Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
August 22, 2014

August 5, 2014

Rhetoric Overload, Four Decades After Nixon

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Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell talks about his Russell Office that use to belong to Richard Nixon during an interview in 2005. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Richard M. Nixon’s fate was effectively sealed 40 years ago today. It’s a curious coincidence at the start of an August recess when the extraordinarily serious matter of presidential impeachment is going to be tossed around in such a cavalier and cynical manner.

In the current era of partisan gamesmanship and governmental gridlock, it’s understandably difficult to comprehend what a genuine constitutional crisis feels like. But there is no doubt that’s what steadily swelled toward its climax on Aug. 5, 1974.

That Monday afternoon, Nixon made public transcripts of three conversations he’d had with White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman just six days after the June 1972 break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex. The move ended parallel standoffs — between the president and Congress and between the president and federal prosecutors — that had festered for two weeks, even after the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that Nixon could not claim executive privilege and had to fork over the records subpoenaed for the Watergate cover-up trial. The House Judiciary Committee had also been stiff-armed after issuing similar subpoenas on the way to approving its three articles of impeachment, with solid bipartisan support, in July.

Beyond breaking the separation-of-powers fever, the transcripts provided all the evidence necessary to bring Nixon’s presidency to a dramatically swift end. His words, preserved on what came to be known as the “smoking gun” tape, left no doubt he had personally launched a criminal conspiracy. The president had effectively ordered the cover-up of the Watergate burglary, agreeing that top CIA officials should be instructed to pressure the FBI to halt its investigation of the crime on cooked-up “national security” grounds.

Within hours, Nixon’s tenuous wall of congressional support crumbled. All 10 Republicans who had voted against impeachment in committee said they would vote on the floor for at least the article alleging obstruction of justice. (The other charges were abuse of presidential power and contempt of Congress.) Senior Republican senators were dispatched to inform the president he could not count on more than 15 votes for acquittal at a Senate trial. Nixon chose instead to resign, announcing that decision Thursday night and leaving office the morning of Friday, Aug. 9.

The anxiety of that sustained constitutional impasse — capped by a president who had proclaimed “I am not a crook” quitting after being forced to reveal he really was one — is seared in the memories of everyone on the Hill who lived through it. (The most recent reminder was the July 29 death, at age 89, of former Rep. Caldwell Butler of Virginia, who as a freshman on Judiciary conceded he broke down and wept after becoming among the first committee Republican to announce support for impeachment.)

But Watergate also was the formative national trauma for anyone who arrived in Congress from the 1970s through the 1990s, the generations who still hold sway over the national debate. For those politicians, regardless of ideology, Nixon’s forced resignation ranks with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as the dates in their lives that most live in infamy.

The desire to prevent a repeat of the Nixon drama helped prompt Democrats, just 12 years later, to quickly quash calls for President Ronald Reagan’s impeachment, despite solid evidence he violated the law and misled Congress in the Iran-Contra affair. Similar sentiment fueled the Senate’s never-in-doubt, bipartisan 1999 acquittal of President Bill Clinton on the House GOP’s charges that he should lose his job for lying to a grand jury and otherwise trying to cover up his affair with West Wing intern Monica Lewinsky. A decade later, Democrats made clear they had no interest in spending the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency prosecuting him for launching the Iraq War under suspect pretenses.

In that context, this summer’s casual talk sounds astonishing. Full story

July 30, 2014

The Almost Invisible Final Days of a Once-Forceful Leader

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 (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Eric Cantor’s slow fade toward the exits of the House majority leader’s office is one day from its official completion. But as a practical matter he’s been almost invisible for several weeks.

And at the Capitol, there are no outward signs that one of the most important congressional jobs is changing hands after 43 months — and one stunning primary outcome in central Virginia.

The wet blanket of quiet is another reminder of how Congress, as much as any other prominent American institution, makes quick work of people who lose their clout. “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business,” is one of the institution’s words-to-live-by aphorisms. Another is, “You may be a rooster today, but you’ll be a feather duster soon enough.”

Cantor’s colleagues say they decided to forgo any public ceremony to mark the end of his time as the No. 2 Republican, official as of midnight Thursday. Rather than a round of speeches now — which might come off as funereal so close to his involuntary separation from power — an organized tribute on the House floor will be arranged toward the conclusion of the lame-duck session, when Cantor’s 14-year congressional career will be at its end.

