Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
September 19, 2014

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

May 16, 2013

Obama Says ‘Check’ to GOP in Confirmation Chess Match

The most important Senate committee vote Thursday on a top-tier White House nomination was neither the party-line ballot advancing Thomas E. Perez one step away from becoming Labor secretary, nor the parallel 10-8 vote advancing the choice of Gina McCarthy as EPA chief to the Senate floor.

The day’s most consequential roll call was at Senate Judiciary, where all eight Republicans joined the 10 Democrats in endorsing Sri Srinivasan for a seat on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Such unanimity is an extraordinary and unmistakable sign that GOP conservatives are making a tactical retreat in the judicial wars — one that may influence the filling of a future seat on the Supreme Court.

Even as those Republicans contemplate filibusters designed to stop Perez or McCarthy from taking seats in the president’s Cabinet — where they could shape policy for three and a half years at most — they’re preparing to concede their side’s clear ideological advantage at the country’s second-most-important federal courthouse. And they look ready confirm someone who might hold sway over social and regulatory policy for three decades or more.

A lopsided confirmation vote by the full Senate, which now looks inevitable and could come within a month, would boost the odds that President Barack Obama turns to Srinivasan should a vacancy on the top court come open in the next three years. Four of the current high-court justices stepped up from the D.C. Circuit, which has unusual influence over federal policy because it hears constitutional appeals of most decisions involving government agencies and departments based in the capital.

Full story

May 15, 2013

Damage Control: Obama’s Wednesday News Dump

The White House worked overtime Wednesday to try to change the narrative on two ongoing controversies embroiling the Obama administration.

First, it called reporters to a sudden afternoon “deep background” briefing, according to CQ Roll Call’s harried White House reporter, Steven T. Dennis. Just as Dennis emailed the newsroom that he was in possession of a binder full of emails relating to the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack on a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, the White House announced that the president would give a 6 p.m. statement on the ongoing scandal over the IRS’s decision to target conservative groups seeking non-profit status for extra scrutiny.

Whether the one-two punch will actually take the wind out of Republicans’ sails is yet to be seen, but there were some signs that Obama had successfully put the GOP on defense for the first time in a few weeks.

Full story

Obama Gets Bitter Taste of History’s Second-Term Curse

Has Barack Obama already caught a terminal case of the second-term curse? Still too early to diagnose.

But such an affliction will inevitably suffocate all his remaining legislative aspirations. The evidence from the past four decades leads to an unavoidable prognosis: The man’s got a little more than a year left, at most.

Each of the four previous re-elected presidents saw their juice on Capitol Hill run out well before their second-term congressional midterms. And there’s no empirical reason to believe that Obama will be able to make his political capital last any longer in this divided and divisive Congress.

Richard M. Nixon was able to keep alive his top priorities, which were about taking more power for himself at the expense of Congress, for only four months in 1973. Then the Senate Watergate Committee convened, galvanizing the nation’s interest in what the president knew and how long he’d known it.

Ronald Reagan decided to make a tax code overhaul the top domestic priority of his second term in May 1985, and he was able to revel in the climatic votes a year later. After that, the Iran-Contra scandal is all the historians have to say about the remainder of his presidency.

Bill Clinton pushed a landmark, bipartisan agreement on plans for balancing the federal budget through Congress in August 1997 and got to work on a typically disparate collection of other priorities. Traction for virtually all of them disappeared for good the following January, after the nation learned Monica Lewinsky’s name.

George W. Bush was about to see his choice elevated to chief justice of the United States on Labor Day 2005, and there was still a fighting chance Congress would permit his top second-term wish of getting some Social Security savings invested in the markets. His political capital evaporated immediately thereafter, when fury at his arms-length response to Hurricane Katrina combined with imploding support for the Iraq War.

For Obama, the lessons of his recent two-term predecessors is this: Even if he succeeds in weathering the current scandalous-sounding triple whammy — the IRS targeting of conservative groups, the seizing of journalists’ phone records, the shifting story about the Libya consulate attack — the president will be in the clear no longer than Election Day 2014. By then his legislative goals will have either been met or sidetracked for the duration. Full story

IRS Scandal Is a ‘Crime’ in Boehner-McConnell Echo Chamber

The three-ingredient stew pot of Obama administration controversy got a personal stir this morning from the top Republicans in Congress — both of whom suggested that federal crimes were committed when the IRS targeted conservative groups for special scrutiny.

Separate statements by Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, just a few minutes apart, suggested a coordinated decision by the GOP leadership to turn up the political pressure on the president as high as possible. It may serve to prevent the White House from shaping the narrative as one in which thorough punitive follow-through will follow the exposure of bad behavior.

