Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
March 27, 2015

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

July 24, 2013

Worst Poll Numbers Ever Don’t Stop Backbiting by Obama and His Critics

President Barack Obama’s effort to pivot Washington’s attention back onto the economy — and claim the public opinion upper hand before his budget battle with Congress is rejoined this fall — had all the hallmarks of a recent State of the Union address.

The speech at Knox College in Illinois was exhaustively advanced, extensively rehearsed, carefully leaked and filled more with aspirational notions than with legislative specifics. It balanced olive branch passages promising an eagerness to work with congressional Republicans with blunt-force admonishments about the GOP’s penchant for spurning him at every turn.

And, in true late January fashion, the soaring rhetoric that Obama hoped would redefine his summer and re-energize his fall was met with such predictable partisanship that it will do absolutely nothing to soak up any of the poisonous pool that he and his congressional antagonists are stuck in.

Fifteen months before the midterm elections, Wednesday could end up being remembered as the day it became undeniably clear that Washington’s leaders are still committed to keeping the key to their gridlock hidden — at least until the voters take their next turn at shuffling the power dynamic.

The timing could not be more curious, given that Obama was flying to rural northwestern Illinois and top Republicans were polishing their derisive responses to what he hadn’t said yet, just as NBC News and the Wall Street Journal were delivering the details of their latest poll, which could have been titled: “It didn’t look like the capital’s standing could slip lower, but it has.” Full story

GOP’s White House Wannabes Still Neck and Neck: Poll

The four members of Congress likeliest to run for president in 2016 are all bunched together near the top of a front-runner-free Republican field, according to this year’s most extensive poll about the next race for the White House.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, on the other hand, is the overwhelming choice of Democrats and she led every opponent in the hypothetical general election contests tested by the Marist-McClatchy poll out this morning.

The poll found a statistical six-way scramble for the top spot in the totally theoretical GOP field, because of the 5-point margin for error in the sample of people who identified themselves as Republicans or GOP-leaning.

Discounting the undecided, at 25 percent, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey finished first with 15 percent support, followed by Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin at 13 percent, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida at 12 percent, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida at 10 percent, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky at 9 percent and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas at 7 percent.

Clinton was the first choice of 63 percent of Democrats surveyed — a level of support five times greater than that of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who was named by only 13 percent. Biden’s support was lower than those Democrats (18 percent) who said they were unsure of their choice. Full story

July 23, 2013

Voting by Remote Control Is a Recipe for Voter’s Remorse

At first blush, one of the first measures introduced by one of this year’s youngest, tech-savvy House freshmen sounds as virtuous as it does innovative.

Yet four weeks after California Democrat Eric Swalwell unveiled his proposal, and two weeks after the Silicon Valley-area representative launched a concerted search for co-sponsors, only three other members have signed on.

There can be only one of two reasons for this:

  1. His idea is so cutting-edge that his colleagues can’t fully comprehend how profoundly and positively transformative it would be, or
  2. It’s so misguided that it’s already been effectively discounted as a ridiculous idea that could actually do harm to our democracy. Full story

Obamacare or Government Shutdown? That’s the GOP Question

With the new fiscal year starting 10 weeks from today, and the budget process on a collision course with total impasse, it was only a matter of time before talks of a government shutdown would bubble to the Capitol surface.

But the latest obstructionist threat from Sen. Mike Lee is creating a new avenue for melodrama in the process. The Utah Republican says he has already signed up 13 fellow fiscal conservatives for his campaign to prevent enactment of any spending measures that permit the government to spend money implementing Obamacare. And he’s promising he’ll searching for more budget hawks, on both sides of the Capitol, to join his cause.

“If Republicans in both houses simply refuse to vote for any continuing resolution that contains further funding for further enforcement of Obamacare, we can stop it,” Lee said Monday on Fox News. “We can stop the individual mandate from going into effect.” Full story

July 22, 2013

Bob Dole’s 90th Conjures Visions of Senate Long Gone

Seventeen years and 774 cloture petitions after he left the Senate, Bob Dole celebrated his 90th birthday Monday with the sort of plain-spoken tough love that marked his run as one of the most accomplished congressional leaders of all time.

At an invitation-only Capitol birthday party Tuesday afternoon, his fans will raise a chocolate milkshake toast and wistfully remember what was and what may never be again. Full story

Senate Republicans Hold Fate of Obama’s Next Grand Bargain Push

President Barack Obama heads to the Midwest this week to return his vision for the economy to prominence ahead of this fall’s revived combat with Congress over the budget. How much of a head start he’ll get in shaping the standoff with Republicans will be known before his first speech.

The president is headed to Knox College in Illinois on Wednesday. On Tuesday, the Senate will take its first key vote on appropriations for the coming year. It’s very possible that just enough Republicans will break with their party leadership to form a coalition with the Democrats against the tight discretionary spending caps called for in the sequester.

The vote is about whether to break an initial filibuster and allow the first floor debate of the year on a fiscal 2014 appropriations bill, which most Republicans oppose because its $54 billion grand total would be 10 percent more than what the sequester is now allowing to be spent on transportation, housing and community development — and 15 percent more than what the House intends to spend. Full story

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