Friday, July 13, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: True Motives, Disclosed

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, July 13, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is spending the next two days campaigning to hang on to the 13 electoral votes he won last time from Virginia — a good bet to be what Ohio was in 2004 (the state where the presidency was decided) and Florida was in 2000 (ditto). His first two speeches are efforts to energize his young and African-American base voters — at rallies at 1 at Green Run High School in Virginia Beach and at 4:25 at Phoebus High School in nearby Hampton. But his third stop, three hours later across the state at Roanoke Fire Station No. 1, is in much more conservative territory. (The president is due back home before 10 but heads back down to Richmond tomorrow.)

THE CHALLENGER: Romney has nothing on his public schedule. He’s talking with aides about how to get two persistent campaign thorns out of his side — conflicting evidence about whether he ran Bain Capital during its “outsourcing” days and intense interest in seeing more of his tax returns — while also contemplating his running-mate options. (The rumor of the day is that Condi Rice has surged toward the top of the short list — which is highly unlikely for a range of reasons, starting with her support for abortion rights and her central role in setting the foreign policy of the last decade. Kelly Ayotte will be vetted to make sure there’s one woman on the short list, but the true top contenders for the vice-presidential nomination remain Rob Portman or Tim Pawlenty, with Paul Ryan, John Thune and Bobby Jindal in the second tier.)

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

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 for a pro forma; the next legislative session is Tuesday.

ON TO THE NEXT SHOW: This week, senators fought to an entirely predictable standoff on taxes — which was never really about legislating but was all about campaign positioning. To start next week, they’ll do the same on campaign finance.

Reid has set up a test vote for Monday evening on the so-called Disclose Act, which would require corporations, labor unions and many advocacy groups to immediately tell the FEC every time they spend $10,000 or more to influence an election — and every time they receive a donation that big that’s meant to go into such independent expenditures. All 53 Democrats will vote yes — seven short of the number required to get the measure out of the starting gate, because all 47 Republicans will vote “no.” (That’s despite a pretty-well-orchestrated grass roots campaign to get six Republicans to cross over: Tom Coburn, Susan Collins, John McCain, Lisa Murkowski, Dick Lugar and Olympia Snowe.)

The roll call will mark a quick and definitive end to this year's legislative debate — because Chris Van Hollen’s new effort to force a House vote on the bill through the circuitous “discharge petition” process isn't going anywhere. But the tally will of course serve as fodder for advertising in several close Senate races — with Democrats talking about Republicans supporting “the power of big business to keep polluting the system in secret,” and Republicans talking about Democrats supporting “the power of big labor to keep polluting the system in secret.” Democrats maintain that big corporations and industry groups have gained more inappropriate influence than ever under the wide-open campaign funding rules triggered by the Citizens United decision two years ago; Republicans say unions have, as well, and could continue to do so by spending more widely beneath the bill’s $10,000 threshold. The public, the polling suggests, really doesn’t blame one side much more than the other for taking advantage of a system that millions of voters long ago concluded was irreversibly tainted. And so the issue is likely to give neither side an advantage this fall.

LABEL CONSCIOUS: If the first rule of public-figure damage control is to get the truth out quickly and completely (see Jesse Jackson Jr. — not), then the first rule of public figure fashion is to get your clothes made in America (see the U.S. Olympic Committee — not).

It took just a few minutes for the bipartisan congressional leadership to unify in high dudgeon after learning yesterday that the athletes would be wearing Chinese-made red, white and blue Ralph Lauren togs to the London opening ceremonies two weeks from today. “You’d think they’d know better” was Boehner’s characteristically droll and trenchant observation — because he knows plenty of stories about GOP congressional candidates having little political choice but to ditch boxes of T-shirts, ball caps and other campaign swag once “Made in Malaysia” or “Sewn in Bangladesh” or “Product of China” tags were found inside.

Predictably, there was a larger volume of pro-labor Democrats professing outrage; Steve Israel, Sherrod Brown, Kristen Gillibrand and Bernie Sanders all let loose about the lamentable situation of American manufacturing jobs going unfilled (and the trade deficit remaining significant) while such symbolically important duds are being outsourced. But it was Reid who leveled the most memorable verbal blows — calling on the USOC to put all the blazers and berets “in a big pile and burn them and start all over again.” And if there’s no time to print and stitch 700 new uniforms in the piecework shops of New York or Cleveland? “If they have to wear nothing but a singlet that says USA on it, painted by hand, then that’s what they should wear,” he said. (His office later sent out a photo of a “Made in USA” label inside one of the majority leader’s suit jackets to ward off some GOP speculation that he was being hypocritical.

The problem for the outraged lawmakers, of course, is that their rhetoric is their only recourse in the matter; since the United States (unlike almost all other nations) provides no government money to its Olympic team, Congress can’t yank the purse strings back in an effort to punish the management's politically tone-deaf behavior. Which is why the USOC felt free to essentially shrug off all the complaining and use the kerfuffle as a way to thank the generosity of the team’s business backers. “The U.S. Olympic Team is privately funded and we’re grateful for the support of our sponsors,” spokesman Patrick Sandusky said in a statement.

