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

July 21, 2013

Newbies Take Over Congress; Now What Will They Make of It?

The just-updated résumé of Edward J. Markey points to one of the more unusual characteristics of the Capitol this year: It’s swarming with newbies.

When he moved his office from one side of the Hill campus to the other last week, the Massachusetts Democrat increased to 16 the number of members who have been senators for less than a year. That number hasn’t been larger in more than three decades, since the Reagan landslide ushered in the Republican takeover and a class of 18 freshmen in 1981.

In the past four years, moreover, the median years of service in the chamber has plummeted from 11 to six, because so many newcomers have replaced Senate icons.

So much for the case for statutory term limits — and so much more fodder to throw into the debate on whether experience is a force for good or ill in Congress.

When the 111th Congress convened four years ago, Markey’s predecessor, John Kerry, was among 29 senators who had already served for 19 years or more. Today, there are 17 on that roster.

At the same time, Markey’s transition continued the steady march of the old guard out of the House. He represented the Boston suburbs for 36 years and eight months before winning the special election arranged when Kerry became secretary of State. That’s the same as the collective service of the six members from Louisiana and more than the cumulative seniority in the House delegations of 18 states. With Markey gone, the House has only eight members who arrived before the 1970s. Full story

July 18, 2013

Obama Touts Health Law as Some Nervous Democrats Defect

President Barack Obama is making another attempt today to sell his health care law to the public. He learned Wednesday that he’s got more work to do than he expected.

When the House passed two Republican measures to delay core provisions of the law, unexpectedly large numbers of Democrats took the opportunity to endorse the proposals: 17 percent of them voted to delay the coming employer mandate by one year and 11 percent voted to put off for the same time the requirement that individuals obtain health insurance.

Most notable on the list were two congressmen who voted to enact Obamacare three years ago and are favored to hold open Senate seats for their party next fall: Gary Peters, who at the moment looks like a safe bet to succeed Carl Levin in Michigan, was a “yes” on both bills. Bruce Braley of Iowa, who has the clear edge in the race to succeed Tom Harkin, supported the employer mandate postponement. Full story

July 17, 2013

New Voting Rights Law Hinges on Some Less-Visible Republicans

There’s a ready temptation for those who dismiss any talk that Congress might agree on a way to revamp the Voting Rights Act.

Look no further, they might say, than the ideologically opposite lawmakers who have become the most visible players on the future of the law:

Making back-to-back images of Lewis and Franks shorthand for the inevitable impasse over rewriting the statute may be expedient for both sides’ partisan interests. But there’s still a long-shot chance it could prove premature.

If there’s a shot at a deal in the next year, it may rest with two other House members who are hardly as well-known to those who watch cable television news. They are Republicans who have quite different, but equally pressing, incentives for bolstering protections for voting. Full story

Biggest Threat to U.S. Economy Is Congress, Bernanke Says

Congress is the main impediment to a more robust economy, Ben S. Bernanke told Congress today in what may well be his swan song on Capitol Hill.

What’s more, lawmakers are on course to make things worse before the end of the year, the custodian of monetary policy warned the caretakers of fiscal policy.

“The economic recovery has continued at a moderate pace in recent quarters despite the strong headwinds created by federal fiscal policy,” was the substantive opening line of his testimony to the House Financial Services Committee.

In the next breath, the chairman of the Federal Reserve worried that the House and Senate are contemplating additional austerity measures this year that would curb the expansion even more.

“The risks remain that tight federal fiscal policy will restrain economic growth over the next few quarters by more than we currently expect, or that the debate concerning other fiscal policy issues, such as the status of the debt ceiling, will evolve in a way that could hamper the recovery,” he said. Full story

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

July 16, 2013

Consumer Bureau Gets a Leader, and Dodd-Frank Gets an Enforcer

There’s a strong argument that the most important meaning of Tuesday’s pivotal roll call isn’t that the Senate has saved the Senate from itself. The filibuster showdown was averted, for now, but it hasn’t gone away.

The vote was one of the most important of 2013 for a bigger reason: It finally enacts a central provision of the Dodd-Frank financial services regulatory overhaul — the one President Barack Obama signed into law three years ago this week.

When 17 Republicans joined all 54 Democrats on the first ballot of the day, it became clear that the “nuclear option” for advancing executive branch nominations wasn’t going to be deployed by the majority anytime soon. So the queasy equilibrium at the Capitol had been preserved a little while longer.

But the real parliamentary consequence of the vote was to clear a path for Richard Cordray to become the first Senate-confirmed director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He’s been on the job under a contested recess appointment for 18 months but will now be able to serve free of any cloud of legitimacy until the end of this administration.

