Friday, April 27, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Get Out Your Glasses

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, April 27, 2012

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and will begin a weeklong recess within the hour, after voting mostly along party lines for legislation maintaining the 3.4 percent interest rate on Stafford loans until July 2013. Democrats will vote “no” because the $5.9 billion loss to the Treasury would be offset by eliminating an “Obamacare” public health and prevention fund. “This is a politically-motivated proposal and not the serious response that the problem facing America’s college students deserves,” the White House said in a statement this morning threatening a veto.

The House is also about to pass the IT security and research and development pieces of the GOP’s cybersecurity legislative package.

THE SENATE: Not in session; its recess began last night and continues until 2 on Monday, May 7. (There won’t even be pro forma sessions, because the White House promised McConnell there were no plans for recess appointments.)

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is at Fort Stewart in Georgia, where he and the first lady are meeting with soldiers from the 3rd Infantry who served in Iraq and Afghanistan before a speech at 12:35. That’s when the president will discuss an executive order he’s signing today to crack down on diploma mills that survive on the federal education benefits of veterans. Most notably, he’s proposing a trademark for “GI Bill,” hoping the move helps curb fraudulent marketing and recruiting practices by the for-profit colleges and technical schools that often set up shop just outside military bases.

The president will be back in town for a pair of evening fundraisers, first at 5 at the Washington Convention Center and then in a local (undisclosed) top donor’s home.

GROWTH CHARTS: The nation’s economy grew for an 11th consecutive quarter in the first three months of the year — but at only a 2.2 percent annual rate, the Commerce Department reported this morning, which was a notable drop from the 3 percent growth at the end of last year and a bit less than what economists expected. The mixed messages about the state of the economy three years after the depth of the Great Recession (and six months before Election Day) prompted a predictable “glass half full” proclamation from Democrats and an equally predictable “glass half empty” lamentation from Republicans.

“While the continued expansion of the economy is encouraging, additional growth is needed to replace the jobs lost in the deep recession,” said Alan B. Krueger, chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, who noted that household purchases increased 2.9 percent (exceeding the most optimistic projection), auto production surged and homebuilding grew 19 percent, the fastest in almost two years.

“While I am thankful that the economy continues to expand, the damage being done by the Obama administration’s policies have produced a weak recovery,” said Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, who emphasized that business investment declined 2.1 percent (the first drop since the end of 2009). Businesses also restocked their shelves more slowly than in the final quarter of last year, while government spending fell at an annual rate of 3 percent — mainly because of a sharp drop in defense spending.

Neither side noted a truism about the GDP fever line, which is that it tends to be at its flattest in January, February and March. Many economists predict growth will strengthen in the second half of this year — albeit too late to be noticed by government economists or the electorate before Nov. 6 — on the assumption that hiring will continue to improve. (The next jobs numbers are in a week.) Job growth pushed the unemployment rate down to 8.2 percent in March, from 9.1 percent in August. But 12.7 million people remain unemployed — a number big enough that it will take sustained growth of 4 percent or more for an entire year to get the jobless rate down by a full percentage point.

SOUTHERN STRATEGY: The replacement farm bill produced by Senate Agriculture is notable on several fronts — not the least of which is that it won a solid 16-5 endorsement yesterday, an important bipartisan milestone especially because it happened fully five months before the current law lapses.

Farm and food policy makers nonetheless will need every day of that time to get legislation under Obama’s pen. The debate on the Senate floor (maybe before Memorial Day) is sure to be long and convoluted — not for the usual election-year reasons of partisan posturing, but because of a good old-fashioned regional fight, with Democrats and Republicans from the South going all out against efforts to end the decades-old subsidy system and replace it with payments based on crop insurance and risk management. The Southern senators say the switch would hurt their rice and peanut farmers more than anyone else.

And, if and when the bill gets through the Senate, it faces a potentially higher hurdle in the House. Southerners hold even more sway there than in the Senate, and House Agriculture  Chairman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma has labeled the Senate’s ideas about commodity payments a non-starter. Beyond that, the House GOP majority wants to go further in cutting both food stamps (which take up about 80 percent of farm bill spending) and farm programs than the Senate’s $4.5 billion, 1 percent reduction. Overall, the Senate bill would cut $23 billion from the overall red ink projection for the coming decade.

TRAIL TIPS: (Indiana) The Senate seat he’s held for 36 years is slipping out of reach for Dick Lugar, if a poll released yesterday (and paid for by Citizens United, which is backing Richard Mourdock) is to be believed. The survey put the state Treasurer at 44 percent and the senator at 39 percent, with 17 percent undecided less than two weeks before the May 8 Republican primary.  (Lugar had spent $5.4 million to Mourdock’s $2 million by the middle of the month, but the challenger has benefited from two-thirds of the $3.5 million in independent expenditures to date.) Among self-described tea party conservatives, who comprise two-fifths of the primary electorate, Mourdock was ahead by a whopping 63 percent to 24 percent. And Lugar’s favorability rating has slid to 44 percent, a 9-point drop since the last Wenzel survey six weeks ago.

