Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
December 20, 2014

May 10, 2013

Budget Wars Likely to Fizzle Fast

After a two-week break — heralded by the quick and bipartisan capitulation to exempt the flying public but no one else from the sequester’s scythe — the budget wars are getting started again.

But signs point to the next few skirmishes fizzling fast.

Although it appeared likely when the year began, with a last-minute deal that looked like only a balky skid along the edge of the fiscal cliff, Congress is not facing a summer that’s going to look like 2011 all over again.

That’s mainly a consequence of the government’s short-term fiscal position, which on paper looks pretty good. The Treasury’s balance sheet for April was $113 billion in the black, the biggest monthly surplus in five years. Steady economic growth and the higher tax rates put in effect in January have quickened the flow of revenue. And the flow of spending has slowed now that those deep spending cuts, once dismissed as too indiscriminate to carry out, have nonetheless been put in place (except, of course, for those air traffic controllers).

The result is a federal deficit for the first seven months of this budget year totaling $488 billion, or just two-thirds of what it was during the same period the year before. At that pace, there will be less red ink on the books in September, at the end of fiscal 2013, than in any year since the finale of the George W. Bush administration.

With news like that, it’s going to be essentially impossible for conservative Republicans to build a head of steam behind their “shut it down” crusade. Full story

GOP Grievances on Benghazi, Obama Nominees Share Two Points

The growing opposition to Labor secretary nominee Thomas E. Perez and EPA director pick Gina McCarthy is very similar to what’s going on with the intensifying congressional skepticism about the Obama administration’s performance in the Benghazi consulate attack.

Republicans have raised detailed and substantive concerns about how Perez has performed as Justice Department civil rights chief and what McCarthy has been doing as the government’s principal clean air regulator. Along the same lines, they have uncovered a welter of reasons to wonder whether the State Department was on its toes before the Sept. 11 attack in which the American ambassador to Libya and three others died — and whether it’s been on anything close to its best behavior in explaining itself since.

Without doubting for one moment the sincerity of the GOP motives or the intensity of their legitimate oversight concerns in any of those matters, it’s also totally fair to observe the obvious political and policy benefits for them on all three fronts. It’s possible to have genuine concerns about poor government performance and be politically opportunistic at the same time. Full story

May 9, 2013

Is Republican Petulance a Tactic Worth Fighting For?

This week’s get-out-of-town day in the Senate was one of the more schizophrenic in recent memory, leaving aides and lobbyists little clue about what sort of mood will reign after the weekend.

On the one hand, the most consequential legislative debate this year got off to an efficiently substantive, occasionally eloquent and solidly bipartisan start. Members of the immigration overhaul “gang of eight” moved to embrace some limited ideas for boosting border security, hoping to attract more Republican votes. Then they united to stop other GOP amendments they all viewed as poison pills.

With C-SPAN broadcasting much of the proceedings in the cavernous Hart Central Hearing Room, the first session in what could be a two-week Senate Judiciary Committee markup was widely hailed as reflecting the legislative process at its civics-textbook best.

Not so on the fourth floor of the Dirksen Building, where another TV feed provided live — albeit static — pictures of eight empty chairs reserved for the Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee. The senators banded together to boycott the day’s session, which, under an arguable wrinkle in the rules, stopped the panel from advancing Gina McCarthy’s nomination to run the EPA.

The choreographed petulance was one of three passive parliamentary moves this week by the Republican high command, which seems suddenly willing to test fate by resorting to just the sort of partisan high jinks the electorate says it abhors. The intensified use of the throw-the-rule-book-at-’em approach came off as all the more curious in light of the immigration debate’s bipartisan sense of purpose and decorum. Full story

GOP Throws Rulebook at Obama to Block His Agenda

Republican resistance to President Barack Obama’s second-term plans intensified another couple of notches today.

Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced they would simply ignore a provision in the health care law calling on each leader to pick someone for a new panel with the power to dictate Medicare spending reductions without fear of congressional reversal.

The two said in a letter to Obama that such a bureaucratic maneuver was the best way they knew to protest the new Independent Payment Advisory Board, in light of their inability to kill it by repealing Obamacare completely.