TRUCKS AND BURGERS: Wholesale prices rose only 0.1 percent between May and June and went up just 0.7 percent in the last 12 months, the slowest pace for the producer price index since October 2009. (The core PPI, which excludes volatile food and energy costs, rose 0.2 percent in June and has now gone up 2.6 percent in the last year, the Labor Department also said today). The most notable uptick in the core calculation was a 1.4 percent spike in the cost of a pickup truck. The most notable figure of all was a 3.1 percent surge in the cost of meat, driving a 0.5 percent monthly boost in food inflation. Wholesale energy prices dropped 0.9 percent, with an increase in gasoline offset by drops in prices for residential electric power, home heating oil and diesel fuel.

With inflation low and unemployment still above 8 percent, many are looking to the Fed to take action to lower long-term interest rates at its meeting next meeting, July 31 and Aug. 1

QUICK TURNAROUND: So much of the time, the citizens of the nation’s capital have ample reason to be annoyed that Congress is wrongly (or, at best, needlessly) meddling in their entirely municipal affairs. But last night, the Senate actually did the city a small but potentially well-timed and important favor: It cleared legislation speeding up the process for filling vacancies on the City Council and the mayor’s office — just as federal prosecutors are accelerating toward a climax their investigation of election fraud in Vince Gray’s mayoral campaign.
There’s a nearly universal view among the city’s political class that Gray will be pressed to resign before his term ends in 2014, and maybe even in the coming weeks. Three associates already have pleaded guilty, and disclosures this week about an extensive “shadow campaign” along with at least $100,000 in off-the books “walking around money” have prompted three council members to call for the mayor’s resignation — saying that, even though he’s not been charged with a crime, he can no longer govern the city even marginally effectively.

The bill — which Gray and the Council asked for this spring (because Congress has exclusive control over changing Washington’s Home Rule Charter) — would cut to as few as 70, from 114, the number of days between a vacancy and a special election. If Gray were to leave office, Phil Mendelson would act as mayor until a special election — which, under the new rules,  could happen on Election Day if Gray quit by Aug. 28. Mendelson has been acting council chairman since the middle of June, when that office’s previous occupant, Kwame Brown, was forced out after admitting to bank fraud. Under current law, the special election for council chairman had to be put off until November.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Today, Rob Bishop (61), who’s got an easy road to a sixth term in Utah. Tomorrow, fellow House Republican Tom Latham of Iowa (64), whose path past Democrat Leonard Boswell in one of the five member-vs.-member elections Nov. 6 looks easier now that he’s reported $2.1 million in current cash on hand — four times what’s in his opponent’s account.

— 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, July 12, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Inaction Jackson

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and remains at an impasse over whether to have any test votes on the future of the Bush tax cuts before going home for the weekend. Instead, it’s likely Reid will force another test vote this afternoon on the small-business payroll tax measure that’s officially the pending business — and the whole debate will be postponed because 60 senators won’t vote to keep it going.

Republicans had wanted a roll call on whether to extend all the Bush-era provisions for another year, and Reid is confident he would find 51 votes against that idea. He’s also confident he could muster a simple majority in favor of the president’s call to raise taxes in January on income above $250,000. (He’s likely to lose the support of Claire McCaskill, John Tester, Joe Manchin, Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson on both votes.) But the Democrats have insisted on buying time to decide how the Obama-style proposal should address the estate tax, AMT and dividend tax.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and will be done for the week within the hour, after passing legislation to streamline the permitting process for mining on federal land. Republicans say the regulations are too cumbersome, crimp the industry’s global competitiveness and hold back job creation. Democrats — who are sure to put a full stop on the bill in the Senate — say deregulation would needlessly threaten the environment.  

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama has nothing on his public schedule other than his daily intelligence briefing.

THE CHALLENGER: Romney is expecting a $2 million haul from a dinner tonight at Dick and Lynne Cheney’s house in Jackson Hole and a reception beforehand at Teton Pines, Wyoming’s premier golf club.

THE SAME, BUT DIFFERENT: The mysterious travails of Jesse Jackson Jr. are going to be filling a disproportionate amount of airtime in Washington for the next few days, for two reasons: The summer is more or less bereft of any meaningful legislative news out of the Capitol that might take the story’s place, and the congressman’s own office has done a classically poor job of managing whatever the real story is.

In those ways, the situation is strikingly similar to last summer’s capital obsession with Anthony Weiner. But there appears (at least at the moment) to be a singular difference: The 47-year-old congressman from Queens who wanted to be mayor or senator was subjected to ridicule and forced into the political wilderness because of a puerile lack of self-discipline about his sexuality and his comical new-media way of trying to advance his reputation as a player. The 47-year-old congressman from Chicago who wanted to be mayor or senator, on the other hand, is said to be so genuinely ill (with a “mood disorder” is all his office said last night, other than to deny he’s being treated for drug or alcohol abuse) that he’s been hospitalized for as long as a month. And he’s also facing ethical and legal problems (stemming from his campaign to get appointed to Obama’s Senate seat) far more consequential than anything his former Democratic colleague got in trouble for.

