Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
November 24, 2014

June 4, 2013

Obama to McConnell: Let Judicial Wars Begin

Using the Rose Garden as his backdrop and arranging to stand beside his choices for the Washington federal appeals court were two clear symbolic signals from President Barack Obama today that he’s making victory in the judicial wars a top-tier objective for the year.

Top Republicans are making just as clear a commitment to their side of the fight, meaning the threat of a Senate “nuclear” showdown will grow in the months ahead.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned this morning that any assertive, outside-the-normal process to change the rules and do away with judicial filibusters would poison whatever small measure of good will is left in the Senate. It would make it essentially impossible for him to trust anything Majority Leader Harry Reid says in the future.

McConnell did not say so explicitly, but it seems no doubt that Republicans plan to block the nominees Obama put forward. And the president made clear he knows what to expect.

“What I’m doing today is my job. I need the Senate to do its job,” he said. “I recognize that neither party has a perfect track record here,” he added, but “what’s happening now is unprecedented. For the good of the American people it has to stop.” Full story

June 3, 2013

Lautenberg’s Legislative Legacy Was Consumer Friendly

The death of Frank R. Lautenberg marks much more than the end of the Greatest Generation’s time in the Senate. In addition to being the final World War II veteran in the place, and the longest-serving senator ever from New Jersey, Lautenberg was an anchor for the dwindling core of congressional Democrats who never wavered from vigorously promoting a robust role in regulating everyday life.

As a consequence, the legislative legacy he leaves behind is one of the longer and more noticeable ones of the past three decades, replete with measures that continue to have a consumer-friendly and tangible effect on commerce, transportation, the environment and public health.

More than any other member of Congress, Lautenberg was responsible for the cultural turn against cigarettes in public spaces. A former two-pack-a-day smoker, he was the driving force behind the 1989 law that banned smoking on domestic airline flights, and he subsequently led the crusade to restrict smoking in most federal buildings. He was instrumental as well in the congressional moves to stop ocean dumping, to increase the legal age for drinking age to 21 and to tighten the standards of what constitutes drunken driving. Full story

May 31, 2013

Gridlock Is Good for Washington (D.C., That Is)

The coming month is when Congress traditionally signals how much it plans to micromanage the annual affairs of the nation’s capital. The early signals are that it will be less than usual — potentially much less.

The most pressing issue is whether lawmakers move to stop the government of the District of Columbia from spending locally raised tax dollars however it wants, without first getting congressional permission. District voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum in April declaring such local budget autonomy.

Some conservative Republicans have grumbled about pushing a bill to overturn the referendum, or suing in federal court on the grounds that only Congress can cede its own constitutional control over the city. But no one in the GOP leadership has signed on to either idea — most importantly, not Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California, whose Oversight and Government Reform Committee has jurisdiction over D.C. affairs. He’s been a supporter for years of loosening the congressional leash on municipal affairs. Full story

May 30, 2013

Nationals Offer Ballpark Venue for Bipartisan Bonhomie

Time and again, members of Congress say that spending just a little bit more social time with lawmakers from the other party would go a long way to calming the bilious nature of legislative life.

They’ll soon have another opportunity to test the theory. The Washington Nationals announced that the June 5 game against the New York Mets is being turned into something of a congressional social. It will include a members’ only reception beforehand, a big bloc of right field seats set aside for lawmakers and their aides, the Capitol Police doing color guard duty and a chorus of 90 staffers belting out the National Anthem.

And, even though the party is cash bar and the seats cost $34, tickets have already been sold to 71 House members — one sixth of the membership.

Senators haven’t been recruited to get in on the action. But the two House members who have been working for almost a year to put the event together — as a gesture toward improved civility, if not genuine camaraderie — are confident that word of mouth will get at least another 30 of their colleagues to show up as paying customers. Full story

May 28, 2013

GOP Stalwarts Applaud Obama-Christie Efforts on Jersey Shore

The Jersey Shore that President Barack Obama is visiting today appears in remarkably better shape than residents thought possible just 30 weeks ago.

The recovery has so exceeded expectations that a widespread sense of appreciation for the government’s power permeates the beach towns hit hardest by Superstorm Sandy — even though all of them are as reliably Republican as any communities in the region.

There’s still plenty of complaining, but very little has to do with the bureaucrats forcing their will on the locals — somewhat surprising, given that the flavor of conservatism along the shore is all about small government and low taxes, not the lingering fights in the culture wars.

Instead, from Seaside Park north to the Shrewsbury River, the street-corner view over Memorial Day weekend was that the federal and state performance has been impressive and efficient since the storm — yet was still way insufficient to the task at hand. They want Washington and Trenton to assert even more control over their lives and their livelihoods, but only until a lasting sense of normalcy has returned. Then, they will be quite happy to wave goodbye to the appraisers, adjusters, engineers, heavy equipment operators and loan officers who have personified government service for the past seven months.

