Friday, May 11, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Carolina Comfort

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, May 11, 2012

Today In Washington

David Hawkings is away.

THE WHITE HOUSE: The president heads to Reno today to tout a portion of his “To Do List” for Congress. The emphasis is on mortgages and homeownership: Obama says lawmakers should find additional ways to make it easier for people to refinance at lower rates. The White House says that refinancing applications “have increased by 50 percent” since changes made in October 2011 that allowed homeowners with federally backed loans to refinance. The latest proposal, among other things, would expand those refinancing options to people whose loans aren’t backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

THE SENATE: Not in session. Reconvenes on Monday with this week’s two floor items — the student loan bill and the Ex-Im Bank reauthorization — still in play. There’s a procedural vote scheduled for Monday on the Ex-Im bill, but there’s no word on what Reid might do with the student loan measure.

THE HOUSE: Not in session. Next week’s full schedule hasn’t been released, but GOP leaders say a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and the fiscal 2013 defense policy bill will be on the floor.

CENTER OF GRAVITY: Romney looks to turn the page today on a week that saw Obama (with his gay marriage comments) and the media (namely, The Washington Post and its candidate-as-young-bully story) drive the national conversation. The Republican heads to North Carolina for a speech at 1; what he says in Charlotte matters less than what he probably won’t say. The speech will be on the economy and not on social issues — an area where the state’s voters made their own firm statement this week in banning same-sex marriage. Romney’s pivot essentially affirms that even though he will continue to make plays for the votes of socially conservative voters (like his commencement speech Saturday at Liberty University, the school founded by Jerry Falwell), his comfort zone will always be his fiscal-policy differences with Obama.

THE NITTY-GRITTY: It’s about all he had left after a week in which the Senate accomplished little: Reid said yesterday that he wants to change the Senate’s rules so it’s not as easy for members to block the chamber from considering legislation. If this week’s non-action is a guide, he meant specifically that senators shouldn’t be able to filibuster the motion to proceed to a bill. That’s what Republicans basically did on the student loan bill and the Ex-Im Bank measure this week. Most of the cloture votes in the Senate are in those kinds of situations. The majority makes a motion to proceed to a measure, and the minority blocks it. Then the majority has to hold a procedural vote before there’s even a chance that the chamber can turn to the bill itself. The general word is “filibuster” for those situations, but it’s not as if any senator stands up and talks the motion to death. Reid and other Democrats say the current GOP tactics amount to abuse of the rules; if the chamber somehow makes progress on legislation next week, the majority leader perhaps won’t be so vocal about the situation.

VOLCKER POKER: The jury’s still out on what JP Morgan Chase’s $2 billion quarterly loss from derivatives bets means for the future of the Volcker rule, which is designed to restrict the kinds of financial bets that banks can make with their own money. Critics of the big banks say JP Morgan’s foul-up is a perfect example of why the rule — written by Democratic Sens. Carl Levin and Jeff Merkley under Dodd-Frank financial regulations law — needs tough implementation. (It was supposed to go into effect this year, but regulators are still working out the details.) But CEO Jamie Dimon says the bank probably would be able to make such trades even under the Volcker rule. The rule’s opponents say it’s already convoluted — and the whole situation suggests that the job for regulators will only get tougher. One thing is for sure: The losses diminish Dimon’s own clout when it comes to working with Washington on the implementation of the rule. He’s been a vocal opponent of Dodd-Frank.

NEW TARGET: The cybersecurity legislation favored by Senate Democrats and the White House is now facing the same kind of opposition that met a bill, known as CISPA, passed earlier this year by the Republican-led House. Privacy and civil liberties advocates, tech trade associations and conservative organizations dedicated to smaller government have banded together to oppose the Senate bill, saying it would not go far enough to protect citizens’ privacy and would not give them enough legal recourse if they believe those rights have been violated. Reid has repeatedly pushed back Senate debate on the measure — in part because other priorities have eaten up floor time — and now it’s possible that Democrats will take a second look at it, with an eye toward pleasing the Web community, one of the party’s key constituencies.

BRIEFLY IN THE BLACK: Perhaps lost in the shuffle yesterday was the Treasury’s announcement that the federal government ran a $59 billion surplus in April — the first time that’s happened since the Bush administration and the financial meltdown. The government is still running in the red overall, of course: The deficit for fiscal 2012 totals about $720 billion, the Treasury said. The Congressional Budget Office attributes the one-month surplus to lower spending, an increase in the amount of money coming into the government’s coffers, and the timing of certain transactions.

