Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
November 26, 2015

September 18, 2013

Shutdown-Averting Endgame Buys All Sides a Second Play

Consider the notion that a deal is already baked and that sometime next week Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell will unspool a maneuver that not only averts a partial government shutdown but also saves Speaker John A. Boehner’s bacon.

The latest installment of fiscal brinkmanship is careening toward its climax. The intricate parliamentary moves being contemplated will strike some as unworthy of a great democracy. They will reaffirm for others a part of what makes our democracy so great — or at least so fascinating. Either way, the machinations are a reminder that mastering process is an indispensable part of making policy and an essential ingredient for political success. Full story

Shutdown Prospects Soar as Obama, GOP Square Off

The prospect of a partial government shutdown increased significantly this morning.

President Barack Obama made it emphatically clear that he is not in any way open to negotiating a delay or a weakening of his health care law. He spoke just minutes after House GOP leaders announced plans to pass legislation this week that would make defunding Obamacare their condition for stopgap spending until December and an increase in the debt limit good for at least a year.

The president, in remarks to corporate executives at the Business Roundtable, said he won’t allow a “faction” of the most conservative Republicans to “extort” such a concession from him because that “would fundamentally change how American government functions.”

“We will blow the whole thing up unless you do what we want? That can’t be our recipe for governing,” he said in characterizing the Republican plan. He also contended that this could jeopardize the economic recovery by rattling financial markets close to the next two budget deadlines — the start of the fiscal year in a dozen days and the Treasury’s need to borrow money beyond the legal limit sometime in the middle of October.

The remarks were perhaps the president’s most succinct and confrontational yet in this fall’s intensifying version of the budget wars that have consumed so much of Washington’s energies for the past three years. He is hoping to win the battle for public perception the same way Bill Clinton did during a series of shutdowns at the end of 1995. Republicans then were overwhelmingly viewed as petulant and blamed for allowing federal services to grind to a halt because they didn’t get their way in negotiations over cuts in social programs.

Speaker John A. Boehner, who was on a lower rung of the GOP leadership ladder back then, remembers the political beating his side took and has been openly resistant to tactics that could lead to a repeat performance. But the Ohio Republican was quickly overruled at a closed-door meeting of his caucus this morning, and he and Majority Leader Eric Cantor emerged to explain that their latest strategy in the budget battle is to tie straightforward spending and debt provisions to at least two poison pills — provisions to prevent any spending to implement the health care law, which is to take a major step in October with the opening of insurance exchanges, and a requirement that Obama allow construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which he has remained ambivalent about for two years.

There is no way the Democratic Senate would approve legislation defunding Obamacare, no matter its other provisions,. And the odds the Keystone language would survive look only slightly better.

There were some indications in Boehner’s remarks that he might countenance a strategy, only slightly different from the one he was forced to abandon last week, in which the Senate would strip out the provisions it found objectionable and send back to the House a relatively clean measure with the two fiscal provisions — continuing discretionary spending until Dec. 15 at the current sequester-clipped levels (an annualized rate of $988 billion), and permitting the Treasury to borrow whatever it deems necessary through next fall, and presumably beyond the midterm elections.

If the Senate at least goes on the record with a roll call sticking up for Obamacare — such a vote has never happened, even as the House has voted 40 times to defang or repeal the law — the leadership’s hope would be that a sufficient bloc of House conservatives would feel they had done the best they could to promote their cause, relent and allow the budget crisis to be avoided in the nick of time.

At least for today, though, the atmospherics on both sides suggest that a government shutdown lasting at least a few days might be required to focus the negotiators’ minds.

September 17, 2013

Day of Indecision Doesn’t Bode Well for Decisions to Come

As Capitol Hill returned to its usual levels of edginess and partisanship Tuesday, there was general thankfulness that the boots on the ground — the men and women of the Capitol Police — had provided the requisite competence and comprehensive calm during the mayhem down the street at the Navy Yard.

Everybody else who sought to put the congressional community at ease? Not so much.

The rhetorical questions with the sharpest edge that took hold most quickly on Monday afternoon were still being bandied about more than 24 hours later:

  • If the people in charge in the House and Senate can’t even agree how to handle the fading possibility of a gunman on the loose in the neighborhood, why should we expect they’ll speak with one voice when there’s an obvious and imminent threat?  
  • And if the law enforcement professionals can’t cut a quick, bicameral deal on a straightforward matter of security, is there any hope Republican and Democratic politicians will ever find agreement on a matter of policy consequence — on, say, flaws in the security clearance system and how to limit gun violence?

