Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
September 18, 2014

April 23, 2013

Lame-Duck Baucus Is an Extra Long Shot for Tax Overhaul

When Montana’s Max Baucus first became chairman of the Senate Finance Committee a dozen years ago, a colleague of mine on the tax beat worked this  telling observation into her profile: His remarks in public were so halting, she wrote, that he often appeared as if “still reflecting on what he should say even as the words left his mouth.”

That phrase sprung to mind when word got out Tuesday morning that Baucus was retiring — the biggest 180 in a four-decade career characterized by such sharp and just-when-you-least-expected-them turnabouts. Two hours later, he still wasn’t quite ready to state clearly what everyone already knew.

“I’ve got people I’ve got to talk to first,” Baucus said as moved past the crush of reporters that waited for him to finish a relatively routine committee meeting. “I’m going to talk to my staff right now. And phone calls I’ve got to make.”

The Baucus record has been marked more than anything by a willingness to ignore the wishes of fellow Democrats and the entreaties of his leadership, especially when they conflicted with his perceived political realities back in Montana. But, for lawmakers and lobbyists alike, there is another related aspect of his style almost as important to be aware of — and sometimes even more annoying. Full story

By David Hawkings Posted at 5:53 p.m.
Democrats, Taxes

Putting Ryan Out Front Alters Immigration Debate Dynamic

This week’s most important development in the immigration debate has nothing to do with those testy exchanges at Monday’s Senate Judiciary hearings. It didn’t even happen in Washington. And the central player is one of President Barack Obama’s most prominent critics.

The event was a daylong swing through Chicago on Monday by Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, who ran for vice president last year on the Mitt Romney “self deport” platform and who has continued to make deficit reduction the focus of his congressional career and his 2016 national aspirations.

That all changed yesterday, when Ryan became by far the most prominent House Republican to endorse a comprehensive overhaul of immigration law. Full story

April 22, 2013

Now Is the Sequester of Our Discontent

The House convenes Tuesday for the first time since the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects ended and immigration hearings began, so those issues would be expected to dominate the afternoon glut of “one minutes” from those eager to be heard on the stories of the day.

Instead, it’s a good bet many lawmakers will have something else they want to talk about: the sequester, a topic that was put to rest exactly four weeks ago. Full story

Brothers Tsarnaev Give Unexpected Lift to Immigration Push

Senators pushing for an immigration overhaul are going on offense against the intensifying effort to leverage anxiety about the marathon bombing to derail momentum for the legislation.

“We’re not going to let them use what happened in Boston as an excuse,” Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the “gang of eight” senators who wrote the bipartisan bill, said Sunday on CNN.

Several lawmakers and conservative advocates in recent days have suggested that it’s wrong to begin the immigration debate so soon after the Boston bombings. Without explicitly saying so, these critics have suggested that an overhaul they already view as too permissive would allow unsavory potential terrorists even easier entry into the United States.

But if that’s so, what’s known so far about the brothers who allegedly carried out the attack doesn’t seem to support such an argument. They arrived in the United States a decade ago, when Tamerlan Tsarnaev was the age of a sophomore in high school and Dzhokar Tsarnaev was a fourth-grader, almost certainly too young for them to have immigrated with actionable terrorist thoughts about their new home on their minds. The boys and two sisters emigrated from Russia, where they had arrived as refugees from Kyrgyzstan. They followed their parents, ethnic Chechens who had been granted political asylum in the United States.

Dzhokar, who’s now 19 and remains hospitalized and in serious condition after his capture on April 19, became an American citizen in September. Tamerlan, 26, who died in a shootout on April 19, was a legal resident.  How they were radicalized, the circumstances of Tamerlan’s travels in Russia for six months last year and the nature of the FBI’s earlier interviews with him at the Russian government’s request will be the subject of intense congressional and public interest in coming days. But, at least on the surface, their known path through the immigration system sounds more like an ushering through the proverbial golden door than a slipping through the cracks.

“Refugees and asylum seekers have enriched the fabric of this country from our founding,”  Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said in convening a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill this morning. “Let no one be so cruel as to try to use the heinous acts of two young men last week to derail the dreams and futures of millions of hardworking people.”

