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July 7, 2015

September 15, 2013

Bachmann’s Cautionary Tale: Sweat the Small Stuff, or Pay the Price

Few members of Congress sustain higher name identification than Michele Bachmann, even though her shooting-star prominence has had almost nothing to do with her work as the representative from the Twin Cities suburbs.

But now, in the self-imposed twilight of her time in the House, she looks to be shaping the end of her career in a way she never intended — a way that could not have been predicted when she burst so bombastically onto the scene six years ago — as the latest cautionary tale about the danger of deciding there’s no need to sweat the details of political life.

Once Bachmann announced in May that she wouldn’t make an assuredly difficult run for a fifth term, the Beltway fact-checkers decided not to put much effort into refuting her conspiratorial histrionics or conservative flights of fancy. House Republican leadership began shifting its view of her from a major management challenge to a tangential irritant. The tea party colleagues she once purported to direct scattered in search of different leadership.

But the watchdogs of congressional behavior, campaign finance regulations and federal criminal law haven’t dropped the Minnesotan from their sights. And, in the past two weeks, they’ve signaled they have found someone who was, at best, inappropriately ignorant about improper activity by the people who ran her boom-to-bust-in-five-months quest for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. Full story

September 12, 2013

GOP’s Next Move Against Obama? Judicial Wars, Round II

The judicial wars have not gone away. They’re just on hold for at least another week.

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee were preparing today to invoke their powers to insist on a one-week delay before a vote to advance the nomination of Nina Pillard, the Georgetown University law professor who has emerged as the most contentious of President Barack Obama’s three picks for vacancies on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals. Full story

September 11, 2013

After Bowing to Congress on Syria, Then Pulling Back, Will Obama Ever Return?

Have the first congressional votes in a decade on authorizing military force been postponed indefinitely, or effectively canceled altogether?

Members returned to work Wednesday scratching their heads over that question, which President Barack Obama left unanswered during his speech to the nation Tuesday night. Lawmakers got no guidance from the White House, which declined to offer any sort of deadline for its sudden switch to pursuing a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Syria.

A bit more definition is possible when Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday to negotiate details of a seemingly long-shot plan for teams of international monitors to collect and destroy all of President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons.

There’s also a chance for some timeline to emerge at the United Nations, where delegates from the United States, France and Great Britain are working on a Security Council resolution requiring the government in Damascus to turn over its stockpile or face globally sanctioned military reprisal.

The deliberative metabolism of diplomacy and the complexities of the plan sprung only in the past few days suggest it will be near the end of the month before it’s plausible to decide whether the Russian and U.N. approaches can be sustained.

It will also probably take a couple of weeks to discern if Syria, which has signaled cooperation with Russia’s disarmament call, is only doing so as a stalling tactic — designed to play for extra time, during which congressional and public support for a punitive strike might shrink even more than it already has.

Coincidentally or not, the president’s call for a timeout in his drive for the Hill’s backing came after it was abundantly clear he wasn’t even close to having the votes he needed, and that his chances were slipping by the hour.

By the time he went before the prime-time TV cameras, tallies of lawmakers’ stated positions showed Obama had at most two dozen “yes” votes locked down in the Senate and at least three dozen senators against giving him the authority. The latter was very close to the 41 needed to stop the use-of-force resolution with a filibuster.

The unofficial whip counts in the House were even more problematic: Less than 10 percent of members were in favor of a military strike, at least 40 percent committed in their opposition and at least another 10 percent leaning toward “no.”

The decision to grab at diplomatic options, even knowing they might dissolve into mirages soon enough, buys not only Obama but also a balky Congress an uncertain amount of leeway to paper over their differences. All the players are war-weary. They’re just figuring out how to exorcise their exhaustion in different ways.

A good bet is Obama won’t take his hand off the congressional pause button unless he’s confident he’s turned legislative momentum in his favor. Having extracted himself from an almost certain defeat that would have weakened his standing abroad and on the Hill, he has absolutely nothing to gain from subjecting himself to that predicament again.

