Friday, June 22, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: They're Taking a Fork in the Road

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, June 22, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is on the way to Orlando, where he’ll trumpet his new no-deportation-of-young-and-upstanding-illegal-immigrants policy — and press his jobs agenda — in a 1:40 speech to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. (A poll out today from Latino Decisions, and partially conducted after Obama’s announcement a week ago, found him ahead of Romney 63 percent to 27 percent among registered Hispanics in five swing states: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Virginia. In the biggest of those, Florida, the gap has grown from 10 points in a similar poll in January to 16 points now.)

The open question is whether the president will revive the unfulfilled campaign promise from his last NALEO speech, four years ago; he said then that a comprehensive immigration overhaul, including a path to citizenship for most of the 11 million people in the country illegally, “is a priority I will pursue from my very first day” as president. Whether he does or not, though, the Latino politicians are sure to welcome him more warmly than they did Romney yesterday — despite his slightly softer-than-usual tone on immigration: He still didn’t say what he’d do if he inherited the new Dream-Act-like policy (he’s previously vowed to veto such legislation) but said he’d give green cards to immigrants who earn advanced degrees here and also to illegals who join the military.)

Air Force One will take the president across the state for a 4:15 campaign rally speech at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa. He’s due back on the South Lawn just after sundown, which is at 8:37.

THE CHALLENGER: Romney is headed to the Chateaux at Silver Lake resort in Park City, Utah, for a weekend retreat with his top donors ($50,000 for singles, $150,000 for couples). No fewer than six potential running mates will put in appearances — Rob Portman, John Thune, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, Bob McDonnell and Tim Pawlenty — and so will a pair of prominent Republicans who say they’ve taken themselves out of the veepstakes, Jeb Bush and Condoleezza Rice.

THE SENATE: Not in session; next convenes at 2 on Monday, with a vote at 5:30 to push the FDA overhaul toward the president’s desk.

THE HOUSE: Not in session; next convenes (for a pro forma only) at 2 on Monday, with the next votes after 6:30 on Tuesday on a handful of non-controversial measures.

GEAR SHIFT: Negotiators are even more confident than they were yesterday that a highway bill deal can be reached in time to clear the measure before next Saturday’s deadline.

And it looks increasingly as though their formula for unlikely success will be splitting their work into a two-part package. That means separating the core public works policy and funding provisions, which look to enjoy decent bipartisan majorities in on both sides of the Capitol, from the policy riders that Republicans have dreamed of adding to the bill all along.

The best-known would speed construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, curb EPA regulation of coal ash and steer BP’s oil spill federal penalty payments to the Gulf Coast states. Most Democrats, and even some Republicans, oppose those ideas — either as bad policy or as “poison pills” to a bill they’d otherwise like. Putting those riders before lawmakers on their own would guarantee enactment of the core bill. The fate of such a package would be too close to call at the moment — in part because the language is being left for Reid and Boehner to hash out (or decide not to). But there are indications the “get the Keystone pipeline going” language is being written loosely enough that it won’t draw a veto threat.

The top negotiators, Barbara Boxer for the Senate Democrats and John Mica for the House GOP, sent unmistakable signals to lobbyists yesterday that they’ve virtually finalized the main measure, with compromises on Republican-sought efforts to streamline environmental reviews of road and transit projects, limit the mandate for roadside enhancements in big projects (bike lanes and trees, for example) and combine several transportation programs. The conferees had set tonight as their goal for the handshakes and prosecco — to allow plenty of time for the legislative drafting, whip-counting and voting. That deadline won’t be met, but all sides say the deal could come Monday, if the Speaker and majority leader are available to personally settle the last few top-tier disputes.

If there’s a reason why the 10th try for a deal looks to actually succeed, it’s that the political and economic pressure has grown too intense at an opportune time: The Highway Trust Fund, the kitty supplied with gasoline tax revenue from which road and bridge projects are financed, would come close to running out of money in the 130 days before the election if Congress had to resort to another temporary extension of the 2005 law. (Its balance in October will be at best $5 billion, a third of what it was one year earlier.) And that prospect alone would almost certainly prompt state and local leaders to slow down even further the timelines for even their most shovel-ready projects — meaning, of course, fewer jobs being created because of a congressional impasse at just the moment both parties are campaigning as the more worthy stewards of job creation.

STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT: There’s also suddenly a better-than-even shot that a student loan deal will get done next week as well.

This time, it’s Reid and McConnell who seem to have taken the reins of the negotiations, which looked to be on the dark side of the moon only a day ago. Boehner’s team (and, as usual, Pelosi’s) do not appear to pbe laying any active role in this latest round of talks. But the White House insists it does have a hand in the deliberations — an assertion that Republicans say is an exaggeration, at the very best, and would seem to be rebutted by Obama’s own rhetoric yesterday, when he seemed to lay all of the blame for the impasse on the people at the Capitol, whom he lambasted without regard to party. “Congress has had the time to fix this for months,” he said, “but we’ve been stuck watching Congress play chicken with another deadline. This should be a no-brainer. It should have gotten done weeks ago.”

Off-camera, though, the majority and minority leaders are looking to pick an item or two from each party’s initial offers on how to pay the $6 billion cost of extending the 3.4 percent interest rate on federally subsidized Stafford loans for a year beyond next Sunday, when that rate is set to double. Republicans have offered a long menu of options centered on programs the president himself has proposed giving nothing to in his current budget. The favorite Democratic idea is to raise the amount businesses pay to have their pension plans federally insured.

