Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
April 25, 2015

September 3, 2013

Ahead of Hearing, Solid Support for Syria Strike at Senate Foreign Relations

While President Barack Obama spent the morning behind closed doors rallying the bipartisan congressional leadership to his side, an equally important hurdle for his Syria policy comes this afternoon, when 18 senators on the Foreign Relations Committee will publicly reveal whether they’re for, against or undecided on authorizing U.S. military intervention.

The White House’s basic strategy for getting congressional approval of the president’s plan of attack looks to be simple: Lobby hard to secure a strong bipartisan majority in the generally more interventionist Senate during the first half of next week, and hope that show of support assist the president in persuading a narrow majority in the more skeptical and isolationist House to go along.

How easily that approach can be sustained will become clear soon after the committee convenes Tuesday at 2:30 p.m., but the initial indications look promising for the president. Full story

September 2, 2013

GOP Missed an Opportunity in Skipping MLK March Anniversary

As the world was reminded anew last week, the last living bridge between the 1963 March on Washington and the Washington of today is John Lewis, a civil rights icon since the movement flowered in the early 1960s and Atlanta’s congressman since the late 1980s.

His brief remarks at the march’s 50th anniversary commemoration gained little attention, trumped easily by the symbolic power of having an African-American president offer the keynote at the Lincoln Memorial. But the day brought to mind what Lewis said on those steps half a century before — words reflecting the profound disenfranchisement black people felt then and pointing to how Democrats and Republicans have responded since.

“What political leader here can stand up and say, ‘My party is the party of principles’?” Lewis asked in 1963, noting how reviled promoters of racial oppression, as well as renowned champions of social justice, were prominent in both parties in Congress. “Where is our party? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington?”

Fifty years on, the sprawling roster of unfinished business and unmet dreams lamented from the podium, and the tens of thousands gathered on the Mall, made clear that Washington isn’t close to salving all the anger and worry that gets people on their feet. But the tableau was an unmistakable reminder that only one party has made common cause with those marchers for most of the decades since.

Not a single elected Republican took to the lectern, though invitations to deliver remarks were extended to at least a half-dozen. Unintended or not, organizers were left with the impression that their causes had once again been disrespected by the GOP high command, which in theory had the organizational savvy, internal communications skills and political wherewithal to deliver at least one member of their party’s A list to the podium. 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 12, 2013

Congress of Quitters: Early Exits Promise Better Prospects, Less Bile

After a decade in the House, Rodney Alexander never made as much news as he did as a freshman, when he secured a hold on his northeastern Louisiana seat by quitting the Democratic Party just in time to run for re-election as a Republican.

But twice in as many days last week, Alexander made announcements that will ring with even louder echoes in the halls of Congress.

The first chime last week got the most attention because it fit so readily into a couple of the defining narratives of the current Congress.

The second may have more significance. It heralds the acceleration of a disquieting trend at the Capitol: members who just can’t take it anymore and are looking better (and higher paying) things to do.

Alexander initially declared, on Aug. 6, that he would be retiring at the end of his sixth term because he had no reason to believe the 114th Congress would be a more productive or enjoyable place of business.  “Rather than producing tangible solutions to better this nation, partisan posturing has created a legislative standstill,” he said. “Unfortunately, I do not foresee this environment to change anytime soon.”

That such a broadside would be delivered by a senior Republican was more evidence that dysfunction and low productivity have become just as dispiriting for those nominally in control of Congress as they have for the rest of the country.

That it came from a member of Appropriations, who just become senior enough to take a subcommittee gavel (Legislative Branch), is another sign that budgetary paralysis has set in for the long haul. With no stand-alone spending bill enacted on time since the fall of 2007 — a record guaranteed to be topped this year — there’s not much of a demand for old-school proponents of earmarking as the best possible legislative grease.

Having put a highlighter over those themes while announcing that he wouldn’t seek re-election, Alexander was back a day later with even more consequential news: He will be resigning altogether Sept. 26 so he can start a new career in Baton Rouge.

It’s the sixth time in the past year that an elected member has departed mid term for no other reason than the opportunity for another job they might like more. That kind of race for the exits has never been that fast.

The inference is clear: Quitting ahead of schedule and heading through the revolving door is no longer considered evidence of political weakness, a sign of disrespect to the institution or an affront to the donors and the voters. In Washington today, the virtue of perseverance has become passe, and it’s acceptable to cast aside one of the world’s most influential positions of public trust whenever something better, and almost always more lucrative, comes along.

