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October 10, 2015

October 2, 2013

GOP Rebels Scour the Back Pages of the Rule Book

In competition of all kinds, it’s reliably true that folks on the losing side are far likelier to reach for the rule book — hoping some procedural wrinkle can be found to save them in time from a shortage of skill or good fortune.

So now a small but growing group of House Republicans, out of political anxiety or ideological distaste, have decided it’s a doomed proposition to condition reopening the government on a legislated undermining of Obamacare.

Lacking the legislative clout within their own party to win on the merits, at least on their own, these GOP quasi-moderates have been scouring the parliamentary back alleys for help advancing legislation to end the government shutdown with no strings attached. They are doing so against the wishes of Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and a majority of their caucus.

Motions “to recommit” or to consider “the previous question” are no good to this GOP faction. There’s not a privileged motion immediately available to them, and “Calendar Wednesday” (it’s complicated) has been effectively neutralized.

All of which has led to a surge of attention to “the discharge petition,” which at first blush looks to be the only procedural option available. But the cumbersome fine print that makes this vehicle so unwieldy to begin with — combined with the political peril for any member of the majority caucus who seeks to deploy it — means its current moment in the sun may have already passed. Full story

A Handful Away? The House Republicans Who’ve Had Enough

Advocates of reopening the government without Obamacare strings attached are within striking distance today of securing a House majority for a “clean” continuing resolution. But Republican leadership is giving no indication of relenting and allowing a vote that would bring the partial government shutdown to an end on its second day.

Democratic leadership has said it would be able to muster virtually all 200 members of that caucus to vote for a clean CR lasting several weeks. As of this morning, the roster of Republicans publicly advocating that approach had grown to 14. Full story

October 1, 2013

How Defense Wonks Stopped Worrying and Learned to Accept Sequester

Important shutdown news is getting lost in the rhetorical histrionics about Obamacare, the partisan power plays over blinking first and the personal strife for the furloughed federals. Topping the list: The sequester is surviving.

That’s especially true at the Pentagon. No matter what sort of miraculous bipartisan budget agreement might be hatched once the government is reopened and the debt limit raised, the sequester’s 9 percent cut to defense spending during the next decade looks to be locked in place. Full story

September 30, 2013

The Public’s Pox on Washington Deepens

For those looking for an agreement that would genuinely “give the American people what they want,” it was painfully easy to turn off the news and tuck in early Monday night.

Republicans and Democrats with equal conviction proclaim their prescription for ending the budget impasse is to do what the public wants. But nothing under discussion during the final frenetic hours of fiscal 2013 would have delivered what the voters say they are looking for as much as anything else: a federal government that projects competence, functions more with seriousness of purpose than with melodrama, and advances passionate but civil debates about policy to a timely conclusion with principles maintained but compromise rewarded.

Instead, the best the nation could hope for was the outside chance that an immediate partial government shutdown would be replaced by the threat of a partial government shutdown in a matter of days. The most optimistic short-term expectation for the functioning of American democracy, in other words, was that it would be able to ward off calamity for a little while longer. As has been the case so many times in the recent past, there was no suspense about which party would see its vision of government come out decisively on top. Nor was there a question about whether Congress or the president would get the upper hand in their power tussle.

The only mystery was how the sentence involving the most overused idiom about policy procrastination — kicking the can down the road — would be finished. Would that hollow cylinder be propelled forward for a few days, a few weeks or not at all just yet? Full story

Shutdown Looks Inevitable Unless Boehner Changes His Mind

A partial government shutdown starting tonight is now looking like a certainty.

Twelve hours before spending authority lapses for all but essential federal operations, there is no sign that either side is willing to contemplate any concessions.

The only viable path to avert the shutdown is under the control of Speaker John A. Boehner, although this morning he gave no hint he was interested in pursuing it. “The House has done its work,” the Ohio Republican declared on the floor in reference to the continuing resolution that his unified Republican troops pushed through early Sunday. It would maintain sequester-level funding of all federal operations for a dozen weeks, delay the health law for a year and repeal a tax on medical devices.

The Senate will convene at 2 p.m., and all indications are that by this evening, the Democrats will be able to use their majority muscle to delete the Obamacare and medical device riders before sending the bill back once more to the House. There are no indications that Texan Ted Cruz or other conservative Republicans will try to prevent that from happening, knowing that delaying beyond midnight would shift responsibility for a shutdown onto them.

Even before the paperwork arrives from the Senate, though, Boehner would be able to get almost all the Democrats and several dozen Republicans to vote for a straightforward extension of existing spending levels — so long as it lasted only until the middle of October, which would align the appropriations battle with the deadline for raising the debt ceiling. The Senate can be counted on to quickly clear such a clean, short-term CR, which would then set the table for a climactic round of negotiations in search of deal that would bring both halves of the budget battle to a coordinated end.

