Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 10, 2016

December 9, 2013

Obama Skips Holiday Balls and Chance to Repair Congressional Relations

This time there is a rock-solid excuse, but the sense of a continuing snub is sure to linger: Most members of Congress will not have any opportunity to socialize with the president this year.

Barack and Michelle Obama were not at home Monday evening, when several hundred of their invited guests arrived for the first of the congressional holiday balls. When the festivities began, Air Force One was still en route to South Africa. After the president offers one of the eulogies for Nelson Mandela during Tuesday’s memorial service at a stadium in Johannesburg, the plane will be on its way back during the second black-tie congressional soiree — originally added to the executive mansion’s packed holiday party schedule so every senator and House member might have a shot at a few extra moments with the first couple.

Instead, for several hundred of the less-prominent members — those who aren’t in the leadership and didn’t get a dinner invite during Obama’s long-on-hype-but-short-on-results “charm offensive” this spring — 2013 will end without any presidential face time at all.

The timing of the Obamas’ absence could hardly be helped. And not one lawmaker has been heard begrudging the president’s decision to join about five dozen current heads of state, along with three of his predecessors, at the service for Mandela — who was not only an international icon of racial reconciliation and the first black president of South Africa, but also a personal hero for the president since his college days protesting apartheid.

Still, the host-free holiday parties put an awkward capstone on a particularly bad year for relations between Congress and the president. Full story

December 8, 2013

Senators Return for 2 Weeks That Could Last a Needless Eternity

Yellen is one of several nominees the Senate could act on before year's end. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Yellen is one of several nominees the Senate could act on before year’s end — or not. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The answer is 178 and a half hours.

The question is: What’s the maximum amount of time it could take to secure the confirmations of all six prominent nominees President Barack Obama wants to get on the job in the new year?

Only one of their timetables has been set, and it’s likely to be the exception that proves the rule: On Monday afternoon, senators will spend just 30 minutes “debating” the virtues of Patricia Ann Millett, a prominent 50-year-old Washington appellate litigator, before confirming her for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

However she distinguishes herself during that lifetime appointment, Millett will be remembered by congressional historians for this: She’s the first person to benefit from the limitations on Senate filibuster rules muscled through by the majority Democrats three weeks ago.

Since Millett was the nominal subject of five dramatic roll calls during the parliamentary maneuvering that put the “nuclear option” into effect — lowering from 60 to a simple majority the number of senators required to cut off debate on almost all nominations — Republicans agreed to not delay her final vote for the 30 hours they still have available for such protests. The duration of the Thanksgiving recess, they conceded, would suffice.

But the GOP minority has not decided how much of a fuss it will make about the other five: Federal Reserve Vice Chairwoman Janet L. Yellen to take the helm of the central bank, former top Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson to be the fourth-ever secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Democratic Rep. Melvin Watt of North Carolina to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency and, for the two other vacancies on the D.C. Circuit, Georgetown law professor Nina Pillard and federal trial Judge Robert Wilkins. Full story

December 4, 2013

Purse Strings Passed to a Different Sort of Republican

Roby, center, was one of three new conservatives named to the House Appropriations panel Wednesday. (

Roby, center, was one of three new conservatives named to the House Appropriations panel Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Three weeks ago, and thanks mainly to the seniority system, an unusual midyear rearrangement of the House Appropriations power structure produced promotions for a quartet of relatively moderate and old-school Republicans.

But on Wednesday, when three vacancies were filled on the committee that decides where the money goes, the winners were a decidedly different sort: Martha Roby of Alabama, Mark Amodei of Nevada and Chris Stewart of Utah are all small-government conservatives from the legion of tea-party-inspired newcomers who have secured control over the House GOP’s ideological center of gravity.

All of them voted against Speaker John A. Boehner’s wishes on both of the most politically important spending votes of this year. Each not only opposed the January legislation delivering an expansive (but not offset) package of recovery and reconstruction aid to Hurricane Sandy victims but also voted against the October bill ending the partial government shutdown and raising the debt ceiling with no anti-Obamacare strings attached.

Yet all have remained in decent favor with their GOP elders, because they’ve steered clear of the boldest confrontational tactics espoused by their most tea-party-infused colleagues.

At the same time, they’ve all branded themselves back home — where their districts are deep red — as so reliably conservative that they have no worries about primary challenges from the right.