The public, however, will soon enough come to see the two stories as repetitive chapters in the never-ending tale of politicians who lose their way in Washington — unless the people closest to Jackson can reverse their current strategic course, in the next day or two, and describe comprehensively what has gone so south for him. The oldest rule of successful political crisis management  is get all the facts out, quickly and cleanly. Hiding behind the HIPAA federal medical privacy law is absurd; the law does nothing at all to prevent a patient from saying whatever he or she wants about his own condition, course of treatment and place of care. Jackson might yet draw enough sympathy to save his career (or at least his reputation) if he makes all of that clear right away; he could also make a political virtue out of being the first to say so if he knows he’s about to be indicted for allegedly trying to bribe Rod Blagojevich for the appointment (or maybe for hiding the truth around their encounters); if he’s going to be slammed by the Ethics Committee; or if he’s getting a divorce because of his acknowledged extramarital affair.

NOT LIKE THE HIGHWAY BILL: Democrats on both sides of the Capitol pressed the House GOP leadership today to allow a full-fledged floor debate on the farm bill that won a bipartisan 35-11 vote of approval early this morning from House Agriculture.

Boehner, Cantor & Co. haven’t decided for sure whether to devote one of the next three weeks before the August recess to debate on the bill, which would spend about $20 billion in each of the next five years on commodity and crop insurance subsidies (while giving farmers new ways to shield themselves from bad weather and bad prices) and another $80 billion annually on food stamps. Such a debate would risk turning the measure into one more campaign season partisan piñata, with GOP conservatives deriding too much government intrusion in the free market and liberal Democrats deriding too little interest in the plight of the poor. (The food stamp budget would take a 2 percent hit.)

The alternative is to try to repeat the hard-to-come-by success of the highway bill; it was cleared this summer without ever being put to an initial vote in a House, where the public works package also was intensely resisted as too much on the right and too little on the left. Rather than find the sweet spot twice, House negotiators were dispatched to do the best job they could with the Senate so that the bill could be voted on just once. But Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on House Agriculture, and Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow both rejected that strategy in statements this morning. (The current farm law lapses in September.)

This time, the House version is more to the liking of Southern growers (cotton,  peanuts, sugar and rice) and large-scale producers; the bill the Senate passed last month is written more to appeal to the farmers of the Midwest (corn, soybeans and wheat). Both bills would find the bulk of the necessary savings — required under last summer’s debt limit deal — from the food stamp program. And both would preserve support for dairy and sugar farmers that the food industry complains drive up consumer prices.

POSITIVE TREND? The number of jobless benefits applicants went down last week to the lowest level since March 2008 — dropping by 26,000 to a seasonally adjusted 350,000. The Labor Department also said today that three straight weeks of declines had also reduced the four-week average, a less volatile and therefore more reliable measure of the pace of layoffs, down to 376,500. That’s a particularly hopeful sign for the job market, because economists view 375,000 a week as the benchmark for a sign that the unemployment rate will go down.

But it’s also true that there was an important one-of-a-kind reason for this week’s good unemployment news: Ford and Chrysler, which traditionally close their plants for the first two weeks in July to prepare them to build new models, called off those plans this year because of high demand — so very few autoworkers filed for jobless benefits.

TECH WRECK: One of the legislative drives with genuine momentum this spring was for creating some potentially impressive new cybersecurity bulwarks. That’s no longer in the cards. Joe Lieberman wanted a sweeping bill to be the capstone on his 24-year legislative legacy, but a hearing yesterday before his Homeland Security Committee made plain he’s not going to get his wish — and probably won’t even get through a narrow bill like the one passed by the House (to encourage information sharing about cyberthreats between businesses and the government) before he retires this fall.

The main obstacle for Lieberman is his best GOP friend in the Senate, John McCain, who said it was better to wait to get a comprehensive measure negotiated than to rush through only the agreed-upon provisions — while making clear that he has other concerns about the grand cybersecurity plan that can’t be bridged this campaign season. McCain doesn’t want the Department of Homeland Security put in charge of cybersecurity, let alone be given the power to regulate the IT departments of businesses — and on that front the current national mood seems absolutely on his side. As the online piracy debate (SOPA and PIPA) from this winter illustrated so clearly, voters whose livelihoods (or spare time) depend on 21st century technology are profoundly wary of the federal government’s ability to regulate it. And the Web generation is spread across the ideological spectrum — from Tea Party libertarians to ACLU liberals, with plenty of centrist business owners and professionals in between. So there is no percentage in trying to push comprehensive legislation past them this campaign season, because there’s little chance the national security justifications will trump the visceral public concerns from that “information sharing” now will mean the arrival of Big Brother soon enough.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: House Appropriations Democrat Betty McCollum of St. Paul, a safe bet to win a seventh term (58).

— 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

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Missed Appropriations

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is meeting in the Oval at 2:15 with the Democratic congressional leadership to plot legislative and political strategies for the 118 days until the election. In addition to the predictable “big six” — floor leaders Reid and Pelosi, whips Durbin and Hoyer, their top lieutenants Schumer and Clyburn — the invitees are Chris Van Hollen and the chairmen of both congressional campaign committees, Patty Murray and Steve Israel.

