Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
November 26, 2014

June 18, 2013

The Risks and Rewards of Being First to Endorse an Assumed Candidate

Congressional endorsements of presidential candidates aren’t much of what they used to be — door-openers to the sort of local organizational muscle and fat checkbooks that would scare away rivals early on or change the late dynamic of a close primary.

The televised, telemarketed and tweeted world of modern national campaigns doesn’t have much room for a regional or even statewide power broker to make a mark. And, for most senators or House members, the loss of face from embracing the loser is a much bigger worry than the all-too-often ephemeral rewards from standing in the reflected glow of a winner.

Those dynamics help explain why, by the time former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wrapped up the topsy-turvy Republican nomination contest last April, he’d been formally endorsed by only 25 senators (slightly more than half) and just 79 House members (slightly fewer than one-third).

They also highlight just how unusually Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri was behaving Tuesday, when she announced she was entering the high-profile early endorsement game for the second time in as many Democratic presidential contests.

Six Januaries ago, McCaskill was the first woman in the Senate to back her colleague Barack Obama of Illinois over her other colleague Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. This time, she’s become the first member of Congress whatsoever to endorse Clinton — who insists she won’t reveal whether she’ll be a candidate before the end of the year. Full story

Did Obama Just Show the Door to Ben Bernanke?

President Barack Obama is giving a pretty strong hint that he’ll add another top-tier confirmation debate to the Senate’s agenda for the fall. That would be someone different to become chairman of the Federal Reserve in the new year.

In his interview with Charlie Rose on PBS last night, the president hinted that he would make his nominee public this summer and that it won’t be Ben Bernanke, who’s been at the helm of the Fed since early 2006. Obama spoke of Bernanke’s service in the past tense and declined to say whether he would reappoint the chairman for a third term, even if Bernanke wanted to stay.

“I think Ben Bernanke’s done an outstanding job. Ben Bernanke’s a little bit like Bob Mueller, the head of the FBI, where he’s already stayed a lot longer than he wanted or he was supposed to,” Obama said when first asked. Full story

June 17, 2013

Is Manchin’s NRA Fight a Proxy for Would-Be Gun Control Supporters?

Monday marked two months since the Senate voted against expanding federal background checks for firearms customers. Friday marked six months since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre pushed armed violence toward the top of this year’s legislative concerns.

Both milestones slipped by without any tangible change in a dynamic that has paralyzed Congress on the issue for more than two decades: More lawmakers fear the consequences of supporting gun control than are scared of doing nothing to control guns.

And at first blush, it seems as if one senator’s decision to spend Monday with his campaign staff and a film production crew validates all of the anxieties of the working congressional majority. Maybe, but maybe not.

Full story

High Court Hands Victory to Minority Groups

States may not demand proof of citizenship from people registering to vote, the Supreme Court ruled by a decisive 7-2 today.

The majority signaled it would also be ready to strike down any requirement tougher than what’s set out in the 1993 federal “motor voter” law, which was designed by Congress to simplify registration.

The decision, and the language behind it, is therefore a significant victory for mainstream Democrats, who want to expand access to the polls in part because they’re confident they’ll win most of the new voters. And it’s a defeat for mainstream Republicans, who express intense concern about the potential for election fraud but also know that polls show them doing poorly among groups underrepresented on the rolls — ethnic minorities, immigrants and older people. Full story

June 14, 2013

Congress Craters in Poll Question That Matters Most

Congress returns next week to face a long Senate slog on immigration, a farm bill competing for the House’s attention with going-nowhere-fast abortion restrictions and the lowest level of public confidence Gallup has ever recorded for a bedrock American institution.

The firm’s latest numbers about Congress were pretty much overlooked when they were released this week because, at first blush, the figures seemed only to echo the recent spate of abysmal congressional approval ratings.

But the new poll suggests something more worrisome about the workings of our democratic society. Whether the people are confident the legislative branch is functioning properly, an admittedly vague concept, sounds like a more reliable gauge of the institution’s long-term viability than whether they like what’s being served up at the Capitol at the moment. Full story

June 13, 2013

Farms and Food Together Forever? Don’t Bet on This Legislative Marriage

“Can this marriage be saved?” remains the central storyline as the House gets ready to vote on a farm bill next week.