There’s a chance the president will eventually declare that the need for a congressional vote has become moot, and most members will tacitly defer to him. That could happen if:

  • Almost the whole world lines up behind U.N. language countenancing airstrikes if Syria doesn’t make good on its promises and there’s a face-saving consensus in Congress that such a resolution gives Obama the only official stamp of approval he needs to send in the Tomahawks if necessary.
  • Syria bends over backwards in cooperating, refuting the skeptics who say it’s nearly impossible under ideal circumstances — let alone during a civil war — to rapidly collect unconventional weapons from dozens of widespread secret locations.

More likely, there will be a new drive to rally Congress behind a conditional use-of-force resolution once Syria’s cooperation looks to be neither genuine or fast enough for the comfort of the administration or congressional hawks. A fine time for that scenario to start moving to the fore is the week after next, when the House is still awkwardly on course to be away for an end-of-the-fiscal-year “district work period.”

If the GOP majority leadership sticks by that schedule, it would generate just the sort of news vacuum that could be filled by Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham. They remain the most strongly in favor of punishing Syria with military might and the most keenly interested in asserting either the congressional prerogative or the political imperative for granting permission for such shows of force.

McCain said Wednesday that he won’t wait long before deciding if Syria is deploying a “rope-a-dope” delaying tactic.

Obama “sure has created one awkward situation for himself,” says Julian E. Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “If he returns to the Hill to ask for any kind of authorization, he’ll have to admit his diplomacy didn’t work, which will put him in an even weaker position than he is now and make it even harder for him to get what he wants.”

Shutdown or Default: Which Road Will House GOP Choose?

An alternative House Republican tactic for holding the government hostage in the crusade to hobble Obamacare has come into sharper focus today. It doesn’t look to have any better chance of  success than the first idea floated this week, but the consequences of pursuing the second course could be much more dramatic.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., is floating the idea of insisting on a one-year delay in implementing the health care overhaul, or at least its individual mandate, as the price for legislation to increase the federal debt limit, which will hit its ceiling sometime in mid-October or early November.

Many conservatives and junior members embraced the debt-ceiling approach at a GOP caucus meeting Tuesday, and only a handful of veterans and politically vulnerable members expressed reservations — a reaction prompting the leadership to retain the economically risk-filled strategy as an option for a climactic confrontation in this fall’s budget wars.

The previous notion was to advance legislation with the same delaying effect, but tying it to a catch-all spending bill to keep the government running past Sept. 30 to at least Dec. 15. Full story

September 10, 2013

Were They Aiming for the Dome on Sept. 11? A Capitol Myth That’s Hard to Shake

A dozen years on, it remains the biggest unsolved mystery connecting the congressional community to the defining moment in 21st-century American history: Were the United 93 hijackers aiming for the Dome when the passengers revolted and forced the plane to crash into a bucolic southwestern Pennsylvania field?

Most people who will go to work on Capitol Hill this Sept. 11 presume there’s no dispute, that the answer is an unequivocal “yes.” I confess I can’t share that certainty and have always wondered why it took such hold.

Full story

New Consensus in Budget Wars: Truce Until Dec. 15

While the situation with Syria is getting more fluid by the hour, the next step in the other morass confronting Congress is getting clearer: A truce in the budget wars is going to be declared until the holidays.

Mark your calendars with Dec. 15, two Sundays before Christmas, as the new target adjournment date for the first session of the 113th Congress.

Republican leaders will unveil legislation this afternoon, which the House will debate by Thursday, that would continue appropriations to all agencies and departments flowing at current, trimmed-by-the-spring-sequester levels for the first 75 days of fiscal 2014, which starts Oct. 1. Full story

By David Hawkings Posted at 11:51 a.m.
Budget Wars

September 9, 2013

Razorback’s Edge: Why Are Arkansas Rivals Split on Syria?

For one of the clearest illustrations yet of the complex and unpredictable nature of the Syria strike voting dynamics in Congress, consider the Arkansas delegation and its pair of statewide candidates.

