group of prominent Republicans (Jeb Bush, Pat Toomey, Jim DeMint, Haley Barbour, Lindsey Graham) to have thrown their weight behind Romney in a way that delivers the candidate the sense of resigned inevitability that has always been the best he could hope for — but has nonetheless eluded him for months.

“We’re now reaching the point where we can see prolonging this process further could undermine our ability to get a Republican candidate elected, and it could also distract from getting our Senate candidates elected,” said the freshman Utah senator, who had signaled only a couple of days earlier that he would not be taking sides. McCarthy, meanwhile, agreed to chair the Romney campaign in his home state of California (its June 5 contest awards 172 delegates) because it was time for Republicans “to unite and work together” to take back the White House.

Santorum got a moral boost on Saturday by besting Romney by 22 percentage points in the Louisiana primary (49 to 27) and carrying every parish outside New Orleans — but all that effort nonetheless netted him a mere 20 delegates, just one more than the number Romney’s likely to get just from D.C. in the next round of voting, a week from tomorrow. That Santorum has been reduced to trying to raise money and get on the air today by lambasting a New York Times reporter — Jeff Zeleny, whose offense seems to have been offering the candidate a chance to walk back a hyperbolically inarticulate statement about Romney — is a sign that maybe he, too, realizes his moment in the national spotlight is coming to an end. If he can’t pull off an upset in Wisconsin next week, then truly his only chance to stay relevant through the primaries and on to the Tampa convention will be to win his home state of Pennsylvania on April 24 — but he’ll hardly have the money to spend on that race. (Newt Gingrich, though, appears to retain no sense of embarrassment and has hunkered down for a long march of low-money, third-place finishes for the foreseeable future.)

QUOTE OF NOTE: “I would have to consider it,” Paul Ryan said on Fox yesterday when asked what he’d do if offered the GOP vice presidential nomination. “But it’s not something I’m even thinking about, because I think our job in Congress is pretty important.”  

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (72) and Utah’s Jason Chaffetz (45) today. Two other House Republicans on Saturday — recent primary loser Don Manzullo of Illinois (68) and freshman Steve Stivers of Ohio (47).

— 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