At the same time, all eight Republicans boycotted this morning’s meeting of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which under a wrinkle in the rules prevented the panel from advancing Gina McCarthy’s nomination to run the EPA.

The protest came less than 18 hours after the Republicans on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel leveraged another obscure procedural obstacle to stop Thomas E. Perez’s nomination for Labor secretary from getting to the Senate floor.

The question for the GOP is whether those oppositional tactics, which are all about passive parliamentary maneuvering rather than overt ideological argument, will provide any traction for their policy objectives or if they will only succeed at further annoying an electorate wary of partisan hijinks. Full story

May 8, 2013

Mark Sanford Arrives Late to His Own Capitol Hill Roast

sanford050713 445x295 Mark Sanford Arrives Late to His Own Capitol Hill Roast

(Mary Ann Chastain/Getty Images)

No special-election winner in modern congressional history has had to put off a celebratory swearing-in because of a pending court date.

It’s just one more reminder of why no special-election winner in modern congressional history will arrive in Washington with less good will from his new colleagues than Mark Sanford. Which is why it’s not surprising that he won’t actually come back to Congress before the middle of next week.

At 9 points, Sanford’s margin of victory Tuesday was decisive enough that the certificate-of-election formalities could have been overlooked and he could have flown to Washington to become the new Republican House member for South Carolina’s coastal Lowcountry. Instead, he spent much of Wednesday working to make sure part of his past would not put an immediate crimp on his future.

Full story

Ted Cruz Leads the Twitter Pack in Texas

Ted Cruz remains combustibly in the news again this week — a high-profile speech to Republican faithful in early-primary South Carolina followed up with another tart public spat in the Senate, with Majority Harry Reid likening him to a schoolyard bully.

Four months into his time as the junior Republican senator from Texas, Cruz appears to operating on the principle that no amount of publicity is too much — especially for someone who’s suddenly tilting toward a run for president. His affect will get plenty more media attention starting Thursday, when the Judiciary Committee on which he sits opens debate on the immigration overhaul, probably lasting until Memorial Day. Cruz is going to work to slow or derail the bill at every turn.

All the while, the 42-year-old has been working diligently to cultivate his conservative base on social media, with what looks to be decent success. If he runs for the GOP nomination in 2016, he’ll potentially be doing so with the help of more Twitter followers than anyone else in the field.

Some enlightening detail about this has been assembled in recent days by the Houston Chronicle, the senator’s hometown paper. Its Texas on the Potomac blog made Cruz a test case of an effort to gauge the social media usage of all 38 members of the state’s congressional delegation.

Cruz is averaging 353 new followers every day and he sends out an average of 3.5 tweets daily — Wednesdays being his most prolific days. The favored conservative hashtags #defundobamacare or #2ndamendment are in more than half the posts @SenTedCruz has sent so far. He’s only tweeted 405 times from his Senate account, but those missives have collectively been retweeted almost 105,000 times. (The most recent, about the Benghazi embassy contretemps, went out at breakfast time and had been retweeted almost 4,000 times before noon.)

And get this: 86 percent of Twitter sentiment about the senator has been positive, by the Chronicle’s calculation.

May 7, 2013

Gay Marriage Is a Tougher Sell Than Ban on Workplace Bias

In the fortnight after the Supreme Court’s oral arguments in two same-sex-marriage cases, half a dozen senators announced they had changed their minds to support the right of gays and lesbians to wed.

The wave of turnabouts a month ago was important because it reinforced the notion that elected politicians were hurrying to get right with a seismic shift in public opinion — no matter what the justices decide to do.

But on a more tangible level, the fact that 54 senators now back marriage equality doesn’t have much real meaning. That’s simply because legislation to universalize gay marriage is nowhere near the realm of possibility.

That said, the size of that bloc could prove decisive for the fate of two measures that may show life this year.