Leahy and Schumer both used the same argument at the hearing that was used over the weekend by two “gang of eight” Republicans, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. They all say the Boston bombing is a reason to accelerate the debate on legislation, not delay it, because of its exit visa requirements and other provisions designed to bolster immigration security.

More than anything else, they say, abandoning deportations and putting 11 million undocumented people on a pathway to citizenship would allow law enforcement to spend more time on border security and investigating immigrants’ terrorist threats.

The slow-walking-because-of-Boston call from the immigration overhaul’s critics may not get all that many adherents in the Senate. It was unveiled on April 19 by Judiciary’s top Republican, Charles E. Grassley, and espoused yesterday by Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., but so far there has not been any additional groundswell. The chances for that are likely to dim as the public comes to understand more of the facts about both the suspects and the bill.

But even a slight delay works to the advantage of opponents, who continue to assume a bill like the one from the “gang of eight” will win a solid majority in the Senate. They are already focusing almost as much lobbying attention on the more skittish, and more Republican, House.

April 19, 2013

Baucus Gets Busy Annoying His Own Party Again

Monday afternoon’s Senate vote is all about Democratic leaders finding another way around Max Baucus — one of the most frequent, unpredictable and enormously powerful thorns on their own side.

Senators will decide whether to break a filibuster helped by Baucus, who for years has been using his Finance Committee chairmanship to bottle up legislation leading to nationwide sales taxes on most online purchases. He says he can’t abide the measure’s effect in Montana — one of five states where there’s no sales tax, but where bigger businesses would have to collect sales taxes from Internet customers elsewhere. He says that’s both an unfair burden on his constituent businesses and an infringement on his state’s rights.

Baucus looks certain to lose; 75 senators voted for a nonbinding measure last month signaling support for the legislation. But the vote will also certainly do nothing to change the ways of a senator whose iconoclastic and parochially driven brand of centrism — especially when he’s within two years of an election — has often infuriated his leaders for the better part of two decades.

That’s because his approach has helped him repel a collection of vigorous challenges and win six terms in the Senate. It also makes him the front-runner at the moment to hold the seat again in 2014 even though President Barack Obama lost Montana by nearly 14 percentage points. Although his approval rating is at an underwhelming 45 percent, his $4.9 million in the bank at the start of April was more than anyone else in the “red state five” — the Democratic incumbents running next year in states Mitt Romney carried last year. And, although the recruiting of more formidable challengers hasn’t stopped, the only potentially viable opponent so far is a former Republican state senator, Corey Stapleton.

But it’s an axiom of Baucus’ congressional life that he’s only stayed safe by running scared, which helps explain why the Internet tax bill standoff marks the fourth time he’s so publicly scraped against the party grain in the past month.

Two of those times came just hours apart on Wednesday.

In the morning, he became the first senior congressional Democrat to publicly express apprehension about implementation of the health care law — which, of course, he had a central hand in writing, much to the consternation of his more liberal colleagues and many of the people in Montana.

“I just see a huge train wreck coming down,” he said, mainly when the enrollment period for the new insurance exchanges begins this fall.

“I don’t know what he’s looking at,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius snipped to reporters when the Finance hearing ended.

Then in the afternoon, Baucus and just three other Democrats broke with the party mainstream on all four key amendments to the gun violence bill. As the National Rifle Association wanted, he voted against expanding background checks, banning assault weapons and restricting high-capacity magazines, and in favor of allowing one state’s concealed-carry permit to apply nationwide.

His first high-profile apostasy of the year came just before the spring recess, when he was one of only four in his caucus to vote against the Democratic budget, which squeaked through without a single vote to spare. It calls on Finance to write a bill raising $975 billion in taxes in the next decade, which the chairman says is way too much. He slipped out of the chamber early in the roll call, even as Majority Leader Harry Reid was trying to figure a way to allow colleagues in even more pronounced political trouble the option of voting “no.”

The Nevada Democrat was reminded in all four instances that there is little percentage in expecting Baucus to put his personal political considerations behind his responsibilities as a top committee chairman to help his party with its legislative goals. Tom Daschle learned that a decade ago, when Baucus openly defied the previous Democratic leader’s orders to stay away from the negotiations that yielded the first Bush tax cut and the Medicare prescription drug program. In the 1990s, George Mitchell had to worry about Baucus’ balancing act pulling him away from the positions he was supposed to promote as Environment and Public Works chairman.