In the quarter-century before last summer, 52 lawmakers died in office, 30 resigned because of scandal or poor health, and 44 left in the middle of their terms for more prominent jobs in public service. Seven left for think tanks, charities, universities or TV networks. Just nine quit so they could get a head start at boosting their salaries and leveraging their Rolodexes at K Street shops, trade associations or corporations.

Since then, the midway so-long scenario has happened five more times.

Within days of each other during the last August recess, a pair of House members planning their retirements resigned in a flash, each citing serious family problems without offering details. Hours after his announcement, California Democrat Dennis Cardoza was named managing director of the lobbying powerhouse Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. Kentucky Republican Geoff Davis waited until the middle of the lame-duck session before opening his own firm.

That December, after raising more than $1.4 million to win re-election with 72 percent in southeastern Missouri, Republican Jo Ann Emerson announced she was giving up her House seat just two months into her ninth term so she could take charge of the group that advocates for rural electric cooperatives.

Jo Bonner, a Republican appropriator like both Emerson and Alexander, spent $1.2 million while unopposed for a sixth term last year, then resigned seven months into the position that 196,000 people in southwestern Alabama had asked him to do for two years. He walked out of the House when August recess began so he could become top lobbyist for his state’s university system.

Most prominently of all, Jim DeMint raked in $7 million to hold his Senate seat for a second term in South Carolina in 2010, then decided a third of the way through that he could do more to advance Republican conservatism by  becoming president of the Heritage Foundation — which also pays at least six times the $174,000 congressional salary.

Alexander is unique on the past year’s roster in that he’s not becoming an influence peddler. His new job as secretary of his state’s Department of Veteran Affairs, in fact, means a 25 percent pay cut. So it’s hardly the sort of government promotion — to a Cabinet post, Senate seat governorship, mayor’s office or ambassadorship — that historically gets a congressman to turn in his voting card between elections.

That’s why the widespread view is that Alexander’s resignation has a motive as similarly self-serving as those of his former-colleagues-turned-advocates: Becoming part of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s cabinet will position Alexander to run for governor in 2015, when he’ll turn 69 and the incumbent is term-limited.

It’s a sweet arrangement, all the more so for being cloaked with anti-Washington fervor. But it’s also the sort of ever-more-common maneuver that gives the lawmakers left behind an even worse reputation than they already have.

August 7, 2013

Hill Applauds as Obama Scraps Summit With Putin

There is no audible opposition from Congress to President Barack Obama’s announcement today that he’s backing out of next month’s scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The tenor of the initial reaction from lawmakers in both parties has been totally supportive of the diplomatic slap, which is pushing the United States closer to an outright canceling of the “reset” in Russian relations that Obama had been long promoting — and which many in Congress had been resisting. Many senators and House members had been urging the president to spurn the long-planned Putin meeting. If there was an undercurrent of criticism after today’s announcement, it was in mumbled versions of “What took him so long?” from the president’s most ardent Republican critics.

The presidential snub is a clear signal of anger and frustration with the Putin government for permitting fugitive intelligence analyst Edward Snowden to remain in Russia instead of returning him to the United States so he could be prosecuted for his disclosures of national security secrets. But tension between the two countries has been building for months, most acutely over the Russians’ support for the Assad regime in Syria. 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

August 2, 2013

Congress Scatters for Summer Recess on Heels of Tepid Job Growth

The White House reacted to today’s middling employment numbers by insisting that the less-than-expected addition of 162,000 new jobs is just a reminder the economy won’t get any better until the sequester is turned off.

Republicans in Congress reacted by saying much less than they usually do about the monthly jobs reports — and then turning out the lights at the Capitol for the next five weeks.

That reticence was in part because the headline-grabber was a July unemployment rate of 7.4 percent, a drop of two-tenths of a point to the lowest figure since Barack Obama was elected president.

Beyond that, the GOP leadership has gone essentially mute on the sequester and its strategy for keeping the government operating beyond Sept. 30, the last day of fiscal 2013.

That’s because their caucuses this week essentially rejected both of the clearest options: House Republicans on Wednesday signaled they were unwilling to maintain the deep spending cuts in domestic programs for another year, and on Thursday their Senate colleagues signaled their almost unanimous unwillingness to abandon them.

