Friday, June 01, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Not One To Run On

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, June 1, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is landing in Minneapolis, where he’ll seek to put his best possible spin on today’s dispiriting jobs report: only 69,000 net new positions created (less than half the consensus forecast) and also a one-tenth uptick in the unemployment rate, to 8.2 percent.

The official purpose of the trip is a 1:10 (D.C. time) speech at the Honeywell plant in nearby Golden Valley, where he’ll once again tout his congressional to-do list — this time emphasizing his proposed Veterans Jobs Corps to help service members back from Afghanistan and Iraq veterans get work in the public sector. The rest of the day will be spent raising money — with three different fundraisers at the Bachelor Farmer restaurant in the Twin Cities, a rally  at the Chicago Cultural Center and two dinners nearby with top-dollar givers in private residences. (He’s spending the night in Chicago.)

THE HOUSE: Convened 9 and will be done for the week within the hour, after voting on the first rasher of proposed amendments to the annual spending bill for the Energy Department and Corps of Engineers. (There will be contentious debates over nuclear power and waste storage, water pollution regulation and whether to do more research on fossil fuels or green energy, but passage with broad bipartisan support will come early next week.) At $32.1 billion, the measure would appropriate 3 percent less than Obama sought but a quarter-point more than what’s being spent this year.

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

ADDITION AND SUBTRACTION: The really weak growth in American payrolls in May was undeniably bad news for an economy that has been struggling to show some signs of sure-footing — and for a president struggling to show he deserves a measure of the credit.

There are only five more monthly jobs reports before Election Day — and the trend from the reports in recent months offers no evidence that any economic surge will be evident on Nov. 6, when both Obama and Romney say they want the country to use economic stewardship as their principal presidential election decider. Today’s headline numbers — the smallest increase in private-sector jobs in nine months, and the first rise in the unemployment rate in 11 months — offered the Republicans all the evidence they needed to lambaste the president for his handling of the economy and to declare him dangerous for a second term. (“Pathetic,” Cantor declared.) And it’s true that no one since FDR has won re-election when unemployment was as high as it is now.

And yet, there were some potentially hopeful signs in the details of this morning’s numbers. The size of the labor force actually grew by 642,000 in May, and the percentage of the population that’s either working or looking for a job also ticked up 2 tenths of a point, to 63.8 percent. (In fact, that’s the reason the jobless rate ticked back up.) For Republicans so critical of the White House, those numbers are problematic. The GOP mantra has been that job prospects are so bad that potential workers are just giving up and walking away. Turns out, that’s not so. The growing labor force is plausibly a sign that Americans think they have a better chance to find work now than they did a month ago. The rising jobless rate reinforces the surge of hopeful people coming back to the labor force.

Construction firms cut 28,000 jobs, the steepest drop in two years. Professional services, government, hotels, restaurants and other leisure industries also lost head count. But manufacturing, transportation, education and health care were up. If overall job creation picks up at a decent clip this summer — still a big if, especially at a time when one government job (13,000 in May) is being eliminated for every six jobs (82,000) created in private business — then the numbers might start to look sufficient for Obama to run on. If not, it’s going to be nail-biting time for the president for the next 159 days until his contract is up for renewal. “It is important not to read too much into any one monthly report.” Alan Krueger, chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, said in a statement that echoed that reality. “There is much more work that remains to be done to repair the damage caused by the financial crisis and deep recession that began at the end of 2007.”

IT WAS US: The bombshell revelations atop the New York Times front page this morning — Obama began ordering super-secret cyberattacks on Iran within days of taking office — punctures giant holes in the conventional understanding of U.S. relations with Iran, and in the argument that the U.S. has been an innocent (and passive) victim of digital attacks by nations looking to plunder our economic and military secrets.

It turns out Obama has not been pursuing exclusively diplomatic channels in seeking to get Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions — which is probably a big reason his administration has more or less sloughed off the increasing congressional efforts to stoke tension between the countries with angry rhetoric and steadily advancing sanctions legislation. (It’s also potentially why the Hill’s efforts to push Obama to be more assertive have only gone so far — because, at least if the proper procedures were followed, a handful of the top leaders in both parties have been clued in to what was really going on, and then decided to let the clandestine efforts play themselves out a while.)

It also turns out that what many cybersecurity experts have long suspected is true: The Stuxnet worm — a digital creature that we now learn has been successful as the first cyberweapon to cause big-time physical damage — was originally designed by Israel and the U.S. (during the Bush years) to slow Iran’s nuclear enrichment plant. And the ability of the virus to escape from Iran’s Natanz plant (after disabling centrifuges there) and make its way to Germany, where it was discovered two years ago, was a big mistake that U.S. authorities somewhat deceptively blamed all on Israel.