Full story

September 16, 2013

The 50 Richest Are Different, Yes, Even From Other Members of Congress

At first glance, our annual roster of the wealthiest people in Congress brought to mind one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most quoted lines: “Let me tell you about the very rich,” goes the opening of “The Rich Boy,” his 1926 short story. “They are different from you and me.”

But a more careful review of the exhaustively researched report quickly conjured up this codicil: The 50 Richest are profoundly different in many important ways from their own colleagues, who in the aggregate are still a whole lot better off than the vast majority of people they represent.

The median net worth of the top 50 was $14.3 million, a number made all the more astonishing by the fact that it’s 46 times as much as the median net worth ($306,000) of all the other members of Congress last year. And that lesser amount, in turn, is more than quadruple the median household net worth in the country. Full story

50 Richest Are Different From You and the Rest of Congress

The 50 Richest Members of Congress are different from the rest of their colleagues in so many ways, but here’s one way in which they are the same: There are nine women on the roster, or 18 percent of the lawmakers with the highest minimum net worth last year. And women hold precisely 18 percent of all the combined seats in the House and Senate.

Aside from that parity, though, the demographics of the wealthiest lawmakers are significantly different from the overall makeup of Congress, which of course is still way more white and male than the overall American population.

There is only one non-Anglo on the entire list for 2012, compiled by CQ Roll Call from the financial disclosure reports of every one of the members. That would be Rep. Bill Flores, a Hispanic Republican from Texas who’s a former energy company executive; he came in at No. 49, with a net worth of $6.7 million. (Overall, 17 percent of the members of the 113th Congress are either Hispanic, African-American, Asian American, American Indian or Native Hawaiian.

The list also skews Republican: 29 of the lawmakers, or 58 percent, are in the GOP, but the overall membership of both halves of Congress is 52 percent. That said, Democrats account for eight of the dozen richest — those with a net worth cresting at $30 million.

The list also reflects the common perception that senators tend to be better-off than House members: 13 percent of the Senate made the cut, but only 8 percent of House members.

The roster also offers reminders that membership turnover is more a part of the congressional dynamic than is commonly assumed — and that great wealth, once attained, is not squandered all that easily. Only 14 of the lawmakers who were on the 50 Richest list a decade ago (Roll Call has been calculating it since 1990) remain in Congress today.

And only three of those veterans have slipped off the latest roster. All are Republican senators: John McCain of Arizona, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama and Johnny Isakson of Georgia.

September 15, 2013

Bachmann’s Cautionary Tale: Sweat the Small Stuff, or Pay the Price

Few members of Congress sustain higher name identification than Michele Bachmann, even though her shooting-star prominence has had almost nothing to do with her work as the representative from the Twin Cities suburbs.

But now, in the self-imposed twilight of her time in the House, she looks to be shaping the end of her career in a way she never intended — a way that could not have been predicted when she burst so bombastically onto the scene six years ago — as the latest cautionary tale about the danger of deciding there’s no need to sweat the details of political life.

Once Bachmann announced in May that she wouldn’t make an assuredly difficult run for a fifth term, the Beltway fact-checkers decided not to put much effort into refuting her conspiratorial histrionics or conservative flights of fancy. House Republican leadership began shifting its view of her from a major management challenge to a tangential irritant. The tea party colleagues she once purported to direct scattered in search of different leadership.

But the watchdogs of congressional behavior, campaign finance regulations and federal criminal law haven’t dropped the Minnesotan from their sights. And, in the past two weeks, they’ve signaled they have found someone who was, at best, inappropriately ignorant about improper activity by the people who ran her boom-to-bust-in-five-months quest for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. Full story

September 12, 2013

GOP’s Next Move Against Obama? Judicial Wars, Round II

The judicial wars have not gone away. They’re just on hold for at least another week.

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee were preparing today to invoke their powers to insist on a one-week delay before a vote to advance the nomination of Nina Pillard, the Georgetown University law professor who has emerged as the most contentious of President Barack Obama’s three picks for vacancies on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals. Full story

September 11, 2013

After Bowing to Congress on Syria, Then Pulling Back, Will Obama Ever Return?

Have the first congressional votes in a decade on authorizing military force been postponed indefinitely, or effectively canceled altogether?

Members returned to work Wednesday scratching their heads over that question, which President Barack Obama left unanswered during his speech to the nation Tuesday night. Lawmakers got no guidance from the White House, which declined to offer any sort of deadline for its sudden switch to pursuing a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Syria.