(New Hampshire) Both the state’s House members, Republicans Frank Guinta and Charlie Bass, are narrowly behind their Democratic challengers in a WMUR poll released yesterday — and both are far short of the 50 percent threshold because so many voters remain undecided, even though in both cases the 2012 races are rematches of 2010. Guinta is trailing former Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, 44 to 39 percent, while Bass is trailing attorney Ann McClane Kuster by only a single percentage point, 40 to 39, well within the margin of error.

(Blue Dogs) Two days after a pair of Pennsylvanians (Jason Altmire and Tim Holden) lost their primaries, the Blue Dog Coalition caucus of fiscally conservative Democrats announced endorsements of three candidates in relative longshot bids to reclaim House seats for the party: former Indiana state Rep. Dave Crooks, who’s the favorite to win the May 8 primary to take on freshman Larry Bucshon in the state’s southwest corner; former state Rep. Pam Gulleson, who’s the likely Democratic candidate for North Dakota’s open and singular seat; and former state Rep. Gary McDowell, who’s readying for a rematch against GOP freshman Dan Benishek in northernmost Michigan.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “A picture may be worth a thousand words. And perhaps moving pictures bear an even higher value,” federal Judge James Boasberg  wrote yesterday, rejecting Judicial Watch’s appeal of a Pentagon decision to block release of pictures from the Abbottabad raid last May 2. “Yet, in this case, verbal descriptions of the death and burial of Osama bin Laden will have to suffice, for this court will not order the release of anything more.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Today, Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina (65) and GOP Rep. Dan Webster of Florida (63); tomorrow, GOP Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma (also 63).

— 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, April 26, 2012

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CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Doin' It for the Kids

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 with Reid and McConnell in search of a deal that would mean passage of the Violence Against Women Act renewal before tonight, when senators go home for a weeklong recess. The bill has become the venue for this election-year’s debate about whether the GOP is “waging a war on women,” although as a substantive matter the partisan disagreements are about with whether federal domestic violence programs should be expanded to shield abused gay men, American Indians and illegal immigrants.

Gregg Costa, a federal prosecutor in Galveston, and David Guaderrama, a federal magistrate in El Paso, will be confirmed within the hour as District Court judges in Texas.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and will spend the bulk of the day debating legislation that aims to bolster cybersecurity by getting businesses and the government to share more information that could thwart attacks on computer networks. Passage with a comfortable and somewhat bipartisan majority will come tomorrow, despite an Obama veto threat; he says the bill doesn’t do enough to protect civil liberties, and he wants new powers for the government to regulate the security of privately-held computer systems that could cripple the economy if attacked.

Before going home (by 7) the House will pass three much-less-controversial cybersecurity bills, bolstering research and development and updating the IT security laws for federal agencies.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama’s only two scheduled events are behind closed doors: His daily briefing on global hot spots at 10:30 and a meeting with Biden at 4:30.

BURSAR POLITICS: More than 7 million college students look to have a solid chance at winning a $1,000 financial reprieve thanks to some rapid-fire political calculations in both parties.

Republicans are now adopting an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach to holding down the cost of student loans. It’s a seemingly straightforward matter that Obama sought to transform this week into the partisan campaign season showdown of the moment — assuming his crusade would rev up enthusiasm from the younger voters who remain a central part of his re-election base. And congressional GOP leaders, at least initially, took the bait on fiscal conservatism grounds, declaring the budget could ill afford the $6 billion-a-year hit from perpetuating what was supposed to be temporary relief for college kids. But Mitt Romney moved to defuse the issue almost immediately, crossing his fellow Republicans on the Hill by siding with the president and staking his own claim to the youth vote — a move with echoes of the moment in the 2000 campaign when compassionate conservative candidate George W. Bush warned Hill Republicans against “balancing their budgets on the backs of the poor.”

And now Boehner has arranged for the House to vote tomorrow to do just what the president wants: prevent the 3.4 percent interest rate on federally subsidized Stafford loans from doubling as scheduled July 1, and keep it that way for a year. But there’s a catch, of course: The GOP’s way of paying for the move is doing away with an illness-prevention and public health fund created in the Obama health care overhaul. But Boehner has every reason to believe most House Democrats will adopt an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach of their own — voting with the students even if that means voting against one of their treasured (albeit new and relatively obscure) social programs.