If the justices rule, as the arguments signaled they might, and strike down a central section of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act — the part that, in effect, prevents federal agencies from recognizing same-sex marriages in states where they’re legal — it’s a sure bet that culturally conservative Republicans will begin pushing replacement legislation. But those 54 votes would be more than sufficient to prevent such a bill from ever getting through the Senate filibuster starting gate.

More important than that defensive block for many in the gay rights community is the potential help the 54 could give legislation banning most bias against homosexuals on the job. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act would extend federal employment discrimination protections under the 1964 Civil Rights Act to sexual orientation. Full story

Hill Clout: 4 Big Underperforming States, Plus a Pair of Overperformers

It makes intuitive sense that the states with the most people, which means the largest congressional delegations, tend to have the most influence over national lawmaking and the federal purse strings.

The formula for the Roll Call Clout Index was designed to reflect that notion, with its emphasis on the number of lawmakers each state has at the Capitol, their seniority and assignments to leadership positions and the most powerful committees.

It would be tough for California, by far the most populous state since the first clout study back in 1990, to finish in a spot other than No. 1 — and it never has. It’s big enough that seven of its House members sit on the Appropriations Committee and their share of the panel’s seats (14 percent) is only slightly ahead of the their share of the national population they represent (12 percent).

Size and stability also mean that in the index for the 113th Congress, out this week, the delegations from Texas, New York, Florida and Michigan also continued to hold spots — that they’ve never yielded — in the top 10, and Pennsylvania re-entered that tier after a time away.

But the delegations from four of the 10 most populous states underperformed in the new study — most significantly, the team from Illinois, which at 12.9 million residents is the fifth biggest state, but which dropped seven notches since its 2011 and 2009 rankings. Illinois is now No. 17 in overall clout. Full story

May 6, 2013

9 States Swoon and Surge in Capitol Hill Clout

Amassing seniority and keeping plenty of members in the party in power are two of the most important things a state can do to bulk up its influence in Congress.

Both have been difficult feats for plenty of states recently, given the shift of House control in 2010, the reapportionment and redistricting that soon followed and the much-higher-than-normal departure of 28 senators in the past two elections.

Which is why it’s not a real surprise that this year’s Roll Call Clout Index shows a significant scrambling of the pecking order since Barack Obama’s presidency began in 2009. Some states are seeing surges in their potential for influence, while others are looking at throw weights in precipitous decline.

As mentioned in this space recently, the sudden ascent of Louisiana — which now has the fourth-most-potent delegation after finishing in the low 30s in the previous two studies — was central to the story of the year, which is that the Gulf Coast region has more collective power than any other region. Meanwhile, Massachusetts, which for two decades had routinely finished in the top 10, slipped down to 20th just as the Boston Marathon bombings were putting the state in the national spotlight.

But those delegations were hardly alone in seeing reversals of fortune in the past four years. In part because of generational turnovers in their delegations, four other states besides Massachusetts have seen their spots in the rankings drop by double digits between 2009 and this spring, while new positions of power and surges in federal spending have caused three other states besides Louisiana to jump more than 10 positions. Full story

D.C.’s Neighbor States Flex Outsized Clout in Congress

The 13th biennial Roll Call Clout Index will be scrutinized by congressional staff from all 50 states, all of them eager to see how their bosses’ delegations stack up against the rest. But because a vast majority of Hill aides live in the Washington metro area, you can bet they’ll also be looking at how much potential the states of Maryland and Virginia have in the new Congress.

As you can see in this interactive graphic detailing the results of our study, both states that surround the capital held on to spots in the top 10 — impressive by the objective measure that Virginia is 12th in population and Maryland is 19th. (Obvious spoiler alert: The District of Columbia won’t be found in our study. Not having anything close to full-fledged representation in either the House or Senate essentially negates whatever persuasive powers and committee seniority Democratic Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton brings to the table.)