TRAIL TIPS: (Arizona) The GOP primary race in the state’s 4th District was altered significantly overnight when Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu told supporters that he was dropping out. Babeu said the reason is that he wants to finish the work he’s started as sheriff, but his campaign had faced challenges for several months: Reports about his personal life led him to announce earlier this year that he is gay, and the local media has kept up the pressure since then. At one point he had been the front-runner in the GOP race, which includes Rep. Paul Gosar along with state Sen. Ron Gould.

(House Democrats) The head of the House Democrats’ campaign arm says Obama’s new support for gay marriages won’t have much effect on the party’s House campaigns. Steve Israel’s advice for candidates? “Let people know how you feel and move on,” the Long Island lawmaker said yesterday. He said Democrats will make gains on Election Day, but he stopped short of saying they’ll reclaim enough seats to win the majority.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No current lawmakers, but former Sen. Jim Jeffords — who famously left the Republican Party in 2001 and thus handed control of the Senate to the Democrats — is 78.

— Joe Warminsky

Become a Facebook fan of David Hawkings at facebook.com/DavidHawkingsDC. Or follow him 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

Thursday, May 10, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Headed to the Shelf

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Today In Washington

David Hawkings is away.

THE SENATE: Reid is working behind the scenes to ensure that the chamber can call up and clear the reauthorization of the Ex-Im Bank that the House passed yesterday. If he can’t get a deal with Republicans for consideration of the bill, he’ll probably file for cloture. The majority leader has a news conference planned for noon where he’ll discuss the situation. The current charter for the bank, which helps finance U.S. exports of goods and services, is set to expire May 31.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and is preparing to pass legislation that would replace the nearly $100 billion in automatic spending cuts that are set to take effect next year with more than $310 billion in reductions over 10 years to spending on Medicaid, food stamps and other programs. This afternoon the chamber turns to the annual spending bill for the Commerce and Justice departments, NASA, and other science programs. Final passage is expected by 3.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is off to Seattle for two campaign events this afternoon, then flies to Los Angeles for another campaign stop this evening. He’ll stay overnight in California.

The administration announced this morning a series of efforts to reduce the regulatory burden created by the federal government. The White House says the changes will make things easier in the railroad industry, for doctors and hospitals, for owners of gas stations, and for states and localities when it comes to updating street signs.

THE MAIN SHOW: Today’s House action on budget legislation could end up being the last official word, for a while, on the “sequester” that is set for early 2013. The GOP measure to replace those cuts with a longer-term package is one part wish list, one part campaign document, and it’s not going anywhere. Republicans may find other ways to hold votes on those types of proposals (namely, trimming the social safety net to maintain funding levels for national security programs and other GOP priorities), but the process, for now, stops with Reid and Senate Democrats. They don’t have to do anything (at least until the post-election lame-duck session, when the White House will be more involved), because the sequester provides leverage, and it can be sold in theory as a fiscally prudent decision — even if nobody wants to deal with the legislative and political headaches it would cause.

That approach does open up Reid to GOP criticism that the Senate is putting off major decisions until the last minute. This Senate “already appears to be the laziest in 20 years,” John Barrasso, a member of the Senate leadership, wrote in a Roll Call op-ed today. (The GOP leadership is also casting an eye toward next year with the understanding that it could be running the Senate with a potentially unruly majority.)

THE SECOND STAGE: Those GOP budget priorities are surfacing elsewhere, especially in the debate on the annual defense policy bill. The law that allowed for the sequester also capped defense spending, and House Republicans plan to ignore those limits, particularly when it comes to authorizing certain new facilities. The GOP wants the military to build a costly and controversial nuclear weapons modernization facility in New Mexico and a missile defense battery on the East Coast; those items and others would bust the Pentagon’s caps by about $8 billion in fiscal 2013.

INSTANT REACTION: Obama’s remarks yesterday in favor of gay marriage came on a day when the House was working well past its usual bedtime on an appropriations bill, giving Republicans the chance to line up a same-day legislative response. The fact that the spending measure covers the Justice Department means that amendments concerning legal issues could be offered during the debate (the House’s normally tight rules to limit amendments also are a little looser during consideration of appropriations bills).