If that happens, look for Obama to signal his own willingness to go along with the trade-off. That’s because the alternative, at first blush, appears to be much more difficult to explain – and would inflame angry passion in thousands of the sort of high-income-but-not-super-rich businesspeople that the president is counting on for both donations and votes. The offset Reid has proposed would force owners of some closely held S corporations — those making more than $250,000 a year — to pay Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes. Selling the move as a tax increase for millionaires already was proving problematic for the Democrats.

AIR TIME: Although Obama has clearly seized the political upper hand on the student loan debate, his venue for doing so — a presidents-only version of a springtime college tour, with Air Force One zipping to big campuses in three swing states — has significantly trimmed back his measure of “winning the week.”

Every four years, no matter who’s president, the White House faces skepticism and scrutiny for putting Air Force One to work as the re-election campaign’s vehicle of choice — by combining patently political speeches and fundraisers with just enough official business to justify the bulk of the expense being borne by taxpayers. But the jaunt this week to North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa (30 tossup electoral votes among them) is being widely derided (even by some Democrats) as one such trip too many. It prompted Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus to ask the GAO yesterday for an investigation into whether the administration has been misusing government funds to benefit the president’s campaign.

David Axelrod dismissed the complaint, saying the campaign was “not going to get hot and bothered by RNC stunts.” But within hours — coincidentally or not — campaign manager Jim Messina announced that Obama would kick off his general election campaign in two Saturdays on May 5 with unambiguously political rallies at two more campuses in tossup states: Ohio State in Columbus and Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond.

TRAIL TIPS: (Missouri) Todd Akin is already known among the six House Republicans running for the Senate this year as unique in one way: He’s the only one in a genuine three-way contest for his party’s nomination. (The other Aug. 7 primary contenders to challenge Claire McCaskill’s bid for a second term are businessman John Brunner and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman.)  But this week it’s come to light that Akin, the chairman of the Seapower Subcommittee at House Armed Services, looks to be all alone in the modern annals of Congress for another reason: He’s the only chairman who opens all his hearings by offering aloud his own personal prayer to Jesus. “I think it’s a good idea to ask the Lord’s blessing,” said Akin, a Presbyterian with a divinity degree. So far, none of his subcommittee colleagues have complained. But when informed of the practice, advocates for separation of church and state called it a bad idea. The invocations are sure to continue, however, unless there’s an intervention by Boehner — who as Speaker is charged with setting and enforcing the standards of appropriate behavior in the House. And those go well beyond whether members have their ties on and their hats off on the floor.

(Texas) Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who has already spent $5 million in his bid for the Republican nomination for the open Senate seat, is watching his once formidable lead shrink to 12 percentage points (38 percent to  26 percent) against the more conservative state solicitor general, Ted Cruz. Former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert is at 8 percent, and there are a handful of other candidates. One in five voters remains undecided, according to a Public Policy Polling survey conducted over the weekend and released yesterday. If no one wins an outright majority in the first round on May 29, the top finishers will advance to a runoff. The eventual GOP nominee is considered a lock to succeed Kay Bailey Hutchison.

(Indiana) The Young Guns Network, the group affiliated with several former Cantor aides, has helped Dick Lugar’s campaign with about $100,000 in mail expenses — annoying conservative stalwarts who are pushing state treasurer Richard Mourdock in their tossup May 8 GOP primary. The incumbent senator, meanwhile, is breaking with long-standing practice and doing a bit of “going negative,” with new advertising suggesting that Mourdock is much less of a rock-ribbed conservative than he claims to be.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “If you are looking for a bumper sticker to sum up how President Obama has handled what we inherited, it’s pretty simple: Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,” Biden told a campaign rally at NYU this morning. “Governor Romney is counting on our collective amnesia. But Americans know that we cannot afford to go back to the future -- back to a foreign policy that would have America go it alone.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democratic Rep. Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts (66) and Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner, Democrat Pedro Pierluisi (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.

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

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Money Drags

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SUPREME COURT: The justices have concluded their final oral argument of this term — over the constitutionality of the 2010 Arizona law designed to reduce the state’s illegal immigrant population. The decision will come in June, probably within days of the health care overhaul ruling, guaranteeing the court will play an outsized role in framing this year’s campaigns for the presidency and control of Congress.

The Obama administration and the state disagree about whether the statute wrongly trespasses on, and contradicts, federal policies and prerogatives over controlling the borders. The measure requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they stop and believe could be in the country illegally, allows officers to arrest anyone they believe is deportable, and makes it a crime for immigrants without work permits to seek jobs — or for foreigners to be without their registration documents. (The same lawyers who argued the health care case last month took the lead this morning:  Solicitor General Donald Verilli and favorite GOP litigator Paul Clement. Justice Elana Kagan sat out the session because she worked on the case as Obama’s first solicitor general.)

