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April 24, 2014

April 12, 2013

Maybe Obama Dinner Guests Voted With Their Stomachs

Evidence that the Obama charm offensive is starting to pay legislative dividends becomes available by comparing three lists: the 12 GOP senators who dined with the president last week, the 12 others whom Obama treated to supper a month ago, and the 16 Republicans who voted Thursday to begin debating gun violence legislation.

Among that last group of 16, all but three had attended one of those dinners, where the Senate guests were chosen mainly for their perceived willingness to entertain ideas for a budget deal.

Nine senators were guests in March at the Jefferson Hotel dinner, where the president launched his overt new effort to improve legislative relations:

  1. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire
  2. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina
  3. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia
  4. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma
  5. Bob Corker of Tennessee
  6. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina
  7. John Hoeven of North Dakota
  8. John McCain of Arizona
  9. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania

Four more Republican votes he secured from the roster of people he entertained at the White House just 12 hours before the vote:

  1. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee
  2. Susan Collins of Maine
  3. Johnny Isakson of Georgia
  4. Roger Wicker of Mississippi

Maybe the dinner fare had something with it: Senators at the hotel supper had a choice of four appetizers including crab risotto; entrée choices of roasted striped bass, grilled lamb, beef filet or lobster thermidor; and for desert peanut butter crumble, chocolate tart or an “iced Tahitian vanilla and praline bar.” The White House menu, by contrast, was the same for everyone: a relatively pedestrian grilled and sliced ribeye, sautéed vegetables, green salad and coconut sorbet with pineapple.

In any event, it’s impossible to view their cloture votes as a coincidence. It’s more likely that Obama’s good-food-and-candid-conversation strategy has helped him find the baker’s dozen who are most likely to break with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his super-conservative rank-and-file. They won’t vote that way as a group or all of the time, of course. But perhaps enough of them will, especially on the top-tier items that could make or break the president’s second-term legislative legacy.

And the other three senators who voted to advance the gun bill?

  1. Jeff Flake of Arizona
  2. Dean Heller of Nevada
  3. Mark S. Kirk of Illinois

In the immortal words of comedian Red Buttons: They never got a dinner!

‘Entitlement Trap’ Is Alive and Well on Capitol Hill

It’s been a full two days since Greg Walden, who runs the House GOP’s political arm, derided the Obama budget as a “shocking attack on seniors” — and his fellow Republicans are still working to recover from their gob-smacked whiplash.

It’s no surprise, of course, that the congressman in charge of recruiting and financing GOP candidates in 2014 would have little nice to say about the president’s plan. But the focus of Walden’s criticism was so surprising that many people in both parties assumed he’d misspoken on Wednesday — and would surely row back his comments on Thursday.

But Walden is sticking by the view that Obama should be derided for his embrace of “chained CPI,” the shorthand for changing how the government calculates inflation in order to reduce cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security and some other benefits.

No matter that the proposal would cost the typical senior about $50 next year, and that it is just the sort of modest limit on entitlements that Republicans howl is long overdue, mainly because Democrats starting with Obama haven’t been willing to embrace them. No matter that Walden’s derision of Obama for “trying to balance this budget on the backs of seniors” is impossible to square with the budget endorsed last month, not only by Walden but also by almost all the fellow Republicans he’s trying to re-elect next year. It would achieve balance by altogether ending federal medical benefits for the elderly under Medicare as an entitlement.

And no matter that he’s made the top leaders of his caucus furious and prompted the prominent conservative Club for Growth to encourage a 2014 primary challenge against Walden in eastern Oregon.

“This is the least we must do to begin to solve the problem of Social Security,” Speaker John A. Boehner said Thursday. “Chairman Walden and I have had a conversation, and we’ll leave it at that.”

The head-spinning situation could be laughed off as so much pandering and posturing were Walden another backbench tea partyer or even in that rare camp of GOP House members vulnerable to defeat in a swing district. But instead he is the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, someone who’s won wide praise as a savvy strategic thinker for his party.

Does this mean House Republican candidates are going to be urged to run away from even the most modest of the entitlement curbs they’ve clamored for? Does it mean the NRCC has concluded that voters have no memories or respect for ideological consistency? Does it mean Obama has just found a convenient exit hatch from the grand bargain budget talks that he probably didn’t know existed on the GOP side of the talks just a few days ago.