FAKED OUT: The Virginia man accused of plotting to blow up the Capitol in February will plead guilty this afternoon at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va. Amine El Khalifi, a Moroccan who had been living illegally in the United States for more than a decade, was arrested in a Capitol Hill garage by undercover agents who he thought were fellow al Qaeda followers — just minutes before he expected to shoot his way into the Capitol and then use a bomb-laden vest to wreak mayhem and make himself a martyr. (His weapons, provided by the agents, were total fakes.) Prosecutors say El Khalifi was not entrapped but instead got into the government’s sights when he approached an undercover FBI operatives and initially proposed they work together to attack a synagogue and kill some Army generals.

MORE OF THE SAME: Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage has made no statistically significant difference in how the electorate views the issue, an AP poll out today finds: 42 percent of Americans oppose the idea, 40 percent support it and 15 percent are neutral. Last August, the numbers were (within the margin of error) the same: 45 percent oppose, 42 percent favor and 10 percent neutral.

Importantly for his re-election effort, though, the poll found his switch in position has fired up his Democratic and liberal base: 41 percent of Democrats now say they strongly approve of his stance (up 15 points from last summer), as do 48 percent of liberals (a 20-point jump). The survey (taken the five days ending Monday) found the right increasingly energized as well, although not as much as the left: 53 percent of Republicans now say they strongly disapprove of Obama’s view on gay rights (up 8 points) as do 52 percent of conservatives (up 9 points).

QUOTES OF NOTE: “The decision to invoke executive privilege is an admission that White House officials were involved in decisions that misled the Congress and have covered up the truth,” was Boehner’s effort yesterday to raise the political stakes in the Eric Holder contempt proceedings. “So what is the Obama administration hiding in Fast and Furious?”

“These very same people who are holding him in contempt are part of a nationwide scheme to suppress the vote,” was Pelosi’s effort to do the same. “To frivolously use that really important vehicle to undermine the person who is assigned to stop the voter suppression in our country. I’m telling you, this is connected. It is no accident. . . . It’s not only to monopolize his time, it’s to undermine his name.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Two veteran California Democrats today, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (79) and Rep. Adam Schiff (52). One House GOP freshman tomorrow, Bob Dold of Illinois (43).

— David Hawkings, editor

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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, June 21, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Last Exit Before the White House

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SUPREME COURT: The justices decided (without dissent) to strike down as too vague the FCC’s system for sanctioning TV broadcasters that allow curse words and nudity on air, but they declined to issue a broad ruling on the constitutionality of the agency’s indecency policy.

The court also ruled 5-4 that criminals arrested but not yet sentenced for crack cocaine crimes should be eligible for the new sentencing guidelines set by Congress, which decided two years ago to match penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses.

Six cases have yet to be decided, including the constitutional challenges to the 2010 health care law and the Arizona immigration crackdown. That number of unannounced judgments is big enough to make it obvious the court will extend its term until at least a week from today. (Monday was supposed to be the next and final day for announcing decisions.)

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama just announced that he’s accepted the resignation of John Bryson as Commerce secretary — 10 days after he took an indefinite medical leave of absence after declaring that a seizure had been responsible for three southern California car accidents within five minutes and a hit-and-run charge the previous weekend. The president’s statement signaled he won't nominate a successor before the election (Senate confirmation would be tough no matter what) but that instead Deputy Secretary Rebecca Blank would stay on as acting secretary.

After a senior team meeting and lunch with Biden, the president will come to the East Room at 1:40 to make another pitch for keeping the subsidized Stafford undergraduate loan rate at 3.4 percent for the next year. Ten days before that interest rate is set to double, Republicans and Democrats seem nowhere close to a deal on how to cover the $6 billion cost.

THE CHALLENGER: Romney, at the new Disney resort outside Orlando, is delivering a noon speech to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials convention. Aides are promising he’ll say something about his evolving immigration positions, but his message will mainly be about why Hispanics should embrace him for his economic message.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10:30 and will be done for the week by 3, after voting overwhelmingly to pass its bill remaking agriculture and food aid policy for the next five years. (House Agriculture has nonetheless decided to put off the drafting of its farm bill until July.)  Senators are working now through the final eight amendments, five of which have nothing to do with the farm and so will need 60 votes to catch a ride. (John McCain and Patty Murray could breach that threshold if they can compromise their proposals for forcing the administration to detail its plans for carrying out the scheduled January sequester.)

Senators will also decide whether to take up or bury legislation rewriting the government flood insurance program. Sponsors appear to have the 60 votes they need after Gulf Coast lawmakers cut a side deal last night on provisions affecting levees and flood control.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and will be done for the week before 2, after passing the latest Republican package for boosting domestic fossil fuel extraction – a central plank in the party’s campaign platform for combating high gasoline prices and creating jobs. (Most every Democrat will vote “no,” viewing the package as a massive giveaway to the oil and gas industries, and so the measure faces no future in the Senate.) The bill would increase the federal land available for energy production, streamline the drilling permit process, limit environmental review of exploration projects, curb lawsuits against energy companies and press for an opening of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

THE FINAL STRETCH: Look for a handshake agreement on the highway bill between John Mica and Barbara Boxer by tomorrow evening.