“Now, my question isn’t about who’s going to resign. My question is who’s going to jail over this scandal?” Boehner told reporters after the first of two GOP caucus meetings today. “Someone made a conscious decision to harass and hold up these requests for tax exempt status. I think we need to know who they are, whether they violated the law. Clearly someone violated the law.”

McConnell was just one notch less emphatic in his suspicions. “If there was an effort to bring the power of the federal government to bear on those that the administration disagreed with in the middle of a heated national election, it actually could be criminal and we’re determined to get the answers,” he said on the floor. Full story

May 14, 2013

IRS Mess Exposes Split Between What Congress Will Say and What It Will Do

It took four days in Congress for predictably unanimous rhetorical outrage at the IRS to devolve into a predictably partisan disagreement over the proper legislative response.

There may be 100 senators willing to vote to excoriate the agency for subjecting conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status to an intensified level of investigation. But there’s no sign that a necessary 60 of them will get behind meaningful legislation to make sure that positioning anywhere along the ideological spectrum is never the interest of the tax auditors again.

Congress will manage no more than a symbolic swipe at the symptoms of the more fundamental problem, which is the currently vague and confusing state of campaign finance law. Full story

Left, Right and Center Tag Obama as ‘Nixonian’

Many things were widely predicted for Barack Obama when he first ran for the White House five years ago, and many recent presidents were seen as likely role models. One side of the great partisan divide forecast historic achievements in the mold of FDR, while the other side foresaw overreaching failure in the mold of Jimmy Carter.

But almost no one — save a couple of commentators on the ideological fringe — expected Obama would get to a second term and find his legislative agenda suddenly frozen in the face of a bipartisan wave of comparisons to Richard Nixon.

“The Day the Obama Administration Went All Nixon On Us,” is the headline on today’s post from Will Bunch on the left-leaning Huffington Post, who focused his ire on revelations of Associated Press phone record seizures by the Justice Department.

“This is an agency with an enemies list,” target=”_blank”>Lou Dobbs said of the IRS on the right’s favorite cable news network, Fox, after Obama’s Monday news conference. “This is a president whose inner Nixon is being revealed.”

“Has Obama Taken a Page Out of Nixon’s Playbook?” asks the headline atop a column today by editor Jacqueline Leo in the budget hawkish but otherwise down-the-middle Fiscal Times. “There may not be direct parallels to the Obama administration, but the events of the last few months have become too big to ignore. There’s the Benghazi cover up; a slew of executive orders that bypass Congress; the IRS targeting of GOP conservative organizations; and now, the intrusion, violation and intimidation of a major news organization.”

That commentators from the left, right and center have all seen the parallels to the 37th president, who was forced to resign when his views of the “imperial presidency” jumped the shark during Watergate, should be “chilling” to the president, to use the word being ascribed to both the IRS special scrutiny for conservative groups and the DOJ’s unprecedented prying into a newsroom’s operation as party of a leak inquiry.

Forty years on, the Nixon taint remains probably the most difficult for an American politician to scrub away. And the fact that it’s being applied so widely now could not be worse for the president’s timing, because it means his already teetering domestic legislative agenda may well be supplanted at the Capitol for months to come by nothing but oversight hearings.

By David Hawkings Posted at 12:07 p.m.
President Obama

May 13, 2013

House Prospects Snub a Senate Run and Who Can Blame Them?

Campaign 2012 was a vintage year for House members seeking promotion to the Senate: A dozen tried, and half of them made it.

There were an imponderable number of other variables, of course, but that 50 percent success rate would suggest that the oldest up-or-out move in the American political playbook is working better than ever. In the five previous elections, 16 of the 45 House members who staked their careers on a run for Senate succeeded in moving to the north side of the Capitol — still, a winning bet 36 percent of the time.

So why are so many current House incumbents saying, “No, thanks,” to opportunities to run for the “upper chamber”? Full story

IRS Has No Friends in Washington

President Barack Obama moved tentatively today to join the bubbling outrage at the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups, although he said he didn’t have sufficient reason yet to either condemn outright or apologize directly for the tax agency’s behavior.

“If it turns out that IRS employees acted in anything less than a neutral and non-partisan way, then that is outrageous,” Obama said in a mid-morning news conference with visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron.

But he also said he would wait to say more about the revelations — that groups with conservative-sounding names were singled out for heightened IRS scrutiny before being granted tax-exempt status during the 2012 campaign — until Treasury’s inspector general for taxes concludes whether the behavior was politically motivated or otherwise broke regulatory rules.

That yearlong investigation is done and the recommendations are expected to be made public this week, maybe as soon as today.