The chamber voted 275-171, largely along party lines, to accept a proposal by Republican Tim Huelskamp of Kansas that would force the executive branch to comply with the Defense of Marriage Act. Sixteen Democrats voted for it, and seven Republicans voted against it. The amendment is largely symbolic, though, because the Obama administration appears to be enforcing the law — a point that Democrats and at least one Republican (Steve LaTourette of Ohio) made during floor debate.

TRAIL TIPS: (Indiana) Democrat Joe Donnelly’s campaign team sees reason for optimism in its Senate race against Republican Richard Mourdock, who appears to be a much easier target than Dick Lugar, the man Mourdock beat in Tuesday’s GOP primary. Donnelly’s relationship to Obama will be one key: Democrats are hoping that the president either wins Indiana or keeps it close, while the socially conservative Senate candidate will have to find the right amount of distance to put between himself and a liberal White House. That dynamic will be most important with voters in southern Indiana — which isn’t Donnelly’s home turf but has become a second home of sorts on the campaign trail.

(California) Laos-born Blong Xiong would be the first Hmong-American in Congress if he wins the Fresno-area 21st District seat against GOP state Assemblyman David Valadao, who is considered a strong candidate. The redrawn district (which is heavily Hispanic) is a top GOP target; in winning his Assembly seat in 2010, Valadao proved that he can fare well in areas with a strong Democratic base. Xiong, a Fresno city councilman, has been raising money from the nation’s Hmong population, which the Census Bureau puts at about 260,000.

(Massachusetts) The latest poll numbers have incumbent Republican Scott Brown and Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren in a dead heat in their Massachusetts Senate race. The late April survey by the nonpartisan MassINC Polling Group had Brown ahead 43 percent to 41 percent. In the heavily Catholic state, Brown also was ahead 46 percent to 39 percent among Catholic voters, the poll found.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Two Republicans: 2011 Senate appointee Dean Heller of Nevada (62) and freshman Rep. Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania (64).

— Joe Warminsky

Become a Facebook fan of the Daily Briefing 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, May 09, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Nobody Behind Him

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Today In Washington

David Hawkings is away.

THE HOUSE: Floor action begins at noon and could last until midnight as members work their way through amendments to the annual Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill. Also on today’s schedule: a three-year renewal of the Ex-Im Bank’s charter, which the Senate is expected to clear for Obama’s signature not too long after the House passes it, and a bill that mostly makes non-binding statements about Israel policy.

THE SENATE: Senators will continue to chew up floor time with speeches as the leadership tries to figure out a way forward on legislation to keep student loan rates from increasing this summer. Reid has the option of making a motion to reconsider yesterday’s procedural vote on the bill, which Republicans essentially used to stall the measure. Such a revote probably wouldn’t happen today unless leaders can cut a deal on how to pay for the legislation.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama and Biden meet at 2:10 with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen to discuss the alliance’s summit later this month in Chicago. The president and vice president then meet with Geithner in the Oval at 2:45.

Tonight there will be another taping for the “In Performance at the White House” series, this time honoring the composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David. The show will air on PBS on May 21. There’s no word about whether the president will have another “Sweet Home Chicago” moment and tackle one of the many hits the songwriting duo has penned for Dionne Warwick and others over the years.

NO THANKS: Although foreign policy generally plays a minor role in Senate campaigns, the chamber’s 100 members have undeniable influence over how the United States interacts with the world. And although Indiana Republicans made it clear Tuesday that Dick Lugar’s experience with the stuff of statesmanship didn’t matter much to them or their pocketbooks (and Lugar didn’t do much to win them over, either), the Foreign Relations Committee mainstay’s primary loss to tea party favorite Richard Mourdock only drives home the point that elected officials sometimes are called to take on necessary roles that ultimately have negligible political value.

Many of the Senate’s Republicans have shied away from that kind of position on Foreign Relations, and there’s no one with Lugar’s bona fides waiting in the wings on the committee. Bob Corker — who is still in his first term representing Tennessee — is next in line, but he would probably jump at a different job (i.e. the top GOP spot on Banking) if he had a chance next year. Marco Rubio of Florida appears to have a high level of interest in the issues, and he says he wants to stick around on the committee, but he’s a freshman and may or may not have other political plans.

