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July 6, 2015

September 26, 2013

What If Ted Cruz Had Read ‘The Little Engine That Could’?

It’s going to take a while longer, but the deconstruction of everything Ted Cruz said during his 21 hours and 19 minutes on the Senate floor this week is continuing.

Much of the attention was paid Wednesday to the Texan’s suggestion that fellow congressional Republicans unwilling to wage war against Obamacare are comparable to the appeasers in the British Parliament during the rise of Hitler. Since that pretty politically serious topic has been exhausted, the focus is shifting to Cruz’s taste in children’s literature.

Had Cruz chosen to read “The Little Engine That Could,” he would have been able to liken himself to the locomotive that willed itself to triumph. Had he picked “Harold and the Purple Crayon,”  he could have compared himself to the boy who kept drawing himself into predicaments and then drawing himself out again.

Instead, the senator declared that his favorite book as a kid was “Green Eggs and Ham,” which he read on the floor Tuesday night so his two children might get to hear him tell a bedtime story.

The Huffington Post has a nice piece out this morning about Sen. Charles E. Schumer denigrating Cruz for missing the whole point of the Dr. Seuss classic. The moral, as the New York Democrat was right to point out, is that you shouldn’t knock something before you’ve tried it, because you might find out you like what you’ve criticized  out of ignorance.

Schumer’s ready punchline: “Maybe, Sen. Cruz, you may actually find out that, as this health care law goes into effect, you and your constituents may actually like it.”

September 25, 2013

Ted Cruz Showed He Can Talk the Talk, but His Walk Is Harder to Measure

Cruz leaves the Senate chamber after his 21-hour speech that ended Wednesday. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Cruz leaves the Senate chamber after his 21-hour speech that ended Wednesday. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Ted Cruz undeniably secured a spot in the annals of senatorial theatrics at the stroke of noon Wednesday, when parliamentary inevitability required him to yield the floor after 21 hours and 19 minutes.

Other than applause from a modest collection of fellow Republicans, did he gain much of genuine worth for his considerable talk-a-thon troubles? The ledger of political costs and benefits looks close to impossible to push toward balance.

Not so for his likely presidential rivals, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, whose mastery of the Senate juggling act looks pretty good by comparison. Full story

Gridlock in Congress Leads to 3-Cent Hike in Postal Stamps

While the spending and debt deadlines move inexorably closer with no deals in sight, Congress is getting a stark reminder about the consequences (and cost) of its gridlock for everyday Americans.

The U.S. Postal Service proposed a 3-cent increase in the price of a first-class postage stamp, to 49 cents starting in January, and similar increases of about 7 percent in the rates for postcards and packages. The governing board said it’s the only way to muddle through its “precarious financial condition.” The Postal Service has been falling deeper and deeper into a budget hole over the past two years because the Republican House and Democratic Senate have been unable to agree on a collection of cost-savings measures.

But the price hikes wouldn’t come close to solving the problem. The new rates would raise about $2 billion in additional revenue in 2014, cash that could be used to help cover regular expenses. But the Postal Service is projecting another loss like the $6 billion projected for the fiscal year now coming to an end, mainly because of its requirements for pre-funding payments for retiree health benefits.

Under law, the Postal Service may only raises prices more than inflation under exceptional circumstances and with approval of an independent Postal Regulatory Commission.

Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe wants permission from Congress to revamp and streamline the way his system does business in the Internet Age, starting with ending Saturday delivery and closing thousands of post offices and half the mail processing centers. (Mail volume has declined almost 30 percent in the past five years.) But every version of legislation Congress has been considering in the past two years would trim back, prevent or dictate alternatives to those proposals in important ways.

The debate in this Congress hasn’t gone beyond the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which approved a bill in July that would cut delivery to five days a week, phase-out delivery to residential doorsteps and turn management of the Postal Service over to a newly created federal overseer.

While the congressional impasse drags on, the agency defaulted on two $5.6-billion payments to its retiree benefits plan and is on course to miss another one this fall. What to do about the pre-funding of the benefits is among the many things lawmakers have not agreed on.