When he was first a candidate for the Senate, Democrat Mark Pryor backed a Republican president, George W. Bush, when he sought congressional authority to attack Iraq to prevent its threatened use of chemical weapons. But this past weekend, Pryor announced that he’ll almost certainly vote against a resolution backing the president of his own party, who wants to launch military strikes against Syria for using chemical weapons.

Barack Obama, he said, has not proved “a compelling national security interest,” defined “a mission that has a definitive end-state” or built an international coalition to collaborate in an attack.

Pryor’s 2014 challenger, Rep. Tom Cotton, last week completed his own even faster whiplash-inducing maneuver — going the other way.

Cotton won the House seat covering the fertile expanses south and west of Little Rock last year by campaigning against whatever policies Obama advocated, at home or abroad. But, even before Obama asked Congress for backing on Syria, the freshman congressman had emerged as one of the most vocal and enthusiastic proponents in either party of the president’s approach.

American action is needed, he said, to uphold international opposition to chemical weapon use, reassure Israel and other Middle East allies and preserve the global credibility of a president he generally disdains. “Put simply, our core national security interests are at stake,” he said in direct rebuttal of the Pryor view.

These opposite-spinning evolutions are a reminder that, whenever the “all politics is local” aphorism doesn’t explain how electoral rivals ended up in the same place, the “all politics is situational” corollary probably helps explain why they’re not. Full story

September 8, 2013

Rand Paul-Chris Christie Feud Gets a New Jersey ‘What Sup Witch Yew?’

Rand Paul

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

By the end of this first week back, a Capitol that’s emotionally spent from the Syria debate and still anxious about a budget impasse will be sorely in need of a diversion.

Ideally, it will combine a generous portion of campaign maneuvering, plenty of tart-tongued rhetoric and a bit of insight for those already playing the parlor game of handicapping the next presidential race.

Fortunately, enervated lawmakers and aides need to look no farther than 210 miles up the road, to a banquet hall in the middlebrow New Jersey suburb of Clark. On Friday, this will be the site of the next installment in the feud that’s been captivating the attention of the political class all summer — even though one of the combatants has wagered he’ll win this round by staying away.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has committed to being there, for the stated reason of headlining a fundraiser for Steve Lonegan, the sacrificial GOP lamb in the special election that’s going to send Cory Booker to the Senate.

Full story

September 3, 2013

On Syria, McConnell Remains Lone Hill Leader on the Fence

Only one of the top five members of the bipartisan congressional hierarchy still sits on the fence about launching a punitive strike against Syria: Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader.

The Kentucky Republican emerged from the White House on Monday as the only member of the bicameral leadership group still uncommitted to voting in favor of legislation authorizing military action.

McConnell looks to be taking as much time as he can. He’s weighing his political considerations back home, where an isolationist stance would provide clear short-term benefit, against the pressures of his leadership role at the Capitol, where he’s spent almost three decades as a Republican voice for a hawkish defense posture and an interventionist foreign policy. Full story

Ahead of Hearing, Solid Support for Syria Strike at Senate Foreign Relations

While President Barack Obama spent the morning behind closed doors rallying the bipartisan congressional leadership to his side, an equally important hurdle for his Syria policy comes this afternoon, when 18 senators on the Foreign Relations Committee will publicly reveal whether they’re for, against or undecided on authorizing U.S. military intervention.

The White House’s basic strategy for getting congressional approval of the president’s plan of attack looks to be simple: Lobby hard to secure a strong bipartisan majority in the generally more interventionist Senate during the first half of next week, and hope that show of support assist the president in persuading a narrow majority in the more skeptical and isolationist House to go along.

How easily that approach can be sustained will become clear soon after the committee convenes Tuesday at 2:30 p.m., but the initial indications look promising for the president. Full story

September 2, 2013

GOP Missed an Opportunity in Skipping MLK March Anniversary

As the world was reminded anew last week, the last living bridge between the 1963 March on Washington and the Washington of today is John Lewis, a civil rights icon since the movement flowered in the early 1960s and Atlanta’s congressman since the late 1980s.