The GOP’s other big players on foreign affairs — John McCain and Lindsey Graham, for example — all wield their influence, meanwhile, from committee jobs that offer a range of other power points, such as military budgets or appropriations bills.

MORE OF THE SAME: While the Senate’s student loan bill remains unsettled, the Democratic leadership is preparing to push more legislation that reflects Obama’s campaign priorities while forcing the GOP to vote down ideas that seem to be in its wheelhouse. The latest piece would be a bill that would continue the ability of businesses to deduct the full cost of new equipment through the end of this year. That measure would also create a new tax credit equal to 10 percent of the cost of creating jobs or increasing wages in 2012.

As with the student loan bill, Reid will offer a procedural motion requiring 60 votes to succeed, and Republicans will hold ranks and block the measure. Even though it seems GOP-friendly on the surface, the legislation wouldn’t go far enough to please Republicans’ desire to cut taxes. The vote could come as early as this week, and the GOP will use the debate to push some of its own ideas — perhaps a House-passed measure that would cut taxes for businesses with fewer than 500 employees.

A ROLLING START: “I say to my conservative friends here ... on issues like national security and infrastructure, I’m a big spender. That’s what we’re here for,” Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe said yesterday in trying to set the tone for the House-Senate conference committee on the highway bill. The Oklahoman mostly was speaking, of course, to the bloc of tea party freshmen that House Republican leaders included among the conferees. Those lawmakers want some serious changes to the way the federal government handles transportation funds, and although Inhofe’s comments at the meeting implied that Senate Republicans are taking a more traditional everybody-gets-something approach to the process, the House GOP might not be so willing to give ground.

The big problem for conferees will be the usual headache of finding enough money to pay for a multi-year, multibillion-dollar measure. So far, any plans to shore up the Highway Trust Fund for at least two years have involved some creative accounting and a long, hard look for cuts elsewhere in the budget that could be applied to the legislation’s bottom line. The truth is that federal gas tax revenues aren’t enough to support the trust fund into the future. The battle in conference, then, will be about whether to buy some time with a find-money-where-we-can approach (like what Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus is proposing) or use this year’s debate to overhaul the funding system (which House Transportation Chairman John Mica and other Republicans — including the tea party freshmen — are advocating).

TRAIL TIPS: (Money) Republican-oriented super PACs have raised more than $156 million this cycle, compared with about  $43 million for super PACs that back Democrats, forcing those groups to push the party’s network of donors to pony up more cash. George Soros says he will soon give $2 million to a couple of progressive groups, and it’s possible that other supporters could follow his lead. At least that’s what the PAC leaders are hoping as they enter a crucial portion of the fundraising season.

(Massachusetts) Incumbent Republican Scott Brown has issued his first TV spot in his race with Democrat Elizabeth Warren. Brown sticks to the basics, playing up his relative independence and mentioning “the American dream.” It’s surprisingly positive, considering the competitiveness of the race. Warren’s latest spot, released last week, prominently features Obama and her role in the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — while likewise making no mention of her opponent.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Nobody in Congress, but John Ashcroft — the Republican former senator, Missouri governor and U.S. attorney general — turns 70.

— Joe Warminsky

Become a Facebook fan of the Daily Briefing 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, May 08, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Testy Senate

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Today In Washington

David Hawkings is away.

THE SENATE: Holds a procedural vote at noon on legislation to block this summer’s hike in student loan interest rates, then takes its usual Tuesday break for caucus lunches. Although both parties want to maintain the status quo for Stafford loans, they disagree on how to pay for the legislation. Republicans say they have the votes to stall the Democratic bill.

THE HOUSE: The first fiscal 2013 spending bill — for the departments of Justice and Commerce, as well as NASA and other science agencies — hits the floor. Members will have several days to offer amendments and debate the fine print. The White House says Obama would veto the House GOP measure because it dips below the amount agreed upon in last year’s debt limit law.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is arriving in Albany, N.Y., where he’ll tour the nanotech facility at the local SUNY campus and speak about the economy at 1:25. He returns to Washington in the afternoon and around 6 will deliver the keynote address at the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies’ annual dinner at the Ritz-Carlton.

