Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
April 18, 2014

Posts in "Balance of Powers"

April 16, 2014

‘Lying in Politics’ Plaintiffs Go on Offense in Several New States

The lead plaintiff in the “Can you lie in politics?” case going before the Supreme Court next week, anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, says Ohio’s law against false campaign assertions will stifle that state’s midterm congressional debates.

The group is apparently not worried about a similarly chilling effect elsewhere – at least not in four races elsewhere in the country where it’s inserted itself in recent days.

Over the weekend, the SBA List said it has arranged to put space on billboards across three Southern states to lambaste a trio of incumbent Democratic senators in some of the closest Senate races of 2014: Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Because all of them voted for the 2010 health care overhaul, each of them can fairly be described as supporting federal financing of abortion, the group says, and that will be the central message on the roadside signage. Full story

February 23, 2014

Supreme Court EPA Regulation Case Tests Limits, Balance of Power

courts002 011314 445x300 Supreme Court EPA Regulation Case Tests Limits, Balance of Power

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Republicans angry at President Barack Obama’s muscular use of executive authority are returning from recess more focused on litigation than on legislation.

The Supreme Court’s docket for this term is unusual for including two cases with potential to reorder the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches. In oral arguments six weeks ago, the justices seemed open to a significant clipping of the president’s appointment power when the Senate is in recess. On Monday, the court will consider how much an administration can do through regulation before it has seized the congressional prerogative to alter the law.

Both decisions, expected by June, could change the relationship between Congress and the White House in ways that constitutional lawyers and politicians will be arguing about for decades. In the shorter term, though, the outcomes may play a meaningful role in the midterm campaigns and then in Obama’s final two years.

If Obama loses one or both cases, even on narrow grounds, Republicans can be counted on to crow that their complaints about an “imperial presidency” have been vindicated. They likely would further say that, to make sure his power stays diminished, they need to be rewarded with more seats in the 114th Congress. If Obama’s positions prevail, the GOP will seek to raise more money, and court more base voters, with a slightly different argument: that electing an all-Republican Congress is the best way to prevent this president from even more executive overreach. Full story

January 29, 2014

Before Going It Alone, Obama Goes After Members

“Upbeat.” That’s the adjective being used as much as any other to describe the tone of Tuesday’s State of the Union address. Members from both parties could be forgiven for hearing it a bit differently.

The speech may well be remembered longest for its genuinely stirring finale, when President Barack Obama merged the story of a 10-times-deployed and gravely wounded Afghanistan war veteran, who was sitting in the balcony, with the country’s difficult path toward a more perfect union. “Like the America he serves, Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit,” Obama declared to a sustained and teary-eyed standing ovation.

But in the preceding 63 minutes, the president mixed it up plenty with the audience in the House chamber. And he made clearer than ever that he views the Capitol as a readily avoidable impediment — generating headlines about Obama pursuing a “year of action” mainly on his own authority. He also took a handful of swipes at Congress, and they were arguably aimed at least as often at the institution’s bipartisan shortcomings as at his Republican tormentors.

The japes were somewhat subtle, by the standards of today’s political discourse. And they are being overlooked, probably for a couple of reasons that have to do with the ritualized ways of the modern State of the Union:

The lawmakers themselves have become almost excessively adept at cooking up their partisan talking points hours beforehand, and repeating them verbatim with minimal regard to what they actually hear. So not all that many of them picked up on his poking one-liners — all of which were at the relative low end of the dismissive-disdainful-disparaging spectrum.

Full story

January 28, 2014

A Minimum Wage Move With Maximum Confrontational Consequences

Among the stranger phenomena of the modern State of the Union tradition is how White Houses of both parties work so hard to drain it of almost all news value before the speech actually gets delivered.

The demands of the continuous news cycle, which affords the president so many opportunities to spoon out dollops of his agenda, now easily outweigh the traditional virtue of surprise — and the old-time verity that there’s no use annoying your hosts, your opponents or your potential partners before you absolutely have to.

The trend seemed locked in place Tuesday morning, 13 hours before the national television audience was asked to start paying attention. That was when the administration revealed what was guaranteed to be among the biggest, if not the biggest, headlines out of the address: President Barack Obama is going to give many thousands of blue-collar workers a raise — on his own authority.