Finally, it turns out that — at the same time the Obama administration was threatening to respond to other countries’ cyberattacks with traditional physical force — it was perpetrating cyberattacks on the very nations it has been accusing of targeting American civilian and government networks. Obama’s team has placed a greater emphasis on cybersecurity and the threat to U.S. networks than any other administration — no doubt because they had first-hand knowledge of just how damaging and stealthy these attacks could be.

After the Times' disclosures, those same officials will need to be vigilant in guarding against retaliatory cyberstrikes from Iran or any other nations where Stuxnet may have been worming away. And Congress — especially if it has been kept in the dark about this powerful new weapon — is sure to open an overt debate about the propriety of our launching (and secretly so) the first known cyberwar, and about what should be the American rules of engagement in the coming era online battle. The debate will need to happen relatively quickly. That’s because hostile nations now have confirmation the U.S. has the power and the willingness to target their computers — and may already plotting ways to hack into American systems first.

OH HOW TIMES HAVE CHANGED: Although John Edwards declared yesterday that “I don’t think God’s through with me,” he left it purposefully vague what he hopes to do now with his disgraced life. But he should have plenty of time to decide, because the odds are overwhelming that he won’t be tried again. The Justice Department was widely ridiculed (from lawyers all across the political spectrum) for prosecuting him in the first place, because the interpretation of campaign finance law it pursued was such a stretch. If the jurors didn’t buy five-sixths of the argument after nine days of trying, and rejected the argument on the other charge, it seems impossible to expect a better result in a second shot at all the convoluted money-moving  Edwards did to hide his sordid and deceitful behavior.

And besides, how he exploited the rich and politically naive in order to try to keep his outsized ambitions alive is so four years ago — both in its own time line and in the time line of campaign finance law, in which years are measured more or less like dog years. A whole new era of money in politics has dawned since Bunny Mellon got swept off her feet; the Citizens United case means it would now be totally legal for her to start a Super PAC that could underwrite Rielle Hunter’s videography business — and probably put love child Quinn on the payroll. In other words, it’s almost impossible now to stop anyone from spending anything in the name of political speech, so what’s the point of trying to prosecute someone — even a clever and admittedly conniving trial lawyer — for a questionably broad reading of the rules of the game before they changed?

QUOTE OF NOTE: “Ronnie would have liked Gov. Romney’s business background and his strong principles, and I have to say I do too,” Nancy Reagan said yesterday in announcing her presidential endorsement — after the GOP candidate and Ann Romney stopped by the former first lady’s Los Angles home for lemonade and cookies. Romney, she said, “has the experience and leadership skills that our country so desperately needs.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Today, Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop of New York (62) and GOP Rep. Greg Harper of Mississippi (56); tomorrow, House Intelligence Chairman (and Michigan Republican) Mike Rogers (49).

— 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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Thursday, May 31, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: DOMA Down

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 with lawmakers expecting roll calls until 11 tonight, by which point the chamber will be deep into an unexpectedly contentious debate on a $72 billion spending package for veterans’ benefits and military construction — the second fiscal 2013 appropriations bill to come before the House. (Passage seems on course for tomorrow.)

The day’s most newsworthy roll call will reveal whether a bipartisan two-thirds majority would make it a crime for doctors to perform sex-selecting abortions. The answer is probably not.

Much of the day will be spent debating the annual (and mostly classified) bill setting budgets for the CIA and at least a dozen other spy agencies. The grand total is a secret, but the Intelligence Committee is willing to say it’s a bit more than the $72 billion Obama asked for — and “significantly below” what’s being spent this year. The bill would boost funding for counterintelligence against foreign spies, protect commercial satellite contracts from some proposed cuts and authorize a new Defense Clandestine Service.

THE SENATE: Not in session this week.

THE WHITE HOUSE: The Obamas are hosting lunch in the Red Room for two of the four living former first couples — the Bush 43s and the Bush 41s — and a gaggle of their extended family. They’ll move to the East Room at 1:25 for the ceremonial unveiling of the portraits of George W. and Laura Bush that will hang in the mansion in perpetuity — initially in the Grand Foyer. It will be a rare occasion when partisan rhetoric and simmering grudges are somewhat self-consciously stashed away in favor of statesmanlike nostalgia, high-minded talk about the arc of history and cordial ribbing about the intimacies and understandings only presidents can share. (Bush was last at the White House in January 2010 to help out with Haiti humanitarian relief.)