A bit more definition is possible when Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday to negotiate details of a seemingly long-shot plan for teams of international monitors to collect and destroy all of President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons.

There’s also a chance for some timeline to emerge at the United Nations, where delegates from the United States, France and Great Britain are working on a Security Council resolution requiring the government in Damascus to turn over its stockpile or face globally sanctioned military reprisal.

The deliberative metabolism of diplomacy and the complexities of the plan sprung only in the past few days suggest it will be near the end of the month before it’s plausible to decide whether the Russian and U.N. approaches can be sustained.

It will also probably take a couple of weeks to discern if Syria, which has signaled cooperation with Russia’s disarmament call, is only doing so as a stalling tactic — designed to play for extra time, during which congressional and public support for a punitive strike might shrink even more than it already has.

Coincidentally or not, the president’s call for a timeout in his drive for the Hill’s backing came after it was abundantly clear he wasn’t even close to having the votes he needed, and that his chances were slipping by the hour.

By the time he went before the prime-time TV cameras, tallies of lawmakers’ stated positions showed Obama had at most two dozen “yes” votes locked down in the Senate and at least three dozen senators against giving him the authority. The latter was very close to the 41 needed to stop the use-of-force resolution with a filibuster.

The unofficial whip counts in the House were even more problematic: Less than 10 percent of members were in favor of a military strike, at least 40 percent committed in their opposition and at least another 10 percent leaning toward “no.”

The decision to grab at diplomatic options, even knowing they might dissolve into mirages soon enough, buys not only Obama but also a balky Congress an uncertain amount of leeway to paper over their differences. All the players are war-weary. They’re just figuring out how to exorcise their exhaustion in different ways.

A good bet is Obama won’t take his hand off the congressional pause button unless he’s confident he’s turned legislative momentum in his favor. Having extracted himself from an almost certain defeat that would have weakened his standing abroad and on the Hill, he has absolutely nothing to gain from subjecting himself to that predicament again.

There’s a chance the president will eventually declare that the need for a congressional vote has become moot, and most members will tacitly defer to him. That could happen if:

  • Almost the whole world lines up behind U.N. language countenancing airstrikes if Syria doesn’t make good on its promises and there’s a face-saving consensus in Congress that such a resolution gives Obama the only official stamp of approval he needs to send in the Tomahawks if necessary.
  • Syria bends over backwards in cooperating, refuting the skeptics who say it’s nearly impossible under ideal circumstances — let alone during a civil war — to rapidly collect unconventional weapons from dozens of widespread secret locations.

More likely, there will be a new drive to rally Congress behind a conditional use-of-force resolution once Syria’s cooperation looks to be neither genuine or fast enough for the comfort of the administration or congressional hawks. A fine time for that scenario to start moving to the fore is the week after next, when the House is still awkwardly on course to be away for an end-of-the-fiscal-year “district work period.”

If the GOP majority leadership sticks by that schedule, it would generate just the sort of news vacuum that could be filled by Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham. They remain the most strongly in favor of punishing Syria with military might and the most keenly interested in asserting either the congressional prerogative or the political imperative for granting permission for such shows of force.

McCain said Wednesday that he won’t wait long before deciding if Syria is deploying a “rope-a-dope” delaying tactic.

Obama “sure has created one awkward situation for himself,” says Julian E. Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “If he returns to the Hill to ask for any kind of authorization, he’ll have to admit his diplomacy didn’t work, which will put him in an even weaker position than he is now and make it even harder for him to get what he wants.”

Shutdown or Default: Which Road Will House GOP Choose?

An alternative House Republican tactic for holding the government hostage in the crusade to hobble Obamacare has come into sharper focus today. It doesn’t look to have any better chance of  success than the first idea floated this week, but the consequences of pursuing the second course could be much more dramatic.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., is floating the idea of insisting on a one-year delay in implementing the health care overhaul, or at least its individual mandate, as the price for legislation to increase the federal debt limit, which will hit its ceiling sometime in mid-October or early November.

Many conservatives and junior members embraced the debt-ceiling approach at a GOP caucus meeting Tuesday, and only a handful of veterans and politically vulnerable members expressed reservations — a reaction prompting the leadership to retain the economically risk-filled strategy as an option for a climactic confrontation in this fall’s budget wars.

