Friday, July 27, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Weak Sauce

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Friday, July 27, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama moved to upstage Romney on Israel — the second stop on the Republican’s unexpectedly controversial foreign tour — by staging a signing ceremony this morning for a bill that sailed through Congress last week, expanding military and civilian cooperation with Israel and reiterating American support for a negotiated two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The president is meeting now with Afghan ambassador Ryan Crocker and Secretary of State Clinton. The rest of the day he’ll spend fundraising — at the Jefferson Hotel in the afternoon and a private residence in McLean, Va., in the evening.

Michelle Obama is in London to chair the U.S. Olympics delegation. “Try to have fun. Try to breathe a little bit,” she said in a pep talk to the athletes this morning. “But also win, right?” The first lady is expected to get a warm reception at the opening ceremonies, which start at 4 (D.C. time) but will be shown on tape on NBC starting at 7:30.

THE CHALLENGER: Romney also will be on hand for the ceremonial start of the Summer Games. The campaign is hoping the effort to recover from his self-inflicted and “disconcerting” affront to America’s closest ally means the 2002 Salt lake winter games impresario won’t get heckled. “After being here for a couple of days, it looks to me like London is ready,” the candidate said this morning on NBC’s “Today.” (The tabloids and London Mayor Boris Johnson have been stoking a wave of Romney disdain and seem less interested that the candidate also stumbled by revealing what was supposed to have been his top-secret meeting with officials from Britain’s super secret MI6 spy agency.)

THE SENATE: Not in session. Next convenes at 2 on Monday to debate the cybersecurity bill and decide whether to advance Robert Bacharach, a veteran federal magistrate in Oklahoma backed by both the state’s GOP senators, toward confirmation as a judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

THE HOUSE: Not in session, either; also next convenes at 2 on Monday, but only for a pro forma meeting. (Lawmakers are due back by 6:30 Tuesday to vote on minor “suspension” bills.)

SLOW GOING: The economy grew at just a 1.5 percent annual rate in the spring, because the weak employment market prompted people to spend less. Household purchases, which account for about 70 percent of the gross domestic product, grew at the slowest pace in a year during the second quarter, from April through June. (The consumer spending number was 1.5 percent, down from 2.4 percent the quarter before.)

Those were the headlines from today’s Commerce Department report. The main takeaway is that the economy is showing signs of slowing just three years after the last recession ended, and just three months before the election — and with almost no prospect that Congress, Obama or the Federal Reserve (which meets Tuesday and Wednesday) will do anything that might reverse the trend lines so quickly that the public would recognize the rejuvenation in time to influence the outcome of the campaign. (Growth at or below 2 percent has proved to be insufficient to push down the jobless rate, which was 8.2 percent last month and remains the number that voters are paying attention to more than anything this fall.)

The presidential campaigns took predictable stances after the report came out this morning. The Romney camp described the numbers as another disappointing reminder of the need for different leadership. Alan Krueger, who runs the White House Council of Economic Advisers, boasted that the economy had grown for a dozen consecutive quarters — and asserted things would be so much better if Congress would simply embrace the president’s plan for limiting the extension of the Bush tax cuts.

The only spots of good news were that the assessment of economic growth in the first quarter was pushed up one notch, to 2 percent from the previously announced 1.9 percent; that the second-quarter number was a hair better than the average of predictions offered by 82 economists surveyed by Bloomberg; that spending by governments fell at an annual rate of 1.4 percent in the second quarter, half the 3 percent rate of decline in the first quarter; and that the GDP expansion for October through December of last year was actually 4.1 percent (not 3 percent) — the best quarterly performance in almost six years, but also one that amplifies the rate of decline in subsequent quarters. (For the year, the predicted GDP — the value of all goods and services sold in the country — was $15.6 trillion.)

Commerce also revealed some other revisions today, concluding that the first year of the recovery was even weaker than previously estimated — just 2.5 percent in the four quarters after the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, not the 3.3 percent gain previously reported.

OUR GOOD FRIEND, THE CR: There’s only one fiscal policy area on which there looks to be bipartisan agreement well before the election — and maybe even next week — but it’s not going to be a driver of any economic engine. It is on the ultimately small matter (in light of all the other boulders making up the fiscal cliff) of what to do with the totally stalled process of apportioning $1 trillion in discretionary spending for the coming year. The options are to hold the spending measures hostage as the Oct. 1 deadline approaches — which could be a drag on the economy, because it would remind people about the dysfunctional nature of a government that always seems to be hurtling itself up against some shutdown clock or another — or to agree to extend the deliberations for a decent interval, which would at least do the economy no harm. And it’s become clear that Republicans and Democrats alike are in favor of that second option.