But Republican lawmakers won’t wait until December for their invitation-only wake. The incoming majority leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, is hosting a party for Cantor on Wednesday night at the Capitol Hill Club. On the last evening before lawmakers take off for five weeks, the GOP’s fusty official hangout should be packed with get-away energy. (McCarthy picked the much hipper Blue Jacket at the Navy Yard for the bash he tossed Tuesday night honoring the biggest loser in the post-Cantor leadership shuffle, outgoing chief deputy whip Peter Roskam of Illinois.)

As an interim eulogy staffers assembled a schmaltzy, if brief at just 126 seconds, video about Cantor’s time as majority leader. Shown at Tuesday’s weekly meeting of the House Republican Conference and later distributed to congressional reporters, the highlight reel was long on Cantor’s efforts to soften the rough edges of his fractured caucus. It offered a reminder of his pride in being the only Jewish Republican in Congress. But, predictably, the tape didn’t even hint at his rocky passages as a legislative strategist, his fundraising prowess or his complex relationship with Speaker John A. Boehner. Full story

July 28, 2014

Possible Senate GOP Majority Would Be Young, but Would Have Enough Elders for Heft

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In a possible GOP Senate majority, Cochran is one of many veterans who could reclaim gavels. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo.)

Conventional wisdom holds that if Republicans take the Senate, generational turnover and term limits will combine to produce a balky and potentially amateurish legislative process next year.

That theory gets challenged by a close look at how the committee gavels are likely to be distributed if the party picks up the necessary six seats, which current race-by-race assessments reveal has become a slightly better than even-money proposition. Eight of the 20 chairmanships — including for almost all the premier policy-making panels — would be held by senators who have had such responsibility in Congress in the past.

In other words, the committee leadership in the 114th Congress would benefit from a significant amount of expertise and seasoning, even though in the aggregate the potential new Senate Republican majority would be relatively inexperienced. (If there are 51 members of the caucus come January, the minimum needed for a takeover, only two-fifths of them will have been senators for a decade or longer.) Full story

July 24, 2014

Why a Namesake Post Office Is All Barry Goldwater Might Get This Year

Few things Congress does come in for more ridicule than its penchant for naming post offices. While the exercise soaks up some floor time and keeps the clerks busy, it alters public policy not one bit. Instead, each new honorific provides lawmakers with nothing beyond a sliver of feel-good accomplishment.

But even perpetuating this hallmark of our “do-nothing” legislative era is becoming complicated by partisan gamesmanship and the ideological strife inside the Republican Party.

The most prominent postal tribute hanging in the balance this summer would offer a startlingly modest tribute to Barry Goldwater — who drove the resurgence of the Republican right half a century ago, was the party’s 1964 presidential candidate and was hailed as “Mr. Conservative” during his three decades as a senator from Arizona. Full story

July 23, 2014

Spending Impasse Solidifies With Midterm Results Holding Next Move

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Reid once had grand plans. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

This week notwithstanding, this summer on the Hill has been less sticky than usual. But it’s shaping up to be as somnolent as ever.

The days leading up to the August recess are by custom dedicated to some of the year’s defining and politically consequential matters: A deal holding down student loan interest rates last year, showdown votes on taxes and drought relief in 2012, the last minute averting of government default in 2011, and confirmations of Supreme Court justices the two previous summers.

This time, no climatic or dramatic get-out-of-town roll call is in the offing. There won’t be a quick fix for the child migrant crisis, and there’s only an outside chance for a deal to patch up the veterans’ medical care system. Congress will agree to keep highway construction funds flowing for just nine months, but that’s just a classic can-kicking maneuver.

The election year void was supposed to be filled with clamorous debates on appropriations bills, which both House and Senate leaders promised would produce some unusually timely progress for this year’s budget process. That’s not happening, and it’s not going to happen. Full story

July 22, 2014

Elizabeth Warren’s Summer of Surrogacy Helps Keep 2016 Talk Alive

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Warren is traveling far and wide, sparking speculation about her national ambitions. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

If Rand Paul is taking this summer’s most prominent turn in the Republican spotlight, then the same must be said for his Senate colleague Elizabeth Warren among the new generation of national Democratic players.

The two first-term senators are generating their surges in attention in different ways, probably because they have different timetables in mind for their presidential aspirations.

