Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
December 22, 2014

June 12, 2013

An Abortion Debate Crafted for Election-Year Ears

Today’s marquee markup in the House has nothing at all to do with Republicans’ ideas for growing the economy, creating jobs, improving health care, revamping immigration or clipping environmental regulation.

Instead, it has everything to do with appeasing the base, galvanizing the rank and file and plumping up the fundraising.

The Judiciary Committee will vote, right down party lines, to advance legislation that would create a nationwide ban on almost all abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. GOP leaders plan to make floor debate and passage the main legislative news event in the House next week, knowing full well the legislation will never come close to seeing the light of day in the Democratic Senate.

In other words, the legislative imperatives that Congress normally pursues during the year between elections are already being supplanted by the atmospherics of an election year. Six dozen weeks before the 2014 midterm elections, efforts to get to “yes” on lasting changes in public policy are already having to compete with efforts that transform the House floor into little more than a sound stage. Full story

June 11, 2013

Obama Opines on Immigration as Test Vote Nears

President Barack Obama today set aside his reticence on the immigration debate, gathering a disparate group of bill supporters around him for only his second public event to tout the overhaul.

Among the 20 people flanking him in the East Room were U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, Democratic Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio and former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, a Republican.

The pep talk came four hours before the first Senate test vote on the legislation, another sign that, at least until the amendment process gets started, the bill has enough bipartisan support to comfortably clear the 60-vote threshold for oppositional filibusters.

Full story

June 10, 2013

Being President Is No Picnic, but No Picnic Isn’t Very Presidential

Mark 3:14 p.m. Monday as the moment when President Barack Obama’s always-overhyped congressional charm offensive was officially called to a halt.

That was when the president’s legislative affairs staff dispatched a curt and totally unapologetic email informing every senator and House member that one of their two guaranteed invitations to the White House for the year had been rescinded.

The congressional picnic, an annual right of early summer for more than three decades, has been postponed indefinitely. Full story

June 9, 2013

Immigration Bill Vote Counting Is a Three-Dimensional Chess Game

The Senate’s initial test votes on immigration, coming up on Tuesday, hold no real hope for suspense. It’s what comes next that will keep this city and the nation riveted for the rest of the month.

The first roll call votes squashing a filibuster on a motion to proceed look to be overwhelmingly bipartisan now that both top Republicans have committed to voting “yes.” Their assent insulates the GOP from charges of obstructionism on the biggest domestic policy initiative of the year.

The next dozen or so workdays promise plenty of drama. That’s because of the promise for a revived senatorial tradition of genuine debate on amendments, some of which could upend or intensify the soft foundation of bipartisan support for the underlying bill.

A climactic roll call is on course for just before the Capitol goes dark for the July Fourth recess. The vote breakdown will be the strongest possible signal of whether President Barack Obama will be signing history-book-worthy legislation in his second term.

Full story

June 6, 2013

Big Blaze on the Hill Could Reshape Congressional Community

Three of Capitol Hill’s neighborhood icons have now been gutted by fire in the past five years. How the first two have been resurrected — and what might happen to the third — offer clues about how much the community closest to Congress will evolve in the coming decade.

Eastern Market, spectacularly gutted in 2007, has been restored to almost all of its airy 19th-century Italianate magnificence — with just enough modernized ventilation, circulation and sanitation to assure it will continue to be a prime reason so many young couples make the Hill their home.

More than for the cheese monger, the rival butchers or the “blueberry bucks” on Saturdays, the market looks to have a long life as the Hill’s vibrant town square, where senators and sanitation workers can sample produce and trade small talk without worry the scene will turn political.

The Tune Inn, severely damaged by a smoky kitchen blaze two years ago, got back in business after a somewhat different reconstruction. Opened right after World War II, it became notorious as the top dive bar within walking distance of the Capitol and the best place for aides and interns to wash down a decent patty melt with a shot and a cheap beer.

Some of that vibe, highlighted by its collection of taxidermy, is still there. But so are logo T-shirts and coffee mugs, microbrews, chrome-and-black booths and wood-paneled walls that gleam because of their varnish instead of the old grease. And a segment on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” has only intensified the feeling that the bar has left the old neighborhood to become a beacon of Capitol Hill as tourist destination.

Now the creosote-encrusted husk of Frager’s Hardware — nine blocks out Pennsylvania Avenue from the Tune Inn and a five-minute walk from Eastern Market — has the chance to become a proving ground for whether the Hill of the middle 21st century is more about community or kitsch.

Full story

June 5, 2013

Susan Rice Replacement a Proxy for What GOP Hates About Obama’s Foreign Policies

Republicans have already started bellyaching about the president canceling his charm offensive and sticking a thumb in their eye by promoting the person they view as the main face of the Benghazi mess. But there’s absolutely nothing they can do to stop Barack Obama from installing Susan Rice as his top national security adviser.

The job is the most important post in the entire executive branch (other than White House chief of staff) that doesn’t require Senate confirmation. So Rice’s move — a sooner-or-later sure thing ever since her secretary of State ambitions were quashed this winter — can be carried out whenever Obama decides it’s OK for her to leave the United Nations.

That probably won’t be until her successor as U.N. envoy is confirmed. And it may take some time, and at least one contentious hearing, before Samantha Power gets to return to government service and move to New York. A fight over her confirmation looks to be a proxy for what irks the GOP about administration foreign policy. Full story

June 4, 2013

A Budget Bluff-Off, Four Months Before the Next Cliff Walk

The House is moving ahead with its plan to pass the year’s first two spending bills before going home for the weekend Thursday afternoon. There’s bipartisan agreement, albeit for different reasons, to ignore President Barack Obama’s warning that lawmakers are wasting valuable legislative time.

The White House made its first symbolically important move in the 2014 appropriations game Monday, declaring the president would veto any measure that would carry out the stated aspirations of the majority Republicans in the House.

The GOP’s opening gambit, in turn, is to write a dozen bills that would essentially cancel next year’s sequester cuts for national security enterprises and come up with the necessary money by imposing deeper-than-sequester cuts on social and domestic programs.

The administration says the whole annual appropriations process should be put on hold until the GOP House and Democratic Senate settle on an overarching budget blueprint that would turn off the sequester altogether, presumably with some combination of entitlement curbs and revenue enhancements. But, daily posturing on both sides notwithstanding, that’s nowhere close to happening.

And so House leaders on both sides agreed without hardly a word of discussion to press ahead and to encourage their rank-and-file to vote however they choose on the initial appropriations bills. Both measures support programs with near-universal political appeal: The one debated Tuesday would boost spending on veterans programs by 3 percent while cutting the military construction budget. The one coming up Wednesday would provide a 2 percent increase to the Homeland Security Department. Full story

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

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