Beyond that, it looks more and more likely they will decide to advance a stopgap spending bill lasting six months, until the end of March. That will save the appropriations debate until after what will be at least a temporary resolution of the sequestration and tax standoffs, which are important prerequisites to settling disagreements over next year’s spending. And the momentum is quickly in favor of writing a CR that keeps the federal government operating at the amount agreed upon when Congress stepped back from the brink of default a year ago this weekend — not the $19 billion-less-than-that amount insisted upon for so many months by House Republicans, which would’ve been a trim of about 2 percent. Conservatives seem to agree that waging that fight is not worth the risk of being portrayed in the runup to the election as budgetary hostage takers. And the running-in-place agreement allows both parties to gamble on their belief that the political climate will be better next year for advancing their spending priorities.

DISASTER PREPARATIONS: There's nothing close to a road map yet for getting a drought relief package through Congress in the week left before the August recess. Republican leaders won’t even commit to putting such a bill up for a vote in the House by then, and resistance to the idea of decoupling disaster aid from the full, long-term farm bill is strong in the Senate as well — unless there’s some solid agreement to negotiate a five-year rewrite measure this fall after the disaster aid goes through. (The leading idea is to pair this summer’s drought aid with a one-year extension of existing farm and food stamp programs.) But details of a disaster package haven’t been finalized. The talk is of $200 million to $300 million as the price tag, with the money coming from trimming direct farm payments that would be continued in 2013. It’s not certain whether the aid would be limited to livestock producers or also include specialty crops. Some fruit growers have been pressing for assistance for frost damage to orchards.

TRAIL TIPS: (Massachusetts) Gun control has entered the state’s Senate race with maximum force. In recent days, GOP incumbent Scott Brown and Democratic consumer activist Elizabeth Warren have revealed their generally sharp differences — most notably on whether to renew the assault weapons ban in effect for a decade ending in 2004. (Selling the AR-15 rifle used in the movie theater massacre would have been illegal had that law still been on the books.) Warren says the law should be reinstated; Brown says it shouldn’t. But that has not stopped Mayor Mike Bloomberg of New York, the most prominent advocate of gun control in elected office these days, from endorsing Brown yesterday — because the senator is at least opposed to the legislation pending in the Senate that would effectively allow concealed weapons nationwide.

(Connecticut) The dismissed campaign manager for state House speaker Chris Donovan, once the clear favorite to hold the open congressional seat in the state’s northwest corner for the Democrats, was among seven men charged yesterday in a federal investigation of Hartford influence peddling and campaign contribution irregularities. “My vote is not for sale and it never has been,” Donovan said last night. “I didn’t know that some of the contributions that came to this campaign were illegal.” The emphatic denial, though, looks unlikely to reverse Donovan’s steady decline from front-runner status, even in the Aug. 14 primary; former state Rep. Elizabeth Esty looks to be surging. (The Republicans have a increasingly tight three-way primary of their own, and any of the winners could make it a tussup if Donovan holds on.) The seat is open because Chris Murphy is running for the Senate.

(Michigan) Hansen Clarke sat in the audience last night as the four other Democrats running against him in the Aug. 7 Democratic primary, including two-term fellow incumbent Gary Peters, debated at Wayne State Law School. The freshman congressman said he was no longer participating in such debates because of “racist rhetoric” in the race, one of the nine post-redistricting, member-on-member House races left to be decided this year. (Clarke is black. Peters is white — and polling suggests he’s building a solid lead in support in the Detroit-area district they now share.)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Lacy Clay (56), who’s favored in the primary a week from Tuesday in the St. Louis district he now shares with fellow Democratic Rep. Russ Carnahan, and Republican Rep. Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania (53).

— David Hawkings, editor

Become a Facebook fan at facebook.com/DavidHawkingsDC. Or follow me on Twitter @davidhawkings.

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

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

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Breadbasket Blues

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convened at 9:30 and will vote at 2:15 to perpetuate past the election the partisan standoff over how earned income, capital gains, dividends, interest and estates should be taxed next year. There will be back-to-back roll calls on legislation embodying both the current Democratic and Republicans plans for extending and altering the Bush-era tax cuts. Reid seems confident that at least 51 of his 53 caucus members will vote for his side’s bill, which would keep taxes the same for about 114 million families and raise them on the wealthiest 2 percent. McConnell is confident all 47 in his ranks will vote to extend almost all of the current polices but limit a few deductions — but he’s unlikely to draw a single Democratic vote for that approach. (There won’t be a vote on the Obama plan, which would tax dividends and estates more than the Reid plan.) The GOP bill would cost $155 billion more than the Democrats’ bill.