Both Maryland and Virginia have seen their potential delegation influence slip a bit since the last Clout Index.  Virginia, which peaked at No. 5 two years ago, has dropped back one notch. Maryland, which wasn’t in the top ranks a decade ago, came in 9th this time after finishing two spots higher in 2011, but it remains the second-smallest state (after Louisiana) in the top tier. Full story

May 3, 2013

A Surge in Clout Along the Gulf Coast

Gauging congressional clout is arguably an enterprise that falls somewhere between happy hour argument and inexact science. But it’s happening almost constantly on Capitol Hill. Roll Call has tried to help the conversation along for many years now by taking objective stock of every delegation’s potential sway in each of the past dozen Congresses.

The latest iteration of the Roll Call Clout Index is now complete, and the story of how power has shifted in the 113th Congress is clear: The states that anchor the Gulf Coast have much more stroke than ever before. Play this nifty interactive graphic to see why. Full story

Promising Jobs Report Fuels Both Sides of the Budget Wars

For shaping politics, the rosy jobs reports out today are undeniably a kick start for President Barack Obama and a kick in the teeth for his Republican critics. As for shaping fiscal policy, the numbers look to fuel the currently ambivalent muddle.

The headline figures are that a net 165,000 jobs were created in April, well above the consensus forecast and enough to help push the unemployment rate down to 7.5 percent, its lowest level since December 2008. The short-term message countermands some much more ambivalent recent economic data, which had signaled a “spring swoon” for the third year in a row.

But reasons for optimism over the longer term are found just below the surface in the job creation report. The Labor Department now says it underestimated the number of payroll positions added in the previous two months by a combined 114,000. Most notably, instead of the 88,000 new jobs initially estimated for March — a far worse-than-expected number that gave rise to considerable anxiety — the number is actually 138,000 thanks to some additional data.

And those upward revisions mean that, during the previous half year, the economy created an average of 208,000 jobs a month. The conventional view is that a characteristics of an economy that’s healthy enough to shrink unemployment in a sustained way is monthly job creation above 200,000.

The reports will provide evidence for both sides in the arguments over how to shrink the deficit and whether the sequester should be fully turned off before a bigger budget deal is reached.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated those deep and across-the-board cuts will trim the gross domestic product by 0.6 percent this year. Private economists have warned that leaving the sequester in place through the end of the year would hold down private sector job creation by hundreds of thousands, mainly because of its effect on government contracting,

Today’s report will be hailed by some fiscally conservative Republicans as evidence those warnings are overblown, and that the economy is proving itself strong enough to stabilize and start expanding despite the reductions in the size of the federal government they so emphatically espouse. They also point to numbers in the report showing many full-time positions being supplanted by temporary workers as a way for companies to avoid having to provide medical insurance under Obamacare.

In contrast, Democrats will argue that job creation and other economic indicators would be able to do even better if the indiscriminate spending cuts were replaced with a more proactive budget deal that includes trims to health-care entitlements and more tax revenue from the wealthy.  They also note that the full effects of the sequester, which has only been in place two months, will not be felt on business hiring until summer.

“While more work remains to be done, today’s employment report provides further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression,” said the president’s top economic adviser, Alan Krueger. “Now is not the time for Washington to impose self-inflicted wounds on the economy.”

Governments at all levels shed an additional 9,000 jobs in April, while private sector firms added 176,000 positions. While 11.7 million people remained unemployed but are still looking for jobs in April, that number is 5.4 percent smaller than it was in January.

The financial markets took quick and enthusiastic note of the news, pushing the Dow Jones industrial average past 15,000 and the S&P 500 index above 1,600 for the first time by mid-morning.

But Republican congressional leaders, who for more than a year have had their “not nearly good enough” news releases queued up to send minutes after Labor releases its monthly numbers, stayed silent for more than an hour before issuing more tepid than usual statements.

The reports “showed some signs of hope for the thousands of people who found a job in April,”House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said, but “this growth is way behind our nation’s potential. We must focus on job creation more than one day a month.”

May 1, 2013

Does Obama Care About Housing Pick Mel Watt?

One day after bluntly conceding the limits of his congressional suasion, President Barack Obama is picking another potential uphill fight with Congress — curiously, by choosing one of its own for a top administration job.