While Paul is overtly laying the groundwork for a virtually certain 2016 campaign with a series of bold fundraising, staffing and legislative moves totally disconnected from his home base in Kentucky, Warren has been taking another tack with a seemingly alternate objective. She, too, has been spending most of her not-in-session time politicking far from her home base of Massachusetts, but almost all her campaigning and cash collecting has been on behalf of others. Full story

July 21, 2014

Rand Paul’s 2016 Buzz Is Buzzier Than His Senate Colleagues’

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Paul might be on a roll. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The most wide open Republican presidential contest in modern times is shaping up, so a thousand things could change in the 80 long weeks before the first scheduled caucuses and primaries take place. And a couple hundred of them surely will.

With that enormous caveat stipulated up front, it’s worth recognizing that one aspirant is having a bit of a moment. Rand Paul has been generating at least as much policy, fundraising and organizational buzz this summer as any other potential candidate, and certainly more than the other possible contenders out of Congress.

Paul will be returning to the Senate Monday afternoon after spending three days in San Francisco, a highly unusual weekend destination for a conservative from Kentucky. But the senator concluded he had opportunities on three fronts to advance his nascent bid. He could raise money from Bay Area entrepreneurs sympathetic to his libertarian views. He could recruit some tech geeks to join his fledgling campaign staff. And he could deliver the keynote speech at a technology conference, to sell the notion that his views about free markets and personal privacy ought to be catnip to Silicon Valley.

It was Paul’s second such trip in as many weekends. The previous foray was to Sun Valley, Idaho, where he was invited to the super exclusive annual conference on media and technology organized by the investment bank Allen & Co. His time there reportedly included private meetings with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

When the August recess starts, Paul will be the first among his most ambitious senatorial colleagues to get to a more traditional political locale — he’ll spend three days in Iowa starting on Aug. 4 raising money for several county Republican organizations. The groups, of course, are crucial players in getting out the vote for the Iowa caucuses, which are (for now) scheduled to kick off the national nominating contest on Feb. 1, 2016. Full story

July 16, 2014

The Republican Civil War Takes a Turn for the Cheekily Uncivil

It’s rare, but sometimes an advertisement in Roll Call says as much about the state of congressional political infighting as our coverage.

Such was the case Wednesday. Page 7 provided an exceptionally tart and juicy morsel of insight into the Republican civil war’s summertime state of play.

The sarcastically gleeful full-page ad was the handiwork of Main Street Advocacy, which exists to stick up for the establishment wing of the GOP in part by promoting the re-election of House and Senate incumbents. The butt of the ad was the Club for Growth, which seeks to defeat those same lawmakers whenever they stray from the strictest of party fiscal orthodoxies.

For this year, anyway, the contest is shaping up as a total rout. One of the most influential players in the tea party movement created a special campaign to take out 10 House members — and every one of them was re-nominated with varying degrees of ease. In other words, a perversely “perfect” political showing.

“Main Street Advocacy congratulates our friends at the Club for Growth,” the ad declares in big type, likening the 0-10 record to such exceptional sports feats as Don Larsen’s perfect game for the New York Yankees in the 1956 World Series, the Miami Dolphins’ perfect NFL season in 1972 and the Indiana Hoosiers men’s basketball team’s perfect season in 1976.

The last of those snide analogies was surely a jape aimed squarely at the president of the insurgent group, Chris Chocola, who represented Indiana in the House for two terms from 2003 to 2006. Full story

Congressman of Lost Era Loved Earmarks, Magic Tricks

gray2 445x333 Congressman of Lost Era Loved Earmarks, Magic Tricks

(CQ Roll Call File Photo)

They don’t make members of Congress like Ken Gray any more. In today’s political climate, it would be next to impossible to make him up.

More than a quarter century after he left the House, Gray died on July 12 at age 89. And he was still remembered with bemused fondness by those old-timers at the Capitol who lament that the place isn’t populated with as many “characters” as it used to be.

Gray represented the rural southern reaches of Illinois from 1955 through 1974, when he first departed because of a heart condition and signs of an impending scandal. The Democrat returned a decade later, and served another two terms before retiring for good. That run dovetailed with my first years in Washington, and the boldness of his legislative, interpersonal and sartorial styles made him stand out as a tonic in a House where the members were becoming increasingly cautious in their policy proposals, circumspect in their dealings with the other party and downright boring in their presentation.