His brief remarks at the march’s 50th anniversary commemoration gained little attention, trumped easily by the symbolic power of having an African-American president offer the keynote at the Lincoln Memorial. But the day brought to mind what Lewis said on those steps half a century before — words reflecting the profound disenfranchisement black people felt then and pointing to how Democrats and Republicans have responded since.

“What political leader here can stand up and say, ‘My party is the party of principles’?” Lewis asked in 1963, noting how reviled promoters of racial oppression, as well as renowned champions of social justice, were prominent in both parties in Congress. “Where is our party? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington?”

Fifty years on, the sprawling roster of unfinished business and unmet dreams lamented from the podium, and the tens of thousands gathered on the Mall, made clear that Washington isn’t close to salving all the anger and worry that gets people on their feet. But the tableau was an unmistakable reminder that only one party has made common cause with those marchers for most of the decades since.

Not a single elected Republican took to the lectern, though invitations to deliver remarks were extended to at least a half-dozen. Unintended or not, organizers were left with the impression that their causes had once again been disrespected by the GOP high command, which in theory had the organizational savvy, internal communications skills and political wherewithal to deliver at least one member of their party’s A list to the podium. Full story

August 27, 2013

Strike on Syria Coming Soon — With Hill Informed, but Not Asked for Permission

A punitive assault on Syria will be launched as soon as the end of the week, but not before details of the strike have been relayed to all the senior members of Congress entitled to advance notice of such military action.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made that much clear this morning. He echoed the other hawkish former senator with a top foreign policy job in the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry, leaving no doubt that air strikes are inevitable and relatively imminent.

The Pentagon has moved four destroyers into the eastern Mediterranean and has fighter jets and bombers on standby “to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take,” Hagel told The BBC, adding, “We are ready to go.”

One predicate to the strike is that the United States will formally declare, probably by the end of the day, that its intelligence agencies have conclusive evidence that Bashar Assad’s government launched a large-scale chemical weapons attack in the 2-year-old Syrian civil war.   Full story

August 12, 2013

Congress of Quitters: Early Exits Promise Better Prospects, Less Bile

After a decade in the House, Rodney Alexander never made as much news as he did as a freshman, when he secured a hold on his northeastern Louisiana seat by quitting the Democratic Party just in time to run for re-election as a Republican.

But twice in as many days last week, Alexander made announcements that will ring with even louder echoes in the halls of Congress.

The first chime last week got the most attention because it fit so readily into a couple of the defining narratives of the current Congress.

The second may have more significance. It heralds the acceleration of a disquieting trend at the Capitol: members who just can’t take it anymore and are looking better (and higher paying) things to do.

Alexander initially declared, on Aug. 6, that he would be retiring at the end of his sixth term because he had no reason to believe the 114th Congress would be a more productive or enjoyable place of business.  “Rather than producing tangible solutions to better this nation, partisan posturing has created a legislative standstill,” he said. “Unfortunately, I do not foresee this environment to change anytime soon.”

That such a broadside would be delivered by a senior Republican was more evidence that dysfunction and low productivity have become just as dispiriting for those nominally in control of Congress as they have for the rest of the country.

That it came from a member of Appropriations, who just become senior enough to take a subcommittee gavel (Legislative Branch), is another sign that budgetary paralysis has set in for the long haul. With no stand-alone spending bill enacted on time since the fall of 2007 — a record guaranteed to be topped this year — there’s not much of a demand for old-school proponents of earmarking as the best possible legislative grease.

Having put a highlighter over those themes while announcing that he wouldn’t seek re-election, Alexander was back a day later with even more consequential news: He will be resigning altogether Sept. 26 so he can start a new career in Baton Rouge.

It’s the sixth time in the past year that an elected member has departed mid term for no other reason than the opportunity for another job they might like more. That kind of race for the exits has never been that fast.