THE HOUSE: Convened for speeches at 10, and at noon will start debating dueling bills to set offshore drilling policy. One would direct the Interior secretary to implement Obama’s proposed leasing program. The other would replace the administration’s plan with a GOP proposal that would open more areas to oil and gas development. Almost all the Republicans will vote against the first and for the second. But there will be a fault line dividing the Democrats; some in re-election trouble will oppose the president’s plan and back the more aggressive GOP approach.

Debate will then begin on another bill pushed by the GOP to create campaign-season partisan distinctions — but without any hope of support in the Democratic Senate. The measure would impose a moratorium on new federal regulations (with an economic impact above $100 million) for two years or until the jobless rate drops to 6 percent. Sometime during the day — the last roll call is promised before 7 — the House will take its postponed vote to pass Ron Paul’s audit-the-Fed bill.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Air Force One is about to take off from Seattle and head to New Orleans, where Obama will address the National Urban League for the third time in his presidency. Before that speech to 4,000 attendees at the civil rights group’s convention (at 8 D.C. time), Obama has a big-dollar fundraiser hosted by Bobby Savoie, who runs the IT and engineering firm Geocent, and a smaller-dollar event at the House of Blues. (The end of his four-day trip puts him back in the residence at midnight.)

THE CHALLENGER: Romney has arrived in London but has nothing on his public schedule except one interview, with Olympics network NBC for the evening news.

CROPPING UP: Providing aid for drought relief is quickly becoming the only genuine “must pass” item on the congressional agenda for the next 10 days, after which the lights at the Capitol will be dimmed for five parched weeks.

Boehner and Reid have almost unfettered control over what the House and Senate end up voting on, but they have no control whatsoever over the weather. And the nation’s climatological pattern this summer is not cooperating at all with the plans of both Republicans and Democrats to make this a season all about campaign messaging votes and not at all about finding solutions to the voters’ palpable economic problems. The drought that has taken hold in more than half of the continental United States is the most widespread since Eisenhower was in his second term. The dry conditions look almost certain to expand during the weeks including the presidential conventions and into the fall climax of the general election campaign.

This will mean calamity for farmers — but that’s not the real reason Congress has realized it needs to act, and fast, because the people who cultivate the national breadbasket are a tiny share of the electorate and live mostly in reliably Republican states. (The exceptions include tossup Iowa and Obama’s Illinois.) The real reason is that the drought is already accelerating food inflation, idling thousands of trucks and rail cars that would otherwise be carrying commodities, and threatening to crimp the end of the summer tourism season. (The USDA predicted today that the drought so far means food prices will rise 3 to 4 percent next year, up half a percentage point from this year; higher costs for meat, eggs and dairy will lead the way — because they all come from animals fed from the corn and soybean fields that are now withering in the sun.)

Yesterday, the Speaker sounded the political alarm when he signaled he’d put a disaster relief package on the House floor next week, while still being inclined to leave the overall farm bill behind — a decoupling that would make it even more difficult than it already is for him to find a majority later in the year for the bigger crop subsidy and food stamp package. The size and scope of the aid measure are still on the drawing board. So far, Democrats influential on farm policy in the Senate (especially Finance Chairman Max Baucus and Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow) seem disinclined to go along with the House GOP leadership approach, aware that disaster relief now probably means no farm bill this year. But they will be pressed hard in the coming days to change their minds — especially if the story line becomes “Congress prepares for its summer vacation while the rest of the nation dries up.” (That wouldn’t be altogether fair, because even a deal in September would give farmers the money they need before they realize their measly harvests.)

Support for a disaster package from fiscal conservatives (who would just as soon see the farm bill on the spike) also will help sway the dynamic, especially if powerful advocacy groups on the right decide this is a true emergency so and it’s justifiable to spend the money without an offset. Another option would be to agree quickly on a one-year extension of the entire farm bill, which would continue crop insurance and disaster programs at levels maybe sufficient to cover current conditions.

EVERY BIT COUNTS: The congressional Republican effort to repeal the health care law, already made difficult by the Supreme Court decision, has now become even more of a challenge. That’s because the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office declared yesterday that the statute will cut the deficit by $109 billion over the next decade — and has become $84 billion cheaper since the justices gave the states permission to essentially ignore the new expansion of Medicaid to provide medical coverage to more poor people. (The CBO estimates the result will be 3 million more people without coverage than the law originally envisioned, and since the court’s ruling 12 states have signaled plans to trim Medicaid benefits: Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Wisconsin.)

The decision allows Obama and Democratic supporters of the law who are running for re-election to point to the measure as one of their most fiscally responsible acts of the decade. It also affords the Democrats a defensible rationale for saying that success of the GOP drive to wipe the law off the books (without the party’s once-promised plan to replace it with something better) would mean adding that $109 billion to the debt-and-deficit side of the ledger over the next 11 years.