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and will start its final push toward passage of the Postal Service overhaul at 2 — with roll calls on no more than eight of the remaining 22 amendments. (One would bar any post office or processing facility from being shuttered for two years. Another would close all the but one of the post offices in the Capitol complex.) The main thrust of the measure, which will garner a solid bipartisan majority, would solve the agency’s imminent cash crisis with an $11 billion refund of pension-fund overpayments.

THE HOUSE: Convened for speeches at 10 and will pass a handful of non-controversial measures between 1 and 4. The most politically timely among them would be the first legislative response to the GSA’s Vegas spending spree. The bill would set uniform financial reporting standards for all agencies, cut their spending on conferences by 20 percent across the board and limit the size of federal delegations at overseas meetings. (Senators amended the Postal Service bill with a similar measure yesterday.)

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama will call once more for maintaining the 3.4 percent interest rate on a popular student loan in a 2:20 speech (D.C. time) at the University of Iowa — his third appearance this week before a college crowd in a swing state. (He’ll be back in the capital in time for another Jefferson Hotel fundraiser at 6.) Democrats proposed a Senate bill yesterday that would continue the college loan rate for another year, but Republicans balked because the measure would cover the $6 billion cost with higher payroll taxes on owners of "S" corporations.

NO MOMENTUM: The long-standing and fundamental differences between the parties over congressional budget priorities will be formally continued for the coming year this afternoon.

The Republicans who run House Appropriations will unveil their plan for allocating money to the dozen subcommittees that will draft the spending bills for the year that starts in October. The grand total, as is well known by now, will be $19 billion less than what Democrats and Republicans alike in the Senate plan to spend — and that Obama insists will be the only grand total that will win his signature. Beyond that, the House GOP plan calls for topline spending totals with a significantly different emphasis from what the Democratic Senate has in mind. The House plans to spend $8 billion (almost 2 percent) more than the Senate on Defense — and to take that money almost entirely out of the social spending budgets at the Labor, HHS and Education departments. The House would also spend 5 percent less than the Senate at the Agriculture, Transportation and HUD departments.

Such differences may sound bridgeable on the surface, but they are not — so the numbers are the latest reminder that the most basic function of Congress, to exercise the power of the purse on time, is doomed to come up short once again this fall. What may look like signs of progress in the weeks ahead — two bills will be ready for floor debate in the House after next week’s recess, and four in the Senate — are in fact little more than postponements of the inevitable.

SPEAKING ENGAGEMENT: The Capitol Police confirmed this morning that it was investigating a credible threat against Marco Rubio, but declined to provide any details. The freshman senator from Florida, who remains Topic A in any discussion of this year’s GOP vice presidential nomination, planned to go ahead with his foreign policy speech at 1 at the Brookings Institution, where he’ll be introduced by 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman.

“I disagree with the way in which the current administration has chosen to engage,” Rubio’s prepared text says. “For while there are few global problems we can solve by ourselves, there are virtually no global problems that can be solved without us. In confronting the challenges of our time, there are more nations than ever capable of contributing, but there is still only one that is capable of leading.”

PENNSYLVANIA SHAKEOUT: Only one of last night’s upset winners of a Democratic congressional primary in Pennsylvania can count on living in Washington come January. And it’s the candidate who hasn't lived in the capital before: Matt Cartwright, a prominent personal injury lawyer in Wilkes Barre and Scranton who turns 51 next week and has never held public office. But he thumped the dean of the state’s Democratic delegation, Tim Holden, by 14 percentage points (8,200 votes) in a squiggly district designed to concentrate as many Democrats as possible without any regard for Holden’s former constituents — meaning conservative Republican Laureen Cummings has no chance come November even if a GOP wave somehow starts to build.

But across the state, even without a surging GOP tide, the party has high hopes this fall for attorney Keith Rothfus, who came surprisingly close to ousting Jason Altmire two years ago and had assumed for most of the past year that he would be in a rematch this fall. But Altmire was edged last night by 2 points (1,200 votes) by fellow Democratic incumbent Mark Critz, who won in come-from-behind fashion (according to the polling) with concerted help from labor unions. Critz’s campaign treasury has been more or less exhausted by the primary campaign, while Rothfus has had months to raise money with no primary to spend it on. (He’s having a  50th birthday fundraiser today.) The district takes in both the growing and somewhat Republican suburbs north of Pittsburgh and the historically Democratic blue-collar coal country to the east.

Holden and Altmire become the fourth and fifth incumbents to lose primaries this year. They are also the first of the 34 Democrats who voted for the 2010 health care law to be denied renomination. Both are in the already dwindling Blue Dog Coalition of the most fiscally conservative House Democrats — the membership of which was halved by the GOP takeover two years ago.