HARDLY THE END: Today’s test vote in the Senate won’t be a disaster for congressional efforts to keep the Stafford loan rate at 3.4 percent. Assuming that Republicans succeed in blocking the Democratic proposal, the two sides will use the afternoon — and probably the rest of the week — to spin the results (unless one party has a new approach up its sleeve, which seems unlikely at this point). But the official deadline for acting isn’t until the end of June, and neither side wants to see the rate jump to 6.8 percent this summer. They’re turning it into a fight simply because they can.

Although the student loan issue has become a campaign point for Obama, for Congress it’s a chance to stick to its favorite topic for the past year and a half: where to squeeze the budget and by how much. The bill’s proposed offsets — the Democrats want to collect more taxes from S corporations; Republicans want to eliminate a prevention fund in the health care law — are largely symbolic at this point, because neither side will give much ground on those things in the long run.

That leaves the bill in a familiar situation: The leaders in both chambers will have to find a way forward, and it’s looking as though the solution will wait until next month. It depends, in part, on how long Republicans want to let the White House bang away on the issue with younger voters.

WHAT’S IN THE AIR? House and Senate conferees meet officially for the first time today on legislation to reauthorize highway and transit programs, and it’s possible that the rest of their work will happen in private. Some of the key issues — a mandate for quick approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, for example — are on the table because they were in the House’s version of the bill. But there are other topics that GOP leaders might like to address that weren’t passed as part of the legislation that came to conference. Those items will surface as negotiations move on, but there are constraints: Senate rules allow for procedural votes against anything “airdropped” into a conference report; the threshold on such challenges is 60 votes; and the 53-member Democratic majority would be able to win most, if not all, of them. The Keystone XL provision, meanwhile, already has drawn a veto threat from the White House.

BACK AROUND: While the defense and intelligence communities are preoccupied today with news about the CIA’s thwarting of another airliner “underwear bombing” attempt by al Qaeda, multiple pieces of military-related legislation are moving in the House. The Armed Services panel is preparing for tomorrow’s markup of the annual defense policy bill, which usually serves as the venue for all manner of national security debates. This time around, the House GOP majority’s bill is likely to stir opposition from Democrats over multiple proposals, including one to block planned increases in health care fees for certain military retirees (the White House wants to use that revenue elsewhere at the Pentagon) and another to set new requirements concerning detainees (which Democrats say are generally unnecessary). Clashes over detainee policy almost caused Congress to give up on last year’s defense authorization, which would have been the first time in decades that the bill wasn’t enacted. The fiscal 2013 Defense and Military Construction-VA appropriations bills were approved by House subcommittees this morning.

TRAIL TIPS: (Florida) While he tries to steer the highway bill in his party’s favor, House Transportation Chairman John Mica also will be paying close attention to what’s happening at home. Because of redistricting, the 10-term Florida Republican faces a primary from tea party freshman Sandy Adams, and the race in the Orlando suburbs has the state’s GOP elite dismayed at the drawn-out fight expected before the Aug. 14 vote. The redrawn 7th District contains 51 percent of Adams’ current constituents and 42 percent of Mica’s. But local operatives say Mica has more than enough name recognition and campaign money to prevail.

(New York) Charlie Rangel is the latest target of the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a nonpartisan super PAC that puts its money behind challengers to entrenched incumbents. The group says it will support state Sen. Adriano Espaillat in the Bronx district’s Democratic primary, in which a victory all but assures election to Congress. Espaillat would be the first congressman of Dominican descent; Rangel is still trying to shake off his 2010 censure for ethics violations. Other House targets of the PAC this year were Pennsylvania Democrat Tim Holden and Ohio Republican Jean Schmidt.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “He clearly understands that having pro-family initiatives are not only the morally and economically right thing to do, but that the family is the basic building block of our society and must be preserved,” Rick Santorum wrote in his endorsement of Mitt Romney, which went out quietly to the former senator’s supporters late last night.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: GOP Ways and Means member Vern Buchanan of Florida and fellow House Republican Ann Marie Buerkle, a freshman from New York. Both are 61.

— Joe Warminsky

Become a Facebook fan of the Daily Briefing at facebook.com/DavidHawkingsDC. Or follow David Hawkings 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, May 07, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Bells Are Ringing

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, May 7, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is using a 2:30 conference call with elected officials and student government leaders to make his latest pitch for preventing the cost of Stafford college loans from doubling in July. There’s a clear bipartisan consensus in Congress for doing so, but not on how to cover the $6 billion cost of extending the current 3.4 percent rate for a year. Back-channel negotiations continue in search of a pay-for that both parties could support — one day ahead of a Senate vote on whether to take up the Democrats’ plan. (Wary of looking obstructionist, Republicans are expected to vote in favor of starting the debate even if there's no deal on offsets; closing a health prevention fund, the GOP’s first offer, and raising taxes on S corporations, the Democrats’ opening bid, are essentially off the table.)