Those were some of the questions MSNBC’s Karen Finney, Indiana GOP spokesman Pete Seat and I talked about with Chuck Todd on “The Daily Rundown” this morning. You can watch it here.

April 11, 2013

Anthony Weiner, Mark Sanford: 2 Paths to Redemption

weiner041113 445x321 Anthony Weiner, Mark Sanford: 2 Paths to Redemption

Weiner resigned from Congress in 2011 and is now considering a bid for mayor of New York City. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

To their fans, the comeback drives of first Mark Sanford and now Anthony Weiner are happy signs that the American electorate is willing to embrace redemption. To their detractors, such ambitions are evidence that shame has lost its rightful place on the roster of politically effective motivators.

Either way, their stories are absolutely fascinating to the people who watched them launch their congressional careers in the 1990s, when their futures seemed almost limitless, then crash because they suffered from a pair of all-too-familiar politicians’ problems: believing in their own personal infallibility and not believing that the cover-up is almost always a bigger problem than the transgression.

Beyond the facts that both were driven into the political wilderness by self-generated sex scandals, both have been publicly contrite for a couple of years now and that both kept plenty of campaign cash in reserve for the moments at hand, the Sanford and Weiner stories have plenty of important differences. What makes the current comparisons doubly interesting is that those distinctions suggest the inverse of what’s likely to happen.

A review of facts would make you think Sanford, the conservative Republican, has much less of a shot at reclaiming his old House seat in South Carolina than the liberal Democrat Weiner has at realizing his lifelong dream of becoming mayor of New York City. Actually, the opposite is more the case. Sanford is the clear if not in-the-clear frontrunner in his May 7 special election, but if Weiner makes a late entry into the crowded mayoral primary field, he would be an underdog to get beyond the first round on Sept. 10 and into a runoff.

Both men were at political pinnacles when they allowed their libidos to get the best of them. Sanford remained popular at the midpoint of his second gubernatorial term in 2009, when he hid his whereabouts for six days to pursue a secret extramarital affair in Argentina. Weiner had become one of the most prominent spokesmen for House Democrats in 2011, when he denied for weeks that it was his pectorals and groin pictured in a series of texts, Tweets and emails to a variety of women.

The first difference, obviously, is that Sanford eventually admitted he was romancing a woman who was not his wife, while Weiner eventually admitted that he was sexting women he hardly knew at all.

Recovering from cuckolding your state’s first lady would seem to be a taller order than recovering from the ridicule of being revealed as a none-too-successful social media cad. But Sanford has done so, partly by becoming engaged to Maria Belén Chapur. And Weiner has not done so, partly because the combination of his surname and his behavior have been such a boon to the headline writers at the New York tabloids.

Another difference is in how the wives — each so accomplished and telegenic that it’s often said they’d make the better candidates  — reacted to their embarrassment. Jenny Sanford publicly and combatively pursued divorce. Huma Abedin privately and diligently pursued reconciliation. Being flamed by an ex-wife is undeniably a bigger campaign liability than being supported by a current wife.

Perhaps the most important differences seeming to favor Weiner’s chances for a comeback over Sanford’s, though, are their different means of political ascent, the different natures of their political base and the contrasting ways in which they sought to bring morality into the public square.

Sanford was a businessman at the vanguard of the “citizen politician” movement that helped the GOP take over the House in 1994. He railed often in his early career against the dangers of allowing hubris to envelop the career politicians. It would be reasonable to have expected the local GOP political establishment to have given him a wide berth long ago.

Weiner, by contrast, spent his whole adult life in politics; he was a congressional aide and city councilman before coming to Congress in 1998. And so it would be reasonable to suspect the city’s Democratic bosses would have stuck by him, in private if not in public.

Beyond that, the South Carolina coast is a reliably Republican place where the “culture wars” aren’t close, where old-line Christian virtues are still in vogue and where Sanford was eager to cultivate all of that with discussions of his own social conservatism. Queens is more Democratic, socially liberal and Jewish, and Weiner never had all that much to say in those neighborhoods about the hot button morality issues of the day. In short, Sanford was much more obviously vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy than was Weiner.