NEWT ON NEWT: “Somebody who’s a unifier and somebody who’s realistic” is the way Newt Gingrich described himself last night when asked how he wanted to be remembered as a presidential candidate. That would seem to point undeniably to his formal departure from the race in the next day or two — which would leave lame-duck Texas House member Ron Paul as Mitt Romney’s only remaining challenger. And in North Carolina this morning, the former Speaker sounded like he was both conceding the Republican nomination and looking for a job in a Romney administration. “It’s pretty clear that Gov. Romney is ultimately going to be the nominee,” he said, “and we’ll do everything we can to make sure that he is, in fact, effective, and that we as a team are effective both in winning this fall and then, frankly, in governing.” (Gingrich had declared that Delaware was his do-or-die contest, and he ended up with 27 percent in yesterday’s primary – to 56 percent for Romney.)

TONE-SETTING: The five-state sweep yesterday by the former Massachusetts governor, for those still keeping score, brought to 72 percent the share of the delegates he needs for a mathematical lock on a first-ballot victory in Tampa in August. His previously principal rival, Rick Santorum, is supposed to be meeting with some of the Romney campaign staff today to go over the particulars of an orchestrated endorsement announcement — now expected a week from Friday.

Romney’s speech in New Hampshire last night, meanwhile, was notable for the way it sought to co-opt Obama’s message about the next administration needing to focus on the well-being and expansion of the middle class. (It was the third time this week, after his remarks on immigration and college costs, that the GOP candidate moved to stand in the same zone as the president.) Although he offered no specifics about how his administration would get there, Romney declared: “I see an America with a growing middle class, with rising standards of living. I see children even more successful than their parents — some successful even beyond their wildest dreams — and others congratulating them for their achievement, not attacking them for it.” He also added: “In the America I see, character and choices matter. And education, hard work, and living within our means are valued and rewarded. And poverty will be defeated, not with a government check, but with respect and achievement that is taught by parents, learned in school and practiced in the workplace.”

DOCTOR’S ORDERS: The photograph of Mark Kirk released by his office yesterday (the first since his stroke in January) shows the senator looking essentially as alert and focused as ever — but there’s still no timetable for the 52-year-old Illinois Republican to return to Washington. “He is mentally sharp and meets with his staff nearly every day to discuss policy issues and global current events,” his doctor, Chicago stroke rehabilitation expert Richard Harvey, said in a statement. He said Kirk is able to climb stairs and get in and out of a car, and he has walked 10 miles since February. But before he can cast a vote on the Senate floor (which would make McConnell’s filibuster crusade even easier by providing a reliable vote) his doctor wants him to complete a research trial that includes an “intense regimen of continuous walking over flat surfaces, on stairs and on a treadmill every day.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Senate GOP Whip Jon Kyl, who’s retiring this fall after 26 years (eight in the House) representing Arizona in Congress (70).

— 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, April 24, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Touchy Subjects

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and will vote at 2:15 (just after the weekly caucus lunches) to keep in place labor regulations that speed the timetable for unions to hold workplace organizing elections. Republicans are destined to come up a handful short of the 51 votes they need to advance a special resolution nullifying the National Labor Relations Board rules, a main Chamber of Commerce objective for the year.

The rest of the day will be spent on as many as 39 amendments to the Postal Service overhaul — almost all of which will be rejected because they’ll garner fewer than 60 votes. (The vote-a-rama may drag on long enough that Reid puts off until morning the vote to pass the bill, the centerpiece of which would provide $11 billion to finance buyouts of 15 percent of the current workforce.) The key vote will be on an alternative, which parallels the measure awaiting debate in the House, that would go further in speeding up post office closures and ending Saturday mail delivery.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at noon to debate half a dozen non-controversial federal lands bills. Lawmakers have until 6:30 to get back in town for roll calls.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Air Force One is about to land at the Raleigh-Durham airport, the first stop on a two-day trip to college campuses in three swing states — where Obama will press his efforts to get Congress to continue the 3.4 percent interest rate on a popular federal loan used by about 7 million poorer and middle-class students. That rate was set five years ago but is on schedule to double in July. (Yesterday, Mitt Romney got out ahead of the president’s appeal to the potentially crucial bloc of younger voters and said he agreed with his opponent that the lower rate should be retained; many of his fellow Republicans in Congress disagree in light of the $6 billion cost of a one-year extension.)

After his 1:15 speech at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — which will be mostly repeated this evening at the University of Colorado at Boulder — Obama will tape tonight’s appearance on the Jimmy Fallon show. Before he left this morning, Obama presided at an East Room ceremony honoring Rebecca Mieliwocki, a seventh-grade English teacher in suburban Los Angeles, as the federal government’s National Teacher of the Year.

IT’S BACK: Immigration has joined the roster of campaign issues that will get a place on the congressional proxy-vote calendar.