For all those reasons, the selection of the trio suggests the Republican leadership is looking to cultivate a different breed for the next generation of appropriators: members with unimpeachable but not melodramatic commitments to fiscal discipline, with enough insider savvy to compensate for a bit of an independent streak, and with a willingness to devote their House careers to the tough trade-offs required in thinning both domestic and defense programs. Full story

December 3, 2013

Big Gun Ban Vote Will Mean Much Less Than It Seems

Schumer is pushing for a stronger version of a House bill banning plastic guns. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Schumer is pushing for a stronger version of a House bill banning plastic guns. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

It sounds like a big, unexpected deal: A lopsided bipartisan House majority will vote to ban a category of firearms this afternoon. In fact, the modest measure is the handiwork of Second Amendment champions, and its passage probably guarantees no expansion of gun control gets enacted in the year since the Sandy Hook schoolhouse massacre.

The legislation would extend for a decade a longstanding prohibition on the production of entirely plastic weapons. Most Republicans will support keeping the law on the books, describing their vote as evidence of the reasonableness in the gun violence debate. Most Democrats will vote “yes” as well, because the bill stands to be the only gun control measure getting close to the House floor for the foreseeable future.

But most Democrats would like the bill to do more, and most Republicans want to make sure nothing more regarding firearms gets on the legislative docket. The suspense is over which side gets its way once the bill arrives in the Senate. The mystery won’t last long, because the 1988 law is set to expire next week. Full story

December 2, 2013

Mixed Economic News Faces Budget Talkers as Congress Returns

Updated: 6:00 p.m. | Some decidedly mixed economic signals are greeting lawmakers as they begin their balky return for the final month in this historically lackluster year of legislating.

Gloomy numbers for the opening four days of holiday shopping season were followed Monday by heartening reports about the pace of construction and manufacturing this fall. The biggest economic news before the end of the year, though, will be the monthly jobs report that’s issued Friday.

On the Hill, the overriding question is whether those indicators will spur or slow the budget talks. They have gained outsized attention because so little else is going on — even though the negotiators have made clear they’ve decided to reach for an extremely modest goal, hoping that hitting even a relatively easy target will send Congress home for the holidays to a sigh of voter relief.

The House returned from Thanksgiving on Monday, with top Republicans sounding pretty emphatic about the last votes of the year coming by the end of next week. That target adjournment seems overly optimistic to many, but it’s another indication of just how little is on the GOP leadership’s must-do list before the end of 2013. This, after all, is the first year in several without any hard and fast deadline galvanizing national attention. (The closest thing is the return of the “dairy cliff,” an expected steep rise in retail milk prices in early January unless some provisions of the stuck-in-conference farm bill are extended.)

Senators were given this week off in anticipation that they may be needed in the third week of the month, which means all the lights at the Capitol may not be dimmed until the weekend before Christmas.

But Friday the 13th is the nominal deadline — set, without any consequences for tardiness, in the deal that ended October’s partial government shutdown — for budget conferees to come up with some kind of middle ground fiscal blueprint. Full story

By David Hawkings Posted at 12:11 p.m.
Budget Wars

November 25, 2013

Politics as Family Business: When Bad Moods Trump Big Dynasties

What’s up with the family business is a perennial default conversation starter at so many Thanksgiving dinners. And that’s likely to be especially true around the tables of families in the business of winning federal campaigns.

From the three-years-away handicapping of the next presidential race to the premature speculation about who might fill a possible opening in the House, a big share of campaign talk these days is once again about American political dynasties — their virtues and flaws, staying powers and limitations, rising stars and fading forces. Full story

November 22, 2013

6 Questions to Ponder About the Senate’s Nuclear Winter

Thirty years ago this week, more than 100 million Americans tuned in for the first airing of “The Day After” on ABC — the audience eager, during the final years of the Cold War, for a blockbuster vision of what the heartland might look like if both Washington and Moscow exercised their nuclear options.

On the day after the biggest change to the congressional rules in four decades — sharply curtailing the power of the filibuster, an essential element of life in the Senate — the public may be clamoring for some insight into what just happened.

These six questions and answers may help.

1. Why is it called the “nuclear option”?

The allusion to an atomic blast is as much about how the Senate rules were changed as about the way in which the rules were changed.