It’s this classic split in the mind of so many Americans — they want their government to rescue them from trouble but leave them alone the rest of the time — that Obama will be seeking to navigate along with his odd-couple partner for the day, Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Full story

May 26, 2013

Is There a Chance Politics and Flexibility Can Coexist, Just This Once?

Will the sequester get as much attention at town hall meetings in the coming week as immigration, job creation or the coming of health insurance exchanges? Will it get even half as much time at editorial boards and coffee klatches as the farm bill, the IRS affair or the fading debate over gun control?

More and more lawmakers in both parties are worried the answer may be a somewhat surprising “yes.” And they have nothing close to an easy answer for whether any more flexibility might be created inside Washington’s self-imposed spending straitjacket — aside from the possibility of reaching a bigger bargain on taxes and entitlements that would include repealing the sequester altogether.

The political pressure to ease the across-the-board nature of the situation, especially from middle-income independents, will only grow as spring gives way to summer. Full story

May 23, 2013

Student Loan Standoff to Test Hill’s Summer Tone

The House is leaving for its weeklong Memorial Day break this afternoon after passing a GOP-crafted student loan extension, setting up the first big countdown showdown of the year in just five weeks, just before the congressional break for July Fourth.

At issue is the scheduled doubling of the interest rate on subsidized Stafford student loans, a predicament that also produced a partisan standoff last year that threatened to delay the Independence Day recess. Back then, at the last minute (in an election year), Congress granted a reprieve to 7 million college students and their families, keeping the rate from doubling to a fixed 6.8 percent from the super-low 3.4 percent. But it made the fix for only one year.

With the election past, another round of drama over a temporary solution didn’t at first look likely to be repeated, especially not after President Barack Obama this spring proposed making the rates more flexible by pegging them to 10-year Treasury notes, a market-based approach designed to entice Republican support.

But the GOP bill being passed today takes the idea a significant step further — so much further, in fact, that the Obama administration has threatened a veto. Full story

May 22, 2013

Lois Lerner’s Gambit Has Guaranteed She’ll Talk — Some Day

Room 2154 of the Rayburn Building was the scene of the most publicly electrifying, if not illuminating, moment so far in the IRS controversy — a widely televised staging of a recurring set piece in American political theater.

By the time Lois Lerner was sworn in at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Wednesday, a clattering symphony of cameras at her feet, everyone in the room knew the essence of what was coming next. She had served notice the night before that she would invoke her constitutional right against self-incrimination and decline to answer questions about her work as head of the IRS office that decides which organizations deserve tax-exempt status. That would be the office that applied an especially strict review to tea party and other conservative groups.

But before taking the Fifth, she broke from the playbook ever so briefly. “I have not done anything wrong,” Lerner read from a paper before her. “I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations, and I have not provided false information to this or any other committee.”

That categorical 17-second statement was played over and over on cable news for hours, allowing Lerner to control the IRS scandal headline of the day. But sneaking it into the script also infuriated her congressional inquisitors, who are sure to make a fevered search for contradictory evidence an essential part of the committee’s coming months of tax agency oversight. Full story

Weiner Launches His Comeback Bid in NYC Mayor’s Race

This year’s second big comeback bid by a disgraced ex-congressman got underway at midnight, and it came in a manner the New York tabloids might describe as “Weiner’s soft launch.”

Anthony Weiner — who resigned his House seat in disgrace 23 months ago, after his sexting and his lies were exposed — declared his candidacy for mayor of New York in a video posted on You Tube without any advance notice.

“Look, I’ve made some big mistakes and I know I let a lot of people down, but I have also learned some tough lessons,” Weiner says in the 2 minute spot. “I am running for mayor because I have been fighting for the middle class and those struggling to make it my entire life, and I hope I get a second chance to work for you.”

The announcement was much less overtly contrite, and alluded to his downfall much more obliquely, than the approach his former colleague Mark Sanford took this spring. In Sanford’s successful campaign to reclaim his former House seat, he repeatedly sought his constituents’ forgiveness for using state money to travel overseas for an extramarital affair, and lying about it, when he was the Republican governor of South Carolina. Full story

May 21, 2013

Danger Lurks for GOP in Overdoing ‘Message’ Votes

Last week’s party-line House vote to repeal the 201o health care law was arranged so the 70 freshman Republicans could go on record in support of a campaign promise. Such messaging votes have their place, argues Don Wolfensberger of the Wilson Center and the Bipartisan Policy Center, but only if paired with debates that might actually produce some changes in policy.

And Wolfensberger, a Roll Call contributor and former House Rules Committee staff director, says the GOP is running a risk by not doing more on the legislative front these days. In light of the party’s new interest in investigating potential Obama administration scandals, his analysis is worth noting. Here’s Don:

“There must be 50 ways to leave your health care law.” That’s how  songwriter Paul Simon might describe repeated attempts by House Republicans to disengage from the president’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Actually, by last count the House has only voted 37 times to repeal Obamacare in whole or in part.  The most recent effort occurred on May 16 when the House voted 229-195 to pass a total repeal bill sponsored by Tea Party Caucus founder Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.  This was the first run at the law in the 113th Congress. Nevertheless, the exercise has become so old hat that none of the nine House committees of jurisdiction bothered to report the bill this time.  Full story

Truce in Judicial Wars: D.C. Court to Get Democratic Pick

Updated 9:35 p.m. | The Senate is about to put the first new judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in seven years.