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 and will vote at 5:30 to elevate Jacqueline Nguyen, the first Vietnamese immigrant ever on the federal bench, from the district court seat she’s held in Los Angeles for three years to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. By filling one of four vacancies on that 29-member court, which hears cases from nine Western states, she’ll become only the second Asian-American appellate judge in the country.

Senators also will confirm two corporate attorneys, Kristine Baker of Little Rock and John Z. Lee of Chicago, as federal trial court judges.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at 2 to pass six non-controversial measures and send Obama a seventh, easing federal control over some real estate on D.C.’s Southwest waterfront in order to speed redevelopment. The votes won’t happen until 6:30.

HEADING SOMEWHERE: Another member of Obama’s innermost circle publicly endorsed same-sex marriages today — further evidence the president is going to have a very difficult time waiting until after the election to stop “evolving” and declare his own views about comprehensive civil rights for gays and lesbians.

Education Secretary Duncan, the Cabinet member with the longest personal friendship with the president, responded with a simple “Yes, I do” when asked on MSNBC if he believes same-sex couples should be able to legally marry. His revelation followed by less than 24 hours Biden’s declaration that he’s “absolutely comfortable” with gay couples having the same legal status as straight couples. Gay-rights groups hailed the vice president’s comments as an unmistakable breakthrough endorsement of same-sex marriage, although the White House and the re-election campaign insisted Biden was neither off the reservation nor making any news (because he was expressing his own personal views, not speaking for the administration, and has spoken similarly if less straightforwardly in the past).

The matter is extraordinarily delicate, politically, for the president. As the first African-American in the White House — and having arrived there four years ago with considerable financial help and a lopsided vote from the gay community — Obama is being pressed hard by his political allies to become a trailblazer on the highest-profile civil rights issue to emerge in the early 21st century. His work on ending the military’s ban on openly gay service members and neutralizing the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act has only heightened the disappointment that gay-rights advocates express about his disinclination to embrace marriage equality. But at the same time, a decision by Obama to do so just before he stands for re-election would surely inflame the Republican base and make the matter the central battlefield in the culture war — even though the president has no power (other than the bully pulpit) to address a question that all sides agree belongs at state legislatures and city councils. (Romney is unambiguously opposed to gay marriage rights and extending federal benefits for same-sex couples.)

The widespread expectation has been that the president, if he wins a second term, will declare his support for gay marriage soon thereafter. The pressure applied by Biden and Duncan means he may not be able to wait; the debate over the Democratic platform, which will be finalized at the convention in Charlotte in August, now looms as the moment when he will be under maximum pressure to make his endorsement. And he’ll also be under maximum pressure to refrain from doing so then — because North Carolina is a swing state, and in the fall it will be voting on a ballot initiative to make a ban on same-sex marriage part of the state constitution.

THEY’VE GOT PLANS: This will be the most legislatively substantive week so far this year — and may serve to create the perception, which will prove illusory at best, that Congress will finish addressing a meaningful roster of difficult policy questions before the election.  That’s because, in essentially every case, the standoffs and disagreements are marked departures from what have customarily been straightforward renewals and reauthorizations.

Beyond the Senate debate on the student loan rate freeze — which only a few weeks ago was a pro forma matter that neither side was out to politicize — will be tomorrow’s House Judiciary markup of GOP legislation renewing federal efforts to prevent domestic violence, a cause that on the surface sounds as non-controversial as possible but has become ensnared in a net of partisan dispute with the Democratic Senate. Also tomorrow is the formal opening of House-Senate negotiations on the now contentious (because of the Keystone pipeline) but historically bipartisan task of updating federal surface transportation programs. On Wednesday, the Republicans who run House Armed Services will push through a version of the annual Pentagon policy bill (which has gotten across the finish line for four decades straight) that may well get stuck for months because of disagreement with Obama on his plans for closing more military bases and retiring some high-altitude drones. And then on Thursday the House will approve a reauthorization for the Export-Import Bank. That, too, is a normally routine matter – but in recent weeks devolved into a re-litigation of the government’s proper role in helping big American companies find buyers for big-ticket items overseas, a standoff that it took Eric Cantor and Steny Hoyer to resolve personally.