THE CHALLENGER: “If I did not believe that my policies and my leadership would help families of color, and families of any color, more than the policies and leadership of President Obama, I would not be running for president,” Romney said this morning in addressing the NAACP’s 103rd annual convention, in Houston. He was booed loudly when he called for repealing the health care law but got applause when he talked about improving rundown neighborhoods and lowering unemployment among African-Americans. He’s off to Montana now for a $25,000-a-plate fundraising dinner in the restored Hamilton home of 19th century copper baron Marcus Daly.

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 with no announced way forward on the Democrats’ one-year, $29 billion small-business payroll tax credit proposal. Reid says he’s willing to allow Republicans some latitude to make the debate a venue for airing their campaign themes, but he and McConnell haven’t settled on which specific amendments will be put to a vote. (The GOP’s main objective is to get a roll call right away on whether all of the Bush tax cuts should be continued next year. And Democrats say they’re willing to put every senator on the record for or against Obama’s bid to end the tax cuts on income above $250,000 — but apparently not right away; this morning Reid formally blocked a Republican proposal for back-to-back votes on both ideas.)

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and will be done for the day by 4, after voting for the second time in 18 months in favor of a total repeal of the 2010 medical insurance overhaul. (The other 31 votes have been to defund or defang portions of the statute.) All the Republicans are going to vote “yes” and are hoping their newest line of argument —  that the law’s individual mandate amounts to a tax increase, because the Supreme Court says so — prompts as many as a dozen Democrats to join them. More likely, no more than six will go against the grain.

MONEY MARGINS: Now it looks like Reid won’t even try to get any of the dozen regular spending bills passed as stand-alone measures — an acknowledgment that all the herculean effort required to move even the least controversial of those measures through the Senate is not worth his colleagues’ time this election year. They would rather spend the rest of their time in Washington before the election — which will be no more than 35 days of work as of next Monday — debating officially-going-nowhere proposals that are nonetheless opportunities to help them define their opponents and raise money. (And all of that even though only four of the 10 incontrovertibly competitive Senate races this year involve incumbents: first-term Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jon Tester of Montana, and partial-term Republicans Dean Heller of Nevada and Scott Brown of Massachusetts.)

Senate appropriators, who have delivered nine of their 12 bills, are annoyed at the change in plans, which used to be that at least three of the measures would get done this month. But there is a real, substantive reason why floor debates on appropriations bills — at least one at a time — can be portrayed as a waste of time: The Democratic Senate and the Republican House are so far apart on what the grand total for discretionary spending should be in the coming year that there’s little point in tackling the measures piecemeal; only a comprehensive, omnibus deal at the end can hope to bridge the difference. Senators want to spend up to the $1.047 trillion limit allowed by last summer’s debt ceiling deal, but the House is for now insisting on $19 billion less — a seemingly modest 2 percent difference that becomes more difficult when program-by-program deliberations get started. Almost half of the difference could be ascribed to their differing Defense measures; the House will debate a Pentagon package next week totaling $519 billion — a hair more than half that chamber’s grand total — but the Senate has committed to spending $8 billion less than that.

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers excoriated Reid’s decision this morning. "The House and the Senate are free to disagree, and frequently do, but that should not give cause for one whole legislative branch to act like impudent children, effectively 'taking their ball and going home,'" he said.

MATTERS OF TRUST: Congress won’t be able to enact any response this year to the Supreme Court’s most important last-day decision — that the 2010 Affordable Care Act is constitutional. But it may well be able to make quick work of legislation responding to the court’s other decision on June 28 — that the 2006 Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional.

The court declared the law’s criminal provisions violated the free speech rights of people who want to cook up stories about their winning the Medal of Honor and other combat ribbons. So today Scott Brown, a colonel in the Army National Guard, is sending Obama a letter seeking an endorsement for his Senate legislation that is designed to overcome that First Amendment concern: It would sharply limit what false boastfulness is against the law — making it a federal misdemeanor to benefit financially (by getting extra federal VA and health benefits) from lying about military service, records or awards. Joe Heck, a colonel in the Army Reserves, is pushing companion legislation in the House, where his GOP leadership is highly likely to put the bill on the fast-track to passage this summer; if Obama gives it his blessing, a quick embrace by the Senate would seem assured. (The much broader original measure cruised through Congress on a pair of voice votes.)

TRAIL TIPS: (Illinois) Two prominent fellow Democrats in the state delegation, Sen. Dick Durbin and fellow Chicago House member Luis Gutierrez, are publicly calling on Jesse Jackson Jr. to explain what’s ailing him and when he might return from his indefinite medical leave of absence — which enters its second month today. “The people of his congressional district deserve it,” Gutierrez said yesterday, especially “if he’s going to stand for re-election.” For now the 47-year-old Jackson is a shoo-in to win a ninth full term in territory combining the South Side and close-in suburbs. “There reaches a point when you have a responsibility to tell people what you’re facing and how things are going,” Durbin said — holding up as an example the state’s other senator, Mark Kirk, who has offered frequent medical updates since his severe stroke. Jesse Jackson Sr. told a Chicago radio station that his son’s doctors would provide additional information “soon.”