The president is nominating Rep. Melvin Watt — the No. 3 Democrat on House Financial Services in his 21st year as a North Carolina congressman — to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the regulator that oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Even before the formal announcement Wednesday, some senior Senate Republicans began signaling they will move to block Watt’s confirmation. Full story

April 30, 2013

Second Chance for Manchin-Toomey Gun Bill?

Do-overs resurrecting legislation that failed the first time are a pretty rare phenomenon in Congress. But Joe Manchin III is predicting that he and Patrick J. Toomey will be able to find the five votes they need to advance their background check expansion proposal a second time around.

A wave of polling in the two weeks since the Senate gun control measure first foundered is offering a decent road map for where to start their search.

Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said on Fox News over the weekend that “some confusion” about the measure contributed to its initial defeat. President Barack Obama has gone further, alleging the National Rifle Association and others “willfully lied” in arguing the measure would lead inexorably to a national registry of gun owners.

But if Manchin and his Pennsylvania Republican partner devote some time to educating close-call colleagues about the reach of their proposal, he says, they will prevail. “The only thing that we’ve asked for is that people would just read the bill,” he said. “It’s a criminal and mental background check strictly at gun shows and online sales.”

Whatever their persuasive skills, the pair will also be aided by polling in states represented by some of the last senators who got off the fence and voted against the background check vote.

Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, released results Monday of recent surveys showing declines in the favorability numbers for a handful of senators who signaled they were at least considering a “yes” vote but in the end voted “no.”

In Arizona, background checks were favored by 70 percent but the approval rating for Jeff Flake, who won his seat last fall with just above 50 percent, was pegged at only 32 percent. And, by a 21-point margin, those polled said they trusted John McCain, one of the four GOP senators who voted for the background check measure, more than Flake on gun issues.

In Alaska, both senators’ approval ratings have declined sharply since the last PPP survey in February. Both Democrat Mark Begich, who was one of four red-state Democrats who voted against the legislation and faces a tough battle for a second term next year, and Republican Lisa Murkowski saw their approval ratings slip by 8 points — his to 41 percent and hers to 46 percent.

In Nevada, 46 percent of of voters said they would be less likely to back Republican Dean Heller, who just won a full term, because of his “no” vote.

The new PPP numbers come a week after the firm released a poll showing 75 percent support for background checks in New Hampshire but a 15-point plunge in the approval rating for Republican Kelly Ayotte from October to when she voted against the background check language.

April 29, 2013

Obama’s New Cabinet Is Just as Diverse but No More Powerful

ObamaFoxx042913 445x275 Obamas New Cabinet Is Just as Diverse but No More Powerful

Foxx, left, will have no more sway over creating a guest worker program as Transportation secretary than if he remains as mayor of Charlotte. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

With Congress away, President Barack Obama looks ready to grab some easy headlines this week by announcing his choices to sit on the last three empty shelves in his Cabinet.

If all goes according to expectation, he’ll end up with a group just slightly more demographically diverse than the team that was with him when he won re-election. But outside their formalized spheres of power, they’ll have no more influence over legislation or administration policy than the Cabinet members of Obama’s first term or, for that matter, of any such group during the past couple of decades.

And so any senators who may consider fretting about a Cabinet confirmation vote can confine the worry to the topics in the official job description.

If he gets to be Transportation secretary, as Obama proposed on Monday, Anthony Foxx would have no more sway over creating a guest worker program than he would have if he’d stayed mayor of Charlotte, N.C. Maybe less, given how important immigrant labor is to the North Carolina economy.

If the president asks and the Senate agrees to let Penny Pritzker move into the grandest of the corner offices at the Commerce Department, she will have less influence over the potential intervention in Syria than she would have had she remained a politically active and generous philanthropist. And she’ll have none of clout shaping school policy that she had in her last post, on the Chicago Board of Education.

The Cabinet is one of the government’s most misunderstood institutions. It’s mentioned nowhere in the Constitution and its membership has been evolving on the whims of presidents since George Washington. Full story

Sign In

Forgot password?

Or

Subscribe

Receive daily coverage of the people, politics and personality of Capitol Hill.

Subscription | Free Trial

Logging you in. One moment, please...