In other words, not only was Obama making good on his promise to make this his most assertive year yet for maneuvering around the gridlock at the Capitol, but he was getting started even before going through the formalities of seeking congressional buy-in. (Of course, he made a major push for a $9 minimum wage in his State of the Union address a year ago, and that went nowhere.) Full story

January 12, 2014

A Balance of Powers Case With Senate GOP Power in the Balance

One of the biggest congressional stories of the decade starts unfolding Monday — not at the Capitol, but across the street.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in an epic balance of powers battle between the other two branches, one that’s been waiting to happen since George Washington’s time. During the hour, the justices may or may not signal clearly whether they’re going to permit the continued expansive use of the president’s recess appointment authority — or seriously limit its use for the first time.

That second outcome would give the Senate enormously more influence over the leadership of the departments and agencies and the tenor of the federal courts. But if the court rules that way, it will be almost impossible to notice any difference in the power dynamic before the beginning of next year — if then.

It may sound a bit paradoxical, but it’s the “nuclear option” that would guarantee such a delayed reaction.

And during that delay, a new measure of importance would get attached to the midterm elections. Full story

December 8, 2013

Senators Return for 2 Weeks That Could Last a Needless Eternity

yellen hearing003 111413 445x297 Senators Return for 2 Weeks That Could Last a Needless Eternity

Yellen is one of several nominees the Senate could act on before year’s end — or not. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The answer is 178 and a half hours.

The question is: What’s the maximum amount of time it could take to secure the confirmations of all six prominent nominees President Barack Obama wants to get on the job in the new year?

Only one of their timetables has been set, and it’s likely to be the exception that proves the rule: On Monday afternoon, senators will spend just 30 minutes “debating” the virtues of Patricia Ann Millett, a prominent 50-year-old Washington appellate litigator, before confirming her for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

However she distinguishes herself during that lifetime appointment, Millett will be remembered by congressional historians for this: She’s the first person to benefit from the limitations on Senate filibuster rules muscled through by the majority Democrats three weeks ago.

Since Millett was the nominal subject of five dramatic roll calls during the parliamentary maneuvering that put the “nuclear option” into effect — lowering from 60 to a simple majority the number of senators required to cut off debate on almost all nominations — Republicans agreed to not delay her final vote for the 30 hours they still have available for such protests. The duration of the Thanksgiving recess, they conceded, would suffice.

But the GOP minority has not decided how much of a fuss it will make about the other five: Federal Reserve Vice Chairwoman Janet L. Yellen to take the helm of the central bank, former top Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson to be the fourth-ever secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Democratic Rep. Melvin Watt of North Carolina to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency and, for the two other vacancies on the D.C. Circuit, Georgetown law professor Nina Pillard and federal trial Judge Robert Wilkins. Full story

November 22, 2013

6 Questions to Ponder About the Senate’s Nuclear Winter

Thirty years ago this week, more than 100 million Americans tuned in for the first airing of “The Day After” on ABC — the audience eager, during the final years of the Cold War, for a blockbuster vision of what the heartland might look like if both Washington and Moscow exercised their nuclear options.

On the day after the biggest change to the congressional rules in four decades — sharply curtailing the power of the filibuster, an essential element of life in the Senate — the public may be clamoring for some insight into what just happened.

These six questions and answers may help.

1. Why is it called the “nuclear option”?

The allusion to an atomic blast is as much about how the Senate rules were changed as about the way in which the rules were changed.

The breadth of the impact on the legislative process, and on the balance of power at the Capitol, is undeniably significant, although its extent cannot be precisely measured just now. The number of political players who have seen their power hobbled by the move is also extensive, but can’t yet be quantified.

In those ways, the situation is analogous to the detonating of a nuclear bomb: Plenty of the damage is plain to see, but the breadth of the fallout takes a long time to measure. For now, it’s only clear that the minority’s right to filibuster most judicial and all executive branch nominees has effectively been destroyed, and that means the Republicans are the only victims. But there is nothing to prevent efforts to end the legislative filibuster from bubbling up soon enough. And it’s a dead certainty that whenever the Republicans win control of the Senate, whether next fall or in an election years later, they will turn the tables on the newly-entrenched-in-the-minority Democrats with a vengeance.

The way in which Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., deployed his power play on Thursday also had some similarities to the start of a nuclear war. Like many missile attacks, his series of choreographed parliamentary moves and roll call votes had been threatened for a long time, was stealthy in the planning, undisguised in the execution and swift to reach completion. And it was impossible to contain the damage once the launch sequence was begun. Full story

October 29, 2013

A Filibuster Holiday? Christmas Comes Early for Obama in the Senate

Seven skirmishes in the Senate confirmation wars are being fought more or less simultaneously this week.

By the time these tussles conclude — after a series of test votes that could stretch into next week — there’s a decent chance President Barack Obama and his Democratic front men will have emerged undefeated, or nearly so.