September 24, 2013

CR Timeline Gives Appropriators a ‘Jingle Bells’ Endgame

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Mikulski, center, and Durbin pushed the strategy of shortening the length of the stopgap CR. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Wednesday’s anticlimactic vote on the continuing resolution — Ted Cruz’s pretzel-logic faux filibuster notwithstanding — isn’t the most important Senate move so far this week in the budget endgame.

That distinction belongs to the Democratic leadership decision to apply a much smaller patch to the broken spending machinery than what House Republicans united behind last week. The continuing resolution the Senate will pass, likely on Saturday, would keep the government operating for only the next seven weeks — until Nov. 15, exactly a month earlier than the date in the House bill.

The change, which will get ample GOP buy-in, will alter the rhythm of this fall’s multifaceted fiscal deliberations in several ways.

It means the second possibility for a partial government shutdown will come close on the heels of a potentially market-rattling showdown over the debt limit. It means appropriators will gain an opening to reassert a measure of relevance they haven’t enjoyed at the Capitol in nearly a decade. And it could mean still one more bite at the apple for conservative Republicans crusading to stop or slow Obamacare.

What it does not mean, however, is that the new target adjournment date for the first session of the 113th Congress is two Fridays before Thanksgiving. There’s bipartisan consensus that such an early departure is both legislatively unrealistic and politically unwise and that, even if an unexpected wave of functionality and deal-making appears, a second CR will be necessary to maintain running-in-place operations into December. (In the past decade, the earliest Congress has finished its work in a non-election year was Dec. 8, 2003.) Full story

Senate Democrats Eye a Third Fall Showdown

Top Senate Democrats signaled today that they may amend the continuing resolution to last only seven weeks, to Nov. 15 instead of Dec. 15. That would move the fall’s second shutdown showdown to just after the looming dogfight over the debt limit.

The Democratic plan, which has not been finalized, would complicate this week’s stopgap spending imbroglio with a secondary issue that is important for many lawmakers but has nothing to do with the matter consuming the public’s attention. Conservative Republicans continue to demand that Obamacare be denied any funding in the new fiscal year as a condition for keeping the government open.

With the first test votes set for Wednesday — and top Republican leaders abandoning the quixotic filibuster effort orchestrated by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas —Democrats are sure that by the end of the weekend, they will be able to remove the defunding language from the bill the House passed last week. Full story

September 23, 2013

Senators Want Obama to Hold Hard Line on Iran, Confident He’s on the Same Page

One of the more reliable tricks in the congressional publicity playbook is to write and release a letter demanding the president do something — right after getting word that the hoped-for decision has already been made.

Looking to reward a recently helpful senator or to woo a House member in advance of a close vote, past White Houses have done plenty of trading in this sort of insider information. A heads-up about an impending personnel move, public works proposal or policy shift is golden to a lawmaker, who can then create an “earned media” windfall by urging the impending action — then claiming some prescience or credit when the thing comes to pass.

“I was glad the president took my advice last week and nominated our mayor for the judgeship,” for example, or, “Thankfully he understood my case for a new mess hall at Camp Swampy and included money for that project in his budget.”

President Barack Obama’s legislative affairs team hasn’t done much helping of lawmakers with such leaks, one of the many reasons his relations with all corners of the Hill remain lackluster six months (and a couple of canceled picnics) after a series of lavish and intimate dinners looked to get congressional outreach on better footing in the second term.

That’s why the letters espousing a presidential hard line toward Iran, released Monday by four of the most prominent and press-savvy foreign policy voices in the Senate, appeared particularly noteworthy — seeking to put words in Obama’s mouth just hours before he’s expected to use them. Full story

House GOP Sets Up Staredown With Obama Over Debt Limit

While House Republican leaders are waiting for the Senate to restore funding to Obamacare in the stopgap spending bill, they are also refining their approach to the second fiscal showdown of the fall — over the debt limit.

Regardless of whether GOP conservatives and President Barack Obama reach a deal that averts a partial government shutdown in eight days, the Treasury will need permission from Congress to borrow more money as soon as the fourth week of October. And already it’s becoming clear that neither side is going to be more flexible on what to do about that than it has been on the continuing resolution.