All the indications are that both those top negotiators and their House and Senate leaders are starting to lower their hard lines on almost all the contentious issues — meaning federal transportation policy may yet get remade this summer to last through the end of next year. Yesterday’s whopping 386-34 vote in the House directing conferees to wrap up their work by the weekend is a clear sign that conservative resistance to a new public works package is fading fast and that Boehner and his fellow leaders have decided they want the bill more than the issue. The one disagreement that could yet cause the momentum to reverse is whether (or precisely how) the bill will be used to spur construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. (Boehner and Reid are likely to keep that negotiation to themselves.)

Democratic negotiators yesterday sounded near agreement to give the House a measure of satisfaction on environmental streamlining rules for road projects, consolidating Transportation Department programs and giving states more options to shed federal mandates for roadside enhancements. Even more importantly for the prospects of a pre-Independence Day deal, the conferees seemed to be getting very close to language that would prevent the EPA from designating coal ash as a hazardous material — since roadbuilders say a hazmat tag could cause many customers to shun the product, which the industry loves to use as a cheap but also worthy cement additive.

FURIOUSER AND FURIOUSER: Eric Holder labeled the House’s move to hold him in contempt “unwarranted, unnecessary and unprecedented” this morning, while asserting that he’s still willing to negotiate a settlement that gives Darrell Issa those subpoenaed papers that Obama doesn’t view as protected by executive privilege.

The attorney general’s stick-and-carrot comments, at a meeting with EU officials in Copenhagen, are highly unlikely to alter the “Fast and Furious” dynamic, in which yesterday morning’s unexpected privilege claim has only rock-hardened the partisan lines in advance of next week’s vote by the full House to embrace what the Oversight panel proposed yesterday afternoon.  Republicans will invoke Watergate in declaring that the cover-up is becoming worse than the crime (professional malfeasance in allowing thousands of weapons to walk toward a Mexican drug cartel) while the Democrats will invoke McCarthyism in declaring that a political witch hunt is under way.

And, after that vote, there’s no reason to believe the Justice Department will do anything other than what other Justice Departments in other balance-of-power clashes with other presidents have done, which is to slow-walk or outright stonewall its response to the contempt order. (Federal prosecutors, in other words, are not going to move against their own boss to make him turn over the records the House GOP wants.) And at that point, Boehner and the other GOP leaders are extremely unlikely to escalate the standoff by suing (or sending the House sergeant-at-arms to arrest the attorney general) because what they really want is to use the contretemps to illustrate their view that it’s the fault of Obama and the Democrats that Washington is a non-functioning cesspool.

ON THE EDGE OF THEIR SEATS: Republicans waiting with bated breath for the Supreme Court to give them an opening to “repeal and replace” the health care law are getting some guidance from the electorate about what to do instead — and the bottom line is, go slow and easy. In a Bloomberg poll out today, a 43 percent plurality favored retaining the 2010 law with only small modifications. (Fifteen percent said the measure should be left alone, and one-third aid the whole law should be wiped off the books). The poll results are likely to be cited by the GOP leadership as a rationale for taking some time to come up with an alternative if the justices say there’s a need for one — a decision made politically easier by the party’s confidence that it will have more power in Washington next year, with expected gains in both the House and Senate and Romney in striking distance of the White House. Still, almost seven in 10 Republican poll respondents said the law should be repealed; support for keeping it in place with minor changes was expressed by 43 percent of independents, 17 percent of Republicans, and 64 percent of Democrats.

TRAIL TIPS: (New York) There’s unexpectedly a second heated congressional contest in the city (after Charlie Rangel’s post-censure bid for a 22nd term) that will also be decided in Tuesday’s primaries. Democrats in much of Brooklyn and a slice of Queens will decide who will succeed Ed Towns, who’s leaving after 30 years. For months, it seemed as though 41-year-old state Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries had the seat in the bag. But party leaders and operatives are increasingly worried that the expected very low turnout has opened the door wide to an underfunded upset by City Councilman Charles Barron, an ardent opponent of Israel whose reputation for incendiary rhetoric stands out in a city that’s legendary for its opinionated people. (In his candidacy announcement, for example, he labeled both Muammar el-Qaddaffi and Robert Mugabe “my hero” and pledged to never salute the American flag.) In the latest effort to motivate Democratric regulars, yesterday Sen. Chuck Schumer broke with his past pledges of neutrality in all primary contests and endorsed Jeffries.

(Pennsylvania) In the state’s closest congressional race this year, Democratic incumbent Mark Critz released an internal poll yesterday showing him with a 10-point advantage (46 percent to 36 percent) over Republican attorney Keith Rothfus, who came within 4,000 votes two years ago of winning a differently drawn and slightly less GOP-friendly district in the state’s southwestern corner. (He lost to Jason Altmire, who then lost the post-redistricting primary this spring to Critz.) Both parties have  put the seat high on their list of priorities this fall and have already reserved a combined $3 million in fall TV airtime in the region. Republicans have already aired their first spots targeting Critz, who is hoping to catch a ride on the coattails of Sen. Bob Casey’s surprisingly easy re-election bid.

(Wisconsin) With Paul Ryan’s name now a  part of every cable TV veepstakes discussion — whether Romney is vetting him or not — local Republican leaders in the state’s southeastern corner are starting to mull the potential candidates in a special election to replace the Budget chairman in the House. (State law means Ryan would remain the nominee in the district even if he’s also at the top of the ballot). All alone in the top tier on every list are Robin Vos, the chairman of the state House Finance Committee and the presumed Speaker starting next year, and national party chairman Reince Priebus. The demographics mean the district is likely to stay in GOP hands no matter what, although Democrats say they are very high on their nominee for the fall, small-business man and Kenosha County Board Supervisor Rob Zerban.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Two of the more famously incendiary House Republicans, retiring-after-15-terms Dan Burton of Indiana (74) and safe-for-a-13th-term Dana Rohrabacher of California (65).