Majority Leader Harry Reid said this afternoon he intends to push for a vote by the end of the week confirming Sri Srinivasan to one of the four vacancies on that bench. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled he wouldn’t stand in the way of such a move,  but needed to get final sign-off from his GOP colleagues.

The D.C. Circuit is considered the second-most-important court in the federal system, because it hears so many cases involving the regulatory actions of federal agencies. Four justices of the Supreme Court were promoted from that appellate courthouse. But, until now, the Republicans have refused to seat anyone new, which has had the effect of giving the nominees of GOP presidents a 4-3 majority.

The GOP looks to be relenting now because Srinivasan, the principal deputy solicitor general, has impeccable credentials and a short paper trail, which has made it tough for either side to be certain of his future jurisprudence, and because another judicial battle now could spark a “nuclear option” move by the Democrats to prevent dilatory death for future judicial choices.

Republicans are already signaling, though, that they will prevent any of the remaining vacancies from getting filled while President Barack Obama is in office, on the grounds that the D.C. Circuit is not busy enough to justify 11 full-time judges.

Update: Reid filed a motion Tuesday intended to get Srinivasen’s nomination on the  floor. He’ll need 60 votes to limit debate, or invoke cloture. That vote is likely to occur Thursday.

Senate Republicans said they were willing to allow a vote after the Memorial Day recess but Reid pressed the issue, saying he wants to deal with the nomination this week, even if he has to delay the start of the recess.

Oklahoma’s Clout Tested by Tornado Aid Divide

Nothing tests a state’s congressional delegation — its cohesion as well as its influence — like the response to a natural disaster back home.

Just as soon as constituents get safely away from the destruction and beyond their shock, they expect their lawmakers in Washington to deliver aid without limit and without delay.

That will be the test for the two senators and five representatives from Oklahoma — all Republicans — even though President Barack Obama declared this morning that the state “needs to get everything it needs, right away” to recover and rebuild after Monday’s destructive and deadly tornado.

The trouble is this: The delegation is split between budgetary centrists and fiscal hawks, and it’s the latter point of view that dominates. Full story

May 20, 2013

IRS ‘Scandal’ Touches More Nerves as Sign of Incompetence

The second congressional hearing on the IRS scandal, scheduled for Tuesday morning in the Senate Finance Committee, may offer solid clues about which of two possible ways the Republicans plan to play the imbroglio.

One choice is to pursue the matter as a potential scandal. The other is to portray the situation as emblematic of Big Government’s fundamental flaws.

The latter claim is what has created the ripest opening — if not the most obvious one to party fire breathers — to reverse the electoral fortunes of the embattled GOP. If not driven by malevolence, the only other viable reason for the IRS’ actions would be incompetence.

Concentrating on that second approach looks like the way many senior Republicans want to go. That’s in part because they’ve been given a wide opening to head in that direction by President Barack Obama himself and in part because they see the strategy as having a very high likelihood of underscoring their core criticisms about the failings of the administration and the ideology it espouses. Full story

Budget Wars Coming to Early Showdown — and Stalemate

A routine committee meeting tomorrow will formally lock down this reality about the congressional budget engine: it has totally seized up, and as early as ever — fully 20 weeks before it’s supposed to finish spitting out thousands of line-item decisions about discretionary government spending for next year.

The majority Republicans on House Appropriations will push through the spending caps they will use in drafting the dozen bills expected of them for fiscal 2014. All the Democrats will oppose the numbers, because they completely disregard one of the central tenets of the too-tough-to-swallow sequester that Congress swallowed anyway this year: The spending cuts are supposed to be as severe for defense programs as they are for domestic operations.

Instead, the House will set about drafting three measures — for the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs (which also includes military construction) — that in the aggregate would cut spending by less than 1 percent from current levels. Full story

May 17, 2013

A Do-Nothing Congress Won’t Surprise These Beltway Insiders

Lawmakers will spend the coming week performing yet another chapter of Groundhog Day, returning to debates that generated ample heat but yielded no conclusion during the election year.

The Senate will plow through the farm bill one more time. The House will vote again to insist on construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and to prevent student loans rates from doubling.

Very little of that will generate headlines, if for no other reason than the attention of Congress at the moment is all about training its investigative powers on the Obama administration controversies.

Then, at week’s end, the Capitol will go dark, with the entire community scattering for a long Memorial Day weekend of cookouts and commencements.

And when the lights go back on, one recess week later, it will signal the start of the second half of the scheduled legislative year. This is a marker that gives new meaning to the idea that time flies when not much of anything is going on.

Full story

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