That would amount to a solid second victory for the president on top of this month’s triumph in the shutdown and default standoff, one he could bask in for a few days because the oppositional Republican House will be silent for the next week, in recess from Wednesday until after Veterans Day.

Advancing so many contested nominees so quickly would also mark an important turning point toward finishing the Senate’s year with a return to functionality — if not quite regular order. At a minimum, it would mean that senatorial nuclear winter won’t be setting in early this year because the Democrats were able to help the president put his stamp on the government without upending decades of precedent in their own workplace.

The first two rounds went to Obama with relative ease on Tuesday.

Full story

October 16, 2013

Long National Nightmare May Soon Be Over

The dam is breaking today. The two Senate leaders finalized an agreement this morning to reopen the government until Jan. 15 and avert an imminent debt default by giving the Treasury authority to continue borrowing through Feb. 7.

The deal was to be announced just after noon on the Senate floor, and was then likely to be sped across the Capitol so that the pivotal vote — both procedurally and politically — can happen first in the House. Speaker John A. Boehner signaled that he would put the package to a vote by the end of the day, but a final decision was awaiting the results of a GOP leadership meeting.

Still, some members of that group predicted the measure would pass the House, with the bloc of combative conservatives who are opposed to almost any realistic fiscal policy patch getting overwhelmed by significant numbers of both Republicans and Democrats. Full story

September 18, 2013

Shutdown-Averting Endgame Buys All Sides a Second Play

Consider the notion that a deal is already baked and that sometime next week Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell will unspool a maneuver that not only averts a partial government shutdown but also saves Speaker John A. Boehner’s bacon.

The latest installment of fiscal brinkmanship is careening toward its climax. The intricate parliamentary moves being contemplated will strike some as unworthy of a great democracy. They will reaffirm for others a part of what makes our democracy so great — or at least so fascinating. Either way, the machinations are a reminder that mastering process is an indispensable part of making policy and an essential ingredient for political success. Full story

September 11, 2013

After Bowing to Congress on Syria, Then Pulling Back, Will Obama Ever Return?

Have the first congressional votes in a decade on authorizing military force been postponed indefinitely, or effectively canceled altogether?

Members returned to work Wednesday scratching their heads over that question, which President Barack Obama left unanswered during his speech to the nation Tuesday night. Lawmakers got no guidance from the White House, which declined to offer any sort of deadline for its sudden switch to pursuing a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Syria.

A bit more definition is possible when Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday to negotiate details of a seemingly long-shot plan for teams of international monitors to collect and destroy all of President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons.

There’s also a chance for some timeline to emerge at the United Nations, where delegates from the United States, France and Great Britain are working on a Security Council resolution requiring the government in Damascus to turn over its stockpile or face globally sanctioned military reprisal.

The deliberative metabolism of diplomacy and the complexities of the plan sprung only in the past few days suggest it will be near the end of the month before it’s plausible to decide whether the Russian and U.N. approaches can be sustained.

It will also probably take a couple of weeks to discern if Syria, which has signaled cooperation with Russia’s disarmament call, is only doing so as a stalling tactic — designed to play for extra time, during which congressional and public support for a punitive strike might shrink even more than it already has.

Coincidentally or not, the president’s call for a timeout in his drive for the Hill’s backing came after it was abundantly clear he wasn’t even close to having the votes he needed, and that his chances were slipping by the hour.

By the time he went before the prime-time TV cameras, tallies of lawmakers’ stated positions showed Obama had at most two dozen “yes” votes locked down in the Senate and at least three dozen senators against giving him the authority. The latter was very close to the 41 needed to stop the use-of-force resolution with a filibuster.

The unofficial whip counts in the House were even more problematic: Less than 10 percent of members were in favor of a military strike, at least 40 percent committed in their opposition and at least another 10 percent leaning toward “no.”

The decision to grab at diplomatic options, even knowing they might dissolve into mirages soon enough, buys not only Obama but also a balky Congress an uncertain amount of leeway to paper over their differences. All the players are war-weary. They’re just figuring out how to exorcise their exhaustion in different ways.

A good bet is Obama won’t take his hand off the congressional pause button unless he’s confident he’s turned legislative momentum in his favor. Having extracted himself from an almost certain defeat that would have weakened his standing abroad and on the Hill, he has absolutely nothing to gain from subjecting himself to that predicament again.