The breadth of the impact on the legislative process, and on the balance of power at the Capitol, is undeniably significant, although its extent cannot be precisely measured just now. The number of political players who have seen their power hobbled by the move is also extensive, but can’t yet be quantified.

In those ways, the situation is analogous to the detonating of a nuclear bomb: Plenty of the damage is plain to see, but the breadth of the fallout takes a long time to measure. For now, it’s only clear that the minority’s right to filibuster most judicial and all executive branch nominees has effectively been destroyed, and that means the Republicans are the only victims. But there is nothing to prevent efforts to end the legislative filibuster from bubbling up soon enough. And it’s a dead certainty that whenever the Republicans win control of the Senate, whether next fall or in an election years later, they will turn the tables on the newly-entrenched-in-the-minority Democrats with a vengeance.

The way in which Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., deployed his power play on Thursday also had some similarities to the start of a nuclear war. Like many missile attacks, his series of choreographed parliamentary moves and roll call votes had been threatened for a long time, was stealthy in the planning, undisguised in the execution and swift to reach completion. And it was impossible to contain the damage once the launch sequence was begun. Full story

November 20, 2013

Don’t Bet on a Tax Code Rewrite Happening Anytime Soon

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

In the current congressional climate, it’s wiser to assume something won’t happen than it is to assume it will — even when it’s the chairman of an important committee proposing a sweeping policy rewrite.

That advice should prove good for assessing the meaning of this week’s biggest legislative policy revelations: the plans for revamping the federal tax code that Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus has been gestating for years, which he has started parceling out in modest daily installments.

One of the top Democratic tax-writers on the Hill for more than a decade, the Montana Democrat has been defying initial expectations and working as hard as he’s able to marshal whatever political capital he has behind an overhaul. He still dreams of defying all the odds and realizing his biggest legislative achievement in the next year before his four decades representing Montana in Washington come to an end.

“Once we get the ball rolling, many are going to say, ‘Hey, maybe there’s something to this. Maybe there’s an opportunity there to help the country create jobs and therefore an opportunity for political benefit,'” he told reporters in beginning his big reveal Tuesday.

It’s tough to find viable reasons for believing he’ll achieve this admittedly steep uphill climb, but there are several solid reasons to be confident it won’t.

Full story

November 19, 2013

Sleeper Alert: Disabilities Treaty May Rise Anew in the Senate

Senators and disabled activists held a press conference in December 2012 to urge passage of a U.N. treaty on people with disabilities. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senators and disabled activists held a news conference in December 2012 to urge passage of a U.N. treaty on people with disabilities. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

His approval rating may have sunk to a new low, right there with the portion of cooperative spirit left in the Republican ranks, but President Barack Obama is gambling that he can somehow reverse a searing, if low-profile, loss from a year ago on a proposal with global implications and domestic political import.

The campaign will formally be joined Thursday morning, when Secretary of State John Kerry will come to Capitol Hill to press anew for Senate ratification of a treaty known as the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The pact, to which 138 other countries have committed, is written with the principal goal of extending around the word a system of accommodations very similar to what’s spelled out for this country in the Americans with Disabilities Act. That law, passed 23 years ago with overwhelming majorities of Republicans and Democrats alike, stands as the most recent important new civil rights law enacted with genuinely expansive bipartisan backing, and public support for it remains strong.

Obama is betting he can resurrect just enough of that that cross-party spirit to score an upset victory for the treaty on his second attempt. His team has not yet revealed what tactics he has up his sleeve to get there, but for two reasons it’s understandable why he’s trying. Full story

November 18, 2013

Defense Bill’s 52-Year Record Will Be Tested Once Again

Gillibrand, left, and her allies in the Senate held a press earlier this year to promote their military sexual assault bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Gillibrand, left, and her allies in the Senate held a press conference earlier this year to promote their bill dealing with sexual assaults in the military. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The defense authorization bill, which the Senate looks set to debate at least for the rest of the week, is the congressional version of the movie blockbuster that has it all: An amazing array of cool hardware, whiz-bang special effects, political intrigue, spymaster secrecy and some inappropriate sexual behavior — not to mention a staggeringly big price tag.

The measure also has a unique characteristic in the annals of the modern Congress, and all the more striking given the almost totally gridlocked state of legislative affairs: A National Defense Authorization Act has been enacted annually since 1961.