NOTHING REALLY MATTERS: The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, out today, suggests that very little is changing about the public’s perception of the presidential race — no matter how creative the Obama and Romney ad teams get (the Olympics ad out this morning, for example) and no matter how tart the candidates are in poking at one another. The national survey has the president ahead of his Republican challenger, 49 to 43 percent, which the pollsters say is not a statistically significant change from last month because of a change in their methodology. Obama also leads by an aggregated 8 points in the dozen potential swing states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. But the poll found Romney with a slight edge, 48 to 46 percent, among the voters who describe themselves as almost certain to go to the polls Nov. 6.

The worst numbers in the poll for Obama are that only 27 percent think the economy will improve in the next year (down 8 points from June) and 55 percent say they are less optimistic about the economy than they were a month ago (up 6 points since June). The most worrisome numbers for Romney are that only 47 percent of those surveyed said they like the candidate personally (without regard to his policies) — but 67 percent say they view Obama as a likeable guy.

TRAIL TIPS: (Connecticut) Crystal clear evidence that the first election after the Aurora theater shooting won’t change the totally-hands-off congressional approach to gun control has been provided by the state’s open seat Senate race. Chris Shays — whose championship of the 1994 assault weapons ban cemented his reputation as the House’s most prominent and orthodoxy-challenging moderate Republican — totally disavowed the law yesterday. “I couldn’t defend my own vote,” he said of the statute, which would have barred the sale of the AR-15 and ammunition magazine allegedly used by James Holmes last week if it had remained in place after 2004. “Americans have a right to have weapons. The Second Amendment is alive and well and reaffirmed by the Supreme Court.” The reversal is highly unlikely to improve the long odds that the former congressman faces in his Aug. 14 primary against Linda McMahon, the pro wrestling executive who’s long been favored by the state’s NRA types and otherwise appears to have an overwhelming financial and organizational advantage. (The Democrats are likely to nominate Rep. Chris Murphy, who would be favored in the fall.)

(Hawaii) The exception that proves the rule in the current congressional climate — that incumbent lawmakers of one party never publicly endorse colleagues from the other — was provided yesterday by unpredictable Alaska Republican Don Young, who went on camera offer and effusively warm 90-second endorsement to Mazie Hirono, the Democratic congresswoman from Honolulu who’s trying to sew up her Aug. 11 primary against former Rep. Ed Case. (The winner will have a slight edge in the fall over former GOP Gov. Linda Lingle, who has been stressing her won sort of crossover appeal.) The Web ad’s dramatic effect is far greater than Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn’s $250 check quietly delivered to his Democratic Senate colleague, Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Young and Hirono pat each other on the shoulder as they talk about their collaboration to preserve an education program for native Hawaiians and Alaskans —the sort of issue that has customarily bonded lawmakers from outside the Lower 48 — then share a hug and an “Aloha” at the end.

(New York) A new poll on Long Island suggests that Tim Bishop is not going to be caught napping again. Two years ago, GOP businessman Randy Altschuler came more or less out of nowhere and within 593 votes of defeating Bishop, who’s been in the House since 2003. It was the second-closest congressional race of 2010. Democratic campaign operatives (including DCCC chairman Steve Israel, from a neighboring district) have worked assiduously to make sure their rematch is not as close, and last week’s survey (by the Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group) signals the work is paying off: Bishop led in the horse race, 56 to 32 percent, and scored a 45 percent positive impression rating (to 27 percent negative). Altschuler was at 25 percent favorable, 24 percent unfavorable.

QUOTE OF NOTE: “The U.S. financial system has regained its footing since the crisis of a few years ago but is still threatened by instability in Europe and uncertainty about taxes and spending at home,” Geithner told House Financial Services this morning in summarizing the conclusions of the annual financial stability report that’s been required from the Treasury secretary since the 2008 financial meltdown.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Martha Roby of Alabama, one of the nine women in the House Republican freshman class and a safe bet for a second term (36).

— David Hawkings, editor

Become a Facebook fan at facebook.com/DavidHawkingsDC. Or follow me on Twitter @davidhawkings.

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

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

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Guns on Defense? No, Offense!

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Today In Washington

THE HOUSE: Convened at 10 and before 3:15 will give solid bipartisan backing to legislation subjecting the Federal Reserve to comprehensive GAO auditing. The vote will stand as the final legislative victory for Ron Paul, who’s retiring after 23 years representing South Texas in the House over the past four decades and three quixotic presidential campaigns — all the while advocating abolition of the Fed as the centerpiece of his libertarian agenda. (The bill, which is his fallback position, has no future in the Senate; Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke says such audits would seriously harm the central bank’s ability to set interest rate policy.)

