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

Posts in "Senate"

March 12, 2014

Feinstein Shifts Slow-Burning Anger From Guns to Spies

feinstein 138 031114 445x306 Feinstein Shifts Slow Burning Anger From Guns to Spies

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Few senators wait until their 80s, or the start of their third decade in office, to have their breakout moment. But that’s what this past year has been for Dianne Feinstein.

At the end of last winter, the California Democrat surged to national renown as the most passionately vocal and dogged lawmaker in the uphill pursuit of the strictest new gun controls in more than a generation. The attention, both laudatory and condemning, was more than what most members receive in any one Congress. But now Feinstein is on course to outdo herself, with her blockbuster accusation that the CIA spied on Congress and intimidated her staff in an effort to hobble an oversight investigation into the agency’s former detention and interrogation program.

The twin crusades, which now stand to define the pinnacle of her prominence, are closely allied in one important way: Both have Feinstein playing against type, deploying blistering rhetoric and challenging hidebound practices in sharp contrast to her reputation, which is for level-headedness and deliberation.

At the same time, the two causes are polar opposites: Gun control has been a priority for the senator since 1978, when she ascended to the mayoralty of San Francisco after the incumbent, George Moscone, was assassinated. But becoming an outspoken critic of the clandestine community is an entirely new role for Feinstein; as chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee for more than five years, she has positioned herself as one of the CIA’s most loyal defenders at the Capitol.

It’s that forceful reversal that may prove more lastingly important. Full story

March 5, 2014

Year’s Quirkiest Comeback Bid Could Complicate GOP’s Senate Takeover Plan

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(CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Hill denizens of a certain age well remember the unpredictable Larry Pressler. He could be earning another entry as the answer to a political trivia question soon enough.

Pressler spent 18 years in the Senate representing South Dakota as a Republican before he was defeated in 1996 by just 8,600 votes. Now that the Democrat who sent him packing, Tim Johnson, is retiring after his own three terms, Pressler has decided he’s ready to try yet another comeback — as an independent.

The nascent campaign is easy to dismiss as an entirely quixotic ego play by a quirky 71-year-old career politician with a story already marked by several halfhearted runs toward the unattainable. That would be a bid for president when he was a 37-year-old Senate freshman, though he pulled out before the first primary. And a pitch to be mayor of Washington, D.C., two years after leaving Congress, but he never filed the paperwork. He ran for his state’s sole House seat four years after that, but more or less gave up and got crushed in the GOP primary by the incumbent governor.

This time, though, Pressler is pursuing his presumably last hurrah seriously enough that he’s already made a TV ad that aired during the Academy Awards. In the sparsely populated and relatively inexpensive state, he won’t have to raise much to reintroduce himself to the electorate. (My colleague Kyle Trygstad dug up Pressler’s year-end Federal Election Commission report that showed he brought in just under $30,000, including a $25,000 personal loan.)

His message — that Capitol Hill needs more mavericks like him and that he’d remain unbeholden by staying just one term — will resonate at least somewhat in a year of anti-incumbent fervor and disdain for partisan entrenchment.

Since World War II, three defeated senators have won their old jobs back. But each did so within four years of losing, and the last such return engagement began a quarter-century ago, with Washington Republican Slade Gorton.

Eight months from Election Day, Pressler remains the longest of long shots. (The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rate this race Favored Republican.) But if he becomes even a modestly credible third player in the race, he would at least make life more complicated for his longtime colleagues in the Republican Party, who have been counting on a victory by former Gov. Mike Rounds to be the easiest of the six pickups they require to take the Senate. Full story

February 11, 2014

Senate Finance’s New Chairman, Most Liberal Ever, Looks to Start Slow

wyden021114 445x302 Senate Finances New Chairman, Most Liberal Ever, Looks to Start Slow

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The book on Ron Wyden is that he’s one of the Capitol’s grandest thinkers, with a sprawling range of policy interests matched with wonkish expertise, and eager to work outside the box to put a bipartisan stamp on his many big ideas.