(Florida) Vern Buchanan is not out of the woods yet, not with the House Ethics Committee and certainly not with the voters in and around Sarasota. The panel yesterday dismissed allegations that the NRCC fundraising chief — and multimillionaire car dealer — failed to report many of his financial holdings in four years’ worth of annual financial disclosures (and noted that those reports are riddled with errors by dozens of lawmakers year after year). But the committee is still investigating a much more serious allegation: That Buchanan offered a $2.9 million settlement to a disgruntled business partner on the condition that the man, Sam Kazran, recant everything he’d said about campaign donation laundering by their business in Buchanan’s initial 2006 campaign. (The Office of Congressional Ethics found evidence indicating that Buchanan knew about the scheme and pushed Kazran to sign a false affidavit saying he didn’t.) The Democrats haven’t picked a nominee to oppose the scarred incumbent, but the Aug. 14 primary frontrunner is former state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald.

(Massachusetts) The dynamics of the state’s single competitive House race are about to get much more complicated. Seth Moulton, a 33-year-old Marine veteran who did four tours in Iraq and has three Harvard degrees, will soon declare his candidacy for the seat John Tierney has held since 1997 — running as an independent this fall but promising to align with the Democrats if he ousts the incumbent. His supporters say they can raise $1 million, sufficient to make him a major factor in a race that had looked to be tilting toward moderate Republican Richard Tisei, a former state senator with a deep organization in the North Shore area. (Tierney’s own family is alleging he knew about their gambling operations.)

QUOTE OF NOTE: “I never thought the Speaker was going to give Mitt Romney a big, wet, slobbery, tongue-filled kiss,” Jason Chaffetz (who may be the GOP candidate’s closest personal friend in the House) said yesterday in defending Boehner’s disinclination to profess his “love” for the presumptive nominee. ‘We don’t expect a man crush. We want to come together and actually solve problems.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democrat Ed Markey of Massachusetts (66), the ninth-longest-serving current House member and a lock for a 19th full term this fall.

— 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, July 10, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: The Short Game

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is landing in Cedar Rapids, where he will spend the next five hours pitching his new tax proposal to the people of Iowa (six tossup electoral votes). His first stop is the home of Jason and Ali McLaughlin, a high school principal and an account manager at a document-scanning business — chosen because the administration calculates they’ve already seen their IRS bill lowered $4,900 during the past four years, but would see their tab spike about $2,000 in 2013 if their portion of the Bush tax cuts expires.

The president’s other stop is a 1:50 speech at Kirkwood Community College, where he’ll renew yesterday’s vow to veto legislation that would extend all those tax cuts. But he won't a bright line on whether rates should be allowed to return to 1990s levels for everyone making more than $250,000, or only for those with income above $1 million. (He’s due back on the South Lawn at 7.)

THE CHALLENGER: Romney is going to advocate keeping all of the Bush tax rates intact for at least another year during a speech starting at 12:35 (D.C. time) to a campaign rally at Central High School in Grand Junction, one of the Republican strongholds in Colorado (nine tossup electoral votes). Then he’s taking off for a fundraiser this evening in Sun Valley, Idaho.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and will vote this afternoon (starting at 2:25) to open debate on a Democratic measure designed to spur a bit of job creation — by awarding $29 billion in tax credits to small businesses that hire additional workers or make big-ticket equipment purchases this year. But the bill’s long-term prospects are dim at best. GOP leaders want their troops to spurn the measure, concerned its passage would allow the other side to score easy campaign season points. And Democrats have no real interest in granting Republicans their stated price for support: a wide-open amendment process that would afford the GOP openings to force votes on more fundamental tax policy questions.

Before the weekly caucus lunches, senators will confirm John Fowlkes Jr., a Tennessee trial judge since 2007, to be a federal trial judge in Memphis.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and will spend the afternoon debating whether to repeal the medical insurance law — with the preordained roll call delayed until another round of speechmaking tomorrow from Republicans deriding “Obamacare” and Democrats defending the “Affordable Care Act.” No amendments are permitted, so the only mystery is how many more electorally vulnerable Democrats vote in favor of ditching the law than the three who did so on the initial total-repeal vote, 18 months ago. (Dan Boren and Mike Ross have since announced retirements, while Mike McIntyre is in an uphill race in North Carolina.) This measure will be spiked in the Senate just as that first bill was — and another 29 measures the House has passed to curtail, delay, deregulate, nullify or deny funding for various parts of the statute.

ONE MORE YEAR: Over the long term, the most important number in Obama’s new proposal for extending the Bush tax cuts is the 1 (the duration, in years, of the extension he’s proposing) and not the 250,000 (his opening bid for the income cutoff for maintaining the current rates).

Of course, a main thrust of the president’s proposal is to gain some electoral leverage over Romney in the months ahead. But, beyond that, the minimalist extension timeline sought by the president makes clear that in his second term he would be prepared to negotiate with Republicans on the longer-lasting, and potentially comprehensive, overhaul of the IRS code they’ve been talking about — one that would simplify and broaden the tax structure and, perhaps for the next decade, settle the question of how much more revenue should be generated for deficit reduction and what share of that money should be taken from the rich and the really rich. Obama said as much in the main sound bite from his announcement yesterday: “The fate of the tax cut for the wealthiest Americans will be decided by the outcome of the next election. My opponent will fight to keep them in place. I will fight to end them.”