MORE DEFENSE REQUIRED: The federal appeals court in Boston today struck down the heart of the Defense of Marriage Act, declaring it was unconstitutional to deny a host of federal benefits to gay couples even if they are legally married.

The 1996 law, one of the few culture war victories of the Newt Gingrich Republican revolution, was written at a time when it appeared Hawaii would become the first state to legalize gay marriage. (It wasn’t, but Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland, Washington and D.C. have done so.) Three judges on the 1st Circuit agreed with a federal trial judge’s ruling in 2010 that the law unconstitutionally interferes with a state’s right to define marriage and also denies married gay couples federal benefits given to heterosexual married couples, including the ability to file joint federal tax returns. (The court didn’t rule on the law’s other provision, which says states without same-sex marriage can’t be compelled to recognize gay marriages in other states.)

This morning’s ruling is sure to mean that gay marriage will remain an issue in this year’s election. Though polling since Obama declared his support for such unions has shown the nation trending increasingly in favor of his view, socially conservative Republicans have shown intense eagerness to make the issue a bedrock test of a candidates’ moral value — raising money on the issue and declaring it will drive their decisions at the polls. The ruling (which couldn’t be appealed to the Supreme Court before the election) will also perpetuate an intense battle of prerogatives and powers between the executive and legislative branches. Last year, the president announced the Justice Department shouldn’t defend the constitutionality of the law — and Boehner responded by organizing a House-financed legal team to defend it.

ON THE SPOT: House Republicans have embedded only one poison pill in their measure to pay veterans benefits and finance construction at military bases in the coming year, which is almost always among the first of the dozen appropriations bills enacted into law. But the provision, by itself, has the potential to derail the legislation for the summer.

The language puts Democrats in the extremely uncomfortable position of having to choose between two of their favorite constituencies: veterans and labor unions. They (and the Obama administration) say it would effectively prevent the use of so-called PLAs — which stands for project labor agreements — on federal construction projects, which the president has been pushing for since taking office. (They were banned during the Bush administration.) By setting basic terms and conditions for big projects even before contracts are awarded, such agreements are supposed to streamline contract negotiations and avoid strikes — but critics say the effect is to make projects more expensive and effectively closed to non-union shops.

In the House, anyway, the argument is essentially a two-year standoff. There were three votes on whether to keep or ditch PLAs for government contracts last year, and the Republicans won all of them — but never by more than a handful of votes. That’s because at least two-dozen GOP lawmakers with union sympathies crossed party lines, but the Democrats stayed almost entirely united. And two weeks ago, on the first test vote on the issue this year, the same pattern continued, but the Democrats squeaked out a victory. By 211-209 during consideration of the annual defense policy bill, they blocked GOP language that would have barred PLAs for military work. The Republican hope this time, though, is that in the next day they can reverse the momentum — because some Democrats will choose to speed the VA portion of the appropriations bill along rather than pick a protracted union-vs.-management fight. (The eight Democrats who did not vote on the matter the last time were Cardoza, Clay, Filner, Pascrell, Loretta Sanchez, Slaughter and Speier. The absent Republicans were Amodei, Gosar and Ros-Lehtinen.)

ANOTHER VOICE: Obama may be showing no sign of putting the American military to work alleviating the humanitarian crisis in Syria — but the drumbeat in Congress in favor of putting U.S. troops on the ground in some limited way is getting a mite louder. Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin said yesterday that U.S. intelligence and logistics assets, including drones, should be deployed to help protect a potential safe haven in Turkey for Syrian refugees. (Only a few other Democrats, most notably Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, have joined the hawkish ranks of Republicans led by John McCain in pressing for military involvement.)

TRAIL TIPS: (The Presidency) The race between Obama and Romney is a statistical tie in three battleground states, according to NBC-Marist polls out today. In Iowa, the two are tied at 44 percent among registered voters. In Colorado, Obama is at 46 percent and Romney is at 45 percent. In Nevada, the president is at 48 percent to 46 percent for the GOP nominee-in-waiting.

(New York) Mayor Mike Bloomberg — as well as his predecessor Ed Koch and the front-runner to be his successor, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn — all endorsed Charlie Rangel yesterday, a sign that he may be consolidating organizational and grass-roots support in his bid for a 22nd term. “We’ve had six very different mayors during his tenure in Congress, but we all shared one thing in common: When the city needs results in Washington, you pick up the phone and call Congressman Rangel,” Bloomberg said. The June 26 Democratic primary in the Harlem-based district remains one of the most difficult elections of Rangel’s career, because it’s the first since his ethics censure by the House two years ago. His most serious challenger remains state Sen. Adriano Espaillat.

