Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
January 30, 2015

July 14, 2013

Why the D.C. ‘Living Wage’ Fight Matters to Congress

One of the summer’s hottest local stories has become the standoff between the D.C. Council and Wal-Mart over how much the big-box behemoth should have to pay its Washington workforce.

The dust-up could end up touching Congress in several ways, beyond the sudden uncertainty about whether Hill staffers will have a new place for lunchtime shopping by the end of the year. (One of the chain’s first stores under construction in the city is at First and H streets Northwest, right behind the Government Printing Office and no more than a 20-minute walk from the Russell Senate Office Building.)

Whether city leaders end up sticking with or backing away from the “living wage” measure approved last week — it would require big retailers to pay starting wages 50 percent above the District’s regular minimum — could help steer the fate of President Barack Obama’s moribund-for-now proposal to raise the federally guaranteed hourly wage floor.

Whether Republicans end up moving legislation to block the local ordinance would indicate how forcefully, if at all, they want to apply the congressional prerogative to trump local rule. Whether Democrats move assertively against such a GOP intrusion would reflect how enthusiastic they are about advancing the agenda of organized labor.

And whether Wal-Mart would even seek such intervention will offer insights into how the lobbying team for the world’s largest retailer plans to prioritize its interests at the Capitol.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has until the end of this week to sign or veto the measure. (The city’s regular minimum wage of $8.25, or $1 more than the federal floor, would go up to $12.50.)  The company doesn’t yet have any stores open in the city, but the one on H Street is among three nearing completion, and plans are well along for three more in neighborhoods clamoring for more connection to Washington’s vaunted economic renaissance.

Wal-Mart is vowing that, if the higher wage law takes effect, it will abandon preparations for that second group of developments immediately while pondering its legal and financial options for pulling out of the others.

If Gray vetoes the measure, he would be echoing a move in 2006 by the Democratic mayor of another pro-labor city, Richard M. Daley, whose rejection of a living wage for big-box retailers sped along the opening of eight Wal-Marts in Chicago.

It would also probably be the end of the matter, because nine council votes are needed to override a council decision, which in this case passed 8-5.

But if the mayor calls the company’s bluff and signs the bill, it would indicate confidence that, with organized labor’s backing, he could get away with it — maybe with Wal-Mart but, if not, probably with the city’s voters and very likely with Congress.

For a mayor who’s put some visible effort into smoothing the city’s notoriously rocky congressional relations, embracing the living wage concept would be a bold change of course: He would be making D.C. a showcase for progressive values just as Republicans in the House are contemplating more efforts at making the city an unwitting display case for conservative social values.

Congress has the power to permanently negate enactment of any District statute. But it has to do so through the regular legislative process, which means it hardly ever happens. It’s especially unlikely given the Capitol’s partisan split.

Instead, whenever it has been in the House majority, the GOP has taken to writing language dictating some sort of conservative social policy (or preventing the city from pursuing its more liberal policies) into the annual spending bill providing the federal payment to Washington in lieu of taxes.

This year’s version is being considered by House Appropriations this week. It’s already going to include language chiding D.C. voters for approving a budgetary autonomy referendum this spring — though not actually reversing the outcome. There are rumblings that some Republicans are working on an amendment that would block the city, at least for the coming year, from putting a two-tier wage floor into effect.

Such language would presumably draw concerted and public protest from top Democrats, for a couple of reasons.

They are eager for any platform to promote their commitment to bolstering stagnant wages for the working class, which they expect to place among their top promises in their economic platform for the 2014 midterm. And they have lamented that Obama — although he did talk it up in his recent meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus — hasn’t done more to promote his State of the Union call for raising the minimum wage to $9 and then mandating yearly cost-of-living adjustments.

But putting their agenda for working people back in the public eye is mostly a strategy for next year, which leaves Democrats to do only what they can this year to make organized labor happy. The main pillar in the strategy has now become clear: getting Obama’s three nominees for the National Labor Relations Board confirmed, even if it takes the “nuclear option” of forcing limits on filibuster to get the job done.

Making sure a $26,000 annual salary, instead of $17,160, goes to just 1,800 minimum-wage workers — none of whom has even been chosen to pin the yellow smiley faces to their uniforms — should be relatively easy compared to remaking the culture of the Senate.

July 10, 2013

LGBT Civil Rights Get a Late Boost From a Lagging Congress

Updated 5:06 p.m. | It would have been unthinkable, maybe only a year ago, that legislation to expand gay civil rights would win more bipartisan support than legislation protecting college kids from a doubling of their student loan rates.

