Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
October 23, 2014

Posts in "President Obama"

October 1, 2014

A Senator to Replace Holder?

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Klobuchar has been mentioned as a possible attorney general pick. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The latest round of Cabinet handicapping is well underway, a welter of uninformed speculation (mixed with some White House trial balloons) about who might be nominated as attorney general. And the names of three Democratic senators keep getting bandied about — although they’ve all, with varying degrees of intensity, denied interest in the appointment.

From President Barack Obama’s perspective, it would arguably make sense for him, in the short term, to return to the congressional well for one of the final topflight, polarizing positions he’ll ever get the opportunity to fill. But the long-term downsides appear far greater — not only for his own legacy, but for the already wobbly balance of power at the Capitol.

Besides, taking the job at this time doesn’t look like a smart career move for any of the Senate trio meriting recent mention: Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Full story

September 16, 2014

On Ebola, Obama’s Bold Move Is Greeted on Hill With Eager Assent

Contrary to what seemed certain as the week began, American military boots will soon be on the ground to combat a societal scourge on the other side of the world. And virtually no one in Congress sounds opposed to the idea.

That’s because President Barack Obama’s expanding global assertiveness, with congressional buy-in viewed as totally welcome but rarely required, inserted the country into another international crisis Tuesday. He said he would send 3,000 members of the armed forces to West Africa to provide medical and logistical support to local officials overwhelmed by the quickening spread of the deadly Ebola virus. He’ll also be taking $500 million out of the Pentagon fund for the longstanding war-fighting efforts and using it to open 17 treatment centers in the region.

“Ebola is now an epidemic of the likes that we have not seen before,” the president declared. “It’s spiraling out of control, it is getting worse. It’s spreading faster, and exponentially.”

The new deployment will be six times larger than the number of additional military advisers Obama announced last week that he was dispatching to help contain ISIS in Iraq. And the amount he’s spending to erect those field hospitals is the same as what it’s going to cost for the U.S. military to train and arm Syrian rebels so they can confront that militant extremist group’s rise in their country.

Notwithstanding those comparisons, there was only a small amount of discussion about the newest military surge Tuesday on Capitol Hill — especially when compared to the intensifying debate about Obama’s efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

One of the reasons for that is obvious: Members of Congress generally feel both a moral and a political imperative to take some sort of formal position before their uniformed constituents are sent on new as well as dangerous missions. That’s why there was no way the House and Senate would recess for the midterm campaign without at least voting on an authorization for the drilling-and-equipping effort.

In contrast, the medics, engineers and logistical support troops being dispatched by the end of the month to combat Ebola should be able to stay out of harm’s way. (They will be given all the protective gear and training they need to avoid becoming infected with the virus — which means avoiding direct contact with the bodily fluids of people already visibly sick.)

But, in other ways, the threats to Americans from ISIS and Ebola are comparable. Both the militants and the epidemic are rapidly spreading halfway around the word. While neither phenomena has yet tarnished U.S. soil, each holds potential to create transformational chaos closer to home soon enough. The administration has expressed concern not only about the capabilities of ISIS for domestic terrorist attacks, but also about the potential for Ebola to spread worldwide and mutate into a more easily transmitted disease.

There’s also the argument that Ebola’s accelerating spread in Africa is becoming a topflight national security threat, because the threat to the fragile governments and economies of the continent could open safe havens for incubating new terrorist groups.

Full story

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 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

June 10, 2014

Obama’s Hill Relations No Picnic, Though There Is One

He called off the traditional picnic for lawmakers not once but twice last summer, then missed both congressional holiday balls so he could speak at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. But now plans seem locked down for everyone in the 113th Congress to have at least one sociable interaction with President Barack Obama at the White House.

Don’t expect those feel-good moments to do anything to alter the do-nothing nature of the relationship between Congress and the president.

Save-the-date emails have gone out to every member. They advise lawmakers to plan on bringing their spouses and kids to the South Lawn for supper, family-friendly entertainment and maybe even a snapshot with the first couple on Sept. 17. (There’s even a rain date, scheduled for the next night if necessary.)

Given that it will be approaching two years since rank-and-file members were able to break bread with the president, and that the party is in the middle of a week when both the House and Senate will be in session, turnout is guaranteed to be strong. Even the most combative junior Republicans and the most jaded senior Democrats can’t resist a social invitation from the White House — especially one that allows them to usher their families into town to taste the sort of history-tinged glamour that’s largely disappeared from congressional life.

The picnic also guarantees at least one weeknight in Washington this year when the relentless machinery of campaign fundraising will be throttled to almost a full stop.

There’s no chance that an evening of bonhomie and burgers will do anything to narrow the partisan chasm. And the opportunity to peer into Michelle Obama’s kitchen garden at dusk won’t prompt any lawmaker to think better of the West Wing’s legislative liaison efforts. Full story

May 18, 2014

Supreme Court Decisions to Shape Policy, Campaigns

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(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As the justices bring this season’s caseload to a close, they have a pretty clear idea how the rest of this Supreme Court year will play out. The rest of the country, however, will remain almost entirely in the dark until the remaining decisions are unveiled over the next six weeks.