Debate will begin this afternoon and continue tomorrow on a piece of the GOP’s energy agenda, legislation that would scrap Obama’s offshore leasing plan with one that opens much more water to oil and gas drilling.

THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and is marking time before its test vote on the Democrats’ version of an extension of the Bush tax cuts, the centerpiece of which would mean higher rates next year on individuals’ income above $200,000 and couples’ income above $250,000. Republicans will be unanimous in voting to block the bill; the only suspense is whether the roll call comes this afternoon (after the weekly caucus lunches) or tomorrow.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is in San Francisco again this morning. He’ll be in Portland for a pair of fundraisers at the Oregon Convention Center this afternoon (his only scheduled on-camera appearance is at 7:10, D.C. time), then fly to Seattle for a top-dollar dinner in the home of Costco co-founder Jim Sinegal.

THE CHALLENGER: Romney is addressing the annual VFW convention in Reno at 2 (D.C. time), where he’ll make the case that Obama has wrongly allowed military spending to decline and relinquished the leadership role the United States has played in the world for the past century. He’s wheels up this evening for a weeklong “listen and learn” overseas trip designed to burnish his foreign policy credentials, with London as the first stop followed by Israel and Poland.

EVERYTHING IS AN OPPORTUNITY: The story of the day yesterday was about how well the NRA had played preemptive defense against any gun control legislation advancing this year — even before the Aurora movie theater massacre. But now there’s evidence that the gun rights lobby has so much swagger and stroke at the Capitol that it could go on offense in the coming weeks, even as James Holmes and his comical hair and droopy eyes continue to dominate TV screens as the face of unregulated violence across the country.

Yes, it’s true that Holmes appears to have ordered his once-banned assault rifle, his shotgun, his two handguns and his 6,000 rounds of ammunition on the Internet, and there’s no evidence he ever carried any of his arsenal anywhere near the Colorado border. But still, it would mark one of the high points in the history of modern American lobbying chutzpah for the NRA to make a big push for the Senate to take up its top priority for the year: legislation, already passed by the GOP House, that would expand the rights of gun owners by permitting them to carry concealed weapons across state lines. (The measure would allow holders of concealed-carry handgun permits from one state to carry hidden weapons into all the other states, no matter the rules in other states.)

The only reason the group hasn’t pushed harder, sooner, is that it could not figure out a way to get enough Democrats to challenge Reid’s more-or-less-closed loop on allowing votes on legislative proposals unrelated to the Democrats’ campaign season themes. (Democrats in favor of the bill include Mark Begich, Max Baucus, Joe Manchin and Jon Tester.) The rationale for action now — at least in the eyes of some of the more outspoken advocates of the NRA agenda — is that more concealed weapons are just what the country needs to deter the mentally disturbed. Their theory is that a law-abiding citizen who brought his piece to the Batman movie premiere might have been able to stop Holmes before he shot 70 people.

EASY TO SAY IT NOW: Fifteen weeks out, Republicans are feeling frisky enough about their Election Day prospects that they’re starting to go public with their happy forecasts of what the Senate would be like with McConnell in charge. The majority leader’s office would not be “an office for a dictator” if the GOP gains three or four seats in November, the term McConnell himself used yesterday to describe Reid’s approach. Instead, his Republican colleagues say, they would expect the customarily reserved, even taciturn, Kentuckian to run an institution where the procedural and legislative trains run much more closely to on time. They insist that their plan — at least in the initial months of the next Congress, before the prospect of the 2014 election starts looming — would be to have regular order, with most bills coming out of committee, plenty of legislative amendment debate, no filibusters necessary on motions to proceed and annual matters (including appropriations bills and a budget resolution) happening annually.

Such promises of a return to functionality were, of course, what Boehner vowed when he was anticipating becoming Speaker two years ago — promises he has carried out only episodically during his first term on the job, and less and less often as the election has gotten close. (His current decision to put the farm bill on a high shelf in his office this summer, to avoid intraparty clashes spilling into the open even as much of the nation’s cropland withers in the sun, is the latest indication of that.) And all the senators who are now saying with a straight face that they would expect an era of good feeling under  McConnell — all the Republicans and, to be fair, a couple of Democrats too — might not think all is so hunky-dory if the consequence of regular order is that roll call votes need to be scheduled on Monday and Fridays, and maybe even after sunset (meaning during fundraisers) on the middle three days of the week as well.

DOUBLING DOWN: There’s a general congressional agreement that the current economic sanctions against Iran are so porous as to be almost pointless — and that the situation should be fixed before the election. Which is why leaders on the issue, from both parties and in both the House and the Senate, are scrambling to get a deal on compromise legislation that might be unveiled by the end of the week and pushed through Congress and onto Obama’s desk before the start of the August recess at the end of next week.