Obama went on to say that another year of the more-or-less status quo (for 98 percent of taxpayers, by his reckoning) would avoid a shock to the economy while preserving the obligation for next year’s Congress and the presidential winner to deliberate a tax code rewrite of the magnitude enacted 26 years ago. “Based on what the American people have said and how they’ve spoken during that election, we’ll be in a good position to decide how to reform our entire tax code in a simple way that lowers rates and helps our economy grow and brings down our deficit,” he said. What this means is that — while the two parties are an ocean apart on what the next tax code should look like — Obama and the congressional GOP are united behind a position that the debate should be joined next year, because now both sides are on the record in favor of making only a one-year decision this fall. As recently as a few months ago, both sides were advocating that their vision of tax policy should be imposed indefinitely — or “permanently,” in their political parlance.

Between now and the lame duck, meanwhile, there is ample reason to believe that the president will ease off that other number ($250,000) and start talking about $1 million. There are just too many Democratic candidates — especially in Senate races that could go either way — who are making it clear that they could get behind bigger taxes for millionaires but not for anyone else. Incumbents Bill Nelson in Florida and Claire McCaskill in Missouri, open seat aspirants Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Bob Kerrey in Nebraska, and challenger Shelly Berkley in Nevada have all signaled as much in the past 24 hours.

STILL TIGHT: The presidential election is 17 weeks from today, and Obama and Romney are just as deadlocked in the polls as they have been since the spring. They are tied at 47 percent among the registered voters interviewed Thursday through Sunday for the Washington Post-ABC News poll out today. And the current Real Clear Politics “poll of polls” average — of the eight major independent surveys taken since June 23 — has the president up by a statistically insignificant 1.5 percentage points (46.3 percent to 44.8 percent).

But, at least as importantly for predicting the outcome on Nov. 6, the RCP average of presidential approval ratings in the past three weeks shows he's at 47 percent — with disapproval at 48.6 percent and Obama at 50 percent approval in only one survey. But by the time the election is held, the Obama approval rating will almost precisely match his share of the popular vote — a correlation that makes pretty solid intuitive sense for an incumbent seeking to be “hired’ by the voters for a second term. The reason why the president hasn’t had a run of approval ratings in the majority range since last fall is reflected in the Post-ABC numbers: Fifty-four percent disapprove of his handling of the economy — 10 points more than say they approve (and Romney is trusted to be a better economic steward by 48 percent, 3 points better than the incumbent). Still, though, the president holds a 10-point advantage (50 percent to 40 percent) on the question of which of them better understands the economic problems of the electorate.

NOT IN SEASON: After the House Agriculture markup that gets started tomorrow, the next step on the farm bill may well be a swan dive out of regular order, and into potential oblivion. In diametric contrast to the Senate — which passed its version last month after roll call votes on 42 amendments (and voice votes on dozens more) during a marathon week of deliberation — there’s a growing groundswell of support among the House leadership for having no floor debate at all on how to update crop subsidy, rural development and child nutrition programs for the bulk of the rest of this decade. The reason is that a protracted floor fight would allow the measure to be picked apart both by GOP conservatives (who lament the way the government plays such a big and expensive role in the business of agriculture) and Democratic liberals (who are emphatically opposed to taking the required amount of budget savings almost entirely out of the food stamp program).

The alternative to the normal procedure is to allow this week’s committee deliberation to stand as the only opportunity to poke at the bill — the big fights are going to include whether to roll back the supply management restrictions for sugar, limit the dairy program and do away with federal inspections for catfish — then hand that product to Chairman Frank Lucas and top Democrat Collin Peterson and tell them to try to negotiate the best deal possible with the Senate. (In theory, Debbie Stabenow and Pat Roberts would have the upper hand in he talks, because they were advocating language the whole Senate had blessed, while the House guys were only touting the work product of 46 members.) That way whatever emerges — and it might not be before the lame duck — would be subject to just one more roll call in the House.

The reason for doing it this way, during the summer and fall — and not enacting an extension of the current, four-year-old farm bill for another year — is that agribusinesses are very concerned that waiting until 2013 would risk a new and even more fiscally conservative Congress deciding that it needs to extract even more savings from farm programs than the $25 billion over 10 years that’s the current consensus agreement.

FORMAL BUT NOT FAST: The only hopeful message that Shelley Berkley can take from yesterday’s House Ethics Committee decision is that its formal investigation will probably last longer than her Senate campaign. The Democrats on the special panel that will conduct the probe are sure to keep the results bottled up until after November if the conclusion is that she’s guilty of a conflict of interest. The Republicans are sure to do the same if the results exonerate her. (The two sides have equal representation on the panel, so neither can force the outcome.) At issue is whether she improperly worked to block a federal agency from closing a kidney transplant center at University Medical Center in Las Vegas — while her husband, Larry Lehrner, was a nephrologist on contract.