This spring’s gun control, Internet levy and budget resolution matters are tiny fare, though, compared with the No. 1 item on the Baucus agenda, which is to engineer the biggest tax law overhaul since 1980s.

Republicans eager for a Democratic partner who would see things their way — that the corporate and individual codes should be simplified in ways that don’t demand more taxes from the rich — are salivating at the chance to cut a deal with Baucus while he’s running for his seventh term. Many Democrats are openly leery of letting that happen and are counting on Obama to keep the brakes on a tax rewrite tamped down until 2015.

Baucus hopes then to break the record for time on Finance and, because his party doesn’t believe in term limits, to still be chairman. He will be 73 and presumably in his final term. And so it’s only then when his fellow Democrats think he might be willing to strike a deal entirely on his party’s terms.

Washington Frozen in Place by Boston Manhunt

Official Washington remained totally transfixed today by the manhunt around Boston.

President Barack Obama was holed up in the West Wing following the rapidly unfolding and violent developments in the Boston Marathon bombing investigation. He spent part of the morning in a briefing with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and CIA Director John O. Brennan

“This entire week we’ve been in a pretty direct confrontation with evil,” Secretary of State John Kerry said after participating in the meeting by teleconference. Until two months ago, Kerry was the senior senator from Massachusetts.

The only event on Capitol Hill was a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the bipartisan immigration proposal but the one witness, Napolitano, canceled to be with the president. The panel’s top Republican, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, said the situation underscored the importance of figuring out the existing shortcomings in the immigration system before contemplating an overhaul.

The suspects have been widely identified by law enforcement officials as brothers from a Russian region near Chechnya. But an uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, who lives in the Washington suburb of Montgomery Village, said the men had emigrated almost a decade ago and had lived near Boston ever since.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed following a convenience store robbery  overnight, during a car chase and gun battle in Watertown in which improvised hand grenades were tossed from a carjacked Mercedes and one police officer was killed; he was 26 and was the one wearing the black baseball cap in the surveillance footage the FBI released Thursday.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, the one filmed wearing a white ball cap backwards, escaped and was the focus of a phenomenal manhunt that prompted officials to stop all mass transit systems and order everyone in Boston and several suburbs to stay indoors.

“We believe this to be a terrorist,” Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis said before dawn this morning. “We believe this to be a man here to kill people.”

“They have never been in Chechnya, they have nothing to do with Chechnya,” Tsarni told reporters who swarmed his home, and he urged his surviving nephew to turn himself in.

The Chechen region of the Caucuses has been plagued for years by an Islamic insurgency that has pressed its cause with a series of bomb attacks, mainly in Moscow. Tsarni said he was confident that his nephews had no attachment to that cause. “Being losers, not being able to settle themselves,” was his response when asked to speculate on their motive.

By David Hawkings Posted at 12:07 p.m.

April 18, 2013

How 37 Percent of the Nation Still Rules in 100-Member Senate

The way the drive for gun control got stymied shows that the operative dynamic in the Senate has become more insidious than ever.

It turns out that, in this case, the wishes of 9 in 10 Americans can be repelled by a group of lawmakers representing fewer than 3 out of every 8.

A whole series of surveys have found support in the 90 percent range for requiring background checks before almost all commercial firearms sales. That’s about as close as it gets to unanimity in the polling world. And that’s the heart of the proposal that was blocked Wednesday, effectively ending the debate over how best to reduce gun violence  — at least until after the next massacre in a schoolhouse, movie theater or supermarket parking lot.

On the surface, the reason was that 45 senators opposed the idea and, under the new normal for accomplishment in the chamber, any proposal of consequence can be stopped by any bloc of 41 or more. That’s because, three years ago, the dilatory dysfunction got so bad that the leaders of both parties struck a handshake deal. To keep filibusters from swallowing the Senate calendar whole, they would grant the minority an extra measure of leverage on any controversial votes for passing bills or adding amendments: They could insist that the other side come up with 60 affirmative votes, or a three-fifths supermajority. Full story

Obama’s Dinner Date Gets Lost in Senate Gun Shuffle

Act 3 in President Barack Obama’s springtime senatorial reach-out was pretty easy to miss. Tucked between his furious Rose Garden reaction to Wednesday’s gun control defeat and his comforting words of tribute at Thursday morning’s Boston memorial service, the president spent two hours at dinner with a dozen Democratic senators.