The lead negotiators, Banking Chairman Tim Johnson for the Senate and Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen for the House, are working to assemble a list of new sanctions that would punish Iran’s energy sector, financial institutions and shipping lines — crackdowns that have so far not been a part of legislation that’s been languishing in different forms on both sides of the Capitol. The goal is to almost totally isolate Iran from the rest of the world’s economic activity unless and until it unambiguously and verifiably sets aside its nuclear ambitions.

ONE GLITCH: Sponsors of the compromise cybersecurity package are formally unveiling their deal early this afternoon, the Obama administration has blessed it, and the Senate debate may get started on it as soon as tomorrow. But John McCain is absolutely not on board. His opposition to an earlier version of the measure — which would have gone much farther in regulating the computer networks of business — was what sent the negotiators back to the drawing table, but their work has not won him over. Mainly, he told the Senate, he’s furious that the measure is going to be put before the Senate before the annual defense authorization bill, which he would be shepherding as the top Republican on Armed Services (and which has some not-unimportant cybersecurity provisions of its own). But beyond that, McCain says it’s a waste of time to debate and pass legislation that has so little chance of being embraced by the House. (It is true that there’s strong resistance there to do anything that smacks of Big Brotherism, which critics still see some of in the new Senate compromise.)

TRAIL TIPS: (Texas) Polls opened yesterday and will close in a week in the state’s congressional runoffs. Both candidates in the marquee race — the Republican contest that’s tantamount to filling the open Senate seat — took quick advantage of the early voting. (Former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz, the conservative insurgent, also won an endorsement by Sarah Palin and started benefitting from a $500,000 ad buy from Jim DeMint’s super PAC; the establishment favorite, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, won the backing of Nolan Ryan.) In the House district sprawling way west of San Antonio, Ciro Rodriguez’s latest comeback bid looks to have a slight edge over the campaign of state Rep. Pete Gallego, who has the Democratic establishment’s money and its backing as the better prospect for unseating GOP freshman Quico Canseco. The other runoff is a barn-burner (for a safely Democratic, newly drawn seat) that reflects crosstown rivalries and ethnic politics. The candidates are a Hispanic former state legislator from Dallas, Domingo Garcia, and an African-American state legislator from Fort Worth, Marc Veasey.

(Ohio) Jim Renacci has reversed course and decided to give back $100,000 in questionable campaign donations rather than wait for the results of a federal probe. Hanging on to the money — from Canton-area businessman Benjamin Suarez, his employees and their spouses — had become tough to rationalize, politically, after the FBI began looking at whether most of the cash belonged to Suarez and had been laundered though his minions. The freshman Republican’s opponent, third-term Democrat Betty Sutton, was having a field day with the controversy. The two incumbents are competing intensely in a district south of Cleveland that was redrawn in redistrict to favor neither of them decisively, although McCain would have carried it by 2 points. The race is a straight-up tossup.

(Massachusetts) There won’t be a run for the House, at last this fall, by Seth Moulton, the Iraq War veteran and high-speed rail entrepreneur who was being recruited to get into the race against dragged-down-by-his-wife’s-family’s-legal-troubles John Tierney — with the strategy that Moulton would run as an independent this fall but become a Democrat if he got to Washington. But Moulton said yesterday that the logistical impediments were too high to a candidacy so close to the election. His decision boosts the odds that veteran state legislator Richard Tisei will pick up the North Shore seat for the Republicans.

(Wisconsin) In a year in which a record number of openly gay candidates (Tisei among them) have solid shots at winning House seats, state Rep. Mark Pocan stands out: He has now emerged as the clear front-runner in the race to succeed Tammy Baldwin, which would mark the first time that one gay person has succeeded another in Congress. Pocan has served 14 years in the state Assembly, has support from the party establishment and the unions and has also been endorsed by senior House Democrats including Jim Clyburn, George Miller and Barney Frank. His principal opponent in the Aug. 14 primary, which is as good as winning the general election in liberal-leaning Madison, is Kelda Helen Roys, a former leader of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin. (Baldwin, who’s running or the Senate, hasn’t made an endorsement.)

QUOTE OF NOTE: Having favorite-son Sen. Rob Portman as Romney’s running mate “is worth 3 to 5 points in Ohio,” the state’s party chairman, Bob Bennett, told the Christian Science Monitor yesterday. “Independents like Portman. And Democrats don’t get mad at him.” (No Republican has ever won the presidency without the state’s electoral votes; George W. Bush carried it by 2 points in 2004 and 4 points in 2000.)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Missouri’s Claire McCaskill (59), one of the two Democratic incumbents currently viewed as coin-flip bets at best for re-election to the Senate.  (The other is Montana’s Jon Tester.) 