The outcome in at least four of the most important disputes will help shape both the policymaking and campaign agendas of Congress through the midterm elections and beyond. But it’s possible no single ruling will have as much impact on the national political climate as the pattern that emerges in how the cases get decided.

The members of the current court are getting a reputation for being just as partisan and polarized as the politicians populating the other two elected branches of government. New polling shows the public is none too pleased with the Supreme Court’s perception, which is backed up by some pretty solid evidence, and people want term limits for the justices in an effort to depoliticize the court.

Full story

May 13, 2014

First Lady Makes First Midterm Foray as First Surrogate

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The First Lady had a prominent role at the Democratic National Convention in 2012. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Michelle Obama drew plenty of attention last weekend on both the international and popular culture fronts, the publicity overshadowing what may end up being the biggest bit of Washington news she’ll make this spring, as the first lady has taken her first turn of the 2014 campaign as presidential first surrogate.

There was considerable Beltway clucking with the release of “Fed Up,” a documentary portraying the processed food and sugar industries as responsible for the childhood obesity epidemic — and Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign as ineffectual and co-opted by those corporate interests. (A particularly cutting opening sketch on “Saturday Night Live” leveled a similar criticism.)

Then there were global headlines from the first lady’s effort to focus attention on the kidnapping of scores of school girls in Nigeria by Islamic militants. After tweeting out a photograph of herself holding a sign that read “Bring Back Our Girls,” she decried the abductions while filling in for her husband in delivering the weekly presidential radio address.

All that almost completely obscured how the first lady spent part of her weekend in New Orleans with Sen. Mary L. Landrieu. Full story

May 7, 2014

Why Pryor Decided Time Was Ripe to Appear With Obama

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

He asked for it. And anyone politically savvy enough to win two Senate elections must have decent reasons for doing something that seems so counterintuitive.

Mark Pryor is the only Democrat in the Arkansas congressional delegation and currently a clear-cut underdog to secure another term. That’s mainly because only about a third of the state’s voters approve of the job performance of President Barack Obama, even poorer numbers than his 2012 faring — the president lost Arkansas by 24 percentage points. In 2008, he lost to Sen. John McCain by a mere 20 points in the Natural State.

And yet it was at Pryor’s urging that Obama on Wednesday made his first trip to the state as president — a 150-minute foray that in reality was largely about midterm campaign politics, even though it was officially all about getting the first-responder-in-chief to put his own eyes on the South’s severe natural disasters.

“The federal government’s going to be right here until we get these communities rebuilt,” the president said after touring the tornado-ravaged suburb of Vilonia, 30 miles north of Little Rock. “I know you can count on your senator” and other local officials to deliver what will be required, Obama said, facing the cameras in shirt sleeves with a checkered-shirt-clad Pryor standing near his right shoulder.

Because of some unusual circumstances, the visit did not countermand the conventional wisdom that standing with the president is the most dangerous thing a vulnerable congressional Democrat could do between now and November.

Instead, the event provided Pryor with an extraordinary opportunity to burnish his own political brand. Full story

May 1, 2014

Minimum Wage Vote Loss Gives Democrats Their Wedge Issue

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Senate Democrats are lambasting congressional Republicans on the minimum wage, just in time for the midterm elections. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Long before Wednesday’s totally predictable Senate vote blocking a bill to increase the minimum wage, President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats in Congress had embraced their guaranteed consolation prize.

It’s a construct as venerable as the Capitol itself: They will not have the bill, but they are plenty satisfied to have the issue.

In fact, especially if some sunshine newly cast on policy deliberations in the Clinton administration can be considered instructive, the Democrats may have gotten just what they wanted all along from one of the first big show votes of the campaign season.

“This is all about politics,” Minority Whip John Cornyn declared before the Senate came up five votes short of advancing the minimum wage legislation beyond a GOP filibuster. “This is about trying to make this side of the aisle look bad and hard-hearted.”

To support that assertion, the Texas Republican introduced into the record a document that his side views as powerful past-is-prologue evidence, unearthed from an avalanche of papers created in Bill Clinton’s White House and being released this year by the National Archives. It’s a January 1998 memo to the president about that year’s minimum wage debate. The author was Gene Sperling, who then ran the National Economic Council. Sperling, of course, returned to that job during the Obama administration, leading the NEC for three years ending this March, as Obama’s own minimum wage goals were evolving. Full story

April 21, 2014

President Pressured to Use Pen for LGBT Workers

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It could be dubbed the federal contractor trifecta.

Employees at businesses that do a lot of work for the government began this election year hoping to benefit in three distinct ways from President Barack Obama’s vow to act on his own whenever Congress deadlocked on his legislative priorities.

Two of those expectations have now been met. In January he ordered contractors to start paying their blue-collar laborers at least $10.10 an hour, realizing his proposal to raise the $7.25 federal minimum wage to that amount was doomed. And this month he declared that workers on federal contracts must be free to discuss their salaries, so women may more easily expose pay inequities at those companies while legislation that could close the wage gender gap nationwide languishes.