— David Hawkings, editor

Become a Facebook fan at 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, June 20, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Holder's Holding On

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and has just voted 53-46 to effectively endorse the way the EPA wants to regulate air pollution by electric utilities. (More precisely, the vote blocked consideration of a measure that would nullify new regulations requiring retrofits for coal plants while lowering the amounts of mercury, lead, arsenic and other toxic materials from all power plants.)

Passage of the five-year, $969 billion farm bill looks increasingly likely to happen tonight. There are 43 possible amendments left to consider — the most contentious of which are bipartisan efforts to roll back sugar subsidies and to raise crop insurance premiums for richer farmers.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and will be done for the day by 2:30, after voting overwhelmingly for the final compromise version of the FDA bill. The measure maintains for five years the fees the industry pays to finance reviews of prescription drugs and medical devices before they can go on the market and sets up similar systems for generics and “biosimilar” products. It also requires pharmaceutical companies to give six months’ advance warning about potential drug shortages so the FDA can alert doctors and hospitals, and boosts the agency’s oversight of the global medical supply chain.

The early out allows women lawmakers (and their opponents, women congressional reporters) time to limber up for their fourth annual Congressional Women’s Softball Game, to benefit young women with breast cancer. The first pitch is at 7 — just as meteorological summer begins — at Watkins Recreation Center on 12th Street SE.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama got back home from Mexico just before 1:30 this morning and has nothing on his public schedule.

THE CHALLENGER: Romney is spending another day in Michigan (16 electoral votes), where his swing-state bus tour ended last night. He’s got a noon rally in Grand Rapids and a pair of fundraisers in Troy, starting at 5 and hosted by Gov. Rick Snyder.

PRIVILEGED POLITICS: Obama claimed executive privilege this morning in refusing to turn over many of the documents House Oversight wants for its “Fast and Furious” investigation. The surprise move came just as the panel convened to vote on holding Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for resisting two subpoenas.

The immediate consequence is that Republican outrage has reached a fever pitch over the gun-walking imbroglio and the administration’s attempt to paper it over, and as a result Chairman Darrell Issa will have no trouble getting the panel to endorse his contempt citation in the next hour or so — entirely along party lines. After that, the president’s move is likely to rally the support of almost the entire Democratic Caucus behind him (because they can rail against a GOP witch hunt) and so the vote on contempt by the full House next week is also likely to be a totally partisan affair as well — which would be a change from what had been the expectation that as many as 30 politically vulnerable Democrats might use a “yes” vote to distance themselves from the president.

But in the longer term, today's developments probably do more to forestall a constitutional crisis than to perpetuate it. When past claims of executive privilege have been made in resisting congressional subpoenas, the result — even after some House contempt votes — is that the matter was essentially dropped, because the federal prosecutor who is supposed to take the contempt matter to a grand jury exercised his prerogative to accept the privilege claim instead — and then the aggrieved party in Congress has nowhere else to turn. That's sure to be the situation again this year. House Republicans, with a leadership that’s already ambivalent about making too much of Fast and Furious in a campaign season they want to keep focused on the economy, will be loath to take any dramatic steps to keep the story going and will instead be content to use the impasse as a fundraising and rhetorical tool.

In a letter sent to Issa, the Justice Department said the documents on which Holder would not budge — why the department decided to withdraw a February 2011 letter sent to Congress denying allegations of gun-walking from Arizona agents to Mexican drug gangs — describe “executive branch deliberative communications” that have a long history of being privileged. It is the first time Holder has cited such a legal rationale for not complying with the subpoenas, and Republicans said he made no mention of mounting such resistance last night, when the attorney general came to Capitol Hill for a tense 20-minute meeting at which he and Issa both dug in on their positions.

PLAYING VEEPFROG: Maybe he’s being vetted, maybe not. But either way, Marco Rubio is not going to be the 2012 Republican nominee for vice president.

Last night Romney refuted the big ABC scoop of yesterday, which was that the freshman Florida senator had not been asked to turn over any documents or fill out any questionnaire by running mate search director Beth Myers. “Marco Rubio is being thoroughly vetted as part of our process,” the nominee-in-waiting declared at a hastily arranged appearance before reporters — an unmistakable effort to try to tamp down outrage from Latinos, the tea party right and thousands of conservative donors that their shared favorite son wasn’t even going to get a good look.   

But those assurances did nothing so much as shift the veepstakes speculation into almost the highest possible gear at an unusually early point in the political calendar — fully 68 days before the GOP convention opens in Tampa. His comments also put Romney in the awkward position of violating his own “we’re not going to say anything about the process” promises, without any indication about how if at all he would flip-flop on his internal ground rules  whenever other No. 2 trial balloons with influential constituencies get floated or popped in the weeks ahead.  Will he be willing, in other words, to say whether Kelly Ayotte is in the mix if women start to notice that no one of their gender remains on the shrinking list of the mentioned? If there’s a concerted drive among the budget hawks to promote Paul Ryan, will Romney be willing to put him on the vetting roster – or at least say he’s doing so to help the congressman save face?