— David Hawkings, editor

Become a Facebook fan at facebook.com/DavidHawkingsDC. Or follow me on Twitter @davidhawkings.

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

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

Monday, July 23, 2012

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: A Dangerous Topic

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Monday, July 23, 2012

Today In Washington

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2, when Reid is expected to tip his hand about what else he’ll try to get done in the two weeks before the August recess — and in what order. (Top on his list for this week is a test vote on the Democrats’ plan for extending and limiting some of the Bush tax cuts, probably followed by debate on the compromise cybersecurity bill unveiled last week.)

Senators will vote at 5 to advance the nomination of Michael Shipp, a federal magistrate in Newark since 2007, to a trial court judgeship. Republicans have insisted on a cloture vote — not because they oppose Shipp, but because they want to slow the judicial confirmation pipeline as much as possible until after the election. (Four noncontroversial appeals court nominees and 17 other District Court nominees are also awaiting floor votes.)

THE HOUSE: Convenes at 2 to tackle 18 bills, including legislation naming six post offices, three federal courthouses and a wildlife visitor center. Votes are put off until 6:30. Lawmakers will clear legislation expanding the legal rights and appeals process for private-plane pilots who get disciplined by the FAA. (The bill is a pet cause of Sen. Jim Inhofe, who says he was wronged by the agency — he was made to take remedial flying lessons — after landing his Cessna 340 on a closed runway in Texas two years ago.)

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama spent the night in San Francisco after his stop in Aurora; he’s getting ready to fly to Reno to tout his record on veterans’ issues in a lunch speech (3:35 D.C. time) to the annual VFW convention. Then he’s off to Oakland for a trio of fundraisers: a $38,500 “roundtable” for 25 tech entrepreneurs, a dinner for 60 (with the same price tag) at the Piedmont home of real estate developer Wayne Jordan and his wife, Quinn Delaney, and a low-dollar reception at the downtown Fox Theater.

THE CHALLENGER: Romney was also in San Francisco last night and is headed to Southern California — first for a fundraising breakfast at the Hyatt in Irvine, then for not-for-money, on-camera roundtable (at 1:30 D.C time) for Orange County small business owners at Endural, a plastic industrial container manufacturer in Costa Mesa. He’s also taping an interview with CNBC’s Larry Kudlow. (Romney will speak to the VFW tomorrow before starting his overseas trip.)

STATUS QUO: The nation got its first glimpse of the suspected movie theater mass murderer a few minutes ago, when James Holmes walked into a Colorado courtroom to hear the charges against him. His prosecution is expected to take months. But at no time during that process will Congress come even remotely close to taking any action designed to prevent such massacres.

There is no political torque at all for gun control of any kind — not legislation to restrict sales of the sort of high-capacity magazines that Holmes allegedly used in killing a dozen people and wounding 58 others in a matter of minutes, and certainly not a revived ban on the assault rifle that was the centerpiece of his arsenal. (Both his AR-15 semiautomatic and ammunition clip were banned for a decade that ended in 2004, and there has been no serious effort since to revive those restrictions or impose any others — not after Virginia Tech, and not after Gabby Giffords.) That dynamic will not change before the election; afterward the country may well have collectively put aside its sporadic interest in reining in the most violent aspects of society — and, no matter who wins, will have a president who has professed little recent interest in taking on the NRA. (In other words, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s highly publicized calls on both candidates to take tougher stands against gun violence will be totally ignored — with the president planning to turn his campaign attention back on the economy and the challenger about to head overseas in hopes of burnishing his foreign policy credentials.)

Obama was a gun control advocate as a state legislator and an Illinois senator. As a candidate four years ago he called for reinstating the assault weapons ban, and after Giffords was almost gunned down last year he promised to propose legislation that would “keep those irresponsible, law-breaking few from getting their hands on a gun in the first place.” But he has never fulfilled that promise, and yesterday the White House made abundantly clear that no such proposal was coming. “We need to take steps that protect Second Amendment rights of the American people but that ensure that we are not allowing weapons into the hands of individuals who should not, by existing law, obtain those weapons,” Jay Carney said as the president flew to Colorado to visit with families of many of the victims of Friday's Batman-movie melee. “The president’s view is that we can take steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them under existing law. And that’s his focus right now.”

Mitt Romney also has evolved on gun control. As a Senate candidate in 1994 he said he didn’t want the backing of the gun rights lobby, and as governor of Massachusetts he signed legislation to indefinitely extend a ban on assault weapons sales in the state. He also came out for a waiting period for gun purchases. But as a presidential candidate this year he told the NRA essentially the same thing as what the president’s spokesman said yesterday: “We need a president who will enforce current laws, not create new ones that only serve to burden lawful gun owners.”