Chuck Schumer announced at a Senate Judiciary hearing this morning that Democrats would force a vote on legislation written to nullify Arizona’s controversial immigration law — and that the balloting would happen even before the Supreme Court decides if the law is constitutional. (That won’t happen before late June, because the oral arguments in the case are not until tomorrow.) The bill would almost certainly be stopped by a Republican filibuster, and would absolutely be rejected in the GOP House. But as with so many other measures coming under the spotlight at the Capitol in the next six months, legislative success or failure is not the point. In this case, the move would be a second way for the Democrats to underscore that they have become the party more worried that the Supreme Court has become overtly politicized and unduly activist. In the case of the constitutional challenge to the health care law, which will also be decided in June, the Democrats would view a rule striking down the law as a huge departure from precedent. In the case of the Arizona immigration case, they say a ruling upholding the law would be out of bounds from past holdings.

Today’s hearing prompted Senate GOP Whip Jon Kyl to walk out in protest. “It is strictly political theater,” he said. “The timing of the hearing just one day ahead of the Supreme Court’s review of the law suggests that its purpose is either to influence the court’s decision or to garner publicity.”

Beyond its part in the every-four-years ascent of the Supreme Court’s role to near the top of the presidential campaign agenda, the immigration debate would obviously have an important effect on the Hispanic vote — which Obama is counting on winning big in his second term bid. And he got good news today from a poll out of Arizona (where Kyl is retiring after three terms): The president has moved into a statistical tie in the state against Romney — 40 percent to 42 percent. Only one Democrat, Bill Clinton in 1996, has carried the state since Harry Truman in 1948.

WHY DID HE SAY THAT? Democrats and even some Republicans are wondering aloud why Boehner went on TV yesterday and set at 33 percent the chance that the GOP will lose the House this fall. “I can tell you one thing: Nancy Pelosi would never ever raise the possibility we might lose,” Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said this morning.

“I would say that there is a 2-in-3 chance that we win control of the House again but there’s a 1-in-3 chance that we could lose,” the Speaker told Fox. "I’m being myself — frank; we’ve got a big challenge and we’ve got work to do.”  He said he viewed 50 fellow incumbents as in danger of defeat – none more so than the 18 running in “orphan districts” in California, Illinois and New York, where there’s no Senate race above the House contest on the ballot and Obama is a lock to carry the state. (The Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats to retake the House, so a wipeout in those “frankly pretty vulnerable” districts, to use Boehner’s phrase, would accomplish three-quarters of that task.)

The comments encapsulate several truths about the current state of play in the race for congressional control. Most race-by-race analyses conclude that the Speaker’s odds are within range of appropriate (if seldom-stated) political reality, and so there’s little reason for the Speaker to be coy about it — especially because sounding the alarm now should have the effect of helping the odds get longer. That’s because his publicly stated concern, which is a total reversal from his “nearly impossible” rhetoric of a month ago, will undeniably have the effect of helping the party raise more money in the weeks and months ahead. And at the moment, the sense that continued House control can be taken for granted has led to the Republican congressional campaign organization falling behind its Democratic counterpart in fundraising.

ADVANTAGE, BANKS: The banks have won the latest skirmish in their war with the credit unions over the market in small-business lending. For much of this spring, it looked very much like the credit unions had the votes to pass legislation in the Senate this month that would have allowed them to expand their lending capabilities — and thereby cut into the banks’ cherished territory. (The bill would allow credit unions to raise the cap on loans in their small-business portfolios from 12.25 percent of their assets to a of 27.5 percent — which the credit unions claim would prompt them to make loans creating 100,000 jobs.) But a blizzard of lobbying by the banks — who say the legislation would crush community institutions and give even more advantages to the credit unions, which already get a tax-exempt status — has now prompted Reid to postpone the vote indefinitely, although he is still signaling it will happen sometime this year. Every week of delay, however, makes it less likely the House will take up the measure during this Congress.

STILL, IT WON’T BE EASY: Reid got around his most recent Max Baucus problem this morning by securing an agreement to name seven other Senate Democrats (in addition to the Finance chairman) to the conference panel that will write the final highway bill. That means Baucus will not be able to bond with all the Republicans to push through language that goes against his party’s wishes — and tempts a veto — by essentially compelling approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The eight Democrats named to the negotiating table were Baucus, Barbara Boxer, Jay Rockefeller, Dick Durbin, Tim Johnson, Chuck Schumer, Bill Nelson and Bob Menendez. The six Republicans were Jim Inhofe, David Vitter, Orrin Hatch, Dick Shelby, Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Hoeven. The House leadership plans to name its negotiators tomorrow. The conferees already are conceding it will take until June to come up with a final version of the road and mass transit policy package — because they will in many ways be starting from scratch, because of the wide gulfs of policy differences (the Keystone pipeline one of many) between the Senate’s two-year, $109 billion bill and the much more expensive five-year aspirations of the House GOP.