At the same time, nothing said last night – and none of the other feints during the day from the campaign — did anything to rebut the conclusion that, if Romney’s overriding interest is in picking a plug-and-play president, as he says it is, then he’s not going to pick a 40-year-old political wunderkind with just 18 months in Congress, nearly $1 million in personal debt, a nearly foreclosed-upon home and a messy “I borrowed the GOP credit card” kerfuffle in his past. Instead, the two lowest-odds bets to become the running mate are the same as they have been almost all along — Rob Portman and Tim Pawlenty, a pair of broadly experienced, deeply loyal and totally unthreatening Midwestern middle-aged white guys who would put a highlighter over Romney’s campaign lines about  restoring competence and fiscal confidence to Washington.

POLL JUMPER: The vice presidential speculation whirlwind is kicking up to a higher notch just as a new poll suggests Romney may be in need of a more dramatic, “game change” pick than he’s shown any inclination for making. Bloomberg’s latest presidential horse race survey, out today, is undeniably a standard deviation or two from the recent mean: It showed Obama ahead by a decisive 53 percent to 40 percent among likely voters nationwide polled for four days ending Monday.

That measure of support for the president’s re-election matches exactly his approval rating in the new poll, the first time he has cracked a majority on that scale in Bloomberg’s surveys in 15 months. And his performance rating on job creation is now 46 approve to 48 percent disapprove — a 10-point gain since last September. In other good news for the president, 45 percent described themselves as better off than when Obama took office, while 36 percent said they were worse off. In March, the answers were a statistical tie.

The poll also revealed broad ambivalence about the GOP challenger: 48 percent see him unfavorably, a 17-point jump since his quest for the nomination began, while his current 39 percent favorable rating is about where it was when his campaign began. Asked which candidate was more out of touch with average Americans, 55 percent said Romney and 36 percent said Obama. (Asked which candidate would be the better companion on a long airplane flight, 57 percent said the president and 31 percent said his opponent.)

On the other hand, the poll offers Romney every reason to make the economy the almost singular focus of his campaign. Obama leads by only a statistically insignificant 5 points (48 percent to 43 percent) on the question of which candidate would do better at boosting the economy, only 43 percent approve of the president’s economic stewardship, only 32 percent like the job he’s doing on fiscal policy and just 31 percent see the country as headed in the right direction  (with 62 percent saying it’s on the wrong track).

GETTING MOVING: Yesterday’s rarely shared and highly choreographed  “just do it” marching orders from Boehner and Reid to their chief highway bill negotiators may actually work to save the transportation package from the pre-election deep freeze.

As a practical matter, Barbara Boxer (for the Senate Democrats) and John Mica (for the House Republicans) have through the weekend to come up with a deal that could be turned into legislative language and pushed across the finish line before June 30 — the Saturday after the scheduled start of the July Fourth recess that’s also when current road and mass transit funding authority will lapse. Congress hasn’t written a bill to pay for the nation’s long-term transportation needs and remake public works policy since 2005, and after the coming recess the campaign season heat will be too high to get the bill done before the lame duck.

That’s why both Boxer and Mica (and GOP Sen. Jim Inhofe, who’s become the indispensable bridge between them) seem willing to work with their own staffs more or less continually in search of a deal. In the eyes of the lobbyists who have the best view, all the body language is that both sides are bending over backwards to make their last, best good-faith efforts — and that the pessimism of recent days is being supplanted with guarded optimism. A main reason for that is that Republicans seem to have essentially dropped their demand that the bill include a trio of riders unrelated to roads and bridges — a green light for the Keystone XL pipeline, EPA deregulation of coal ash emissions and giving Gulf Coast states most of the federal fines BP is paying for its 2010 oil spill. Instead, the GOP is focused on getting more of the transportation policy changes it wants, including a consolidation of federal programs, reduced mandates for bike paths and other highway enhancements, and limiting environmental reviews of public works projects.

BACK TO MACK: George LeMieux dropped his campaign to return to the Senate this morning, ensuring that Rep. Connie Mack will become the Republican nominee against Bill Nelson this fall. The Democrat for now remains the slight favorite to win a third term, because time and again he has proved more popular than many others in his party in the state – including the president.

Mack, a four-term Gulf Coast congressman, made a relatively late entry into the race and has not run the smoothest fundraising or campaign operation, but in recent weeks he has racked up a collection of endorsements from all corners of the party — from Romney to Rand Paul. That organizational muscle had essentially boxed out LeMieux, who got to spend 16 months as a senator in 2009 and 2010 thanks to his political patron and former boss, Charlie Crist, who as governor made LeMieux his surprise pick when Mel Martinez resigned to become a lobbyist.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: No current lawmakers, but three of the younger — and now former — members of the House Republican takeover Class of 1994: California’s George Radanovich (57), Pennsylvania’s Phil English (56) and Tennessee’s Van Hilleary (53). Of the 73 members of the class, a dozen remain in the House and four (Burr, Chambliss, Coburn and Graham) are senators.

— David Hawkings, editor

Become a Facebook fan at 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, June 19, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: One Dream Lives, the Other Not So Much

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and (after the weekly caucus lunches) will start to slog through the mother of all vote-a-ramas — three days of brief debates and then roll calls on 58 farm bill amendments. (Another 15 changes will be made by voice vote.)

