Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
August 3, 2015

July 28, 2013

Rush to the August Exits Makes for High-Stakes September

The final week before the August recess in a non-election year: Customarily, it’s the occasion for climactic votes on some of the most important matters of the year. This time, it will come and go with little more than a rhetorical torrent about how little’s been done to justify a five-week vacation.

Two years ago, a melodramatic eleventh-hour deal averted a government default but ultimately spawned the sequester. Two years before that, Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed as the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court. In the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, the get-out-of-town votes completed the last comprehensive rewrite of federal energy policy.

But in the coming days, the most substantive news will be clearing a hiding-in-plain-sight compromise to hold down student loan interest rates, one month after busting a deadline and making millions of college kids anxious.

That anticlimax will leave plenty of time for lawmakers to raise a self-aggrandizing fuss about how they really ought to stick around and start negotiating to avoid the next potential budget catastrophe. Members from both parties will join in, safe in the knowledge they won’t get their stated wish because nothing is more sacrosanct to Congress than summer break.

That “district work period” on the House calendar for the final week of September? Not so much. Full story

July 24, 2013

Worst Poll Numbers Ever Don’t Stop Backbiting by Obama and His Critics

President Barack Obama’s effort to pivot Washington’s attention back onto the economy — and claim the public opinion upper hand before his budget battle with Congress is rejoined this fall — had all the hallmarks of a recent State of the Union address.

The speech at Knox College in Illinois was exhaustively advanced, extensively rehearsed, carefully leaked and filled more with aspirational notions than with legislative specifics. It balanced olive branch passages promising an eagerness to work with congressional Republicans with blunt-force admonishments about the GOP’s penchant for spurning him at every turn.

And, in true late January fashion, the soaring rhetoric that Obama hoped would redefine his summer and re-energize his fall was met with such predictable partisanship that it will do absolutely nothing to soak up any of the poisonous pool that he and his congressional antagonists are stuck in.

Fifteen months before the midterm elections, Wednesday could end up being remembered as the day it became undeniably clear that Washington’s leaders are still committed to keeping the key to their gridlock hidden — at least until the voters take their next turn at shuffling the power dynamic.

The timing could not be more curious, given that Obama was flying to rural northwestern Illinois and top Republicans were polishing their derisive responses to what he hadn’t said yet, just as NBC News and the Wall Street Journal were delivering the details of their latest poll, which could have been titled: “It didn’t look like the capital’s standing could slip lower, but it has.” Full story

GOP’s White House Wannabes Still Neck and Neck: Poll

The four members of Congress likeliest to run for president in 2016 are all bunched together near the top of a front-runner-free Republican field, according to this year’s most extensive poll about the next race for the White House.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, on the other hand, is the overwhelming choice of Democrats and she led every opponent in the hypothetical general election contests tested by the Marist-McClatchy poll out this morning.

The poll found a statistical six-way scramble for the top spot in the totally theoretical GOP field, because of the 5-point margin for error in the sample of people who identified themselves as Republicans or GOP-leaning.

Discounting the undecided, at 25 percent, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey finished first with 15 percent support, followed by Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin at 13 percent, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida at 12 percent, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida at 10 percent, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky at 9 percent and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas at 7 percent.

Clinton was the first choice of 63 percent of Democrats surveyed — a level of support five times greater than that of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who was named by only 13 percent. Biden’s support was lower than those Democrats (18 percent) who said they were unsure of their choice. Full story

July 23, 2013

Voting by Remote Control Is a Recipe for Voter’s Remorse

At first blush, one of the first measures introduced by one of this year’s youngest, tech-savvy House freshmen sounds as virtuous as it does innovative.

Yet four weeks after California Democrat Eric Swalwell unveiled his proposal, and two weeks after the Silicon Valley-area representative launched a concerted search for co-sponsors, only three other members have signed on.