THE DELAWARE GAMBIT: Romney is of course going to vacuum-up a lopsided majority of the 231 delegates at stake in today’s five Republican presidential primaries. (Polls close at 8 in Connecticut, Delaware and Pennsylvania, and at 9 in New York and Rhode Island.) The only one of those contests worth watching is the smallest of them all — in Delaware, because that’s where Newt Gingrich is making what really, truly looks to be his last symbolic stand. Helped by a decent grass-roots organization, he’s spent most of his time there in the last couple of weeks and has a genuine shot at winning — which would mean securing a tiny but comforting 17-delegate boost (it’s a winner-take-all contest). If that happens, the former Speaker plans to plow ahead into the North Carolina primary campaign (May 8; 55 delegates) on that thinnest possible reed of viability. And if that doesn’t happen, he’s signaling that he will once and for all bring his career in electoral politics to a belated end.

COLD MOUNTAINS: Pennsylvania is the only one of today’s presidential primary states where congressional nominations are also being decided, and the results will bring an end to the House careers of at least one centrist Democrat — and probably two.

In the marquee member vs. member race, in the rural areas north and east of Pittsburgh, Jason Altmire’s once solid front-runner status has been reduced to only a slight and tenuous edge over Mark Critz. Organization to turn out the vote will prove even more critical than usual, because the weather in the region is unseasonably cold and blustery — with a lingering prospect for sticking snow around Johnstown. That would be bad news for Critz, because that’s his political wheelhouse, but at the same time he has the much more enthusiastic backing of unions, which have labeled the Blue Dog Altmire a sellout for opposing the 2010 health care law.

At the other end of the state, in territory drawn by the Republican legislature to concentrate in one district almost all the Democratic precincts in the rural northeast quadrant, another conservative Democrat who voted against the health care law, Tim Holden, is on the precipice of being ousted after 10 terms. The probable primary winner is a relatively liberal attorney, Matt Cartwright, who has poured more than $400,000 of his own money into the campaign and been aided by a $300,000 investment against Holden by outside groups including the League of Conservation Voters and the anti-incumbent Campaign for Primary Accountability. Holden and his forces have spent less than that, and the congressman is also critically hampered by the demographic fact that 80 percent of the electorate is new to him.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Georgia Republican Jack Kingston, chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee (57).

— 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, April 23, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Keystone Heavy

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, April 23, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama used his first visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum this morning to announce several steps he’s taking to prevent genocide and other mass atrocities in Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. He’s signed an executive order enabling the United States to sanction foreign nationals who track cell phone and Web traffic in order to crack down on dissent or orchestrate human rights abuses. He’s created a new Atrocities Prevention Board at the White House and has ordered a formal National Intelligence Estimate to appraise the potential for mass killings across the globe.

The president will present the Commander-in-Chief Trophy to the Air Force Academy football team at the White House at 2:30.

THE SENATE: Convenes at noon for an afternoon of debate on how to update the Violence Against Women Act and whether to spike new federal regulations for speeding union elections. (A party-line vote to preserve the National Labor Relations Board rules will come tomorrow; debate on the domestic violence measure will be later in the week, after passage of the Postal Service overhaul.)

The day’s only roll call, at 5:30, will transform Brian Wimes, a state trial judge in Kansas City for the past five years, into a federal trial judge in Missouri.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 11 for a pro forma session.

ROGUE ELEMENT: Look for Max Baucus to infuriate his Democratic leadership at least one more time this spring, by providing the potentially decisive vote in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The Senate Finance chairman — who’s got a decades-old reputation for cutting bipartisan deals on taxes, trade and health care even when they are at cross purposes with his party’s political positioning efforts — also has his party’s No. 2 seat on the committee that drives public works policy. That means he’s supposed to have one of the seats at the conference table where the final highway bill will be worked out. But Reid is delaying naming his negotiators because he doesn’t want to afford Baucus the opportunity to stick a finger in the eye of Obama and almost all his fellow Democrats, who have made opposition to the Keystone project Exhibit A for their stated commitment to environmental protection even when it means less job creation.

Baucus — who wants to win another term back home in Montana in two years — remains a fan of the pipeline, which would be built partly across his state. If regular order is followed, his vote combined with those of all the Senate GOP negotiators would form a majority bloc to accept the House’s Keystone language, which orders regulators to issue permits for the project. And if that happens, and the compromise bill clears Congress in that form (which would be likely), the president would be pressured to veto the job-creating highway bill at an extraordinarily inopportune time.