The phone call Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner had late Friday was all about the debt ceiling, not the spending impasse, and lasted only a couple of minutes. The president declared he would not make any sort of policy concession in return for a higher legal borrowing limit, and the House leader made it clear his side would insist on just such a trade-off.

What the GOP might propose became more clear late last week, when leaders outlined not only a delay in implementation of the 2010 health care law — a more comprehensive attack on the statute than the defunding language in the CR — but also several other budget policy proposals most congressional Democrats oppose. That includes reducing some Medicare benefits for the more affluent elderly, changing the government’s inflation calculations to so-called chained CPI to curb the growth of Social Security cost-of-living increases, setting in motion a revenue-neutral overhaul of the tax code and requiring the immediate permitting of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Full story

By David Hawkings Posted at 12:01 p.m.
Budget Wars

September 22, 2013

Inside the Inconsistent Way Congress Would Implement Its Share of Any Shutdown

One week to go, and still no word from Capitol Hill officials about how the place is going to be different if there’s a partial government shutdown.

Don’t expect any such guidance before zero hour. The members who oversee congressional operations, and the administrators who implement the politicians’ policies, seem to have settled on a bipartisan, bicameral agreement: They won’t say anything in advance about what would keep operating normally, what would slow down and what would stop altogether after midnight on Sept. 30 in the absence of a completed continuing resolution.

That means the great existential question facing every government worker at a time like this — “Am I essential?” — will remain officially unanswered for more than 25,000 unelected legislative branch workers. The comforting, or enervating, word will only come if Congress doesn’t clear a CR on time. If there’s a stopgap spending accord, each job’s place in the congressional pecking order will remain a mystery, at least until the next deadline in December.

There are psychological and political reasons for this. Full story

September 20, 2013

Food Stamp Vote Shows GOP Leadership Challenge

A couple of clues about the dynamics of the government shutdown endgame can be found in the roster of 15 House Republicans who voted Thursday against the food stamp overhaul.

First, the roster of centrists who opposed the legislation amounts to only 6 percent of the conference, the latest indication that the number of moderates in the House GOP is smaller than at any time in decades — and insufficient to form a functioning coalition with Democrats. Which means that, even if all of the GOP food stamp bill opponents and all the Democrats unite behind a straightforward stopgap spending measure shorn of language to prevent spending on Obamacare, that number would be insufficient to pass the bill.

That scenario is not happening in any case, because a so-far unpredictable number of Democrats are going to vote against any continuing resolution that maintains spending at the current post-sequester levels. That’s what the bill before the House today would do, and it’s what President Barack Obama has said he would agree to for at least the next 10 weeks.

The small number of Republican dissenters on food stamps nonetheless illustrates just how daunting  a task the House GOP leadership faces in assembling anything close to a majority of the majority for a clean CR, or even one that only nibbles at the edges of the health care law because of the reality the Democratic Senate won’t go along with an outright defunding.

The difficulty ahead for the leadership is underscored by the list of lawmakers who voted “no” on Thursday on the grounds that a 5 percent, $4 billion annual cut to food stamps every year for the next decade was too steep, and the bill’s broad new work requirements for recipients too onerous. The group is another reminder that almost all members of the Republican Conference remain extraordinarily willing to rally behind small-government conservatism even when very clear parochial or electoral considerations would customarily prompt abandonment of such orthodoxy.

Of the two-dozen House Republicans representing districts where more than one-fifth of the population lives in poverty, only one voted against the bill: David Valadao, whose district in the southern Central Valley of California has a 30.6 percent poverty rate.

And of the 22 members of the caucus who are currently viewed as even remotely vulnerable in 2014, only three of them voted “no” — Valadao, fellow California freshman Gary G. Miller and sophomore Michael G. Grimm, the only Republican in the House from New York City.

The others who opposed the bill were Shelley Moore Capito, the early favorite to win West Virginia’s open Senate seat next year; Peter T. King, Chris Gibson and Richard Hanna of New York; Christopher H. Smith and Frank A. LoBiondo of New Jersey; Michael G. Fitzpatrick and Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania; Don Young of Alaska, Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, Walter B. Jones of North Carolina and Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska.