That’s what happened in the Senate this week. Tuesday morning, three Republicans joined all 12 Democrats on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in voting for a federal prohibition on workplace harassment and job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Then, at lunchtime, a White House-backed proposal to keep the Stafford loan rate at 3.4 percent for another year was blocked on the floor after no Republicans lined up behind it.

The two roll calls underscore one of Washington’s most unexpected but important storylines of the year: the progress of people who aren’t heterosexual in overcoming the walls of government-countenanced discrimination.  Congress now shares a starring role with the Supreme Court as the most important venue for their cause, with President Barack Obama squarely on board.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the president was eager to sign the job bias prohibition because it “upholds America’s core values of fairness and equality.”

The HELP Committee’s 15-7 tally guarantees a majority of senators would vote for passage, and that support is at most a handful shy of the 60 senators necessary to overcome a filibuster by Republican cultural conservatives.

Advocates say those votes are within reach and that Majority Leader Harry Reid was prepared to put the bill on the floor as soon as passage is assured.

Doing so by early fall would allow a full year for lobbying the House, where passage at the moment looks to be a decided long shot. Speaker John A. Boehner has made clear that such consequential bills will advance only if they have proven support from a majority of his GOP majority.

The companion bill to what advanced in the Senate on Tuesday has just three GOP sponsors. Nine other Republicans voted “yes” when the House passed a somewhat narrower measure; it would have banned job discrimination based on sexual orientation but was silent on gender identity.

Still, public sentiment in favor of gay rights is expanding so rapidly that the political dynamic could be different by next summer. It’s not totally implausible that, even before the next election, advocates of gay rights may achieve their top legislative goal for the past two decades — something that’s arguably as important as the twin victories won at the high court two weeks ago.

“I think society is there and the things that have happened in the Supreme Court show we’re ready to move on in a way we haven’t moved on in the past,” said HELP Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa, who has made enacting the anti-discrimination bill the top priority of his term before retiring next year.

The national discussion created by the California ban and Defense of Marriage Act cases helped prompt at least eight senators to reverse course and declare their support for gay marriage, creating a majority of 54 on that side of the debate now. The recent converts include Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, who were joined by Orrin G. Hatch of Utah as the Republicans voting “yes” in committee.

The bill has one other GOP sponsor, Susan Collins of Maine, who’s not on the committee. Those four Republican votes, combined with those of the 51 Democratic co-sponsors, would bring the floor majority for the bill to 55.

Bill Nelson of Florida, who was among those who switched to support gay marriage this spring, is among the three Democrats who have not signed on. The others are Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who are opposed to gay marriage (so is Democrat Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, but she’s a bill co-sponsor).

Lobbyists for the bill say they hope to reverse the current opposition of two Republicans: Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, who was among the eight GOP senators who voted to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law three years ago; and Rob Portman of Ohio, who has declared himself a supporter of gay marriage. They also hope to woo Jeff Flake of Arizona, who voted in the House for the 2007 version of the bill. That measure would not have extended to transgender workers, which the Senate bill does.

That legislation would prohibit businesses of 15 or more workers, as well as employment agencies and labor organizations, from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity when making hiring, firing, payment or promotion decisions. In a concession essential to winning any GOP votes, the bill has an exemption permitting churches and other religious organizations to make personnel decisions based on their faith tenets.

By the start of next month, same-sex marriages will be legal in 13 states and Washington, D.C.  But 17 states and D.C. prohibit workplace discrimination based on either sexual orientation or gender identity — as do a majority of Fortune 500 companies.

The tide of national sentiment may once again drag Congress to the political place it needs to be.

July 9, 2013

Senate ‘Nuclear’ War at Turning Point

A Senate nuclear showdown is looking almost inevitable this month.

Decisions about the timing of the confrontation’s start, and what its nominal cause will be, look to be settled by the end of the week. After that, the outcome is unclear. But there’s really only a binary choice, between compromise and calamity.

A single confrontation over a filibustered nomination could lead to negotiated settlement that somewhat recalibrates the majority’s power at the expense of the minority’s rights. That is essentially what happened the last time the phrase “nuclear option” took hold of the Senate, eight years ago.

Alternately, the standoff could escalate until a parliamentary explosion destroys this year’s small remaining measure of legislative collegiality and alters the essential atmosphere of the Senate for years to come. That has not happened in modern times. Full story

Bipartisan Divide on Hill Means Egypt Aid Will Keep Flowing

Very unusual fault lines are hardening in Congress on the most consequential foreign policy dispute of the summer, with senior lawmakers in both parties taking opposite stances about whether aid to Egypt should be withheld if civilians aren’t quickly put back in charge.