The deal setting parameters for the debate, finalized last night, means passage of the measure — which at $969 billion would trim projected crop subsidy and food aid spending 2.4 percent in the next five years — is assured at the end of the week. Sixty votes will be needed to attach non-germane proposals, including GOP efforts to ban food aid to North Korea, cut federal funding for the political conventions, allow companies more leeway to give merit pay raises to unionized workers and get more details from the administration about the scheduled across-the-board spending cuts. The most important germane amendment would do away with the proposed cuts to food stamps (now known as SNAP) and cover the $4.5 billion cost with cuts in subsidized crop insurance.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 for speeches and this afternoon will debate legislation making a hodgepodge of changes to federal land and water use law, many of which dismay environmentalists and have drawn the administration’s opposition — but not a veto threat. The measure will pass along mostly party lines before 7. (Among other things, it would waive endangered species laws for border security projects, allow hunting of sea lions in the Pacific Northwest, boost the use of federal land as target-shooting ranges, double the length of federal grazing permits, allow dune buggies on Cape Hatteras and ease permitting for hydropower plants and economic development projects using federal resources.)

Arizona’s Ron Barber will be sworn in early this afternoon as the 191st Democrat in the House — and the 82nd current lawmaker with congressional staff experience.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is pressing the European leaders at the G-20 summit — German Chancellor Angela Merkel first among them — for assurances that a conclusively assertive response to the continent’s financial and monetary crisis comes well before the globe sinks into a campaign season recession. The second day of meetings began at 11 (D.C. time) in Los Cabos. After those group sessions are done, the president has a one-on-one with Chinese President Hu Jintao and then a 7:30 news conference. Air Force One is supposed to be wheels-up for Washington 80 minutes later, signaling the end of the president’s last scheduled foreign trip before the election.

THE CHALLENGER: Romney’s five-day foray across swing-state rural America finishes with three stops in his original home state of Michigan: coffee with small-business owners and then a rally in Frankenmuth, lunch (with pie) at the Sweetie-licious Bakery Café in DeWitt, and a suppertime rally in Holland.

MIAMI, BUT NOT VICE: The political rationale for Obama’s bold change on immigration is being buttressed two ways today — in a new poll and in the palpably rapid decline of Marco Rubio as the hottest congressional Republican commodity of 2012.

By 64 percent to 30 percent, the president’s imposition of the Dream Act’s core as administration policy won the endorsement of likely voters surveyed by Bloomberg over the weekend. While 56 percent of likely Republican poll-goers opposed the decision, fully 86 percent of Democrats supported it. And, most importantly for the general-election calculus, independents favored the idea by better than two to one (66 to 26 percent). The numbers show that Obama’s decision — to stop deporting younger illegal immigrants if they’re solid contributors to society — has done nothing to harm his political standing with the overall electorate. (It’s also true that only 4 percent of the people Bloomberg talked to labeled immigration as their top issue in the presidential contest.)

The rest of the numbers underscore the depth and breadth of the challenge Romney and congressional Republicans face in wooing Hispanics — who were 9 percent of the electorate last time and might be 12 percent or more this time. (They will not be won over by Rep. Steve King of Iowa’s vow to take the president to court to try to halt the new policy.) Obama carried the Latino vote by 36 percentage points last time, and a Latino Decisions poll taken before Obama’s announcement on Friday had him up by 43 points over Romney among Hispanic voters this time.

The GOP challenger — who has so far refused to say whether he’d reverse Obama’s decision if elected — will be hard-pressed to avoid the issue on Thursday, when he will be in Orlando to address the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. Romney is sure, however, to say nothing about ABC’s report today that Rubio is not being vetted as a potential running mate — an amazing slap in the face of the Latino community, if it remains true. That’s because it had every reason to expect the highest-profile Hispanic Republican in American history would at least be given serious and overt consideration, even if the nominee concluded that at 40 the freshman Florida senatorwas not quite ready to ascend to the Oval.

Rubio would not comment on the report this morning — but probably did not help his chances of getting back on the short list by making so clear how firmly he endorses the central tenets of the president’s new policy (although not Obama’s end run around Congress to get there). “It feels weird to deport a high school valedictorian who was brought here through no fault of his own when he was four years old,” he said. He also confirmed that he will not even formally introduce his version of the Dream Act, which was the template for Obama’s move and has therefore become a total non-starter for Team McConnell.

USER FRIENDLY: Congress does look to get one of its must-do bills done this month, which would actually be three months ahead of schedule. House and Senate leaders announced a bipartisan deal yesterday on a five-year reauthorization of the FDA user fee program — paving the way for lopsided votes to send Obama the measure by the end of next week. (The deadline is September for the program, under which the industry essentially pays the agency for its work reviewing new medicines and medical devices.) The most notable move by the negotiators was to drop — to the dismay of Big Pharma — creation of a new national drug tracking and tracing system that was hailed as a way to improve the safety of prescriptions along the supply chain.

DIMON TIME AGAIN: Jamie Dimon is back on Capitol Hill today, repeating to House Financial Services his mea culpas about J.P. Morgan Chase’s $2 billion-plus trading loss this spring.

By apologizing, conceding the magnitude of the mess-up and more or less promising pay clawbacks for those responsible, the bank’s CEO was able to emerge largely unscathed during his first round of testimony since the big and bad hedging bet, last week before Senate Banking — his reputation as “Congress’ favorite banker” mostly intact in part because of help from a bevy of people who have spun through the revolving door between the committee staff and Morgan’s government relations operation. (Most notably, Chairman Tim Johnson’s staff director Dwight Fettig is a former J.P. Morgan lobbyist.) There are not too many similar ties between Morgan and the House panel, though, and many of its 60 members — especially those from each party facing tough re-election battles — will be sorely tempted to take an easy rhetorical shot at Dimon and the debacle he oversaw, either as a proxy for all the purported evils of Wall Street (the Democrats) or as a proxy for all the limitations of the Dodd-Frank law that was supposed to prevent such mammoth losses (the Republicans).