All of that may be true, but so is this: On Thursday the Oregon Democrat will become the most liberal chairman in the modern history of the Finance Committee, the most powerful panel in the Senate.

Notwithstanding his many well-publicized feints toward Republicans — on health entitlements reform and tax simplification, trade liberalization and clean energy, foreign surveillance and domestic civil liberties, senatorial secrecy and campaign financing — Wyden remains among the senators most loyal to the mainstream American political left.

His voting record has earned him a 94 percent annual average support score during his Senate career from Americans for Democratic Action and an 88 percent approval level from the AFL-CIO. He’s voted the way President Barack Obama wanted 97 percent of the time in the past five years, CQ Roll Call’s congressional vote studies found. And he’s stuck with his side on 97 percent of votes that fell mostly along party lines during his 18 years as a senator — a time period when the annual Senate Democratic party unity score was 11 points below that. Full story

February 10, 2014

Where He Really Lives Aside, Sen. Pat Roberts Has Moved to His Right

StopUN 01 031313 445x295 Where He Really Lives Aside, Sen. Pat Roberts Has Moved to His Right

(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Sen. Pat Roberts might be in additional re-election trouble, thanks to a weekend story in The New York Times that’s generating buzz about how the Republican doesn’t have a home he can call his own in Kansas — but he does have a new case to make about his conservative credentials.

After 16 years in the Senate (and as many years before that in the House) cementing a reputation as an establishment Republican, one driven much less by ideology than by a desire for accomplishment, Roberts tacked hard to the right last year. In fact, among the six members of the Senate Republican Conference facing viable primary challenges, Roberts was unique in this regard: He opposed President Barack Obama much more often than before and also stuck with his party significantly more than he usually does.

The CQ Roll Call vote studies for 2013 found that Roberts voted against the president’s wishes 66 percent of the time, 6 points higher than the Senate GOP average. During Obama’s first term, the senator’s presidential opposition averaged 55 percent.

At the same time, Roberts toed the party line on 99 percent of the votes in which most Republicans voted the opposite way from most Democrats. That nearly perfect measure of loyalty was 13 points higher than the average Senate GOP party unity mark; it also was 8 points higher than Roberts’ average for the first four years of his current term.

Full story

February 9, 2014

Newest Senator Will Test (Historically Limited) Potency of Appointed Incumbency

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( Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Although John Walsh will become the newest senator on Tuesday, the historical record and the political temperature in Montana suggest he’ll have no better chance of winning this fall’s Senate race than he did before.

The conventional wisdom is that Gov. Steve Bullock has done his hand-picked lieutenant governor and fellow Democrat a phenomenal favor by sending him to Washington now. The post offers guaranteed visibility that will enhance his name recognition, the benefits of being on the inside that will boost his fundraising and the powers of the job that will allow him to deliver in ways that will prove the power of incumbency impossible to beat.

In fact, that’s hardly been the rule in the past, and it hardly looks to be reliably the case this year.

Walsh’s name will be added to the roster of 51 appointed senators of the past half-century. But of that group, only 19 of the 36 who tried went on to leverage the advantages of incumbency into election in their own right — a 56 percent success rate. Another 15 were placeholders who got out of the way at the next election.

And the final two, both tapped at the end of 2012, will now be joined by Walsh in seeing their places in that database decided this year. Each falls into a different camp. Full story

February 4, 2014

Vote Studies Show Double-Sided Numbers for Senate’s ‘Red State Four’

pryor020414 445x285 Vote Studies Show Double Sided Numbers for Senates Red State Four

Pryor voted against Obama more often than any other Senate Democrat last year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama cited a single number again and again in warning that John McCain was not the sort of change agent the country needed: His Senate colleague and presidential opponent had voted with President George W. Bush 95 percent of the time.