In that time, he should be able to set up a powerful financial watchdog system. The practical effect will surely have a direct impact on the lives of a couple of hundred million more Americans — everyone, in fact, who seeks a product or service from a financial services business.

The CFPB was created by Congress in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis to look out for the interests of the customers of banks, mortgage companies, credit card businesses and securities firms. It was given broad power to enforce consumer protection laws and to make sure consumer interests were represented whenever federal regulators contemplated changes to economic policy. And it was freed from the vagaries of the annual budget process by being funded as an autonomous arm of the Federal Reserve.

Republicans and their friends on Wall Street have hated all those ideas ever since they were first proposed. Since they all came to pass anyway, the GOP has sought to prevent the agency from getting off the ground by working to prevent anyone from wielding the agency’s principal powers.

In other words, the Cordray opposition has never been based on the former Ohio attorney general’s qualifications. It has always been about relitigating the arguments about what the CFPB should be permitted to do, with what money and under whose direction.

“Wait until his confirmation and you’ll see more intrusion into your personal life,” Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming warned on the floor before the big vote. He said Cordray will have “more power beyond anybody else in the federal government.”

With the cloture vote Tuesday, and the 66-34 confirmation vote later in the day, the crusade to stop that theory from being tested is now at an end. Republicans say they won’t abandon their push to replace the director’s position with the sort of bipartisan commission that governs most federal regulatory agencies, or to make the CFPB subject to the yearly appropriations process.

For all intents and purposes, though, such a rewrite is now a dead letter. Clear evidence of that was the roster of Republicans who voted to break the Cordray filibuster: Among them were Bob Corker of Tennessee, Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Mark S. Kirk of Illinois — all members of the Banking Committee with jurisdiction over Dodd-Frank.

They were joined by Rob Portman of Ohio, who had been leading the legislative effort to remake the CFPB. He says he’s now ready to set aside that campaign because of assurances he’s received from Cordray that he’ll come to the Capitol to explain his agency’s budget to appropriators and also make sure a cost-benefit analysis has been conducted before any proposed agency regulation is put into effect.

Democrats are now arguing they are quietly doing the financial services industry a bit of a favor, if only by creating a sense of certainty about its regulatory future that’s been lacking so far this decade. And, truth be told, some banking and brokerage executives concede that, since his January 2012 appointment, Cordray has been more reasonable and even-handed than they ever expected.

The Cordray confirmation means “we will be able to say loudly, clearly and with confidence: The consumer agency is the law of the land and is here to stay,” Elizabeth Warren declared on the floor Tuesday morning.

Warren is a senator in large part because, when she was a bankruptcy law professor at Harvard, she talked senior Hill Democrats into pushing for a consumer protection board as part of their response to the Wall Street meltdown.

Once the agency was created, Republicans made it abundantly clear they’d never allow Obama to install her as its first director. She ran for the Senate instead.

So the day’s big vote was as much a moment of triumph for Warren as it was for John McCain, the filibuster-fixer who was maverick-in-the-middle once again. Cordray was her hand-picked deputy for the CFPB, and he will now run the agency she conceived but could never lead.

July 15, 2013

Senate ‘Club’ Convenes in Secret to Resolve Its Public War

For evidence of just how close the Senate has come to seizing up, consider the forum chosen by its leaders to conduct a last-ditch search for a restorative tonic.

For totally different reasons, Democrats and Republicans alike view the Senate as so thoroughly broken as to endanger its central role in the functioning of American democracy — which for 224 years now has put a premium on legislative transparency. But they could all agree that their final opportunity to make the situation a bit more tolerable had no chance of success unless a meeting of 100 minds took place in secret.

Filibuster after filibuster may make the north side of the Capitol look like a place created with perpetual impasse as the intended result. But at least the bitterness, blame-casting and distrust that attends the dysfunction is laid bare for all to see. Except in the rarest cases involving national security, the Senate gallery has always been wide open to the public and the press. Full story

Zimmerman Probe Goes Federal as Hill Critics Sound Off

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have been at the forefront of the campaign for federal prosecution of George Zimmerman on civil rights or hate crimes charges in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

The lawmakers got the first step toward what they’re after on Sunday, just hours after the former neighborhood watch leader’s acquittal in the Florida criminal case. The Justice Department said it was reopening its inquiry into the February 2012 shooting.

But there is no guarantee the House members — or the 250,000 who have signed a petition on the NAACP web site — will achieve their next goal of a second trial for Zimmerman, or their ultimate objective of seeing him convicted. Full story

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

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