Beyond the posturing for the cameras, though, Republicans seem to be coalescing behind an insistence on stronger capital reserves at banks as their only policy-changing response to the Morgan mess. And Democrats will reiterate their call for stronger regulation — mainly in the form of a new Volcker rule that bans portfolio hedging.

STILL FURIOUS, NOT SO FAST: Eric Holder and Darrell Issa are meeting this afternoon to negotiate terms for a possibly indefinite delay in the House GOP’s contempt-of-Congress campaign against the attorney general. Issa’s Oversight Committee will go ahead with its move to put a formal wrist slap on Holder tomorrow unless the Justice Department turns over a few more documents detailing Operation Fast and Furious before the meeting gets started. If he gets everything he thinks he wants, the chairman will call tomorrow’s cancellation a postponement only, but there’s not likely to be any rescheduling. One of the reasons Issa is slow-walking his decision is so that committee members may view secret wiretap applications that have become a sticking point in the debate — because they are supposed to show which top officials had knowledge of the “gun-walking” operation that went badly awry.

JUDGMENT CALL: Senate  Democrats are making clear they are not going to acquiesce in McConnell’s assertion that it's past time to stop confirming Obama’s federal appeals court nominees — at least until after the election. Instead, Reid is getting ready to force cloture votes that will test the Republican resolve against two of the president’s picks who have tangible GOP backing: William Kayatta Jr., a Maine trial lawyer who’s up for a seat on the 1st Circuit (with the support of Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins) and Robert Bacharach, a federal magistrate in Oklahoma who’s up for the 10th Circuit (with the backing of both Tom Coburn and Jim Inhofe).

PERFECT CASTING: He may never get the ultimate consolation prize he’s been after ever since losing in 2004 — secretary of State in a second Obama administration — but John Kerry will get at least one more turn in the presidential spotlight. The president’s re-election campaign has asked Kerry to play the role of Romney in the mock debates that will get Obama ready for three versions of the real thing this fall. The assumption is that the senator knows Romney well from their days together as top-flight officeholders in Massachusetts – and that Kerry’s brand of well-coiffed, smooth-skinned Brahmin formality will work well as a stand-in for the GOP candidate’s own brand of blow-dried sobriety.

TRAIL TIPS: (West Virginia) Three of the state’s four most powerful superdelegates to the Democratic convention — Sen. Joe Manchin, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Rep. Nick Rahall — have all decided they won’t go anywhere near Charlotte the week before Labor Day. Their schedules are the starkest sign yet that Obama is going to lose the state by much more than his 13-point margin of rejection there last time — and that all three are worried they could get dragged down by his reverse coattails. (Manchin is still heavily favored to win a full term in his rematch with GOP businessman John Raese, while Rahall is potentially vulnerable to an upset by state Rep. Rick Snuffer and Tomblin is a bit fearful of drilling consultant Bill Maloney.) The other Democrat in the congressional delegation, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, whose term is up in 2014, says he will be at the convention.

(Maine) Angus King has a lopsided lead and is at the magic 50 percent mark in the first serious poll of the state’s open Senate seat race. The poll, out today from WBUR, shows Democratic state Rep. Cynthia Dill with a mere 9 percent and Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers with 23 percent. The still-enormously-popular former governor is running as an independent to succeed Olympia Snowe, but the Democratic Senate hierarchy in Washington is quite confident he would join their caucus.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: House members Trent Franks (55), an Arizona Republican, and Jim Cooper (58), a Tennessee Democrat.

— David Hawkings, editor

Become a Facebook fan at Or follow me on Twitter @davidhawkings.

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

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Monday, June 18, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: The Opposite of Progress

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, June 18, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SUPREME COURT: The justices gave the medical industry a victory today – but it had nothing to do with the constitutionality of the health care law. Instead, the court ruled, 5-4, that the nation’s 90,000 pharmaceutical sales reps don’t qualify for overtime. Also by 5-4, the justices upheld a rape conviction despite the defendant’s objection that he was unable to question the reliability of the DNA evidence against him.

The court’s final two scheduled days for announcing decisions are Thursday and next Monday, but there’s nothing stopping the justices from giving themselves an extension. Ten cases remain outstanding, including two headline makers beyond the health care challenge: whether the FCC’s broadcast decency standards are unconstitutionally vague and whether Arizona’s illegal-immigration crackdown law improperly steps on the federal role over immigration.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama arrived for the G-20 summit in Los Cabos last night and is meeting now with the host, Mexican President Felipe Calderón. After that he has a one-on-one, focused in part on trade, with Russian President Vladimir Putin of Russia. The first session of the summit starts at 5 (D.C. time) — and the water cooler talk among the world leaders will be all about yesterday’s election results in both Greece (where conservative Antonis Samaras won the right to form a pro-Euro coalition government) and Egypt (the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi won, but the generals announced they’re retaining most of his new presidential powers for at least a little while).

THE CHALLENGER: Romney’s bus tour into the rural reaches of six swing states is in its fourth and penultimate day. He went to a paint roller plant in Janesville, Wis., at 10 with hometown hero Paul Ryan. At 2:30 he’ll be in Iowa for a picturesque boat ride on the Mississippi near Dubuque, and four hours later he’ll be 60 miles downriver for a rally in Davenport.