(Wisconsin) Five days ahead of the recall election, a poll out today from Marquette Law School has incumbent GOP Gov. Scott Walker 7 percentage points ahead (52 percent to 45 percent) of challenger Tom Barrett, the Democratic former congressman and Milwaukee mayor. (The poll also has Obama ahead of Romney across the state by 8 points.)

(New Jersey) In the bitter primary campaign between Steve Rothman and Bill Pascrell, two suburban congressmen who seemed to be genuinely friendly with each other during the first 16 years of their careers, Ways and Means member Pascrell has taken a decided lead in donations from fellow lawmakers; he got checks of $2,000 or more each in the last week from Carolyn McCarthy, Nick Rahall and retirees Jerry Costello and Heath Shuler. Whoever wins the nomination in the consolidated district on Tuesday is a lock for November because of the area’s Democratic lean.

(Illinois) Bobby Schilling has always been in the top tier of Republican freshmen seen as most vulnerable to defeat, but he’s unveiled a poll taken two weekends ago showing him with a 16-percentage-point lead (51 percent to 35 percent) over Democratic nominee Cheri Bustos, a former alderwoman in Moline. The two are running in a significantly redrawn (and more Democratic) district from where Schilling won two years ago, but the poll also showed him with 86 percent name identification (to her 51 percent) — and also running 10 points ahead of Romney in the territory.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “I’m not going to make a prediction other than this: I think the Senate is going to be close, one way or the other,” McConnell said when asked if Republicans would gain the four seats they need to be assured of control next year. “It’s going to be an eye-gouging, shin-kicking contest all the way to the finish line.” He listed North Dakota, Montana, Missouri and Virginia as the party’s ripest pickup targets; Ohio, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Hawaii as his second tier; and Maine, Pennsylvania and Florida as outside shots.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Southwestern Indiana’s House member, Republican Larry Bucshon (50) and Guam’s non-voting delegate, Democrat Madeleine Bordallo (79).

— 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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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Busy Bodies

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Today In Washington

David Hawkings is away.

THE HOUSE: Convenes at 2 to debate several bills under the expedited suspension-of-the-rules process, which requires a two-thirds majority for passage; any roll call votes will be held after 6:30. The chamber will pass its version of a reauthorization of the user fees that the FDA charges companies as part of the drug-approval process.

Less certain to get a two-thirds majority is a measure to ban sex-selective abortions — the decision to end a pregnancy because, say, it’s a girl and not a boy. The bill does not include a similar provision for abortions sought on the basis of the race of the unborn child or its parent — but it’s unclear if that move to focus the legislation on one topic will bring enough Democrats on board. (The bill's opponents say it would limit women’s access to abortion services and intimidate medical providers.)

The agenda also includes a short-term reauthorization of federal flood insurance programs and several bills related to homeland security. Many of the items will pass by voice vote.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama attends a hurricane preparedness briefing at 10:30 (one of the early storms, Beryl, is just rated as a tropical depression). He signs the reauthorization of the Ex-Im Bank at 11:40 and hosts a Jewish American Heritage Month reception at 5.

THE SENATE: Not in session.

MEN OF ACTION: Washington is experiencing a bit of a reset this week: The Senate is out, the House is doing some legislative housecleaning, Obama has been sticking close to the Oval Office and Romney’s victory in last night’s Texas primary (which appears to have clinched the GOP nomination) feels more like a punctuation mark in a general-election campaign that essentially started weeks ago.

Not all is quiet, though. Before Memorial Day, the Democratic majority in the Senate and the Republican majority in the House did their usual summer-agenda-setting, and both sides opted for some variation of “getting as much done as possible.” It’s the time of year for appropriations measures and other familiar items, but Cantor and Reid also each have plans for floor consideration of bills that would seem like accomplishments but might not go anywhere in the long run.

For the Senate, June will start with a bill that would boost enforcement of an existing law against sex-based pay discrimination. Reid also wants to act on a small-business tax credit that is one of Obama’s priorities. Beyond that, the chamber could turn to student loan legislation, the new farm bill, a reauthorization of federal flood insurance programs and maybe a spending bill or two. His big problem, as always, is a Republican minority that sees every bill as an opportunity to score points ahead of the election.

Cantor went into last weekend saying the House would focus on items relating to job growth and the economy, including energy production incentives and extensions of tax cuts. The House GOP also wants to line up a legislative response to the Supreme Court’s expected ruling on the 2010 health care law. (His agenda memo didn’t mention a few big-ticket items, including the farm bill or the student-loan measure.) Cantor’s desire to show the House can govern, however, is running into criticism from conservative groups, which want more action that separates the GOP from Democrats as the election draws closer.