And yet it’s much more likely that Sanford can hike all the way back from the Appalachian Trail than that Weiner will be allowed in the locker room of the House gym. The would-be-congressman-again seems likelier to find patron saints in Newt Gingrich and David Vitter than the would-be mayor will in Bill Clinton.

The “god of second chances” may be a bipartisan deity — yet without sufficient power to conquer the phenomenon of all politics being local.

Gun Filibuster Thwarted, Debate Just Beginning

“The hard work starts now,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid just declared.

The most important vote in Congress so far this year for President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda was relatively anticlimactic. The Senate voted just a few minutes ago, 68-31, to overcome the filibuster launched to prevent any discussion at all of gun control legislation, well more than the 60 votes required because more than one-third of Republicans broke with the party mainstream and supported at least having a full debate.

The 16 Republicans who voted to break the filibuster were Sens. Lamar Alexander, Kelly Ayotte, Richard M. Burr, Saxby Chambliss, Tom Coburn, Susan Collins, Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham, Dean Heller, John Hoeven, Johnny Isakson, Mark S.  Kirk, John McCain, Patrick J. Toomey and Roger Wicker.

Sens. Mark Begich and Mark Pryor, both of whom are seeking re-election next year in Republican-leaning states, were the two Democrats who wanted to kill the bill in the cradle.

Even before the roll was called, proponents of the most ambitious gun control package possible announced they had an agreement for an even more pivotal vote on Tuesday — on language embodying the bipartisan agreement, unveiled Wednesday, for expanding the reach of required background checks to cover customers at gun shows and online transactions, but not noncommercial sales. Background checks now are required only before sales at the country’s 55,000 licensed gun dealers.

The delay is because, knowing they were going to lose Thursday morning, the conservative orchestrators of the filibuster served notice they would insist on their right to delay the debate another 30 hours before any consideration of amendments could begin.

The outcome of the background check vote is still too far in the future to predict, and a huge wave of lobbying on both sides is sure to wash over middle-of-the road senators when they’re back in their home states this weekend.  But the momentum seems to be with the authors of the compromise — Toomey and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III — a sense undoubtedly reinforced by the solid bloc of GOP support for taking up the bill in the first place.

Expanding background checks, it has become clear, has become the aspirational high-water mark of the Obama administration and its allies on gun violence. The lobbying by the National Rifle Association has all but officially sealed the fate of the two other central proposals in the president’s package: bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.

Both will get roll calls, but almost no one thinks they’ll come close to winning inclusion in the final Senate measure.

April 10, 2013

Obama’s Budget: A Picture Worth a Trillion Dollars

President Barack Obama’s $3.77 trillion fiscal 2014 budget would cut the deficit to $744 billion next year, down from more than a trillion in fiscal 2012. Driven by the costs of mandatory programs, outlays are expected to increase to $3.8 trillion in 2014, but fall as a share of gross domestic product to 22.2 percent, the lowest level since 2008. And after dipping during the recession, revenue is expected to grow steadily but stay below 20 percent of GDP. Full story

Obama’s Budget Opens Final Door Toward a Deal

budgetcloseup041013 445x318 Obamas Budget Opens Final Door Toward a Deal

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

It’s 65 days overdue and has been formally unveiled for less than an hour, but so far the Obama budget is being greeted with more bipartisan bewilderment than with genuine Republican anger or Democratic excitement.

And the nonplussed nature of the congressional response could be the best reaction possible for those who still hold out hope of achieving a grand bargain or, more precisely, for completing one. Things will stay muted for another couple of months, mainly to allow the gun control and immigration debates to play out but also because the next fiscal deadline is not until the middle of the summer, when Congress will need to raise the Treasury’s borrowing limit to avoid a default on government debt. Full story

April 9, 2013

Gun Votes Herald New Kind of ‘Scorecard’ Season

This is a season when lawmakers’ hopes for the new Congress still spring eternal. But that’s not all. It’s also a time of finalized reckoning for all their votes in the old Congress.

Scorecard time is climaxing at the Capitol. More than 80 advocacy groups — from all along the ideological spectrum and from every mainstream and obscure corner of the policy universe — have come up with their own algorithms for measuring every member’s level of loyalty with a single letter or number. When the Chamber of Commerce unveils its scores next week, it will signal an end to the 2012 grading season.