Since the story broke May 10, congressional anger has come mainly from Republicans, who are falling all over themselves promising all manner of investigations, hearings and legislation. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for example, called today for the ouster of the IRS commissioner. Full story

May 10, 2013

Budget Wars Likely to Fizzle Fast

After a two-week break — heralded by the quick and bipartisan capitulation to exempt the flying public but no one else from the sequester’s scythe — the budget wars are getting started again.

But signs point to the next few skirmishes fizzling fast.

Although it appeared likely when the year began, with a last-minute deal that looked like only a balky skid along the edge of the fiscal cliff, Congress is not facing a summer that’s going to look like 2011 all over again.

That’s mainly a consequence of the government’s short-term fiscal position, which on paper looks pretty good. The Treasury’s balance sheet for April was $113 billion in the black, the biggest monthly surplus in five years. Steady economic growth and the higher tax rates put in effect in January have quickened the flow of revenue. And the flow of spending has slowed now that those deep spending cuts, once dismissed as too indiscriminate to carry out, have nonetheless been put in place (except, of course, for those air traffic controllers).

The result is a federal deficit for the first seven months of this budget year totaling $488 billion, or just two-thirds of what it was during the same period the year before. At that pace, there will be less red ink on the books in September, at the end of fiscal 2013, than in any year since the finale of the George W. Bush administration.

With news like that, it’s going to be essentially impossible for conservative Republicans to build a head of steam behind their “shut it down” crusade. Full story

GOP Grievances on Benghazi, Obama Nominees Share Two Points

The growing opposition to Labor secretary nominee Thomas E. Perez and EPA director pick Gina McCarthy is very similar to what’s going on with the intensifying congressional skepticism about the Obama administration’s performance in the Benghazi consulate attack.

Republicans have raised detailed and substantive concerns about how Perez has performed as Justice Department civil rights chief and what McCarthy has been doing as the government’s principal clean air regulator. Along the same lines, they have uncovered a welter of reasons to wonder whether the State Department was on its toes before the Sept. 11 attack in which the American ambassador to Libya and three others died — and whether it’s been on anything close to its best behavior in explaining itself since.

Without doubting for one moment the sincerity of the GOP motives or the intensity of their legitimate oversight concerns in any of those matters, it’s also totally fair to observe the obvious political and policy benefits for them on all three fronts. It’s possible to have genuine concerns about poor government performance and be politically opportunistic at the same time. Full story

May 9, 2013

Is Republican Petulance a Tactic Worth Fighting For?

This week’s get-out-of-town day in the Senate was one of the more schizophrenic in recent memory, leaving aides and lobbyists little clue about what sort of mood will reign after the weekend.

On the one hand, the most consequential legislative debate this year got off to an efficiently substantive, occasionally eloquent and solidly bipartisan start. Members of the immigration overhaul “gang of eight” moved to embrace some limited ideas for boosting border security, hoping to attract more Republican votes. Then they united to stop other GOP amendments they all viewed as poison pills.

With C-SPAN broadcasting much of the proceedings in the cavernous Hart Central Hearing Room, the first session in what could be a two-week Senate Judiciary Committee markup was widely hailed as reflecting the legislative process at its civics-textbook best.

Not so on the fourth floor of the Dirksen Building, where another TV feed provided live — albeit static — pictures of eight empty chairs reserved for the Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee. The senators banded together to boycott the day’s session, which, under an arguable wrinkle in the rules, stopped the panel from advancing Gina McCarthy’s nomination to run the EPA.

The choreographed petulance was one of three passive parliamentary moves this week by the Republican high command, which seems suddenly willing to test fate by resorting to just the sort of partisan high jinks the electorate says it abhors. The intensified use of the throw-the-rule-book-at-’em approach came off as all the more curious in light of the immigration debate’s bipartisan sense of purpose and decorum. Full story

GOP Throws Rulebook at Obama to Block His Agenda

Republican resistance to President Barack Obama’s second-term plans intensified another couple of notches today.

Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced they would simply ignore a provision in the health care law calling on each leader to pick someone for a new panel with the power to dictate Medicare spending reductions without fear of congressional reversal.

The two said in a letter to Obama that such a bureaucratic maneuver was the best way they knew to protest the new Independent Payment Advisory Board, in light of their inability to kill it by repealing Obamacare completely.

At the same time, all eight Republicans boycotted this morning’s meeting of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which under a wrinkle in the rules prevented the panel from advancing Gina McCarthy’s nomination to run the EPA.

The protest came less than 18 hours after the Republicans on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel leveraged another obscure procedural obstacle to stop Thomas E. Perez’s nomination for Labor secretary from getting to the Senate floor.

The question for the GOP is whether those oppositional tactics, which are all about passive parliamentary maneuvering rather than overt ideological argument, will provide any traction for their policy objectives or if they will only succeed at further annoying an electorate wary of partisan hijinks. Full story

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