That’s 52 consecutive years in which the House has passed its version of a Pentagon budget, the Senate has passed a different version and the two have been reconciled through conference negotiations. No other measure has come remotely close to that level of consistent success at mimicking the civics textbook version of how a bill becomes law. Through the deepening Cold War, Vietnam, the Reagan defense buildup, the “peace dividend” years and the post-9/11 era, the leaders of the two Armed Services panels have pushed their accomplishment rate into Joe DiMaggio territory. Like his 56-game hitting streak, the Defense authorization record has only a theoretical shot at being broken.

There’s always the chance the streak will come to an end, of course. And the next month looks to test the record’s endurance for a fourth straight year. Full story

November 17, 2013

How the Capitol Turned the Day JFK Died

(AFP/Getty Images File Photo)

(AFP/Getty Images File Photo)

Nov. 22 falls on the Friday before Thanksgiving this year, just as it did 50 years ago. And that extraordinary day in 1963 began on the Hill in ways that would seem familiar to the congressional denizens of today.

The House was done for the week, having pushed through spending bills for public works, arms control and military construction in plenty of time to allow a cluster of Texas Democrats to get home for a high-profile political photo op.

The Senate convened for general speech-making and preliminary debate on the bills set for consideration after the weekend: restricting wheat sales to Soviet bloc nations and delivering federal funds for local library construction. As was the custom, then as now, the chore of acting as presiding officer had been parceled out to several of the freshmen with the lunchtime slot assigned to the youngest in the class, 31-year-old Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

He was in the chair when his brother was killed.

And from that instant, the scene at the Capitol unfolded in ways that may be difficult to comprehend in today’s congressional culture of commuting lawmakers, hyper-partisanship, legislative stasis, saturation live coverage and social-media press relations. Full story

November 14, 2013

Yellen Takes a Grilling, but Will Soon Head the Fed

Janet L. Yellen faced intense and skeptical questions from several Republicans on the Senate Banking Committee, but nothing appeared to threaten her prospects for becoming the next chairman of the Federal Reserve.

While almost all the public and congressional attention is focused on the intensifying travails of the health care law, Wall Street is paying more attention to the Yellen confirmation hearing. If confirmed, she will be a dominant player in federal monetary and fiscal policy for at least the next four years — longer, probably, than the anxiety over Obamacare’s implementation. Full story

November 13, 2013

4 Centrists Get Money Seats in Appropriations Gavel Shuffle

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The House Appropriations Committee executed a rare midterm leadership shuffle Wednesday.

Four subcommittee chairmanships changed hands just in time for the drafting of whatever measure might bring this year’s spending deliberations to another way-behind-schedule conclusion. And all the shifting gavels were delivered to veteran Republicans who stand out as moderates on their party’s tilted-to-the-right ideological spectrum.

That should in no way be interpreted as a sign of any changing balance of power in the Republican Conference, where the hard-line budget conservatives look to dominate just as they have for the past three years.

Instead, the fact that the winners were all centrists should be seen as evidence that seniority and leadership reliability still provide some benefits in Republican circles. It’s also a reminder that the sort of GOP lawmakers who choose to devote their careers to deciding where the money goes are by and large a fiscally malleable lot.

The altered assignments mean a changed membership for one-third of the group known all over Capitol Hill as the college of cardinals. The allusion to the power players of the Catholic Church is not only because of the significant unilateral power these chairmen have to reward or restrict federal agencies through subtle tugs on the federal purse strings. It also refers to their somewhat secretive code of conduct for rewarding colleagues in both parties who embrace the panel’s spending culture — and punishing those who don’t.

This latter code has frayed somewhat since earmarking became verboten and the GOP majority unified behind the goal of cutting the discretionary part of the budget that appropriators control. But it still remains solidly in force at the margins. And so — if a comprehensive omnibus spending package is going to be written to dictate spending for the 35 weeks after Jan. 15, when the current continuing resolution expires — the four new and repositioned chairmen, along with their eight colleagues, will each be called on to quickly bless hundreds of small trade-offs and compromises.

“Being an Appropriations cardinal is an incredibly important job with great responsibility,” said Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky, because lawmakers must be “responsible and pragmatic leaders who get the job done.” That’s a rare characteristic in the total-budget-breakdown era of the moment.

Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey and Mike Simpson of Idaho are being promoted to more influential subcommittee chairmanships. Ken Calvert of California and Tom Cole of Oklahoma are getting gavels for the first time.