But the process for 2013 is just now coming into full flower, as the Senate prepares to cast the most intensely lobbied and passionately debated votes of the young year. And the groups that have announced they’ll take special note of the roll calls on gun control — to “score the votes,” in K Street parlance — offer a window into the current state of the complex, high-stakes and big money mainstay of modern lobbying. Full story

Guns Make a Risky Filibuster Gambit for GOP

Senate Republicans will be deliberating over lunch Tuesday just how far to push one of the most politically risky filibusters they have contemplated in many years.

Guns hold such a unique spot in the political and cultural climate that it’s a tossup to predict that will happen. But assessing all the usually relevant factors leads to a pretty easy conclusion that the wiser course is to stand down and permit a wide-ranging debate on the legislation at hand.

Public opinion is solidly in favor of the background check expansion at the heart of the bill. Public opinion is even more overwhelmingly opposed to governance by obstructionism. President Barack Obama shows every sign of staying in the bully pulpit to pound on both those themes for as long as it takes. Full story

April 8, 2013

Could Margaret Thatcher Win a GOP Primary?

An abiding aphorism for the Republican Party’s rightward shift is that Ronald Reagan  couldn’t win a party primary today. Something very similar could be said of Margaret Thatcher.

The ocean of hagiography that poured out from congressional conservatives after her death Monday belies a simple truth. A quick read of the Thatcher record reveals a lot of daylight between the way she ran Britain in the 1980s and the way the GOP would run the federal government now. Full story

Postal Service Overhaul Is in the Mail

This is the season when all lawmakers are preparing to launch their own legislative priorities and plot how to move them to the front burner of the Capitol’s attention.

Putting the Postal Service on a more sustainable financial footing is near the top of the list. The mail system’s problems are no less urgent than last year, when a USPS overhaul that had been labeled a “must do” before the election died at the end of the year. Negotiators remained stuck on how, if at all, to limit weekend delivery and to shutter underused post offices and mail-processing facilities and on what to do about the ballooning health expenses for postal retirees.

The debate hasn’t been public this year, except for when the USPS moved unilaterally to save about 10 percent of what it’s seeking to save in the next several years by sharply limiting Saturday delivery. Congress responded to that by writing “no you don’t” language into the law that set federal spending levels through the fall. Full story

April 5, 2013

Jobs Snapshot Downer Trips Up Obama’s Budget Game

If the new jobs numbers had come out the Friday before the election instead of today, President Barack Obama might well have lost.

Each month’s initial reports from the Labor Department are often significantly updated later on — sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. And they provide only a pair of snapshots of limited long-term value in assessing where the economy is headed and in guiding the president and Congress where to turn their attention next.

But the separate reports about job creation and the unemployment rate are guaranteed to make headlines, and those headlines shape public perception, and those perceptions shape campaigns and ultimately elections. And so, as a political matter, there was nothing at all to like about the government’s March assessment — except the fact that they came out 17 months before the congressional midterm and, for Obama, comfortably after he secured his second term.

employmentRateChartsMarch2013 445x162 Jobs Snapshot Downer Trips Up Obamas Budget Game Full story

After a Surge, Is There Even One More Senate Vote for Gay Marriage?

MurkowskiLandrieu040513 445x295 After a Surge, Is There Even One More Senate Vote for Gay Marriage?

Murkowski (left) has said her views on gay marriage are “evolving” while Landrieu has signaled personal ambivalence but will honor the values of her state as she is up for re-election in 2014. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

So who will be No. 54? How long after that announcement will the roster of senators supporting gay marriage become filibuster-proof?

Predicting an answer to the first question requires looking more closely at the 43 potential Republican senators than at the list of just four Democrats who haven’t yet endorsed the concept of same-sex marriage. So does forecasting an answer to the second question, but on that one it’s safe to say it won’t happen before the next election.

Senate support for marriage equality surged into majority territory this week when Sen. Mark S. Kirk of Illinois became the second Republican backer of same-sex marriage; he was joined by five centrist Democrats, all of whom just won an election and are betting they’ll be squarely on the right side of history by the time they next face the voters in six years. The Democrats are third-term winners Bill Nelson of swing state Florida and Thomas R. Carper of Delaware; second-term survivor Bob Casey of bellwether Pennsylvania; and a pair of freshmen who scored upsets in GOP states, North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly.