There can be only one of two reasons for this:

  1. His idea is so cutting-edge that his colleagues can’t fully comprehend how profoundly and positively transformative it would be, or
  2. It’s so misguided that it’s already been effectively discounted as a ridiculous idea that could actually do harm to our democracy. Full story

Obamacare or Government Shutdown? That’s the GOP Question

With the new fiscal year starting 10 weeks from today, and the budget process on a collision course with total impasse, it was only a matter of time before talks of a government shutdown would bubble to the Capitol surface.

But the latest obstructionist threat from Sen. Mike Lee is creating a new avenue for melodrama in the process. The Utah Republican says he has already signed up 13 fellow fiscal conservatives for his campaign to prevent enactment of any spending measures that permit the government to spend money implementing Obamacare. And he’s promising he’ll searching for more budget hawks, on both sides of the Capitol, to join his cause.

“If Republicans in both houses simply refuse to vote for any continuing resolution that contains further funding for further enforcement of Obamacare, we can stop it,” Lee said Monday on Fox News. “We can stop the individual mandate from going into effect.” Full story

July 22, 2013

Bob Dole’s 90th Conjures Visions of Senate Long Gone

Seventeen years and 774 cloture petitions after he left the Senate, Bob Dole celebrated his 90th birthday Monday with the sort of plain-spoken tough love that marked his run as one of the most accomplished congressional leaders of all time.

At an invitation-only Capitol birthday party Tuesday afternoon, his fans will raise a chocolate milkshake toast and wistfully remember what was and what may never be again. Full story

Senate Republicans Hold Fate of Obama’s Next Grand Bargain Push

President Barack Obama heads to the Midwest this week to return his vision for the economy to prominence ahead of this fall’s revived combat with Congress over the budget. How much of a head start he’ll get in shaping the standoff with Republicans will be known before his first speech.

The president is headed to Knox College in Illinois on Wednesday. On Tuesday, the Senate will take its first key vote on appropriations for the coming year. It’s very possible that just enough Republicans will break with their party leadership to form a coalition with the Democrats against the tight discretionary spending caps called for in the sequester.

The vote is about whether to break an initial filibuster and allow the first floor debate of the year on a fiscal 2014 appropriations bill, which most Republicans oppose because its $54 billion grand total would be 10 percent more than what the sequester is now allowing to be spent on transportation, housing and community development — and 15 percent more than what the House intends to spend. Full story

July 21, 2013

Newbies Take Over Congress; Now What Will They Make of It?

The just-updated résumé of Edward J. Markey points to one of the more unusual characteristics of the Capitol this year: It’s swarming with newbies.

When he moved his office from one side of the Hill campus to the other last week, the Massachusetts Democrat increased to 16 the number of members who have been senators for less than a year. That number hasn’t been larger in more than three decades, since the Reagan landslide ushered in the Republican takeover and a class of 18 freshmen in 1981.

In the past four years, moreover, the median years of service in the chamber has plummeted from 11 to six, because so many newcomers have replaced Senate icons.

So much for the case for statutory term limits — and so much more fodder to throw into the debate on whether experience is a force for good or ill in Congress.

When the 111th Congress convened four years ago, Markey’s predecessor, John Kerry, was among 29 senators who had already served for 19 years or more. Today, there are 17 on that roster.

At the same time, Markey’s transition continued the steady march of the old guard out of the House. He represented the Boston suburbs for 36 years and eight months before winning the special election arranged when Kerry became secretary of State. That’s the same as the collective service of the six members from Louisiana and more than the cumulative seniority in the House delegations of 18 states. With Markey gone, the House has only eight members who arrived before the 1970s. Full story

July 18, 2013

Obama Touts Health Law as Some Nervous Democrats Defect

President Barack Obama is making another attempt today to sell his health care law to the public. He learned Wednesday that he’s got more work to do than he expected.

When the House passed two Republican measures to delay core provisions of the law, unexpectedly large numbers of Democrats took the opportunity to endorse the proposals: 17 percent of them voted to delay the coming employer mandate by one year and 11 percent voted to put off for the same time the requirement that individuals obtain health insurance.