All four were in the GOP minority that voted with most Democrats to enact the fiscal-cliff deal on New Year’s Day and to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling with almost no strings attached last month. On mostly party lines last year, Calvert hung with the mainstream as often as the average House Republican; the other three had below-average party unity scores.

Simpson and Cole are currently seen as among the members closest to Speaker John A. Boehner, who has frequently deputized them as his surrogates. Oklahoman Cole, for instance, is already representing the interest of the appropriators as one of the four House GOP budget conferees.

The unusual midyear switching comes on the heels of departures by three senior Republicans: C.W. Bill Young of Florida died last month, and Louisiana’s Rodney Alexander and Alabama’s Jo Bonner both resigned their seats over the summer to begin alternative careers.

As was universally expected, Frelinghuysen will take over the Defense subcommittee, where Young held the top GOP seat for almost two decades. With or without a continued sequester, the panel and its Senate counterpart are assigned to allocate slightly more than half of all discretionary money.

Now in his 10th term representing some of the richest exurban towns in New Jersey, where his family has been a political power since the Revolution (yes, that first one), Frelinghuysen is known as a shrewd, if low-key, deal-maker. As one of the House GOP’s more prominent social moderates, he remains an ardent advocate for defense spending but predicts Pentagon budgets are beyond their post-Sept. 11 high-water marks.

Unlike so many defense power players in recent decades, who pushed to steer vast sums from the military-industrial complex back home, Frelinghuysen has just two obvious parochial interests: His district is home to an Army arsenal and the corporate headquarters of defense contractor Honeywell.

Idaho’s Simpson is taking the Energy and Water Development chairmanship that Frelinghuysen has relinquished. The panel’s $30 billion-plus purview extends beyond atomic weapons and nuclear cleanup programs to include all federal dams, waterways and power systems.

This chairmanship will permit Simpson to boast that he’s better positioned than ever to protect the Snake River Valley that’s the economic lifeblood of his state. But his role as an even-more-powerful appropriator will cut both ways: He faces one of the most intense primary challenges of any incumbent — from attorney Bryan Smith, who is raising significant sums thanks to his endorsement by the conservative Club for Growth.

Simpson has been chairman of the Interior-Environment panel; its gavel will now fall to Calvert, a relatively low-key 11th-termer who holds a safe seat in the outer suburbs southeast of Los Angeles. His spending bill, with a grand total of $24 billion to $28 billion, depending on the sequester, is always among the most contentious because it is a magnet for policy riders about environmental regulation.

Alexander’s departure opens up the Legislative Branch panel — it allocates about $4 billion for the operations of Congress and its affiliated operations — and Bonner’s departure meant Cole has just enough seniority to claim what’s customarily the least-sought-after subcommittee chairmanship.

A previous chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Cole should be keenly attuned to the sort of hyper-retail politics that make this cardinal (along with the chairman of the House Administration Committee) something like the mayor of the House side of Capitol Hill.

Next up: Filling the three GOP vacancies on Appropriations. The open seats at the junior end of the table probably won’t be assigned by the leadership before the end of the year — in no small part because finding Republicans who both want the assignment, and can withstand it politically, is getting more difficult with each passing budget showdown.

November 12, 2013

Budgetary Tunnel Vision: No Early Light at This End

Updated 4:32 p.m. | One month before their no-penalty-attached deadline, budget negotiators will convene Wednesday morning for only their second public meeting. There’s still no sign anything was accomplished behind the scenes since the opening session two weeks ago — except maybe a downgrading of the already de minimis expectations.

As a practical matter, a grand bargain fell off the table almost as soon as the government reopened in October, and ever since then, the scope of the talks has been narrowed to one modest topic: how much discretionary spending to permit in the final two-thirds of this fiscal year. Full story

November 11, 2013

Convention City Wannabes Are Rehearsing Their Pitches for 2016

Darkness after work. Freeze warnings at night. Congress looking likely to work until close to Christmas, then return just a week into January. Staff and member travel clipped by the sequester. And an off-year election jump-starting the next presidential race earlier than ever.

No wonder that not-so-idle Capitol Hill speculation has already started about which two buffed-up and generous cities might get to welcome the Washington diaspora in the summer of 2016. That’s when thousands of lawmakers, aides, lobbyists, money chasers, journalists and functionaries are counting on at least one expense-account-funded week of networking and partying. Full story

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