None of the four Democrats who crossed party lines and helped defeat the background check compromise were invited, so there were probably no dissenting views when the table talk turned to the president’s promise to try to resurrect that legislation.

But two senators from the “gang of eight,” Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Michael Bennet of Colorado, were on hand to talk about the next steps now that their immigration overhaul measure has been unveiled. Full story

April 17, 2013

Harry Reid’s Gun Control Conversion: Courage or Cynicism?

His allies hailed it as a bold statement of conscience with considerable political risk. His critics labeled it a baldly cynical ploy without any lasting downside.

Either way, what Harry Reid did on Wednesday was mostly unexpected — and largely overlooked. It came on a day when the Capitol’s attention was riveted anew by suspicious packages and powder-filled letters sent to lawmakers, the search for the Boston Marathon bomber, the details of a bipartisan immigration overhaul deal, and the climactic series of gun control roll calls in the Senate.

As the day began, the Senate majority leader appeared in the well to announce that he would vote for both of the most ambitious gun control measures being pushed  by President Barack Obama: a ban on a long roster of military-style assault rifles, and a prohibition on ammunition clips with more than 10 rounds. Full story

Gun Debate Moves Toward ‘None of the Above’

The Senate path for legislation to curb gun violence is about to hit a brick wall, any so-called evidence of progress notwithstanding.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, who’s spent his career cultivating support from the National Rifle Association, announced Wednesday morning that he would vote for both of the most ambitious gun control goals set by President Barack Obama — a ban on a long roster of military-style assault rifles and a prohibition on ammunition clips with more than 10 rounds.

Both proposals are still guaranteed to be rejected without any suspense later in the day. And so will the bipartisan compromise for expanding background checks on would-be gun buyers. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the amendment’s author along with Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, conceded as much on Wednesday morning. “We will not get the votes today,” Manchin told NBC News, although soon afterward his office issued a statement insisting the senator had not given up. Full story

By David Hawkings Posted at 11:14 a.m.
Domestic Policy

The Other Charlie Wilson’s Other War

The death last weekend of a former Democratic House member from Ohio named Charlie Wilson got an outsized share of social media attention — almost certainly because people thought he might have been the over-the-top colorful congressman from Texas.

That Charlie Wilson died three years ago, and his 1980s exploits as a back-channel federal financier of the insurgent rebels in Afghanistan, as well as his unapologetic womanizing and partying on Capitol Hill, were chronicled in a book and a 2007 movie with Tom Hanks in the title role.

The recently deceased Wilson will be less remembered  in Washington, but he played an interesting little role nonetheless — as my colleague Jason Dick noted in this excerpt from a story about his potential comeback:

Despite running in a conservative district, he didn’t shirk from his support for government spending, including the 2009 stimulus package that proved radioactive for many Democrats.

Full story

April 16, 2013

Boston’s Crisis Coincides With State’s Fall in Clout

The Boston Marathon bombings exposed not only the vulnerabilities of one of the nation’s iconic sporting events, but also the new limitations of one of its most iconic political institutions: the Massachusetts congressional delegation.

That much was clear when the state’s leading political and law enforcement figures assembled for Tuesday’s morning-after news conference. Speaking for the largest all-Democratic delegation at the Capitol was the state’s senior senator, Elizabeth Warren, who hasn’t been in office for even 15 weeks. She felt compelled to use her moment at the podium to assert that no clout was needed from her at a time like this.

“We did not have to reach out to the president,” she volunteered. “The president reached out to us.”

Standing silently by Warren’s side was the junior senator, William “Mo” Cowan, the appointed answer to a future political trivia question. His five-month sinecure will be over in June. Full story

Bipartisan Accord: Bombings Are ‘Terrorism,’ No Matter Who’s to Blame

None of Tuesday’s climactic events in Congress will be happening as scheduled. Instead, the pace of Capitol Hill has been slowed considerably by enhanced security, and lawmakers are spending some of their extra time speculating — without many facts to go on — whether the Boston Marathon bombing was an act of domestic or international terror.