The figure was plucked from the database of CQ Roll Call vote studies, a treasure trove for opposition researchers since the annual assessment of congressional voting patterns began in the early 1950s. And the number — accurate only for the previous year, when McCain tacked right in his pursuit of the Republican nomination — was seen as plenty effective in puncturing the Arizona senator’s reputation as a centrist maverick.

The selective marshaling of statistics is a necessary skill for politicians as much as it is for policymakers. And the work has been gearing up in recent weeks, as the landscape for the midterm elections becomes more clearly defined and the first congressional primaries (in Texas) loom in only a month.

A plurality of the attention is already focused, and looks destined to remain, on the quartet of Democratic senators running for re-election in states that Mitt Romney carried in 2012, because how well they fare will go a long way toward determining if Senate control switches to the GOP next year. And so plenty of scrutiny is being given to the glass-half-full, or glass-half-empty, nature of what our 2013 vote studies reveal about how loyal they’re being to both Obama and their party line. 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

January 8, 2014

The Other Reed Begins to See His Senate Spotlight Brighten

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Reed attended a news conference on jobless benefits Wednesday. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

If January’s award for biggest out-of-the-shadows move by a Senate Republican goes to Michael B. Enzi, then the companion prize for a Democrat must surely be given to Jack Reed.

Rhode Island’s senior senator takes such a somber and studious approach to his work that his name comes up as often as not at the Capitol in homonymous confusion with the majority leader. But not this week, when Reed is near the center of three of the new year’s biggest stories.

He’s the most visible face of the Democrats’ unexpected success in getting the Senate debate started on the renewal of expired jobless benefits for as many as 1.3 million of the long-term unemployed. Just out of view, he’s among the handful of senior appropriators (he chairs the Interior-Environment subpanel) working to shrink the roster of policy disputes so $1 trillion in spending decisions might get done close to on time.

And the new memoir by Robert Gates, with its surprisingly harsh criticism of President Barack Obama’s leadership and his commitment to the war in Afghanistan, is a reminder that Obama more than once seriously considered making Reed his secretary of Defense.

To top it off, the 64-year-old senator got a dollop of cute coverage Tuesday — a Washington Post “Reliable Source” item about being spotted with his 7-year-old daughter, Emily, at last weekend’s Kennedy Center matinee of the holiday musical “Elf.”

The multifaceted nature of Reed’s arrival in the spotlight is partly an accident of timing, combined with the unusual breadth of his topflight committee assignments and his increasing seniority.

It’s also a testament to how he’s something of a progressive liberal version of the conservative Enzi, a fellow member of the Senate Class of 1996 whose power profile is likely to grow in the coming year: Both are long on commitment to their ideological beliefs, but short of interest in spewing partisan animus; serious about pursuing their policy homework, but with a way-below-average level of senatorial self-importance; more interested in getting what they want out of hearings and legislative negotiations than in getting interviewed by the cable TV networks. Full story

January 7, 2014

Cheney’s Exit Is the Buzz, but Enzi’s Future Is the Story

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Enzi is likely to return to the Capitol a year from now as one of its most adept and best-positioned legislative forces. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Few would argue that Michael B. Enzi ought to be the happiest guy in Congress this week.

As a practical matter, he’s just become the first of the 27 senators seeking new terms in 2014 to win re-election. Now that Liz Cheney has backed out of her GOP primary challenge, Enzi is as close as there is in politics to a sure bet to win his fourth term in solidly Republican Wyoming.

Once that happens, Enzi will be in position to return to the Capitol a year from now as one of its most adept and best positioned legislative forces, especially if his party has reclaimed control after eight years in the minority.

Enzi is not only unimpeachable from the right — as the former vice president’s daughter was belatedly starting to figure out — but he is also among the relatively few proven deal-makers in a Congress characterized by hardened ideological standoffs. The self-effacing nature suggested by his back story — he’s the only accountant, the only computer programmer and the only former shoe salesman in the Senate — comes off as the real thing in the daily legislative grind, where Enzi gains bipartisan admiration as an anchor tenant on the more virtuous end of the work horse to show horse spectrum.