The inference is clear: Quitting ahead of schedule and heading through the revolving door is no longer considered evidence of political weakness, a sign of disrespect to the institution or an affront to the donors and the voters. In Washington today, the virtue of perseverance has become passe, and it’s acceptable to cast aside one of the world’s most influential positions of public trust whenever something better, and almost always more lucrative, comes along.

In the quarter-century before last summer, 52 lawmakers died in office, 30 resigned because of scandal or poor health, and 44 left in the middle of their terms for more prominent jobs in public service. Seven left for think tanks, charities, universities or TV networks. Just nine quit so they could get a head start at boosting their salaries and leveraging their Rolodexes at K Street shops, trade associations or corporations.

Since then, the midway so-long scenario has happened five more times.

Within days of each other during the last August recess, a pair of House members planning their retirements resigned in a flash, each citing serious family problems without offering details. Hours after his announcement, California Democrat Dennis Cardoza was named managing director of the lobbying powerhouse Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. Kentucky Republican Geoff Davis waited until the middle of the lame-duck session before opening his own firm.

That December, after raising more than $1.4 million to win re-election with 72 percent in southeastern Missouri, Republican Jo Ann Emerson announced she was giving up her House seat just two months into her ninth term so she could take charge of the group that advocates for rural electric cooperatives.

Jo Bonner, a Republican appropriator like both Emerson and Alexander, spent $1.2 million while unopposed for a sixth term last year, then resigned seven months into the position that 196,000 people in southwestern Alabama had asked him to do for two years. He walked out of the House when August recess began so he could become top lobbyist for his state’s university system.

Most prominently of all, Jim DeMint raked in $7 million to hold his Senate seat for a second term in South Carolina in 2010, then decided a third of the way through that he could do more to advance Republican conservatism by  becoming president of the Heritage Foundation — which also pays at least six times the $174,000 congressional salary.

Alexander is unique on the past year’s roster in that he’s not becoming an influence peddler. His new job as secretary of his state’s Department of Veteran Affairs, in fact, means a 25 percent pay cut. So it’s hardly the sort of government promotion — to a Cabinet post, Senate seat governorship, mayor’s office or ambassadorship — that historically gets a congressman to turn in his voting card between elections.

That’s why the widespread view is that Alexander’s resignation has a motive as similarly self-serving as those of his former-colleagues-turned-advocates: Becoming part of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s cabinet will position Alexander to run for governor in 2015, when he’ll turn 69 and the incumbent is term-limited.

It’s a sweet arrangement, all the more so for being cloaked with anti-Washington fervor. But it’s also the sort of ever-more-common maneuver that gives the lawmakers left behind an even worse reputation than they already have.

August 7, 2013

Hill Applauds as Obama Scraps Summit With Putin

There is no audible opposition from Congress to President Barack Obama’s announcement today that he’s backing out of next month’s scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The tenor of the initial reaction from lawmakers in both parties has been totally supportive of the diplomatic slap, which is pushing the United States closer to an outright canceling of the “reset” in Russian relations that Obama had been long promoting — and which many in Congress had been resisting. Many senators and House members had been urging the president to spurn the long-planned Putin meeting. If there was an undercurrent of criticism after today’s announcement, it was in mumbled versions of “What took him so long?” from the president’s most ardent Republican critics.

The presidential snub is a clear signal of anger and frustration with the Putin government for permitting fugitive intelligence analyst Edward Snowden to remain in Russia instead of returning him to the United States so he could be prosecuted for his disclosures of national security secrets. But tension between the two countries has been building for months, most acutely over the Russians’ support for the Assad regime in Syria. Full story

August 5, 2013

Obamacare Hostage Takers Get a GOP Comeuppance

The rhetorical preliminaries will last at least another 33 days. Once Congress returns to work in September, this year’s budget battle royal will be joined for real, then last for months. Or so the thinking goes.

However, new signs from key players in the GOP spectrum point to something quite different. The cliff-walking melodrama may itself get kicked down the road.

No sooner had the fractured Republicans physically scattered over the weekend than their leadership made this much clearer than ever: They are not getting behind the idea of holding the entire government hostage as a way to starve Obamacare to death. Full story

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