Senators then scattered for the summer, leaving House members on their own to close up the Capitol shop this afternoon.

The House said goodbye after passing a pair of GOP measures designed to help House rank-and-file members with their political messaging during the August recess — without any hope the Democratic Senate will ever consider either bill.

One would require Congress itself to sign off on any new federal rules with more than modest economic impact. The other would prohibit the IRS from implementing any provisions of the 2010 health care law — the 40th time, by most counts, the House has voted to repeal, defund or otherwise block Obamacare.

Republicans describe both pieces of legislation as job creators, arguing that businesses will be eager to expand and bolster their payrolls once they know Washington is not going to be regulating them as much.

“Persistent long-term unemployment, discouraged people leaving the workforce, and millions taking part-time jobs because they have no choice are not signs of a strong recovery,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. “While the president is giving speeches, Republicans are taking action.”

The president says the best thing for the economy would be federal investments in infrastructure spending and dropping the across-the-board spending reductions that began this spring.

“With the recovery entering its fifth year, we need to build on the progress we have made so far and now is not the time for Washington to impose self-inflicted wounds,” said Alan Krueger, chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

The facts from the latest Labor Department surveys don’t give either side a preponderance of the persuasive evidence. Instead, they offer all of Washington this week’s second reminder that the economic recovery remains modest. (The economy grew at an improving but still tepid 1.7 percent annual rate in April, May and June, the government said Wednesday.)

July was the 34th consecutive month of jobs gains, although revised data for the previous two months, combined with the new figure, show the economy has created an average 175,000 jobs a month since May — not enough to appreciably absorb the backlog of people who have been without work since the recession.

The job gains were concentrated in retail, food services, financial activities and wholesale trade. Construction employment fell, but manufacturing rose for the first time in five months, with 6,000 new positions added. Government employment at all levels stayed essentially flat.

The jobless rate, which comes from a different survey, ticked down either because people who were hunting for jobs found work or gave up looking.

The unemployment rate for adults younger than 29 was 11.6 percent; for African-Americans, it was 12.6 percent.

August 1, 2013

‘Let’s Do Lunch’ May Be Senate’s Last Bipartisan Deal

Senators are heading off for the August recess with a smoky, not bitter, taste in their mouths.

The second joint caucus meeting in the past month is this afternoon, with almost all 54 Democrats and 46 Republicans expected to attend. There is no “nuclear option” filibuster standoff or other institutional crisis that needs to be diffused. But there is a tasty barbecue buffet waiting to be tackled.

The Old Senate Chamber, where the clear-the-air meeting on executive nominees was held three weeks ago, is too fine a restored and historic venue for the feast. Instead, the brisket and beans are being laid out in the Russell Building’s ceremonial hearing room.

The idea of the gathering, which was also held just before the summer break a year ago, is to send off senators to their states with a sense that collegiality and bipartisanship has at least a theoretical chance of easing congressional life come the fall, when comity could be significantly tested by this year’s installment of the budget wars.

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

Obama Heads for the Hill to Rally Democrats on Economic Upbeat

President Barack Obama was armed with better than expected news about economic growth when he went to the Capitol today, where he’s having separate meetings with House and Senate Democrats but having nothing at all to do with Republicans.

The economy grew at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.7 percent this spring, the Commerce Department reported. The consensus view of economists was for the second quarter expansion to be just under 1 percent — which would have been such a meager number as to suggest an impending stall.

The new number for April, May and June is also better than the government’s 1.1 percent revised gross domestic product growth estimate for January, February and March.

And so, instead of having to pitch his policies in the face of concerns about economic sluggishness, Obama was able to suggest an impending acceleration during his back-to-back meetings with the two Democratic caucuses. He was planning to ask lawmakers for help selling his agenda during the August recess, after which Congress will be unavoidably returned to decisions about spending levels and the debt ceiling.

“Jobs.  Middle Class. Growth,” the president said as he left his hourlong meeting with House members in the Capitol Visitor Center and headed to his session with senators. (The House Democrats provided Obama, who turns 52 on Sunday, with a dark chocolate cake topped with a fondant presidential seal.) Full story

July 30, 2013

Senate Leaves Watt in Limbo, Along With a Tradition of Deference to One of Their Own

The logjam of confirmations appears to be breaking in the Senate — just in time for the August recess — with one prominent nominee left behind.