There’s a chance the president will eventually declare that the need for a congressional vote has become moot, and most members will tacitly defer to him. That could happen if:

  • Almost the whole world lines up behind U.N. language countenancing airstrikes if Syria doesn’t make good on its promises and there’s a face-saving consensus in Congress that such a resolution gives Obama the only official stamp of approval he needs to send in the Tomahawks if necessary.
  • Syria bends over backwards in cooperating, refuting the skeptics who say it’s nearly impossible under ideal circumstances — let alone during a civil war — to rapidly collect unconventional weapons from dozens of widespread secret locations.

More likely, there will be a new drive to rally Congress behind a conditional use-of-force resolution once Syria’s cooperation looks to be neither genuine or fast enough for the comfort of the administration or congressional hawks. A fine time for that scenario to start moving to the fore is the week after next, when the House is still awkwardly on course to be away for an end-of-the-fiscal-year “district work period.”

If the GOP majority leadership sticks by that schedule, it would generate just the sort of news vacuum that could be filled by Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham. They remain the most strongly in favor of punishing Syria with military might and the most keenly interested in asserting either the congressional prerogative or the political imperative for granting permission for such shows of force.

McCain said Wednesday that he won’t wait long before deciding if Syria is deploying a “rope-a-dope” delaying tactic.

Obama “sure has created one awkward situation for himself,” says Julian E. Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “If he returns to the Hill to ask for any kind of authorization, he’ll have to admit his diplomacy didn’t work, which will put him in an even weaker position than he is now and make it even harder for him to get what he wants.”

September 3, 2013

On Syria, McConnell Remains Lone Hill Leader on the Fence

Only one of the top five members of the bipartisan congressional hierarchy still sits on the fence about launching a punitive strike against Syria: Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader.

The Kentucky Republican emerged from the White House on Monday as the only member of the bicameral leadership group still uncommitted to voting in favor of legislation authorizing military action.

McConnell looks to be taking as much time as he can. He’s weighing his political considerations back home, where an isolationist stance would provide clear short-term benefit, against the pressures of his leadership role at the Capitol, where he’s spent almost three decades as a Republican voice for a hawkish defense posture and an interventionist foreign policy. Full story

August 27, 2013

Strike on Syria Coming Soon — With Hill Informed, but Not Asked for Permission

A punitive assault on Syria will be launched as soon as the end of the week, but not before details of the strike have been relayed to all the senior members of Congress entitled to advance notice of such military action.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made that much clear this morning. He echoed the other hawkish former senator with a top foreign policy job in the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry, leaving no doubt that air strikes are inevitable and relatively imminent.

The Pentagon has moved four destroyers into the eastern Mediterranean and has fighter jets and bombers on standby “to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take,” Hagel told The BBC, adding, “We are ready to go.”

One predicate to the strike is that the United States will formally declare, probably by the end of the day, that its intelligence agencies have conclusive evidence that Bashar Assad’s government launched a large-scale chemical weapons attack in the 2-year-old Syrian civil war.   Full story

August 5, 2013

Obamacare Hostage Takers Get a GOP Comeuppance

The rhetorical preliminaries will last at least another 33 days. Once Congress returns to work in September, this year’s budget battle royal will be joined for real, then last for months. Or so the thinking goes.

However, new signs from key players in the GOP spectrum point to something quite different. The cliff-walking melodrama may itself get kicked down the road.

No sooner had the fractured Republicans physically scattered over the weekend than their leadership made this much clearer than ever: They are not getting behind the idea of holding the entire government hostage as a way to starve Obamacare to death. Full story

July 31, 2013

With a THUD, Congress Kicks Another Can Down the Road

On domestic spending, it’s been assumed all year that the two halves of Congress were on a collision course.

What came as a stunning surprise was how the appropriations process crashed in the House on Wednesday — or, as those with knowledge of congressional lingo can appreciate best — how it landed with a thud.

Senators are on course to decide Thursday whether they’ll do their part to assure the impasse is locked down even earlier than expected, before the August recess starts and more than eight weeks before Congress must either reach at least a stopgap agreement or be complicit in the first partial government shutdown in nearly two decades.

The Senate will vote to either advance or spike its version of the Transportation-HUD bill for fiscal 2014, which goes by the totally awkward acronym of THUD. (Many on the Hill revel in pronouncing it like the word for heavy blow, but appropriations purists insist the proper thing to say is “tea hud.”)

Whatever you call it, the legislation is now an irreparable mess. And so it’s become the best available example of what President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans brought on themselves precisely two years ago, when they sealed the deal that raised the debt ceiling but started Washington down its slippery slope into the sequester. Full story

Sign In

Forgot password?

Or

Subscribe

Receive daily coverage of the people, politics and personality of Capitol Hill.

Subscription | Free Trial

Logging you in. One moment, please...