PAPER CUTS: House Budget today will approve legislation to replace the across-the-board discretionary spending cuts with $261 in mandatory spending reductions over the next decade. It’s the first big formal step in the Republican effort to tamp down sequester anxiety — especially among defense hawks and military contractors – ahead of the election. But once the full House passes the measure later in the week, it is sure to sit on the shelf until the lame duck, when there will be seven weeks left before the first $98 billion in cuts are due to take effect. In other words, what’s being referred to at the Capitol as the “shadow reconciliation” package — which would claim much of its savings from cuts to food stamps, social services block grants, federal worker pensions and the Obama financial regulatory and health care overhauls — is the GOP’s springtime opening bid for negotiations that are off until late fall. (The bill would leave $19 billion of next year’s sequester alone — a doubling-down on the appropriations standoff between the GOP House and the Democratic Senate that’s also sure to last deep into the new budget year.)

TOSSUP TALLY: The presidential race is a statistical dead heat — Obama at 47 percent, Romney at 45 percent — in the dozen states where the contest will be decided, according to the USA Today/Gallup poll out this morning. (The states — listed alphabetically to assist memorization — are Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.) In the last such swing states survey, in late March, Obama was ahead by 9 percentage points. But the poll, taken before the president’s weekend campaign launch rallies, also finds an important reversal in the enthusiasm gap has taken hold since the first such battleground survey last fall: Now, Democrats are 11 points ahead of Republicans when asked if they are extremely or very enthusiastic about voting this November; at the end of last year, the GOP was ahead on that score by 14 points.

The Obama campaign started airing a minute-long TV ad this morning in nine of the dozen swing states. (Iowa, Wisconsin and New Mexcio were not part of the buy.) “We’re not there yet. It’s still too hard for too many. But we’re coming back,” concludes the ad, which makes no mention of the Republican candidate.

TRAIL TIPS: (Indiana) Dick Lugar is looking at a double-digit loss in tomorrow’s primary.  The last Howey/DePauw poll before the election (taken a week ago and released Friday) shows state Treasurer Dick Mourdock ahead, 48 percent to 38 percent. If the Republicans who remain undecided break the way they customarily do in such races, which is 2-to-1 in favor of the challenger, then the six-term senator would end up with about 43 percent of the vote — a stunning repudiation of someone who has been a dominant figure in Indiana’s Republican politics for almost four decades, and one of the preeminent American foreign policy and nuclear disarmament players in the nearly seven decades since World War II. (The previous Howey/DePauw poll, in late March, had Lugar ahead, 42 percent to 35 percent.)

(Wisconsin) Tom Barrett, a rising-star Democrat who was pushed out of Congress a decade ago because of reapportionment, seems to be a lock to win tomorrow’s primary for the right to challenge Republican Scott Walker in the June 5 gubernatorial recall election. Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee since 2004, lost the governor's race to Walker by 6 points in 2010, but the state’s Democratic voters seem confident he’s their best shot at removing a governor they can’t abide because of his efforts to curb collective-bargaining rights for most public workers and implement other tea-party-style policies. The final poll before the voting showed Barrett with a 17-point lead over Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, even though she has the backing of the labor organizations that ignited the recall.

(Michigan) Joe Schwarz has decided against becoming a Democrat in order to take another run at his longtime Republican rival, Tim Walberg, in the state’s southeastern quadrant. The two have been fighting over the House seat on and off since 2004; the much more moderate Schwarz held it for a single term and was ousted by Walberg in the primary. Democrats have been courting Schwarz, a physician and former Battle Creek mayor and state senator, for months to make a comeback at age 74, because under redistricting he looked to offer the party its best hope of taking back the seat. Now the nomination is likely to go to either the Jackson County Democratic chairman, Ruben Marquez, or to lawyer Kurt Haskell. Both would be clear underdogs in the fall as Walberg bids for his first back-to-back win.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: House Republicans Candice Miller of Michigan (58) and Blaine Luetkemeyer of Missouri (60), and House Democrat Ted Deutch of Florida (46).

— David Hawkings, editor

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

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