For that scenario to play out, though, Boehner would need to conclude, at the last possible hour, that he can survive the outrage that would spill forth from the hard-line conservatives who dominate his caucus. He would have to persuade them that shouldering most of the blame for a shutdown in the immediate aftermath would weaken their long-term ability to gain any budget concessions or restrictions on implementation of the health law.

A more likely alternative is that, even if Boehner decides to risk assembling a bipartisan majority for a clean short-term CR, he will wait until the shutdown has been in effect for a few days. He would be calculating that the impact on federal services, the paychecks of 800,000 government workers and investor confidence is worth the potential payoff to him: Persuading the conservative hard-liners that the political stovetop they’ve just insisted on touching really was as hot as the leadership predicted it was, and that the fight they are spoiling for is better waged in conjunction with the debt debate.

The degree to which the tea party caucus seems determined to make tonight their symbolic last stand is undeniably high, however. The climatic House GOP caucus on Saturday, when the group last decided to stick with anti-Obamacare provisions knowing they would not survive the Senate, was punctuated with a cry of “Let’s roll!” from John Culberson of Texas — who later said he was alluding to the cry of United 93 passenger Todd Beamer.

The allusion was apt: The passengers who took over that plane on Sept. 11 expected to die, but concluded their heroic self-sacrifice was worth it to save big-time harm to the country.

September 29, 2013

Whither Immigration Overhaul? Big Dreams Are Made on Such Little Stuff

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

GOP leaders Boehner, left, and Cantor are trying to keep the immigration overhaul drive alive. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

First it was going to be July, right after the Senate did its part. Next it was going to be September, once lawmakers had a chance to gauge constituent opinion. And then it was supposed to be this coming month of October, filling a window between two fiscal fights.

For those who have been predicting when the House would start debating immigration legislation, wrong and wrong are about to be met by wrong again. The current spending-and-borrowing morass now seems certain to consume the south side of the Capitol all October, and probably November and December as well.   Full story

September 26, 2013

What If Ted Cruz Had Read ‘The Little Engine That Could’?

It’s going to take a while longer, but the deconstruction of everything Ted Cruz said during his 21 hours and 19 minutes on the Senate floor this week is continuing.

Much of the attention was paid Wednesday to the Texan’s suggestion that fellow congressional Republicans unwilling to wage war against Obamacare are comparable to the appeasers in the British Parliament during the rise of Hitler. Since that pretty politically serious topic has been exhausted, the focus is shifting to Cruz’s taste in children’s literature.

Had Cruz chosen to read “The Little Engine That Could,” he would have been able to liken himself to the locomotive that willed itself to triumph. Had he picked “Harold and the Purple Crayon,”  he could have compared himself to the boy who kept drawing himself into predicaments and then drawing himself out again.

Instead, the senator declared that his favorite book as a kid was “Green Eggs and Ham,” which he read on the floor Tuesday night so his two children might get to hear him tell a bedtime story.

The Huffington Post has a nice piece out this morning about Sen. Charles E. Schumer denigrating Cruz for missing the whole point of the Dr. Seuss classic. The moral, as the New York Democrat was right to point out, is that you shouldn’t knock something before you’ve tried it, because you might find out you like what you’ve criticized  out of ignorance.

Schumer’s ready punchline: “Maybe, Sen. Cruz, you may actually find out that, as this health care law goes into effect, you and your constituents may actually like it.”

September 25, 2013

Ted Cruz Showed He Can Talk the Talk, but His Walk Is Harder to Measure

Cruz leaves the Senate chamber after his 21-hour speech that ended Wednesday. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Cruz leaves the Senate chamber after his 21-hour speech that ended Wednesday. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Ted Cruz undeniably secured a spot in the annals of senatorial theatrics at the stroke of noon Wednesday, when parliamentary inevitability required him to yield the floor after 21 hours and 19 minutes.

Other than applause from a modest collection of fellow Republicans, did he gain much of genuine worth for his considerable talk-a-thon troubles? The ledger of political costs and benefits looks close to impossible to push toward balance.

Not so for his likely presidential rivals, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, whose mastery of the Senate juggling act looks pretty good by comparison. Full story

Gridlock in Congress Leads to 3-Cent Hike in Postal Stamps

While the spending and debt deadlines move inexorably closer with no deals in sight, Congress is getting a stark reminder about the consequences (and cost) of its gridlock for everyday Americans.

The U.S. Postal Service proposed a 3-cent increase in the price of a first-class postage stamp, to 49 cents starting in January, and similar increases of about 7 percent in the rates for postcards and packages. The governing board said it’s the only way to muddle through its “precarious financial condition.” The Postal Service has been falling deeper and deeper into a budget hole over the past two years because the Republican House and Democratic Senate have been unable to agree on a collection of cost-savings measures.