Most notable on the list were two congressmen who voted to enact Obamacare three years ago and are favored to hold open Senate seats for their party next fall: Gary Peters, who at the moment looks like a safe bet to succeed Carl Levin in Michigan, was a “yes” on both bills. Bruce Braley of Iowa, who has the clear edge in the race to succeed Tom Harkin, supported the employer mandate postponement. Full story

July 17, 2013

New Voting Rights Law Hinges on Some Less-Visible Republicans

There’s a ready temptation for those who dismiss any talk that Congress might agree on a way to revamp the Voting Rights Act.

Look no further, they might say, than the ideologically opposite lawmakers who have become the most visible players on the future of the law:

Making back-to-back images of Lewis and Franks shorthand for the inevitable impasse over rewriting the statute may be expedient for both sides’ partisan interests. But there’s still a long-shot chance it could prove premature.

If there’s a shot at a deal in the next year, it may rest with two other House members who are hardly as well-known to those who watch cable television news. They are Republicans who have quite different, but equally pressing, incentives for bolstering protections for voting. Full story

Biggest Threat to U.S. Economy Is Congress, Bernanke Says

Congress is the main impediment to a more robust economy, Ben S. Bernanke told Congress today in what may well be his swan song on Capitol Hill.

What’s more, lawmakers are on course to make things worse before the end of the year, the custodian of monetary policy warned the caretakers of fiscal policy.

“The economic recovery has continued at a moderate pace in recent quarters despite the strong headwinds created by federal fiscal policy,” was the substantive opening line of his testimony to the House Financial Services Committee.

In the next breath, the chairman of the Federal Reserve worried that the House and Senate are contemplating additional austerity measures this year that would curb the expansion even more.

“The risks remain that tight federal fiscal policy will restrain economic growth over the next few quarters by more than we currently expect, or that the debate concerning other fiscal policy issues, such as the status of the debt ceiling, will evolve in a way that could hamper the recovery,” he said. Full story

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

July 16, 2013

Consumer Bureau Gets a Leader, and Dodd-Frank Gets an Enforcer

There’s a strong argument that the most important meaning of Tuesday’s pivotal roll call isn’t that the Senate has saved the Senate from itself. The filibuster showdown was averted, for now, but it hasn’t gone away.

The vote was one of the most important of 2013 for a bigger reason: It finally enacts a central provision of the Dodd-Frank financial services regulatory overhaul — the one President Barack Obama signed into law three years ago this week.

When 17 Republicans joined all 54 Democrats on the first ballot of the day, it became clear that the “nuclear option” for advancing executive branch nominations wasn’t going to be deployed by the majority anytime soon. So the queasy equilibrium at the Capitol had been preserved a little while longer.

But the real parliamentary consequence of the vote was to clear a path for Richard Cordray to become the first Senate-confirmed director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He’s been on the job under a contested recess appointment for 18 months but will now be able to serve free of any cloud of legitimacy until the end of this administration.

In that time, he should be able to set up a powerful financial watchdog system. The practical effect will surely have a direct impact on the lives of a couple of hundred million more Americans — everyone, in fact, who seeks a product or service from a financial services business.

The CFPB was created by Congress in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis to look out for the interests of the customers of banks, mortgage companies, credit card businesses and securities firms. It was given broad power to enforce consumer protection laws and to make sure consumer interests were represented whenever federal regulators contemplated changes to economic policy. And it was freed from the vagaries of the annual budget process by being funded as an autonomous arm of the Federal Reserve.

Republicans and their friends on Wall Street have hated all those ideas ever since they were first proposed. Since they all came to pass anyway, the GOP has sought to prevent the agency from getting off the ground by working to prevent anyone from wielding the agency’s principal powers.

In other words, the Cordray opposition has never been based on the former Ohio attorney general’s qualifications. It has always been about relitigating the arguments about what the CFPB should be permitted to do, with what money and under whose direction.