The only loser in this game of fast-moving musical chairs is going to be Democratic Rep. Melvin Watt, the only member of Congress who’s up for a job in the executive branch this year. It’s a snub of a colleague that has no modern precedent.

The August break probably won’t improve the odds that Watt, the No. 4 Democrat on the Financial Services Committee who is marking his 21st year representing North Carolina, will someday be endorsed to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which would give him significant unilateral power to regulate the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

If his nomination is effectively spiked by a cloture vote this fall, which looks to be the best bet at the moment, or if he withdraws in the face of rejection, Watt would be the first sitting member of Congress in decades who’s been nominated for a confirm-able position and then denied by the Senate. Full story

Rising GOP Moderate Shows His Style in ‘Energy Future’ Debate

With the Senate on the cusp of debating significant energy legislation for the first time this year, intense lobbying and negotiating machinations are under way on a wide range of topics, from pipelines to ceiling fans.

A window into all that maneuvering was opened at a morning-long CQ Roll Call forum on “America’s Energy Future,” which I moderated on July 25. It featured insightful appearances by three of the more important congressional players in energy policy, along with a vigorous debate by independent experts on the costs and benefits of federal energy subsidies and regulations.

The tone was set by the opening speaker, Sen. John Hoeven. Now nearing the middle of his freshman term, the North Dakota Republican is steadily emerging this year as a prominent Republican centrist swing vote. He’s become a sought-after player on a wide array of debates that can advance whenever a core group of GOP moderates is willing to cuts deals with the Democratic leadership. Full story

July 29, 2013

Lindy Boggs’ Old-World Path to Congress Blazed a Trail for the New

Upon her death on July 27 at age 97, Lindy Boggs had been gone from the Capitol for more than 22 years, longer than her time as the Democratic congresswoman from New Orleans. But the tributes pouring forth indicate a political force still quite close to the present. They also suggest congressional ways of doing business that have almost disappeared altogether.

The speed with which President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton offered their mini-eulogies suggested that Boggs had remained indispensable to the end at the center of the capital’s power culture.

In reality, since her tour as ambassador to the Vatican ended in 2001, her influence had mainly been as matriarch of one of the most plugged-in of all Beltway families — her son Tommy is in the pantheon of K Street players and her daughter Cokie Roberts is in the top tier of capital pundits.

To recall Boggs’ contributions to the legislative and institutional life of the Capitol, though, is to conjure up not only a sense of nostalgia for some aspects of life on the Hill in the 1970s and 1980s, but also several head-scratching reminders of how things look to have changed for the better. Full story

The One Washington Power Lunch the Political Class Cares About Today

“It’s just lunch!” insist the handlers for both participants in today’s most closely watched inside-the-Beltway meal.

But aides to President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who are set to sit down at noon at the White House, are keenly aware that almost no one in Washington believes the two are simply catching up.

Their shared declaration, after all, is also the name of a prominent matchmaking business, and the political class assumes the hidden agenda has something to do with setting the parameters for their relationship during the next three years.

Democratic operatives, potential Republican rivals and the pundits will all be scouring for any scraps of evidence suggesting the president will or won’t encourage a 2016 campaign by his one-time rival and then Cabinet member — and any additional indications of whether Clinton has decided whether she wants to capitalize on being the overwhelming early favorite. Full story

July 28, 2013

Rush to the August Exits Makes for High-Stakes September

The final week before the August recess in a non-election year: Customarily, it’s the occasion for climactic votes on some of the most important matters of the year. This time, it will come and go with little more than a rhetorical torrent about how little’s been done to justify a five-week vacation.

Two years ago, a melodramatic eleventh-hour deal averted a government default but ultimately spawned the sequester. Two years before that, Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed as the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court. In the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, the get-out-of-town votes completed the last comprehensive rewrite of federal energy policy.

But in the coming days, the most substantive news will be clearing a hiding-in-plain-sight compromise to hold down student loan interest rates, one month after busting a deadline and making millions of college kids anxious.

That anticlimax will leave plenty of time for lawmakers to raise a self-aggrandizing fuss about how they really ought to stick around and start negotiating to avoid the next potential budget catastrophe. Members from both parties will join in, safe in the knowledge they won’t get their stated wish because nothing is more sacrosanct to Congress than summer break.

That “district work period” on the House calendar for the final week of September? Not so much. Full story

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