But the price hikes wouldn’t come close to solving the problem. The new rates would raise about $2 billion in additional revenue in 2014, cash that could be used to help cover regular expenses. But the Postal Service is projecting another loss like the $6 billion projected for the fiscal year now coming to an end, mainly because of its requirements for pre-funding payments for retiree health benefits.

Under law, the Postal Service may only raises prices more than inflation under exceptional circumstances and with approval of an independent Postal Regulatory Commission.

Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe wants permission from Congress to revamp and streamline the way his system does business in the Internet Age, starting with ending Saturday delivery and closing thousands of post offices and half the mail processing centers. (Mail volume has declined almost 30 percent in the past five years.) But every version of legislation Congress has been considering in the past two years would trim back, prevent or dictate alternatives to those proposals in important ways.

The debate in this Congress hasn’t gone beyond the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which approved a bill in July that would cut delivery to five days a week, phase-out delivery to residential doorsteps and turn management of the Postal Service over to a newly created federal overseer.

While the congressional impasse drags on, the agency defaulted on two $5.6-billion payments to its retiree benefits plan and is on course to miss another one this fall. What to do about the pre-funding of the benefits is among the many things lawmakers have not agreed on.

September 24, 2013

CR Timeline Gives Appropriators a ‘Jingle Bells’ Endgame

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Mikulski, center, and Durbin pushed the strategy of shortening the length of the stopgap CR. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Wednesday’s anticlimactic vote on the continuing resolution — Ted Cruz’s pretzel-logic faux filibuster notwithstanding — isn’t the most important Senate move so far this week in the budget endgame.

That distinction belongs to the Democratic leadership decision to apply a much smaller patch to the broken spending machinery than what House Republicans united behind last week. The continuing resolution the Senate will pass, likely on Saturday, would keep the government operating for only the next seven weeks — until Nov. 15, exactly a month earlier than the date in the House bill.

The change, which will get ample GOP buy-in, will alter the rhythm of this fall’s multifaceted fiscal deliberations in several ways.

It means the second possibility for a partial government shutdown will come close on the heels of a potentially market-rattling showdown over the debt limit. It means appropriators will gain an opening to reassert a measure of relevance they haven’t enjoyed at the Capitol in nearly a decade. And it could mean still one more bite at the apple for conservative Republicans crusading to stop or slow Obamacare.

What it does not mean, however, is that the new target adjournment date for the first session of the 113th Congress is two Fridays before Thanksgiving. There’s bipartisan consensus that such an early departure is both legislatively unrealistic and politically unwise and that, even if an unexpected wave of functionality and deal-making appears, a second CR will be necessary to maintain running-in-place operations into December. (In the past decade, the earliest Congress has finished its work in a non-election year was Dec. 8, 2003.) Full story

Senate Democrats Eye a Third Fall Showdown

Top Senate Democrats signaled today that they may amend the continuing resolution to last only seven weeks, to Nov. 15 instead of Dec. 15. That would move the fall’s second shutdown showdown to just after the looming dogfight over the debt limit.

The Democratic plan, which has not been finalized, would complicate this week’s stopgap spending imbroglio with a secondary issue that is important for many lawmakers but has nothing to do with the matter consuming the public’s attention. Conservative Republicans continue to demand that Obamacare be denied any funding in the new fiscal year as a condition for keeping the government open.

With the first test votes set for Wednesday — and top Republican leaders abandoning the quixotic filibuster effort orchestrated by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas —Democrats are sure that by the end of the weekend, they will be able to remove the defunding language from the bill the House passed last week. Full story

September 23, 2013

Senators Want Obama to Hold Hard Line on Iran, Confident He’s on the Same Page

One of the more reliable tricks in the congressional publicity playbook is to write and release a letter demanding the president do something — right after getting word that the hoped-for decision has already been made.

Looking to reward a recently helpful senator or to woo a House member in advance of a close vote, past White Houses have done plenty of trading in this sort of insider information. A heads-up about an impending personnel move, public works proposal or policy shift is golden to a lawmaker, who can then create an “earned media” windfall by urging the impending action — then claiming some prescience or credit when the thing comes to pass.

“I was glad the president took my advice last week and nominated our mayor for the judgeship,” for example, or, “Thankfully he understood my case for a new mess hall at Camp Swampy and included money for that project in his budget.”

President Barack Obama’s legislative affairs team hasn’t done much helping of lawmakers with such leaks, one of the many reasons his relations with all corners of the Hill remain lackluster six months (and a couple of canceled picnics) after a series of lavish and intimate dinners looked to get congressional outreach on better footing in the second term.