But the notion that a political tipping point is at hand — and that a wave of changed minds and modernized hearts will crest at the Capitol before the Supreme Court reveals itself on the gay marriage question — is swiftly put to rest by a look at the senators who remain either uncommitted or publicly on the other side. Full story

Pay Cut Solidarity: Don’t Look for Congress to Match Obama’s Team

Leaders040513 445x292 Pay Cut Solidarity: Dont Look for Congress to Match Obamas Team

Don’t look for congressional leaders to follow the president’s lead in returning some of his paycheck to the treasury. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

President Barack Obama promised this week to give back 5 percent of his salary so long as federal workers were facing sequester-fueled furloughs, and at least seven members of his Cabinet have quickly followed the boss’s lead.

There’s been no such groundswell of solidarity from members of Congress, and there probably won’t be.

A relative handful already turn back some of their salaries as a gesture of fiscal discipline. (The money goes to a special Treasury deficit-reduction fund.) And a few more will be doing so for political reasons in the coming months, and especially if their re-election prospects look dicey next year.

But beyond sticking by the salary freeze they imposed on themselves four years ago, don’t look for any legislative groundswell to reduce congressional paychecks across the board. So many members have such safe seats that they see no need to make such a move, plus many of them are having trouble managing their two-city lives on $174,000 a year. Full story

April 4, 2013

D.C. Could Take Lessons From Hartford on Gun Control Deal

Obama2040413 445x301 D.C. Could Take Lessons From Hartford on Gun Control Deal

(Tom Williams//CQ Roll Call File Photo)

When President Barack Obama heads to Connecticut on Monday, it will have been 115 days since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary – but just four days since the state legislature enacted what looks to be the strongest gun control law in the nation.

The timing, and the bipartisan but balky way the lawmakers in Hartford responded to the mass killing 40 miles down the road, suggests there’s still a window for some sort of comprehensive gun violence package to get through Congress. But the aperture is only a small one, and already it’s certain the federal legislation won’t be as broad as what Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed on Thursday, what’s already been enacted in Colorado and New York, and what may get on the books this spring in Maryland.

What’s especially instructive about Connecticut’s new statute, though, is how 16 weeks of intensive bargaining, with concessions on all sides, produced a package that secured the sort of broad bipartisan backing so rare at the Capitol these days.

The bill got the votes of seven out of every eight Democrats in the General Assembly — suggesting the small share of the party’s legislators from “red” districts were given a pass to vote “no.” It was also supported by two out of every five Republicans — suggesting the limits of the lobbying muscle flexed not only by the six firearms manufacturers in the state, which threatened to take their 7,300 jobs out of state if the measure advanced, but also by the National Rifle Association, which has seen a surge in membership in Connecticut as elsewhere since the Newtown murders. Full story

April 3, 2013

Must-Do: A STOCK Act Can-Kick

When lawmakers come back from spring recess, there’s really only one item on their “must finish” agenda for the first week: legislation that would buy more time for Congress to figure out how to untangle some of the problems they created for the federal bureaucracy when they enacted the STOCK Act a year ago.

The acronym stands for “stop trading on congressional knowledge,” and the original purpose of the measure was to do no more than put an election-year exclamation point on rules against insider trading by senators, House members and their aides. But along the way, the bill was dramatically expanded to require thousands of executive branch officials to post online the details of their financial and investment lives. The current start date is April 15.

And last week an independent study commissioned by Congress concluded that these officials, especially people working abroad, were right in complaining that so much disclosure could expose them to blackmail and that Congress should reopen the law to tamp down on the sunlight. The rewriting won’t happen in the few days before the deadline, so, instead, look for blink-and-you’ll-miss-them voice votes in the House and Senate to delay the effective date into the summer.

You can listen or read here about some reasons for this latest example of congressional can-kicking, which I offered during my most recent appearance on WAMU, the NPR affiliate in D.C. (They invite me on Monday and Friday mornings to talk about things happening in official Washington that have a special impact on people in local Washington.)

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