The congresswoman’s best line of defense is that the kidney center crusade was a Nevada delegation effort and that her Senate opponent, appointed GOP incumbent Dean Heller, was part of that effort. But she cannot avoid what she had hoped to avoid — that her colleagues (even the Democrats) think that her conduct is questionable enough that they’ve decided to authorize a comprehensive investigation at the least opportune time for her; she will now need to spend much of the tossup campaign fighting the specter of impropriety embedded in an electorate that’s exceedingly skeptical about congressional ethics — especially in light of the scandal that forced John Ensign out of the Senate.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Russ Carnahan (54) — who faces Lacy Clay in a Democratic primary four weeks from today that will determine which congressman remains to represent St. Louis next year — and House Republicans Phil Gingrey of Georgia (70) and Tom McClintock of California (56).

— 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

Monday, July 09, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Tax Time (Again)

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, July 9, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is asking Congress to send him a one-year extension of the Bush tax cuts, but only for households earning less than $250,000 in 2013. He’s laying down his campaign marker — on the most politically potent fissure in the fiscal cliff — in an East Room filled with people who would benefit from the continued tax rates.

The president will continue pushing his “tax fairness” argument (and contrast it with Romney’s approach) in interviews being taped for two hours in the Cabinet Room and airing starting at 5 on TV stations in  New Orleans, Louisville, Miami, Raleigh, Milwaukee, Las Vegas, Davenport, Iowa, and Manchester, N.H. Then he’s off to a pair of fundraising receptions at the Mandarin Oriental.

THE CHALLENGER: Romney is taping radio interviews and flying to Aspen to raise money; this evening’s event — $2,500 for a glass of wine, $50,000 for supper — is at the ski chalet of Chicago heiress Susan Crown and her husband William Kunkler. (The campaign announced this morning that he’d raised $106 million in June and began this month with $160 million in cash on hand; the Obama campaign conceded a few hours later that it had raised only $71 million.)

THE HOUSE: Convenes at 2 to consider seven bills the GOP leadership is confident can pass with two-thirds majorities. (The votes will come after 6:30.) One would repeal the requirement that ATMs have placards explaining the fees they charge. Another would make the administration decide if the Haqqani network in Afghanistan should be labeled a terrorist group. Another would boost veterans’ benefits by 1.3 percent next year — the same amount as the expected Social Security COLA.

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 to debate the Democratic proposal for helping small businesses this election year — by creating a tax break for each new hire and expanding the tax incentives for buying new equipment. (A preliminary vote to advance the measure, which would cost $26 billion over a decade, is set for tomorrow afternoon.)

DOUBLING UP: Making the first move in this year’s tax debate allows Obama to try two strategies simultaneously that could prove vitally important to his presidential future.

First, he gets a big opportunity to change the focus of the economic debate in the campaign — away from who’s responsible for stagnating job growth (not good for him) and back onto the classic class-warfare rhetoric which he’s certain is a winner: He and the Democrats are the true friends of the middle class, while Republicans (and their presidential candidate’s tax-return mysteries, offshore investments and outsourcing business success) are the true friends of the 1 percent. Second, he gets to leverage his presidential prerogative to set the congressional legislative agenda for the end of the year — when there are several deadlines for fundamental decisions about how Washington will tax, spend and borrow during the next administration, no matter who is in charge.

The political move is going to be much more easy to execute than the legislative move — because the narrative of Romney as the rich guy’s candidate is already pretty well locked into the electorate’s psyche and probably can’t be undone in the next 120 days. (Fairly, or not; he’s not getting all that much notice for his assertion to a collection of Southampton big donors yesterday that he doesn’t “spend a lot of time worrying about those that are doing as well as you guys are,” but instead spends “a lot of time worrying about those that are poor and those in the middle class that are finding it hard to make a bright future.”) Beyond that, it’s difficult to believe that the independents and other swing voters who will decide the election will buy the GOP line that anything less than a comprehensive and indefinite extension of all the decade-old Bush tax cuts represents a “massive tax increase” for the entire country — even though the disproportionate majority of the higher taxes would be paid by the people making more than $250,000.

What’s tough about the legislative approach, for Obama, is that it puts him at odds (at least initially) with so many influential members of his own party — starting with Pelosi and Schumer, who count very-upper-middle-income urban professionals as central to their political bases, and who argue strenuously that those people are the real job creators and shouldn’t be taxed any more at this economically fragile moment. Instead, they say, it’s only the true millionaires who should be called on to help take a whack out of the deficit by paying more. (The problem for the deficit hawks is that higher taxes for the $250,000-plus crowd would bring in perhaps $800 billion over a decade, while limiting the tax hike to people making $1 million or more would maybe generate half as much.)

TAXES TACK: The odds are that the president will try to buy time for papering over the disagreement in the coming days — by saying only that he would resist (he may even use the word “veto”) Republican efforts to maintain all the current tax rates for another year.

Doing so would also buy him negotiating room on a deficit-reduction grand bargain that would reach the $4 trillion threshold economists and bond raters want — and which he would certainly return to if he gets a second term, especially because a comprehensive deal on entitlements, revenue and discretionary programs is the only true way to avoid the coming sequester. (Remember that in all the folderol of last summer the two sides came up with no more than $500 billion in savings over a decade.) What that means is that no matter how close the sides may come on spending questions, there can be no sweeping agreement to reduce the deficit that doesn’t incorporate a sizable tax increase.