“Wait until his confirmation and you’ll see more intrusion into your personal life,” Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming warned on the floor before the big vote. He said Cordray will have “more power beyond anybody else in the federal government.”

With the cloture vote Tuesday, and the 66-34 confirmation vote later in the day, the crusade to stop that theory from being tested is now at an end. Republicans say they won’t abandon their push to replace the director’s position with the sort of bipartisan commission that governs most federal regulatory agencies, or to make the CFPB subject to the yearly appropriations process.

For all intents and purposes, though, such a rewrite is now a dead letter. Clear evidence of that was the roster of Republicans who voted to break the Cordray filibuster: Among them were Bob Corker of Tennessee, Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Mark S. Kirk of Illinois — all members of the Banking Committee with jurisdiction over Dodd-Frank.

They were joined by Rob Portman of Ohio, who had been leading the legislative effort to remake the CFPB. He says he’s now ready to set aside that campaign because of assurances he’s received from Cordray that he’ll come to the Capitol to explain his agency’s budget to appropriators and also make sure a cost-benefit analysis has been conducted before any proposed agency regulation is put into effect.

Democrats are now arguing they are quietly doing the financial services industry a bit of a favor, if only by creating a sense of certainty about its regulatory future that’s been lacking so far this decade. And, truth be told, some banking and brokerage executives concede that, since his January 2012 appointment, Cordray has been more reasonable and even-handed than they ever expected.

The Cordray confirmation means “we will be able to say loudly, clearly and with confidence: The consumer agency is the law of the land and is here to stay,” Elizabeth Warren declared on the floor Tuesday morning.

Warren is a senator in large part because, when she was a bankruptcy law professor at Harvard, she talked senior Hill Democrats into pushing for a consumer protection board as part of their response to the Wall Street meltdown.

Once the agency was created, Republicans made it abundantly clear they’d never allow Obama to install her as its first director. She ran for the Senate instead.

So the day’s big vote was as much a moment of triumph for Warren as it was for John McCain, the filibuster-fixer who was maverick-in-the-middle once again. Cordray was her hand-picked deputy for the CFPB, and he will now run the agency she conceived but could never lead.

July 15, 2013

Senate ‘Club’ Convenes in Secret to Resolve Its Public War

For evidence of just how close the Senate has come to seizing up, consider the forum chosen by its leaders to conduct a last-ditch search for a restorative tonic.

For totally different reasons, Democrats and Republicans alike view the Senate as so thoroughly broken as to endanger its central role in the functioning of American democracy — which for 224 years now has put a premium on legislative transparency. But they could all agree that their final opportunity to make the situation a bit more tolerable had no chance of success unless a meeting of 100 minds took place in secret.

Filibuster after filibuster may make the north side of the Capitol look like a place created with perpetual impasse as the intended result. But at least the bitterness, blame-casting and distrust that attends the dysfunction is laid bare for all to see. Except in the rarest cases involving national security, the Senate gallery has always been wide open to the public and the press. Full story

Zimmerman Probe Goes Federal as Hill Critics Sound Off

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have been at the forefront of the campaign for federal prosecution of George Zimmerman on civil rights or hate crimes charges in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

The lawmakers got the first step toward what they’re after on Sunday, just hours after the former neighborhood watch leader’s acquittal in the Florida criminal case. The Justice Department said it was reopening its inquiry into the February 2012 shooting.

But there is no guarantee the House members — or the 250,000 who have signed a petition on the NAACP web site — will achieve their next goal of a second trial for Zimmerman, or their ultimate objective of seeing him convicted. Full story

July 14, 2013

Why the D.C. ‘Living Wage’ Fight Matters to Congress

One of the summer’s hottest local stories has become the standoff between the D.C. Council and Wal-Mart over how much the big-box behemoth should have to pay its Washington workforce.