ONE TO WATCH: One of the oldest truisms about Congress is that nothing is less partisan than agriculture policy. And so the writing of the new farm bill, which gets started this week, will be a test of just how irredeemably polarized the Capitol has become. If the historic pattern holds, the fault lines in the debate will be along regional lines and be all about picking winners and losers among the commodities — cotton vs. rice, soybeans vs. corn, etc. If the newer reality has infiltrated the twice-a-decade debate, which seems certain, then the issues will go beyond that, pitting Republicans who want to spend and regulate a lot less against Democrats who are willing to spend only a little less but want to regulate a bit more.

The basic structure of the farm bill that Senate Agriculture will take up Wednesday — when the House will open a series of preliminary hearings — is that direct price prop-up payments to many farmers would be eliminated, and other subsidy programs would be consolidated and streamlined to offer payments that would fluctuate based on weather changes and other events beyond farmers’ control. Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow’s bill would reduce conservation spending by 10 percent and trim back rural development as well — a sign the agriculture policy makers are conceding up front that any big deficit reduction package is sure to hit farm programs significantly, and the best option is for the farm bill to get out in front of that eventuality.

RUBIO WATCH: Marco Rubio is in the Philadelphia suburbs for a rally at 1 with Mitt Romney — making him at least the sixth potential running mate (along with Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Tim Pawlenty, Kelly Ayotte, John Thune and Rob Portman) who’s been given something akin to an up-close-and-personal vice-presidential audition by campaigning right beside the presumed nominee. And the freshman senator from Florida, who had been almost Shermanesque in his demurrals about joining the ticket until now, struck a much squishier rhetorical tone yesterday: “Our nominee, Mitt Romney, the leader of the Republican Party, has a vice presidential process in place,” he said on CNN. “ From this point moving forward, I think it’d be wise for all Republicans to kind of respect that process, myself included, and say moving forward, we’re going to let his process play itself out.” (Without Rubio on the stage, the town hall meeting in Aston probably would get no other coverage, of course, because with native son Rick Santorum out of the race, tomorrow’s Pennsylvania primary result is a foregone conclusion.)

INTO THE DETAILS: Chairmen on both sides of the Capitol are broadening their investigations into misbehavior by the Secret Service. But both of them, and virtually every lawmaker who has spoken out, are expressing confidence in Director Mark Sullivan and praising his response to the most high-profile scandal to envelop his agenda in decades.

Senate Homeland’s Joe Lieberman says his panel will be looking into whether the Colombian advance team’s night of debauchery last month "was an exception" or "a pattern of misconduct that has gone on elsewhere." On Fox yesterday, he said he would be sending the Homeland Security Department (which oversees the Secret Service) detailed questions about the conduct of agents not only when they’re on the clock but when they’re off duty. And on the “Today” show this morning, House Homeland’s Peter King said his panel had similarly delivered a list of 50 specific questions and a demand for “a comprehensive, minute-by-minute time line” of the vodka drinking, the prostitute procurement and the payment disputes at the Hotel Caribe. He also predicted that within days the roster of agents dismissed would grow beyond the current six. Both chairmen also revealed that one of the agents under scrutiny did not stay in the Cartagena hotel but appears to have broken the rules while assigned to stay in the Hilton just before the president was to arrive there for the Summit of the Americas.

THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT: Utah is not France. Which means that, even though Orrin Hatch wasn’t able to dispatch his rival in the first round of Republican voting at Saturday’s state GOP convention — he came up 32 votes, or 1 percentage point, short of the 60 percent he needed — Hatch is still the decided favorite to win his June 26 primary against former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist and then cruise to a seventh term in the fall. (Nicolas Sarkozy’s narrow second-place finish, meanwhile, makes him the underdog against Socialist Francois Hollande in the second round of French balloting two Sundays from now.)

The Finance Committee’s 78-year-old top Republican left the convention with ample momentum, the likelihood of Mitt Romney’s coordinated support, an already-lopsided financial advantage — sure to be bolstered by millions more in Washington money in the next two months — and a bold message for his 37-year-old challenger and his tea party supporters: “This tough old bird isn’t someone you can just trample on.” And the senator is on solid ground in making that boast, given that for most of the past two years he looked to be in significant danger of suffering the same fate as his former Senate colleague Bob Bennett, who was ousted at Utah’s 2010 GOP convention by the state’s most conservative forces. That result, one of the biggest upsets in the nation that year, heralded the rise of the tea party movement — but also gave Hatch ample warning that he would need to raise more money and put together a more sophisticated organization than ever before. Which he has now done. (The Democratic candidate will be former state Sen. Scott Howell, who took 40 percent against Hatch a dozen years ago.)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Today, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan (59); yesterday, House Democrat Jim Langevin of Rhode Island (48).

— 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