The answer now looks to be a qualified “yes”: The union of crop subsidies and food stamps, created out of political convenience in the Nixon era, is on course to be preserved one final time.

But a no-fault divorce has a very good chance of being granted before the next farm bill is written near the end of the decade. After 40 years, more and more of the rural lawmakers who care most about the livelihood of farmers have decided they’re ready to dump their urban and suburban colleagues who care more about the nutrition of the poor. Full story

Harry Reid Squashes First Poison Pill on Immigration

The Democrats made a forceful move this morning to defeat the first Republican effort to cripple the immigration overhaul. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., opened the third day of proceedings by moving to table, and thereby kill, the opening GOP bid for bolstering the bill’s border security provisions.

The amendment was designed to impose such a high threshold for border security that the “gang of eight” coalition behind the underlying bill would fracture. But Reid’s maneuver to kill it without so much as a fare thee well also threatens to upend the rickety bipartisan agreement to stay on course for a textbook friendly debate. Full story

June 12, 2013

Bloomberg-Schumer Gun Play Shows Two New York States of Mind

One of the most quoted adages in politics — the one about there being no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, just permanent interests — gained new life Wednesday. The two most influential New Yorkers in public life squared off over how to best resuscitate their shared drive for more gun control.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked almost 2,000 of the biggest political givers in the city to withhold all donations to the four Democratic senators who voted this spring against expanding the federal background check system.

And Charles E. Schumer — who has proudly made his home at the Senate’s three-way intersection of money, politics and policy — made it absolutely clear he viewed the mayor’s move as cockamamie, ridiculous, meshuga and just plain dumb.

The day brought into the open the tensions between the two that have been germinating for weeks. It also cast in sharp relief the very different ways they often go about achieving similar ends. Full story

An Abortion Debate Crafted for Election-Year Ears

Today’s marquee markup in the House has nothing at all to do with Republicans’ ideas for growing the economy, creating jobs, improving health care, revamping immigration or clipping environmental regulation.

Instead, it has everything to do with appeasing the base, galvanizing the rank and file and plumping up the fundraising.

The Judiciary Committee will vote, right down party lines, to advance legislation that would create a nationwide ban on almost all abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. GOP leaders plan to make floor debate and passage the main legislative news event in the House next week, knowing full well the legislation will never come close to seeing the light of day in the Democratic Senate.

In other words, the legislative imperatives that Congress normally pursues during the year between elections are already being supplanted by the atmospherics of an election year. Six dozen weeks before the 2014 midterm elections, efforts to get to “yes” on lasting changes in public policy are already having to compete with efforts that transform the House floor into little more than a sound stage. Full story

June 11, 2013

Obama Opines on Immigration as Test Vote Nears

President Barack Obama today set aside his reticence on the immigration debate, gathering a disparate group of bill supporters around him for only his second public event to tout the overhaul.

Among the 20 people flanking him in the East Room were U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, Democratic Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio and former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, a Republican.

The pep talk came four hours before the first Senate test vote on the legislation, another sign that, at least until the amendment process gets started, the bill has enough bipartisan support to comfortably clear the 60-vote threshold for oppositional filibusters.

Full story

June 10, 2013

Being President Is No Picnic, but No Picnic Isn’t Very Presidential

Mark 3:14 p.m. Monday as the moment when President Barack Obama’s always-overhyped congressional charm offensive was officially called to a halt.

That was when the president’s legislative affairs staff dispatched a curt and totally unapologetic email informing every senator and House member that one of their two guaranteed invitations to the White House for the year had been rescinded.

The congressional picnic, an annual right of early summer for more than three decades, has been postponed indefinitely. Full story

June 9, 2013

Immigration Bill Vote Counting Is a Three-Dimensional Chess Game

The Senate’s initial test votes on immigration, coming up on Tuesday, hold no real hope for suspense. It’s what comes next that will keep this city and the nation riveted for the rest of the month.

The first roll call votes squashing a filibuster on a motion to proceed look to be overwhelmingly bipartisan now that both top Republicans have committed to voting “yes.” Their assent insulates the GOP from charges of obstructionism on the biggest domestic policy initiative of the year.