September 19, 2013

DeLay Wins Appeal of Charges That Forced Him From GOP Pinnacle

Tom DeLay was preparing to make a triumphant return to the Capitol this afternoon, hours after his political corruption conviction was overturned by a Texas appeals court.

The former House majority leader is in town this week by coincidence, and was already planning to have lunch with his former Republican colleagues in the Texas delegation.

The Texas 3rd Court of Appeals decided 2-1 this morning to set aside DeLay’s 2010 conviction for money laundering and declare him acquitted. The majority said the evidence in the case was “legally insufficient to sustain DeLay’s convictions.”

The charges were connected to an alleged scheme to illegally funnel corporate money to state legislative candidates in 2002, when DeLay was at the height of his congressional influence as “The Hammer.” He sought to expand his hold on power by engineering a GOP takeover of the state House in Austin, which would then lead to a more Republican-friendly reconfiguring of the state’s congressional map.

The effort worked in the short term; the GOP gained six seats in Texas under the reconfigured boundaries in 2004. But DeLay’s hold on power began to unravel right after that election cycle.

He was admonished later that year by the House Ethics Committee for an array of transgressions, weakening his ability to combine political intensity and political persuasiveness to get what he wanted. The next year he was forced to step aside as majority leader after his indictment on the money laundering charges, and in early 2006 he resigned altogether after one of his closest allies on K Street, Jack Abramoff, pleaded guilty and started cooperating with a federal investigation of lawmaker-lobbyist relationships.

It was DeLay’s departure that created the opening that allowed John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, to return to the leadership.

DeLay had been sentenced to three years in state prison but remained free while he mounted a vigorous appeal, which included successfully getting one of the original judges assigned to hear the appeal removed because of anti-Republican sentiments she’d expressed.

In July 2012, DeLay filed paperwork to lobby for Argus Global LLC on sex-trafficking issues, according to records tracked by our sister blog, Political MoneyLine.

September 18, 2013

Shutdown-Averting Endgame Buys All Sides a Second Play

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

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

Shutdown Prospects Soar as Obama, GOP Square Off

The prospect of a partial government shutdown increased significantly this morning.

President Barack Obama made it emphatically clear that he is not in any way open to negotiating a delay or a weakening of his health care law. He spoke just minutes after House GOP leaders announced plans to pass legislation this week that would make defunding Obamacare their condition for stopgap spending until December and an increase in the debt limit good for at least a year.

The president, in remarks to corporate executives at the Business Roundtable, said he won’t allow a “faction” of the most conservative Republicans to “extort” such a concession from him because that “would fundamentally change how American government functions.”

“We will blow the whole thing up unless you do what we want? That can’t be our recipe for governing,” he said in characterizing the Republican plan. He also contended that this could jeopardize the economic recovery by rattling financial markets close to the next two budget deadlines — the start of the fiscal year in a dozen days and the Treasury’s need to borrow money beyond the legal limit sometime in the middle of October.

The remarks were perhaps the president’s most succinct and confrontational yet in this fall’s intensifying version of the budget wars that have consumed so much of Washington’s energies for the past three years. He is hoping to win the battle for public perception the same way Bill Clinton did during a series of shutdowns at the end of 1995. Republicans then were overwhelmingly viewed as petulant and blamed for allowing federal services to grind to a halt because they didn’t get their way in negotiations over cuts in social programs.

Speaker John A. Boehner, who was on a lower rung of the GOP leadership ladder back then, remembers the political beating his side took and has been openly resistant to tactics that could lead to a repeat performance. But the Ohio Republican was quickly overruled at a closed-door meeting of his caucus this morning, and he and Majority Leader Eric Cantor emerged to explain that their latest strategy in the budget battle is to tie straightforward spending and debt provisions to at least two poison pills — provisions to prevent any spending to implement the health care law, which is to take a major step in October with the opening of insurance exchanges, and a requirement that Obama allow construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which he has remained ambivalent about for two years.

There is no way the Democratic Senate would approve legislation defunding Obamacare, no matter its other provisions,. And the odds the Keystone language would survive look only slightly better.