Now, the pressure will only intensify for Obama to make good in the third area. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees being paid under federal contracts want to benefit from the same sort of executive order that is aiding female and low-wage workers. And their advocacy groups, along with allies on the Hill, are signaling they’re tired of waiting for the president to apply his “we can’t wait” mantra to their cause.

The issue is job bias against LGBT people. While steady advances continue in the states for same-sex marriage — still the paramount political cause of the gay community — outlawing employment discrimination has become the principal gay rights cause in Washington, in part because it’s unambiguously subject to federal regulation or legislation in a way that marriage equality is not.

Only 21 states have made it illegal to fire or harass someone based on sexual orientation, or to deny a raise or refuse to hire on that same basis. More than 11 million people work in the remaining 29 states for companies without policies protecting workplace civil rights for gay people, according to a recent study by UCLA Law School.

Last November, 10 Republicans joined 54 Democrats in the Senate to pass legislation that would prohibit gay job bias nationwide at businesses with more than 15 workers, with some exceptions for religious organizations. But House Republicans have no interest in putting the bill on the floor. (Known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, it’s currently 16 votes shy of guaranteed passage, in any event.)

In short, the gay rights community sees their “ask” as a clear parallel to the minimum wage and pay parity issues. They argue Congress isn’t ready to change the situation nationally, so Obama should at least start paving the way by helping out people working for or seeking employment from government contractors. Full story

March 25, 2014

Hill’s Bipartisan Deadlock on Phone Records May Be Easing

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NSA compromise is brewing for House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., right, and ranking member Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Eight months ago, in one of its most important and fascinatingly nonpartisan votes of recent memory, the House came up just seven members short of eviscerating the government’s vast effort to keep tabs on American phone habits.

The roll call revealed a profound divide in Congress on how assertively the intelligence community should be allowed to probe into the personal lives of private citizens in the cause of thwarting terrorism. It is a split that has stymied legislative efforts to revamp the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection programs.

Until now, maybe. Senior members with jurisdiction over the surveillance efforts, in both parties and on both sides of the Hill, are signaling generalized and tentative but nonetheless clear support for the central elements of a proposed compromise that President Barack Obama previewed Tuesday and will formally unveil by week’s end.

The president, in other words, may be close to finding the congressional sweet spot on one of the most vexing problems he’s faced — an issue that surged onto Washington’s agenda after the secret phone records collection efforts were disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

If Obama can seal the deal, which he’s pledged to push for by the end of June, it would almost surely rank among his most important second-term victories at the Capitol. It also would create an exception that proves the rule about the improbability of bipartisan agreement on hot-button issues in an election season. Full story

March 23, 2014

Oberweis’ Illinois Senate Bid Testing Theory That Persistence Pays Off

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(CQ Roll Call File Photo)

They don’t call him the Milk Dud for nothing, but right now, he is on a little roll.

Jim Oberweis made most of his fortune in the family business, a high-end dairy delivery service and chain of ice cream parlors in Illinois. And in the space of six years in the previous decade, he poured many gallons of his riches into five failed campaigns for high-profile positions — earning not only that enduring nickname, but also the enmity of Republican operatives and officeholders from Capitol Hill to Springfield, Ill.

Now Oberweis has launched his second act in American politics by winning two straight elections. He took an open state Senate seat in the GOP outer suburbs of Chicago in 2012, and last week he claimed the nomination to try and stop Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin from winning a fourth term.

But virtually no one expects Oberweis to extend his winning streak come November. At best, his allies concede, his caustic rhetorical approach and willingness to tap his own bank account could combine to make the fall campaign more expensive and uncomfortable for Durbin. (The Democrat, who counts President Barack Obama as his proudest mentoring achievement, remains favored in a year when the president’s sagging approval is the defining dynamic nationwide.)

And at worst, losing a sixth high-profile election could doom the 67-year-old Oberweis to live with the ridicule that comes with the label “perennial candidate,” no matter what he ends up accomplishing after returning to the state legislature.

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 27, 2014

Seat Scramble for Big Speech Loses Its Crossover Appeal

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In 2011, Republicans and Democrats arranged to sit side by side at the State of the Union as a gesture of bipartisan goodwill. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Seems like “date night” just isn’t a thing anymore.

Three years ago, many dozens of Republicans and Democrats arranged to sit side by side at the State of the Union. The break with decades of tradition was orchestrated in hopes of persuading the country that civil discourse and bipartisan collegiality had gained renewed value in Congress after the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

The roster of cross-aisle seating arrangements remained plenty big the next year, but there was a noticeable falloff in 2013. And, unless the situation changes in the last hours before President Barack Obama arrives at the Capitol on Tuesday, spotting crossover seatmates in the House chamber looks to be a genuinely difficult task this year.

The putative tradition, like the annual House “civility retreats” more than a decade ago, looks to be fading toward oblivion. The soft ending nonetheless underscores how the bilious nature of today’s congressional culture can slowly poison even the most benignly symbolic and fleetingly telegenic gestures toward cultivating common ground.

A survey of two dozen senators, all of whom connected with senators of the other party in 2012, found only four couples volunteering plans for keeping the custom alive on Tuesday night.

Full story

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