In Congress, meanwhile, there are almost no lawmakers in swing districts who will be willing to abandon their support of the NRA and come out for gun control now. In part, recent polling supports that reticence; in the most recent annual Gallup poll on the topic, 55 percent said the laws should stay the same or be made more lenient, while 43 percent said gun control should be intensified (that's a 35 percentage point drop in two decades). Only safe-seat Democrats — among them Ed Perlmutter, who is Aurora’s congressman — are calling  on Congress to reinstate the assault weapons ban.

AREAS OF MILD AGREEMENT: The parties remain fundamentally at odds over how to tackle the fiscal cliff, but they are coming together on two tangential matters.

First, Reid and McConnell appear close to an agreement to clear the House’s version of legislation demanding that Obama provide a detailed accounting of what the sequester would mean — domestic and military, discretionary and mandatory, agency by agency, for every program, project or activity. And if the vote comes this week, the required report would be due well before the election, and also with plenty of time before the presidential nominating conventions. (The bill sets a deadline of 30 days after enactment, so in theory the president could delay the inevitable for only a couple of weeks by waiting to sign the measure until the last available moment.  There’s no way he would veto it — especially if it gets through the Senate on a voice vote after getting through the House 414-2.)

There’s a widespread belief that the administration hasn’t done much, if any, detailed planning to carry out the sequester, on the expectation that Congress will come up with some work-around, delaying tactic or deficit-reduction alternative before the Jan. 2 deadline. (If not, the law requires that Obama start the government on a spending diet designed to shed $100 billion, equally from domestic and defense programs, during the final nine months of the fiscal year.)  

The reason there’s such nearly unanimous eagerness at the Capitol to see the details is that lawmakers want to understand just what economic danger and government-services calamity they voted for last summer, when they made the across-the-board cuts their self-imposed punishment if their supercommittee could not come up with a more discerning deal. The details, in theory, will give both sides an incentive to use the lame duck to make some politically tough decisions to disarm the sequester. The basic calculus is that, if Obama wins and his victory helps the Democrats hold the Senate, Republicans will have little reason to postpone their trip to the relative wilderness — and so will buckle and agree to avoid the sequester by ending the Bush tax cuts on the richest 2 percent. But if Romney carries a GOP Senate on his coattails, the president and congressional Democrats will work to make the most of their final weeks in power, holding the sequester (and the possible expiration of all the Bush tax cuts) as hostages to their demand for more revenue in any sequester-avoiding  deal. Under that scenario, the cuts could well take effect — at least on paper — for the first few weeks until the inauguration puts the GOP in position to press its alternatives.

Second, GOP conservatives and Democratic leaders are coming together on a plan to quickly postpone the most immediate of the budget deadlines — on appropriations for the budget year staring Oct. 1 — well past the election and maybe into the lap of the next Congress and the presidential winner. That’s because both sides have every incentive to avoid blame for even the threat of a yet another possible electorate-rattling government shutdown five weeks before the voting. The deal would involve a big swap: Republicans would agree to live with the discretionary spending limit in last summer’s debt deal (not the $19 billion-less-than-that they have wanted) and would support funding to carry out the health care law, while Democrats would essentially cede their power to drive the annual spending debate to its conclusion at a time when they were guaranteed to control both the White House and the Senate. (This means the deal would involve a stopgap bill, or CR, lasting six months — until the end of March.)

The Republicans like this deal because they really think they might have both the presidency and the Senate next year and could reorder budget priorities accordingly. Democrats may embrace the six-month funding measure because they are similarly willing to bet that their power won’t be diminished next year — and in the meantime the spending level will be to their liking.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Today, tries-to-phone-every-constituent Tim Johnson of southern Illinois (66), who gave up his seventh term bid after winning the Republican primary this spring — but also after realizing that redistricting had given him 400,000 or so new calls to make. Yesterday, House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson of Connecticut (64), retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas (69) and two fellow Republicans in the House, Steve LaTourette of Ohio (58) and Bob Aderholt of Alabama (47).

PUBLISHING NOTE: The Republican convention opens in Tampa five weeks from today, and the Daily Briefing will be there and at the Democratic convention in Charlotte the following week. The email will be sent later than usual — at about 4, to allow more timely updates and insights into the day’s developments and forecasts of the session ahead. These special briefings will be delivered Sunday, Aug. 26 through Thursday, Aug. 30 and Sunday, Sept. 2 through Thursday, Sept. 6.

— David Hawkings, editor

Become a Facebook fan at facebook.com/DavidHawkingsDC. Or follow me on Twitter @davidhawkings.

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

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