There were some indications in Boehner’s remarks that he might countenance a strategy, only slightly different from the one he was forced to abandon last week, in which the Senate would strip out the provisions it found objectionable and send back to the House a relatively clean measure with the two fiscal provisions — continuing discretionary spending until Dec. 15 at the current sequester-clipped levels (an annualized rate of $988 billion), and permitting the Treasury to borrow whatever it deems necessary through next fall, and presumably beyond the midterm elections.

If the Senate at least goes on the record with a roll call sticking up for Obamacare — such a vote has never happened, even as the House has voted 40 times to defang or repeal the law — the leadership’s hope would be that a sufficient bloc of House conservatives would feel they had done the best they could to promote their cause, relent and allow the budget crisis to be avoided in the nick of time.

At least for today, though, the atmospherics on both sides suggest that a government shutdown lasting at least a few days might be required to focus the negotiators’ minds.

September 17, 2013

Day of Indecision Doesn’t Bode Well for Decisions to Come

As Capitol Hill returned to its usual levels of edginess and partisanship Tuesday, there was general thankfulness that the boots on the ground — the men and women of the Capitol Police — had provided the requisite competence and comprehensive calm during the mayhem down the street at the Navy Yard.

Everybody else who sought to put the congressional community at ease? Not so much.

The rhetorical questions with the sharpest edge that took hold most quickly on Monday afternoon were still being bandied about more than 24 hours later:

  • If the people in charge in the House and Senate can’t even agree how to handle the fading possibility of a gunman on the loose in the neighborhood, why should we expect they’ll speak with one voice when there’s an obvious and imminent threat?  
  • And if the law enforcement professionals can’t cut a quick, bicameral deal on a straightforward matter of security, is there any hope Republican and Democratic politicians will ever find agreement on a matter of policy consequence — on, say, flaws in the security clearance system and how to limit gun violence?

Full story

September 16, 2013

The 50 Richest Are Different, Yes, Even From Other Members of Congress

At first glance, our annual roster of the wealthiest people in Congress brought to mind one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most quoted lines: “Let me tell you about the very rich,” goes the opening of “The Rich Boy,” his 1926 short story. “They are different from you and me.”

But a more careful review of the exhaustively researched report quickly conjured up this codicil: The 50 Richest are profoundly different in many important ways from their own colleagues, who in the aggregate are still a whole lot better off than the vast majority of people they represent.

The median net worth of the top 50 was $14.3 million, a number made all the more astonishing by the fact that it’s 46 times as much as the median net worth ($306,000) of all the other members of Congress last year. And that lesser amount, in turn, is more than quadruple the median household net worth in the country. Full story

50 Richest Are Different From You and the Rest of Congress

The 50 Richest Members of Congress are different from the rest of their colleagues in so many ways, but here’s one way in which they are the same: There are nine women on the roster, or 18 percent of the lawmakers with the highest minimum net worth last year. And women hold precisely 18 percent of all the combined seats in the House and Senate.

Aside from that parity, though, the demographics of the wealthiest lawmakers are significantly different from the overall makeup of Congress, which of course is still way more white and male than the overall American population.

There is only one non-Anglo on the entire list for 2012, compiled by CQ Roll Call from the financial disclosure reports of every one of the members. That would be Rep. Bill Flores, a Hispanic Republican from Texas who’s a former energy company executive; he came in at No. 49, with a net worth of $6.7 million. (Overall, 17 percent of the members of the 113th Congress are either Hispanic, African-American, Asian American, American Indian or Native Hawaiian.

The list also skews Republican: 29 of the lawmakers, or 58 percent, are in the GOP, but the overall membership of both halves of Congress is 52 percent. That said, Democrats account for eight of the dozen richest — those with a net worth cresting at $30 million.

The list also reflects the common perception that senators tend to be better-off than House members: 13 percent of the Senate made the cut, but only 8 percent of House members.

The roster also offers reminders that membership turnover is more a part of the congressional dynamic than is commonly assumed — and that great wealth, once attained, is not squandered all that easily. Only 14 of the lawmakers who were on the 50 Richest list a decade ago (Roll Call has been calculating it since 1990) remain in Congress today.

And only three of those veterans have slipped off the latest roster. All are Republican senators: John McCain of Arizona, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama and Johnny Isakson of Georgia.

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