The dust-up could end up touching Congress in several ways, beyond the sudden uncertainty about whether Hill staffers will have a new place for lunchtime shopping by the end of the year. (One of the chain’s first stores under construction in the city is at First and H streets Northwest, right behind the Government Printing Office and no more than a 20-minute walk from the Russell Senate Office Building.)

Whether city leaders end up sticking with or backing away from the “living wage” measure approved last week — it would require big retailers to pay starting wages 50 percent above the District’s regular minimum — could help steer the fate of President Barack Obama’s moribund-for-now proposal to raise the federally guaranteed hourly wage floor.

Whether Republicans end up moving legislation to block the local ordinance would indicate how forcefully, if at all, they want to apply the congressional prerogative to trump local rule. Whether Democrats move assertively against such a GOP intrusion would reflect how enthusiastic they are about advancing the agenda of organized labor.

And whether Wal-Mart would even seek such intervention will offer insights into how the lobbying team for the world’s largest retailer plans to prioritize its interests at the Capitol.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has until the end of this week to sign or veto the measure. (The city’s regular minimum wage of $8.25, or $1 more than the federal floor, would go up to $12.50.)  The company doesn’t yet have any stores open in the city, but the one on H Street is among three nearing completion, and plans are well along for three more in neighborhoods clamoring for more connection to Washington’s vaunted economic renaissance.

Wal-Mart is vowing that, if the higher wage law takes effect, it will abandon preparations for that second group of developments immediately while pondering its legal and financial options for pulling out of the others.

If Gray vetoes the measure, he would be echoing a move in 2006 by the Democratic mayor of another pro-labor city, Richard M. Daley, whose rejection of a living wage for big-box retailers sped along the opening of eight Wal-Marts in Chicago.

It would also probably be the end of the matter, because nine council votes are needed to override a council decision, which in this case passed 8-5.

But if the mayor calls the company’s bluff and signs the bill, it would indicate confidence that, with organized labor’s backing, he could get away with it — maybe with Wal-Mart but, if not, probably with the city’s voters and very likely with Congress.

For a mayor who’s put some visible effort into smoothing the city’s notoriously rocky congressional relations, embracing the living wage concept would be a bold change of course: He would be making D.C. a showcase for progressive values just as Republicans in the House are contemplating more efforts at making the city an unwitting display case for conservative social values.

Congress has the power to permanently negate enactment of any District statute. But it has to do so through the regular legislative process, which means it hardly ever happens. It’s especially unlikely given the Capitol’s partisan split.

Instead, whenever it has been in the House majority, the GOP has taken to writing language dictating some sort of conservative social policy (or preventing the city from pursuing its more liberal policies) into the annual spending bill providing the federal payment to Washington in lieu of taxes.

This year’s version is being considered by House Appropriations this week. It’s already going to include language chiding D.C. voters for approving a budgetary autonomy referendum this spring — though not actually reversing the outcome. There are rumblings that some Republicans are working on an amendment that would block the city, at least for the coming year, from putting a two-tier wage floor into effect.

Such language would presumably draw concerted and public protest from top Democrats, for a couple of reasons.

They are eager for any platform to promote their commitment to bolstering stagnant wages for the working class, which they expect to place among their top promises in their economic platform for the 2014 midterm. And they have lamented that Obama — although he did talk it up in his recent meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus — hasn’t done more to promote his State of the Union call for raising the minimum wage to $9 and then mandating yearly cost-of-living adjustments.

But putting their agenda for working people back in the public eye is mostly a strategy for next year, which leaves Democrats to do only what they can this year to make organized labor happy. The main pillar in the strategy has now become clear: getting Obama’s three nominees for the National Labor Relations Board confirmed, even if it takes the “nuclear option” of forcing limits on filibuster to get the job done.

Making sure a $26,000 annual salary, instead of $17,160, goes to just 1,800 minimum-wage workers — none of whom has even been chosen to pin the yellow smiley faces to their uniforms — should be relatively easy compared to remaking the culture of the Senate.

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