Gray was the opposite on all counts. His career was a vivid reminder of the time when the bipartisan pursuit of parochial project spending could be practiced with unbridled enthusiasm as well as success. Full story

July 14, 2014

Delayed Benghazi Hearings Equal Deliberate Quiet

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Gowdy is taking a prosecutorial approach as chairman of the special Benghazi committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Whatever happened to that summer blockbuster, the one about terrorism and scandal that would be must-see congressional TV?

Don’t expect to be able to tune in to the Benghazi hearings anytime soon. No air date for the premiere has been announced, because the pre-production work is off to a deliberately slow start.

The reason is that the impresario, Rep. Trey Gowdy, is much more experienced as a prosecutor than as an executive producer. And district attorneys, at least as much as studio moguls, are trained to refrain from going public if they have any doubt about their work being ready for prime time.

For reasons both procedural and political, Gowdy has reached a conclusion 10 weeks after he was handed the gavel of a newly created select House committee: The moment is not nearly ripe for the panel to convene in the open to talk about any events before, during or after Sept. 11, 2012, the night when terrorists overran the U.S. consulate and CIA annex in Libya’s second biggest city and four Americans were killed, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

During his first two terms, Gowdy has gained notoriety as one of Republicans’ most tenacious inquisitors of administration officials, a skill honed during his previous 16 years busting bad guys in South Carolina. His reputation for public zealotry aside, Gowdy understands how caution behind the scenes is the prosecutorial standard.

Many more criminal cases are settled with tidy plea bargains than with of roll-of-the-dice jury trials, and dozens of depositions are taken behind closed doors for every witness cross-examined in open court. The analogue on Capitol Hill is that a whole lot more fact-finding gets done by professional committee investigators away from cameras than by lawmakers posturing in front of them.

Besides, pursuing the inquiry for a while longer before any hearings works to the Republicans’ strategic advantage in several ways.

Full story

July 11, 2014

Boehner’s Bet: Lawsuit Will Quiet Impeachment Calls

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Can Boehner’s lawsuit dampen calls for Obama impeachment? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

More seems curious than straightforward in Speaker John A. Boehner’s current plan for suing President Barack Obama.

But one of the easier things to understand is what the litigation might accomplish inside the House Republican Conference: a cooling of the intensifying and politically problematic talk about how nothing short of impeachment will do.

Legislation to authorize the lawsuit will get its first public hearing on July 16 at the Rules Committee. It’s on course for passage entirely along party lines in two weeks, just before the August recess begins. So it will be toward the end of September, just as Congress is preparing to decamp for the campaign trail, before the House’s lawyers actually take their complaint to the federal courthouse at the foot of Capitol Hill.

That means there’s almost no chance for even a preliminary resolution before the midterm elections. But the schedule will nonetheless provide the infuriated House Republicans several opportunities for venting their bloodlust this summer and fall.

Giving members of the GOP rank and file this way to focus their red meat rhetoric, and their appeals for donations from the hard right, could make calls for impeachment fade, if not quite disappear. And that is what Boehner has made clear he wants.

In this curious way, he is in the same place as his predecessor as speaker, with whom he sees eye-to-eye on next to nothing. Full story

July 10, 2014

Politics, Not Policy, Shape Bridge Over Highway Cliff

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Lawmakers are still struggling with a long-term solution to fund transportation construction. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Thursday will see this year’s most consequential vote in the once-mighty House Ways and Means Committee — to propose one of the more assertive legislative punts in recent memory.

The panel will get behind a plan for patching the gaping chasm in the Highway Trust Fund for the next 10 months, after which the fundamental fiscal flaw in the nation’s main public works program will be exposed once again. House Republicans, not worried about losing control of the chamber this fall, have concluded that’s when they stand their best chance of driving a long-term solution.

The Senate is looking at a totally different approach, one that wraps the funding problem in caution tape for only five months. The Democrats there are keenly aware they may have to turn over the keys to the GOP come January, so they view the lame-duck session as potentially their last best chance to come up with a lasting fix to a problem that’s been festering for years.

Put another way, this month’s big fight over how to sidestep the edge of the transportation funding cliff is not going to be about remaking an outdated policy. Not surprising this close to an election, political positioning is at the heart of the dispute — which only will determine which party can claim the upper hand when the real debate begins. Full story

July 8, 2014

Cuban Conspiracy Aside, Menendez Troubles Remain

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Menendez can breathe a sigh of relief — for the moment. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

In the short term, anyway, the tide of good news seems to have turned in favor of Robert Menendez.