That’s why the letters espousing a presidential hard line toward Iran, released Monday by four of the most prominent and press-savvy foreign policy voices in the Senate, appeared particularly noteworthy — seeking to put words in Obama’s mouth just hours before he’s expected to use them. Full story

House GOP Sets Up Staredown With Obama Over Debt Limit

While House Republican leaders are waiting for the Senate to restore funding to Obamacare in the stopgap spending bill, they are also refining their approach to the second fiscal showdown of the fall — over the debt limit.

Regardless of whether GOP conservatives and President Barack Obama reach a deal that averts a partial government shutdown in eight days, the Treasury will need permission from Congress to borrow more money as soon as the fourth week of October. And already it’s becoming clear that neither side is going to be more flexible on what to do about that than it has been on the continuing resolution.

The phone call Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner had late Friday was all about the debt ceiling, not the spending impasse, and lasted only a couple of minutes. The president declared he would not make any sort of policy concession in return for a higher legal borrowing limit, and the House leader made it clear his side would insist on just such a trade-off.

What the GOP might propose became more clear late last week, when leaders outlined not only a delay in implementation of the 2010 health care law — a more comprehensive attack on the statute than the defunding language in the CR — but also several other budget policy proposals most congressional Democrats oppose. That includes reducing some Medicare benefits for the more affluent elderly, changing the government’s inflation calculations to so-called chained CPI to curb the growth of Social Security cost-of-living increases, setting in motion a revenue-neutral overhaul of the tax code and requiring the immediate permitting of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Full story

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

September 22, 2013

Inside the Inconsistent Way Congress Would Implement Its Share of Any Shutdown

One week to go, and still no word from Capitol Hill officials about how the place is going to be different if there’s a partial government shutdown.

Don’t expect any such guidance before zero hour. The members who oversee congressional operations, and the administrators who implement the politicians’ policies, seem to have settled on a bipartisan, bicameral agreement: They won’t say anything in advance about what would keep operating normally, what would slow down and what would stop altogether after midnight on Sept. 30 in the absence of a completed continuing resolution.

That means the great existential question facing every government worker at a time like this — “Am I essential?” — will remain officially unanswered for more than 25,000 unelected legislative branch workers. The comforting, or enervating, word will only come if Congress doesn’t clear a CR on time. If there’s a stopgap spending accord, each job’s place in the congressional pecking order will remain a mystery, at least until the next deadline in December.

There are psychological and political reasons for this. Full story

September 20, 2013

Food Stamp Vote Shows GOP Leadership Challenge

A couple of clues about the dynamics of the government shutdown endgame can be found in the roster of 15 House Republicans who voted Thursday against the food stamp overhaul.

First, the roster of centrists who opposed the legislation amounts to only 6 percent of the conference, the latest indication that the number of moderates in the House GOP is smaller than at any time in decades — and insufficient to form a functioning coalition with Democrats. Which means that, even if all of the GOP food stamp bill opponents and all the Democrats unite behind a straightforward stopgap spending measure shorn of language to prevent spending on Obamacare, that number would be insufficient to pass the bill.

That scenario is not happening in any case, because a so-far unpredictable number of Democrats are going to vote against any continuing resolution that maintains spending at the current post-sequester levels. That’s what the bill before the House today would do, and it’s what President Barack Obama has said he would agree to for at least the next 10 weeks.

The small number of Republican dissenters on food stamps nonetheless illustrates just how daunting  a task the House GOP leadership faces in assembling anything close to a majority of the majority for a clean CR, or even one that only nibbles at the edges of the health care law because of the reality the Democratic Senate won’t go along with an outright defunding.

The difficulty ahead for the leadership is underscored by the list of lawmakers who voted “no” on Thursday on the grounds that a 5 percent, $4 billion annual cut to food stamps every year for the next decade was too steep, and the bill’s broad new work requirements for recipients too onerous. The group is another reminder that almost all members of the Republican Conference remain extraordinarily willing to rally behind small-government conservatism even when very clear parochial or electoral considerations would customarily prompt abandonment of such orthodoxy.

Of the two-dozen House Republicans representing districts where more than one-fifth of the population lives in poverty, only one voted against the bill: David Valadao, whose district in the southern Central Valley of California has a 30.6 percent poverty rate.

And of the 22 members of the caucus who are currently viewed as even remotely vulnerable in 2014, only three of them voted “no” — Valadao, fellow California freshman Gary G. Miller and sophomore Michael G. Grimm, the only Republican in the House from New York City.

The others who opposed the bill were Shelley Moore Capito, the early favorite to win West Virginia’s open Senate seat next year; Peter T. King, Chris Gibson and Richard Hanna of New York; Christopher H. Smith and Frank A. LoBiondo of New Jersey; Michael G. Fitzpatrick and Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania; Don Young of Alaska, Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, Walter B. Jones of North Carolina and Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska.

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