SOUND AND FURY: One thing that won’t see any overt, direct progress on Capitol Hill in the coming weeks: the nation’s overall fiscal health. It won’t be a summer of fevered talks between the parties about fixing the federal balance sheet. Instead, rhetoric is likely to be the only product, with an emphasis on blaming the other side for getting everybody into this mess in the first place. Both parties are interested only in setting up the dynamics for what will happen once Election Day clears up the picture about who will inherit the 2013 budget “sequester” and the long-term ills that led to its enactment. For now, it looks like December will be all about drawing up a short-term truce kicking everything into next year (despite all those warnings from budget wonks that time is a-wasting.)

BRIGHT SPOT? Progress on a highway bill seems to be chugging along, though. Talks on the final version are still at a stage where lawmakers and aides are hearing from trade groups and other advocates, but Sen. Barbara Boxer — the chairwoman of the House-Senate conference on the legislation — insists that things will pick up soon at the higher levels. The fact that the Senate is gone this week probably won’t hurt the California Democrat’s timetable of producing a bill sometime in early June; she remains upbeat that conferees can resolve their differences in the next week or two over how to fund the bill — and what to do about the House-passed energy provisions that are up for debate. One topic that is getting some heavy attention: whether to allow states to expand their use of public-private partnerships in running roads. When freeways are run by companies, it complicates how the federal government calculates each state’s share of the national transportation budget.

TRAIL TIPS: (Texas — House) Silvestre Reyes is the third House member to fall in a primary this year to a non-incumbent opponent. The eight-term congressman lost to former El Paso City Councilman Beto O’Rourke, who just barely topped the 50 percent mark to win outright without the need for a runoff. O’Rourke spent more than a quarter million of his own money but also got help from the Texas-based super PAC, the Campaign for Primary Accountability. CPA was not as successful in attempting to knock off 16-term GOP Rep. Ralph Hall, who cruised to renomination. Reyes is a former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a former chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. O’Rourke should be a shoo-in for the general election.

(Texas — Senate) It’ll be a summertime Round 2 between tea party and traditional Republicans, as state Solicitor General Ted Cruz held Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst several points below an absolute majority in yesterday’s Senate primary, setting up a July 31 runoff. Dewhurst led the primary field with 45 percent, followed by Cruz at 34 percent. Cruz’s survival is good news to D.C.-based conservatives who’ve waded into primaries to try to revive tea party fortunes, which were badly damaged when their candidate in the Nebraska GOP primary fell short earlier in May. Dewhurst has the support of Gov. Rick Perry as well as several other conservative groups, but D.C. conservative activists are hopeful Cruz can win more support and perhaps become Texas’s version of Florida’s Marco Rubio ­— both are ethnic Cubans.

(Michigan) What should have been a slam-dunk re-election has turned more problematic for GOP Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, the quirky loner who briefly waged a quixotic campaign for president last year. The five-termer is in trouble because he collected only one-quarter of the required 1,000 valid signatures to qualify for the Aug. 7 primary. McCotter submitted more than 1,800, but it turned out there were lots of duplicates. A perennial candidate did qualify, so McCotter now must raise resources for a write-in campaign. Of late, he hasn’t exactly been close to the House GOP leadership. In addition, McCotter has not made a significant donation to the NRCC in the past couple of cycles. But to save the seat, the GOP establishment may decide to circle the wagons and bail out the incumbent in what will likely be an expensive write-in contest in the suburban district west of Detroit.

(Illinois) It hasn’t led to a criminal trial as in the case of John Edwards, but like the onetime Democratic vice presidential nominee, Republican Sen. Mark Steven Kirk is facing allegations from his ex-wife that he concealed an extramarital affair by hiding payments made from his re-election account to his then-girlfriend. Kirk acknowledged the accusation in a story first reported yesterday by the Chicago Tribune. Kimberly Vertolli filed a complaint with the FEC claiming that the Kirk campaign obscured $143,000 that it paid Dodie McCracken as a PR subcontractor for an ad agency. The senator and his campaign deny wrongdoing. In a response to the FEC, Kirk’s campaign argued that the payments to McCracken did not have to be disclosed because only checks written to primary contractors must be reported. Kirk suffered a stroke four months ago and is slowly resuming congressional duties.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Two House Democrats today, Janice Hahn of California (60) and Steve Israel of New York (54). Two Republicans yesterday, Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas (58) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas (55).

— Joe Warminsky and Kent Allen

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

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