The central provisions of the bipartisan Senate immigration package were released overnight. But a triumphant news conference with 16 business and labor leaders was put on hold in deference to the bombings, and the first hearing on the bill was put off until Friday. The Senate vote on expanding background checks for gun purchasers has also been postponed, in part because sponsors concluded it would be unseemly to have that roll call a day after the bombings, but mainly because they have not found the 60 votes they need to win.

The casualty count now stands at three dead and 176 injured by the two bombs that detonated near the finish line, a dozen seconds apart, the first multi-victim bombing on American soil since 9/11. Full story

April 15, 2013

Can Rubio Make Immigration a Non-Issue for 2016?

Assuming the Senate “gang of eight” unveils its immigration legislation, as promised, a disproportionate share of this week’s media attention will once again be aimed at a single senator in that octet.

That’s even though this chapter of the Marco Rubio story has hardly changed in recent weeks — certainly not since Sunday, when the Republican from Florida appeared on a record seven network TV news shows. His logistical feat should have ended any mystery about his intentions on immigration: He’s decided, without ambiguity or room for backtracking, to defy the vituperative warnings from fellow conservatives and take the lead for his party on the most comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws since 1986.

Even though the “will he or won’t he?” question has been answered, the coverage will continue to be enormous because of the consequences for the Republican Party’s electoral fortunes — and for Rubio’s own aspirations to become the first Latino in the White House. But the mystery on both those fronts seems to be dissipating as well. Support for creating a multi-requirement pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people who reside in the country illegally stood at a solid 57 percent majority among Republicans in a Gallup Poll released on April 12.

Full story

9 Senators Who Hold Fate of Background Check Deal

One of the first maxims of the congressional whips is, “If you’ve got the votes, then vote.” Additional delay can only work to unravel a thinly woven majority. So a decision to call the Senate roll on schedule Tuesday on a bipartisan compromise for expanding background checks will be a clear sign that proponents have rounded up the 60 senators needed to guarantee victory.

A decision to put off the vote for one day would mean the plan’s authors don’t have the magic number in hand but are pretty confident of getting there. A delay lasting any longer would spell big trouble for the background check language. And without that amendment, the underlying gun control bill is doomed — meaning the outcomes on the other amendments (most of which would weaken gun control) don’t matter much.

“I think it’s an open question as to whether or not we have the votes. I think it’s going to be close,” Republican Patrick J. Toomey, who wrote the compromise with Democrat Joe Manchin III, said Sunday on CNN.

They were hoping that some of the fence-sitters — the outcome rests with three Democrats and six Republicans — would be won over by the nation’s No. 2 gun rights group, the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, which endorsed the Manchin-Toomey plan on Sunday. The group said it’s an appropriate scale-back from the background check proposal originally pushed by President Barack Obama.

Deal supporters also are hoping that former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who plans to plant herself Tuesday outside a main entrance to the Senate floor, will be able to win over a couple of the undecideds by her very presence. They are hoping that a coincidence of history — Tuesday is the sixth anniversary of the shooting deaths of 32 students at Virginia Tech — might cause one of the waverers to fall into their camp.

Finally, they are hoping that one of the Senate’s most vigorous supporters of tougher gun control, the ailing 89-year-old Frank R. Lautenberg, who hasn’t cast a floor vote in six weeks, might be well enough to get to the chamber.

Without Lautenberg, the amendment has 52 solid “yes” votes, or eight short of what it needs.

The New Jersey senator is one of 49 Democrats in favor. Of the remaining six, “no” votes are essentially guaranteed from Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. That leaves the three others from the “red state five” — senators (including Begich and Pryor) running for re-election in 2014 in states carried by Mitt Romney — as the only other Democrats the National Rifle Association has much of a chance of winning over: Max Baucus of Montana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana.

Among the Republicans, only four have so far committed to voting for the background check compromise: Toomey, Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, Susan Collins of Maine and John McCain of Arizona.

And the rest of the lobbying attention is being focused on six of the GOP senators who voted last week to bring the bill to the floor in the first place. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Dean Heller of Nevada, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and John Hoeven of North Dakota.

Chambliss is retiring and none of the others are on the ballot next year.

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