The next dozen or so workdays promise plenty of drama. That’s because of the promise for a revived senatorial tradition of genuine debate on amendments, some of which could upend or intensify the soft foundation of bipartisan support for the underlying bill.

A climactic roll call is on course for just before the Capitol goes dark for the July Fourth recess. The vote breakdown will be the strongest possible signal of whether President Barack Obama will be signing history-book-worthy legislation in his second term.

Full story

June 6, 2013

Big Blaze on the Hill Could Reshape Congressional Community

Three of Capitol Hill’s neighborhood icons have now been gutted by fire in the past five years. How the first two have been resurrected — and what might happen to the third — offer clues about how much the community closest to Congress will evolve in the coming decade.

Eastern Market, spectacularly gutted in 2007, has been restored to almost all of its airy 19th-century Italianate magnificence — with just enough modernized ventilation, circulation and sanitation to assure it will continue to be a prime reason so many young couples make the Hill their home.

More than for the cheese monger, the rival butchers or the “blueberry bucks” on Saturdays, the market looks to have a long life as the Hill’s vibrant town square, where senators and sanitation workers can sample produce and trade small talk without worry the scene will turn political.

The Tune Inn, severely damaged by a smoky kitchen blaze two years ago, got back in business after a somewhat different reconstruction. Opened right after World War II, it became notorious as the top dive bar within walking distance of the Capitol and the best place for aides and interns to wash down a decent patty melt with a shot and a cheap beer.

Some of that vibe, highlighted by its collection of taxidermy, is still there. But so are logo T-shirts and coffee mugs, microbrews, chrome-and-black booths and wood-paneled walls that gleam because of their varnish instead of the old grease. And a segment on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” has only intensified the feeling that the bar has left the old neighborhood to become a beacon of Capitol Hill as tourist destination.

Now the creosote-encrusted husk of Frager’s Hardware — nine blocks out Pennsylvania Avenue from the Tune Inn and a five-minute walk from Eastern Market — has the chance to become a proving ground for whether the Hill of the middle 21st century is more about community or kitsch.

Full story

June 5, 2013

Susan Rice Replacement a Proxy for What GOP Hates About Obama’s Foreign Policies

Republicans have already started bellyaching about the president canceling his charm offensive and sticking a thumb in their eye by promoting the person they view as the main face of the Benghazi mess. But there’s absolutely nothing they can do to stop Barack Obama from installing Susan Rice as his top national security adviser.

The job is the most important post in the entire executive branch (other than White House chief of staff) that doesn’t require Senate confirmation. So Rice’s move — a sooner-or-later sure thing ever since her secretary of State ambitions were quashed this winter — can be carried out whenever Obama decides it’s OK for her to leave the United Nations.

That probably won’t be until her successor as U.N. envoy is confirmed. And it may take some time, and at least one contentious hearing, before Samantha Power gets to return to government service and move to New York. A fight over her confirmation looks to be a proxy for what irks the GOP about administration foreign policy. Full story

June 4, 2013

A Budget Bluff-Off, Four Months Before the Next Cliff Walk

The House is moving ahead with its plan to pass the year’s first two spending bills before going home for the weekend Thursday afternoon. There’s bipartisan agreement, albeit for different reasons, to ignore President Barack Obama’s warning that lawmakers are wasting valuable legislative time.

The White House made its first symbolically important move in the 2014 appropriations game Monday, declaring the president would veto any measure that would carry out the stated aspirations of the majority Republicans in the House.

The GOP’s opening gambit, in turn, is to write a dozen bills that would essentially cancel next year’s sequester cuts for national security enterprises and come up with the necessary money by imposing deeper-than-sequester cuts on social and domestic programs.

The administration says the whole annual appropriations process should be put on hold until the GOP House and Democratic Senate settle on an overarching budget blueprint that would turn off the sequester altogether, presumably with some combination of entitlement curbs and revenue enhancements. But, daily posturing on both sides notwithstanding, that’s nowhere close to happening.

And so House leaders on both sides agreed without hardly a word of discussion to press ahead and to encourage their rank-and-file to vote however they choose on the initial appropriations bills. Both measures support programs with near-universal political appeal: The one debated Tuesday would boost spending on veterans programs by 3 percent while cutting the military construction budget. The one coming up Wednesday would provide a 2 percent increase to the Homeland Security Department. Full story

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