In short, his low-profile but high-impact style of conservatism looks to be an essential piece of the Senate Republican strategic game plan for the rest of the decade, especially whenever his side is looking to strike a deal with the Democrats on domestic policy.

Enzi is not only positioned to make the most of it, but sounds determined to do so. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” is one of his favored cowboy aphorisms. Full story

December 13, 2013

Obama Replaces His Hill Lobbyist With a Senate Veteran

President Barack Obama replaced his chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill today, concluding that his legislative affairs director for the past year had lost the confidence of too many congressional Democrats and made minimal inroads with the Republicans.

Katie Beirne Fallon will be the fourth person Obama has had in the job. She’s been working in the West Wing as the president’s deputy communications director only since the summer. Before that, she was a top aide to Sen. Charles. E. Schumer of New York, serving as staff director of the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Center.

In that post, the 37-year-old Fallon won effusive praise from both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. And White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough presumably picked her because she is plugged in to the Democratic leadership on the Hill, which will play the central role in shepherding whatever low-impact legislative agenda the president pushes in 2014. Full story

December 10, 2013

Daschle World Is Back at a Zenith, 5 Years Later

For the Washington fantasists who like speculating about what might have happened in policy and politics “if only,” one of the most interesting questions at the moment is this: How would the administration be faring now if only Tom Daschle had properly paid his taxes.

Part of the answer, especially in the past week, has become this: Maybe not all that differently, because so many veterans of his old Senate staff are now packing into the West Wing.

It was five years ago Wednesday that President-elect Barack Obama announced the former majority leader would be returning to government as Health and Human Services secretary, where he would be in charge of drafting legislation overhauling the health care system and then steering it to enactment.

The choice seemed an obvious, but astute, way to boost the likelihood that the new president’s top domestic priority would move through Congress relatively smoothly and quickly, and to assure the bureaucracy would then implement the inevitably complicated changes to medical insurance rules with minimal fuss. Full story

December 8, 2013

Senators Return for 2 Weeks That Could Last a Needless Eternity

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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

November 19, 2013

Sleeper Alert: Disabilities Treaty May Rise Anew in the Senate

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Senators and disabled activists held a news conference in December 2012 to urge passage of a U.N. treaty on people with disabilities. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

His approval rating may have sunk to a new low, right there with the portion of cooperative spirit left in the Republican ranks, but President Barack Obama is gambling that he can somehow reverse a searing, if low-profile, loss from a year ago on a proposal with global implications and domestic political import.

The campaign will formally be joined Thursday morning, when Secretary of State John Kerry will come to Capitol Hill to press anew for Senate ratification of a treaty known as the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The pact, to which 138 other countries have committed, is written with the principal goal of extending around the word a system of accommodations very similar to what’s spelled out for this country in the Americans with Disabilities Act. That law, passed 23 years ago with overwhelming majorities of Republicans and Democrats alike, stands as the most recent important new civil rights law enacted with genuinely expansive bipartisan backing, and public support for it remains strong.

Obama is betting he can resurrect just enough of that that cross-party spirit to score an upset victory for the treaty on his second attempt. His team has not yet revealed what tactics he has up his sleeve to get there, but for two reasons it’s understandable why he’s trying. Full story

November 14, 2013

Yellen Takes a Grilling, but Will Soon Head the Fed

Janet L. Yellen faced intense and skeptical questions from several Republicans on the Senate Banking Committee, but nothing appeared to threaten her prospects for becoming the next chairman of the Federal Reserve.

While almost all the public and congressional attention is focused on the intensifying travails of the health care law, Wall Street is paying more attention to the Yellen confirmation hearing. If confirmed, she will be a dominant player in federal monetary and fiscal policy for at least the next four years — longer, probably, than the anxiety over Obamacare’s implementation. Full story

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