THE SENATE: Convenes at 3 with no other formal business beyond a 5:30 roll call to confirm trial lawyer Mary Geiger Lewis as a federal judge in South Carolina. (Some Republicans complain she isn’t qualified, but mainly this is a “bed check vote” that affords Reid and McConnell opportunities to do a little whipping on other matters higher up on the legislative food chain.)

THE HOUSE: Convenes at 2 to pass nine non-controversial bills, one of which would make it a federal crime to traffic in counterfeit prescription drugs. (Roll calls won’t happen before 6:30 so lawmakers without any interest in the measures can spend the day traveling.)

GOING NOWHERE FAST: The two-week countdown clocks on both the highway bill and the student loan rate extension are starting to wind down toward nothing but stalemate.

The best bets now are that neither of June’s “must pass” measures will pass in June — which would put a desultory, if entirely predictable, coda onto this shortened election year season of purported legislating. The emptiness of the metaphorical wire basket labeled “2012 congressional accomplishments” is not a consequence of legislative passivity or procrastination, but rather the result of conscious decisions by both Republicans and Democrats that (albeit for opposite reasons) that they’d rather be out campaigning on their disagreements than on their alliances. Time and again, both sides have already concluded it’s better to have the issue than the bill — because neither party appears worried it will be held to account any more than the other for the dysfunction.

And while it is true that always becomes the rule rather than the exception in a presidential year, it is happening much earlier than usual — fully 20 weeks before Election Day. After that point in the calendar four years ago, for example, Congress finished the most recent rewrite of the farm bill, expanded the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act, agreed on the mental health parity mandate, endorsed a significant expansion of the GI bill, put Amtrak on a firmer financial footing and enlarged the American commitment to fighting AIDS overseas. (And that was all done before the first legislative responses to the economic meltdown that fall.)

The public works and college credit measures that will be the focus of the hand-wringing in the coming days would have had a tough time making it onto that 2008 list, so relatively routine would they have been. (So would the reauthorization of the flood insurance program that’s due by the end of July, or the updating of the FDA’s system for getting industry to pay for reviews of new drugs and devices before the September deadline, which are really the only other domestic policy bills with deadlines this year.)  

Voters at all points on the ideological spectrum, after all, want their roads to be smooth and their bridges to be safe and their commuter trains to run on time — and so (especially after nine extensions of the expired law) could be expected to do nothing more than yawn at news of a deal that lasts only two years and that, at about $100 billion, spends only a small fraction of what’s needed to keep the national infrastructure up to snuff. And there’s similar agreement across the land that keeping down the cost of college is a good idea — especially if the plan under discussion would cost just $6 billion, or about half of 1 percent the size of this year’s projected deficit.

HOSTAGE SITUATION: The more immediately consequential impasse this month is over the highway bill, because Boehner has drawn a very clear line in the sand against buying the negotiators any more time. In other words, no deal in the next fortnight means public works spending will stay flat and no new projects will put people to work before the election. House Republicans think this threat is the only way they can get what they want out of the bill — which is not only road construction without new revenue to pay for it, but also construction without so much environmental review, deregulation of coal ash and speedy construction of the Keystone pipeline.

Letting the Stafford student loan rate double, to 6.8 percent, would affect far fewer people — because the higher rate would only apply to the undergraduates who take out new subsidized loans after July 1. And, in theory, a deal on offsets later this summer could include retroactive language that holds harmless the students who take out their loans before the deal gets done.

FARAWAY FARM BILL: The longer the standoffs last on student loans and highways, the less likely it is that the always-a-long-shot farm bill gets done this year. Unless there’s a deal in the next day — which sets a limit on amendments, both germane and not at all so, and gets the Senate’s version of the legislation passed by the end of the week — then Reid will probably pull the measure off the floor and lawmakers will write up a bill that extends current food stamp and crop subsidy policies well into next year (so that farmers can have some certainty about their planting decisions next spring). House Republicans are not going to lift a finger on their farm bill until the Senate has proved it can pass its version.

AGAINST THE WALL: Three days after his surprise immigration announcement, it seems undeniable that Obama has put Romney and the rest of the GOP in a high-walled box on the issue. The presidential challenger declined five different invitations yesterday (from Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation”)  to come out against the president’s decision that his administration won’t keep deporting young illegal immigrants who are have graduated from high school or serve in the military and have clean criminal records.  Time and again, he would not say he would reverse the policy if elected; instead, he chided Obama for politiczing the issue and not forcing a long-term solution to the immigration morass during his term. It was a significant walk-back from a candidate who — back when he was fending off primary challengers on his right — said he would veto the very Dream Act on which the new Obama policy is based, and got considerable leverage over Rick Perry for supporting similar policies in Texas.

But, beyond pushing Romney into those rhetorical contortions, what Obama has done is essentially neutralize any efforts Romney or congressional Republicans might make to be proactive in advancing an immigration policy that could win over Hispanics. Marco Rubio has spent much of the past year putting up legislative trial balloons that are very similar to what the president is now doing on his own — and the GOP leadership did nothing to seize his initiative. Now the Florida senator has no chance at all to see his bill embraced by a party leadership that’s obligated to oppose whatever Obama’s in favor of, at least for the next months. And his chances of staying on the vice presidential short list are shriveling fast, because there’s no percentage in Romney picking a lawmaker whose signature legislation is now officially anathema to the party.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia (75), Republican Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska (62), and House Democrats Paul Tonko of New York (63) and Jerry McNerney of California (61).

— David Hawkings, editor

Become a Facebook fan at 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