UNBAKED DOZEN: One of the other main slabs of hardened partisan rock in the fiscal cliff is the standoff over spending for the next fiscal year. It starts 12 weeks from today, but there is universal understanding at the Capitol that at most one of the dozen separate spending bills will be completed by then — or anytime before the election. (The exception would be the measure covering veterans programs and military construction, which would then be asked to carry language keeping the budget on autopilot until deep into the lame duck.)

The House isn’t debating any spending bills this week — it’s spending two days on its latest health care repeal effort and is off on Friday — but plans on a one-bill-a-week pace in the final three weeks before the August break; the Defense, Agriculture and Financial Services measures will get done by then, meaning the three most contentious bills may never get beyond a committee markup. (These cover the Labor, HHS and Education departments, foreign aid and most of environmental programs.) Reid, meanwhile, will try to get the VA-Military Construction bill passed this month, and there’s a very longshot chance he’ll make time for the measure covering the Commerce and Justice departments. But, after that, the entire trillion-dollar congressional debate will go on ice until the middle of November.

TRAIL TIPS: (Michigan) Thad McCotter’s out-of-the-blue resignation has infuriated state GOP leaders who thought they could not be infuriated any further by the comprehensively quirky congressman. His rock-solid Republican district in the outer suburbs of Detroit is now very likely to be without a representative until January, because as a practical matter it’s awfully late on the calendar to put a new member in place in time for the lame duck. Instead of scheduling an expensive and rushed special election, GOP Gov. Rick Snyder will probably let the seat remain empty in hopes that it will help state Sen. Nancy Cassis prevail in her expensive write-in campaign for the nomination against tea party gadfly Kerry Bentivolio. (The regular primary is in four weeks.)  McCotter says he’ll now look for work — although he’s “unwilling and ill-suited” to be a lobbyist, he conceded in a masterful understatement — while helping the state attorney general investigate the fake-and-duplicate-signature-riddled petition filings that kept him off the ballot. (He was running for a sixth term after his quixotic presidential campaign went totally nowhere.) “Acutely aware one cannot rebuild their hearth of home amongst the ruins of their U.S. House office, for the sake of my loved ones I must ‘strike another match, go start anew’ by embracing the promotion back from public servant to sovereign citizen,” he said in a written resignation announcement on Friday — a day after reports he’d penned an off-color script for a proposed television variety show (“Bumper Sticker: Made on Motown”) that he would host.

(New York) Adriano Espaillat is going to concede to Charlie Rangel for a second time today, now that the final Board of Elections’ tally in their race has given the congressman an apparent margin of victory of 990 votes — more than 700 above the threshold that would have triggered a recount. Espillat is also going to abandon a lawsuit challenging Rangel’s victory and alleging voter suppression in portions of Harlem and the Bronx, and he’s going to get back in the race for his state Senate seat; all are moves designed to keep alive his dreams of becoming the the first Dominican in Congress once Rangel retires, probably in 2014. Espaillat originally conceded soon after the polls closed two weeks ago, when it seemed the censured former Ways and Means chairman had effectively won his 22nd term by a much more decisive 2,300 votes — but it took days for the final few dozen precincts to report, and after that the gap between the two started shrinking dramatically.

(Texas) Conservative favorite Ted Cruz came out 9 points ahead (with 49 percent, to 40 percent for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst) in a poll the former Texas solicitor general’s campaign commissioned the last week of June. Their runoff — which will be tantamount to election in the fall — is three weeks from tomorrow. The gap in the poll, which is outside the margin of error, signals that Dewhurst has lost the frontrunner status he’s had ever since Kay Bailey Hutchison announced her retirement last year. Both candidates now have universal name identification; Cruz’s favorable-unfavorable numbers were 60 percent to  21 percent; Dewhurst’s were  59 percent to 30 percent. (The Dewhurst campaign says its own internal polling, which it declines to release, indicates their candidate is comfortably ahead.)

(Nevada) The House Ethics Committee is likely to announce today that it’s going to effectively slow-walk its Shelly Berkley inquiry until after the election, by continuing it as a preliminary investigation rather than elevating it to a full-bore probe. While that means the Las Vegas congresswoman will still have the label “under investigation” over her head throughout her tossup Senate campaign, it also means incumbent Republican Dean Heller cannot tout the fact that the matter has become even more serious. At issue is whether Berkley’s efforts to save a kidney transplant program at a Las Vegas hospital was good constituent service — or a conflict of interest given that her husband is a nephrologist who works with the medical center.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “No. Listen, we’re just politicians. I wasn’t elected to play God. The American people probably aren’t going to fall in love with Mitt Romney,” Boehner said at a June 30 fundraiser in Wheeling, W.Va., when asked by an audience member if he could persuade her to fall for the GOP candidate. “Mitt Romney has some friends, relatives and fellow Mormons ... some people that are going to vote for him. But that’s not what this election is about. This election is going to be a referendum on the president’s failed economic policies.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Today, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina (57) and two powerful GOP colleagues in the House, Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan (59) and New Jersey’s Scott Garrett (53), the odds-on bet to chair Financial Services next year. Yesterday, the dean of the House, 28-term Michigan Democrat John Dingell (86).

— 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