Officials in his old New Jersey congressional district named an elementary school for the Senate Foreign Relations chairman a few months ago. Then the Democrat celebrated his 60th birthday by announcing his engagement (in the Rotunda) to Alicia Mucci, a 45-year-old widowed constituent he’d met at a fundraiser.

But the best publicity Menendez has enjoyed all year arrived Monday, when the Washington Post reported on evidence the Cuban government may have fabricated and planted the lurid story that has smudged the senator’s reputation since just before his 2012 re-election bid. Menendez crowed to CNN Tuesday that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the regime in Havana had concocted the smear he had hired several underage Dominican prostitutes — because, he said, it “would do anything it can to stop me.”

What all the righteous indignation and melodramatic skullduggery obscures, however, is that Menendez continues to face questions about behavior that’s far more legally and politically problematic than the already substantially discredited tales about his cavorting at sex parties in the Caribbean.

For nearly two years, the Justice Department has been investigating whether Menendez illegally used his congressional office to benefit the business interests of his most generous donors, particularly Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen. The Senate Ethics Committee appears to have put its similar inquiry on hold in deference to the Feds.

If federal prosecutors end up alleging Menendez broke the law, that would be a much bigger deal for the already dismal ethical reputation of Congress — as well as for the Democratic Party and Latino community — than whether an antagonistic nation was able to make headway with an ambitious conspiracy to ruin an influential lawmaker.

Full story

Members in Waiting: The 20 Candidates Headed to D.C.

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Beyer is likely headed to Congress with little effort. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Perhaps by design, and maybe because of circumstance, Jim Risch remains among the least recognized senators after almost six years on the job. But, given the course of his path to Congress, he was at a big disadvantage from the start — if getting noticed was his desire.

In a place where fascinating back-stories and dramatic arrivals count for much, Risch had neither. He sailed to the Senate without suspense, a very conservative Republican claiming an open seat in very conservative Idaho in 2008, when the national political story was the big Democratic year. His credentials included a reputation for resilience and three decades as a power broker in his state house, but he was overlooked from the start and since then has rarely come off publicity’s back bench.

Risch’s underwhelming first-term impression illustrates one of the odder paradoxes of today’s congressional culture: The easier time a candidate has getting to the Hill, the tougher time that new lawmaker has getting noticed upon arrival.

The incumbents, staffers, operatives, lobbyists and reporters who make up the capital’s political class spend almost all their time at the water cooler handicapping the tight races and getting to know the would-be giant killers and takeover engineers. And those winners get disproportionate attention at the start of their congressional careers. Generally, that comes at the expense of the freshmen who got to Washington without breaking a sweat the previous fall.

The phenomenon comes to mind now that this year’s House and Senate nominees have been finalized in more than half the states — yielding a roster of 20 candidates for open seats who are, in effect, already on their way to the 114th Congress. Because of their constituencies’ demographics and solidly reliable partisan voting history, securing the party nomination in their districts or states is tantamount to winning the general election. Full story

June 25, 2014

What Cochran’s Win Means for Hill Spending

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Cochran talks in May with a constituent in Olive Branch, Miss. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A congressional dead man walking just days ago, Thad Cochran has instead become one of the most influential players in the coming Congress. The senator who looked to become the tea party movement’s biggest scalp of 2014 is now in position to be the small government conservatives’ worst nightmare of 2015.

Cochran’s upset runoff victory has made him a totally safe bet for a seventh term, and also increased by a small notch the prospect that he and his fellow Republicans could win control of the Senate this fall. If that happens, Cochran has not only the seniority but also the vanquished victor’s clout necessary to claim the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee — where he would surely restore some of the spend-along-to-get-along spirit of bipartisan collegiality that drives insurgents on the right absolutely nuts.

Because the current limits on discretionary spending will be replaced by tightening sequester caps on domestic and military outlays for the remainder of the decade, Cochran would be legally powerless to break the bank during the four years he might be chairman. (He’d have to give up the gavel at the end of 2018, when he will turn 81, because the GOP has term limits and he ran Appropriations for two years in the past decade.)

What’s more, the ideological dynamics of the Senate Republican Conference would make it highly unwise and probably impossible for Cochran to achieve a restoration of the old-time appropriations culture, in which both sides are willing to give in on plenty so they might gain a little — and still get home on time. For starters, if there’s switch in party control, the GOP membership on Appropriations would expand next year. That means the dominant voices would belong to the younger generation of fiscal hard-liners, no longer the senior accommodationists such as Cochran. Full story

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