The debate poses the classic question of whether it is more important for United Sates foreign policy to focus on advancing American democratic principles around the word, which would mean cutting off the aid, or to put a premium on protecting the country’s current economic and military objectives, which would mean keeping the money flowing.

The discussion is moot, however, as long as President Barack Obama holds to the view that what’s happened in Cairo during the past week does not amount to a coup d’etat, which was the preliminary position the White House staked out Monday. A law expanded 18 months ago compels the administration to withdraw aid from any country where the military has seized power by force from a democratically elected government. It doesn’t permit the president to waive the rules, but neither does it provide Congress with any legislative vehicle for countermanding his decision. Full story

July 8, 2013

GOP Immigration Feint in the House? Or Just a Faint of Heart?

Wednesday’s all-House-Republicans-on-deck meeting on immigration has lost its potential to generate the summer’s biggest congressional news.

Caucus leadership has already concluded there’s no chance a majority of the majority is back from the July Fourth recess ready to tackle the issue in anything close to a comprehensive or speedy manner.

That news was buried in the third sentence of the 15th dense paragraph of a memo that Majority Leader Eric Cantor sent out to a nearly empty Capitol on July 5. Although creating a citizenship pathway for the 11 million people who are in the United States illegally would be the most consequential change in domestic policy of the decade, and spurning the idea would be political hemlock for the GOP, the idea barely merited a passing afterthought in his discussion of the House’s July legislative agenda.

Instead, the bulk of the next four weeks will be devoted to passing a trio of “drill, baby, drill” deregulatory Republican energy measures that have no chance of even a serious hearing in the Democratic Senate. That will be joined by five spending bills that are more likely to complicate than to smooth this fall’s inevitable budget crisis.

There may also be time to take another run at passing the farm bill — probably, although Cantor didn’t say so, by splitting its food stamp and agricultural provisions into separate measures.

And after all of that symbolic legislating? “The House may begin consideration of the border security measures that have been passed by the Homeland Security and Judiciary committees and begin reviewing other immigration proposals,” the majority leader offered. Full story

As Pentagon Furloughs Start, Congress Yawns

One of the most consequential effects of the sequester began today: Weekly unpaid furlough days for more than 650,000 civilian workers at the Defense Department, who will effectively see their pay cut by 20 percent for the  final 11 weeks of this budget year.

All the commissaries at domestic military installations are closed, for example, and will be every Monday through the end of September. (Most agencies within the department have decided to salve the economic sting a tiny bit by setting the furloughs on Mondays and Fridays, so that workers might at least enjoy a series of long weekends.)

But the visuals of closed cafeterias, equipment maintenance sheds, supply warehouses, payroll offices and the like will have absolutely no effect on the pace of congressional effort toward untangling the budget morass. Full story

July 7, 2013

There’s Less to This Congress Than Meets the Blind Eye

Lawmakers and aides pouring back into the Capitol this week may be tempted to glance at their desk calendars, smack their foreheads and exclaim, “Where did the time go?”

And then, with even more bewilderment, they might wonder, “What have we been doing all year?”

The July Fourth recess is traditionally considered halftime in the legislative year. In fact, it’s a bit later than that. The Senate’s had roll call votes during 17 weeks so far in 2013 and plans only 16 more weeks in session before the second Friday in December. The House has had votes in 18 weeks but expects just 14 more workweeks before that same Dec. 13 target adjournment.

The message for the laborers in the First Session of the 113th Congress is unmistakable: The time is slipping away without much to show for it. Full story

July 2, 2013

Bill Gray, First Black in the Congressional Leadership, Dead at 71

(Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A portrait of Gray, right, hangs in the cloakroom behind the Budget Committee meeting room. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

William H. Gray III, who as House majority whip from 1989 to 1991 was the first African-American ever in the top tier of congressional leadership, died on Monday.

He was 71 and was in London with one of his children to attend the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

A third-generation Baptist minister, Gray unseated a veteran incumbent and fellow Democrat in 1978 to become central Philadelphia’s congressman. He held the seat with ease while advancing in power and prestige until his surprise resignation in the summer of 1991, when he left to take over the United Negro College Fund. During his 13 years in that job, after which he started his own lobbying shop, the fund raised $2.3 billion in scholarship money. Full story

July 1, 2013

How Student Loan Impasse Went From Bad to ‘So What?’

Next Wednesday has already been established as a critical date in the House, because it’s when Republicans will meet to decide their next move in the immigration debate. But July 10 also looms as a big day in the Senate, because that’s when a pair of roll calls will decide whether the student loan impasse will be broken before it becomes a potentially expensive hassle for millions.

It’s much more difficult than usual to predict the ultimate outcome, given the unusual legislative dynamics behind the standoff.

The normally united caucus of Democratic senators has split over what to do next, while the Republicans are sounding much more interested than most Democrats in pursuing something similar to what President Barack Obama wants. And the House, which has spent all year deferring to the Senate because of all the division within the GOP majority, has taken the lead in the matter by passing a plan to revamp the whole system, doing so with almost unanimous Republican support.

It’s also tougher than usual to forecast when the issue will be resolved, given that Congress has just ignored the statutory deadline with almost no outward care about the consequences. Full story

June 28, 2013

Tea Party Freshman Puts D.C. Speed Cameras in the Cross Hairs

House Republicans have shown their interest in micromanaging the municipal affairs of Washington, D.C., time and again. The range of their interests may soon get stretched again.

For the past two decades, these crusades have been all about making the nation’s capital a sort of social policy Petri dish in which to experiment on such hot-button issues as charter schools, gun control, abortion rights, medical marijuana and needle exchanges for drug addicts.

Now, the shifting interests of the House GOP’s tea party generation are about to land on a new target: The city’s speed cameras. Full story

June 27, 2013

Senate to House: Immigration Is in Your Court (of Public Opinion)

So, the Senate immigration bill didn’t hit the 70-vote threshold that was going to magically melt all House Republican resistance to opening the narrow new path to citizenship even before the border is totally locked-down tight. The solemn roll call came up two senators short.

So what?

For essentially the entire three weeks that immigration overhaul was on the Senate floor, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, made clear he couldn’t care less how big the bipartisan coalition grew on the other side of the Capitol. He wasn’t falling into the expectations trap set by some members of the Senate’s bipartisan “gang of eight.”

In fact, he wasn’t even going to buy the notion he had to announce right away how the House would respond to Senate passage of one of the most consequential domestic policy measures in the last quarter-century. On the contrary, he has always insisted, he hasn’t even really started trying to figure that out.

That’s what the coming July Fourth recess is for. Full story

70 Votes for Immigration Seems a Stretch, and May Be Moot

The Senate is on course to finish its immigration bill this afternoon, with the penultimate pair of procedural test votes to be taken before lunch and the roll call on passage set to start at 4 p.m.

When that final vote begins, Majority Leader Harry Reid announced this morning, he expects all senators to be in the chamber and ready to vote from their desks.

Arranging that unusual and somber ceremony serves a couple of strategic purposes for proponents of the legislation. Full story

By David Hawkings Posted at 11:13 a.m.

June 26, 2013

Gingrich’s 17-Year Culture War Against Gay Marriage Falls Flat

It’s a remarkable coincidence that Newt Gingrich’s latest career move was announced Wednesday morning, moments before the Supreme Court struck down his most consequential legislative victory in the culture wars.

The pictures of Gingrich, just given top billing as the voice “on the right” of CNN’s revived shoutfest “Crossfire,” brought back a flood of recollections about the societal and political situation 17 years ago, when the star-crossed Defense of Marriage Act was written.

Those memories help explain why such a sweeping measure made its way into the federal law books so relatively easily back then and why such a heavy federal stamp of disapproval on an entire category of people has no chance of enactment now. Full story

Gingrich, a DOMA Architect, Returning to D.C. as Talking Head

The Defense of Marriage Act was the biggest legislative victory for social conservatives that Newt Gingrich was able to engineer as speaker of the House. This morning, an hour before that law was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the peripatetic Georgia Republican and failed presidential candidate announced he was leaving traditional politics altogether.

He’s going to become a full time television talking head.

CNN announced that it was resurrecting “Crossfire,” the progenitor of so many cable TV shows formatted to turn into screaming matches, and that Gingrich would anchor the “on the right” half of the table every weeknight starting this fall, along with S.E. Cupp, a conservative columnist who’s currently a regular on MSNBC. Full story

June 25, 2013

Both Parties Play Rope-a-Dope on Obama’s Climate Agenda

There’s nothing congressional Republicans can do to stop President Barack Obama’s assertive new moves against carbon pollution. There’s nothing the Democrats can do to help him. And both sides have concluded that trying could make their own political fortunes worse.

Which is why four years ago to the day is going to stand, until at least the end of the decade, as the legislative climax in the climate change debate. Full story

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