The previous notion was to advance legislation with the same delaying effect, but tying it to a catch-all spending bill to keep the government running past Sept. 30 to at least Dec. 15. Full story

September 10, 2013

Were They Aiming for the Dome on Sept. 11? A Capitol Myth That’s Hard to Shake

A dozen years on, it remains the biggest unsolved mystery connecting the congressional community to the defining moment in 21st-century American history: Were the United 93 hijackers aiming for the Dome when the passengers revolted and forced the plane to crash into a bucolic southwestern Pennsylvania field?

Most people who will go to work on Capitol Hill this Sept. 11 presume there’s no dispute, that the answer is an unequivocal “yes.” I confess I can’t share that certainty and have always wondered why it took such hold.

Full story

New Consensus in Budget Wars: Truce Until Dec. 15

While the situation with Syria is getting more fluid by the hour, the next step in the other morass confronting Congress is getting clearer: A truce in the budget wars is going to be declared until the holidays.

Mark your calendars with Dec. 15, two Sundays before Christmas, as the new target adjournment date for the first session of the 113th Congress.

Republican leaders will unveil legislation this afternoon, which the House will debate by Thursday, that would continue appropriations to all agencies and departments flowing at current, trimmed-by-the-spring-sequester levels for the first 75 days of fiscal 2014, which starts Oct. 1. Full story

By David Hawkings Posted at 11:51 a.m.
Budget Wars

September 9, 2013

Razorback’s Edge: Why Are Arkansas Rivals Split on Syria?

For one of the clearest illustrations yet of the complex and unpredictable nature of the Syria strike voting dynamics in Congress, consider the Arkansas delegation and its pair of statewide candidates.

When he was first a candidate for the Senate, Democrat Mark Pryor backed a Republican president, George W. Bush, when he sought congressional authority to attack Iraq to prevent its threatened use of chemical weapons. But this past weekend, Pryor announced that he’ll almost certainly vote against a resolution backing the president of his own party, who wants to launch military strikes against Syria for using chemical weapons.

Barack Obama, he said, has not proved “a compelling national security interest,” defined “a mission that has a definitive end-state” or built an international coalition to collaborate in an attack.

Pryor’s 2014 challenger, Rep. Tom Cotton, last week completed his own even faster whiplash-inducing maneuver — going the other way.

Cotton won the House seat covering the fertile expanses south and west of Little Rock last year by campaigning against whatever policies Obama advocated, at home or abroad. But, even before Obama asked Congress for backing on Syria, the freshman congressman had emerged as one of the most vocal and enthusiastic proponents in either party of the president’s approach.

American action is needed, he said, to uphold international opposition to chemical weapon use, reassure Israel and other Middle East allies and preserve the global credibility of a president he generally disdains. “Put simply, our core national security interests are at stake,” he said in direct rebuttal of the Pryor view.

These opposite-spinning evolutions are a reminder that, whenever the “all politics is local” aphorism doesn’t explain how electoral rivals ended up in the same place, the “all politics is situational” corollary probably helps explain why they’re not. Full story

September 8, 2013

Rand Paul-Chris Christie Feud Gets a New Jersey ‘What Sup Witch Yew?’

Rand Paul

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

By the end of this first week back, a Capitol that’s emotionally spent from the Syria debate and still anxious about a budget impasse will be sorely in need of a diversion.

Ideally, it will combine a generous portion of campaign maneuvering, plenty of tart-tongued rhetoric and a bit of insight for those already playing the parlor game of handicapping the next presidential race.

Fortunately, enervated lawmakers and aides need to look no farther than 210 miles up the road, to a banquet hall in the middlebrow New Jersey suburb of Clark. On Friday, this will be the site of the next installment in the feud that’s been captivating the attention of the political class all summer — even though one of the combatants has wagered he’ll win this round by staying away.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has committed to being there, for the stated reason of headlining a fundraiser for Steve Lonegan, the sacrificial GOP lamb in the special election that’s going to send Cory Booker to the Senate.

Full story

September 3, 2013

On Syria, McConnell Remains Lone Hill Leader on the Fence

Only one of the top five members of the bipartisan congressional hierarchy still sits on the fence about launching a punitive strike against Syria: Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader.

The Kentucky Republican emerged from the White House on Monday as the only member of the bicameral leadership group still uncommitted to voting in favor of legislation authorizing military action.

McConnell looks to be taking as much time as he can. He’s weighing his political considerations back home, where an isolationist stance would provide clear short-term benefit, against the pressures of his leadership role at the Capitol, where he’s spent almost three decades as a Republican voice for a hawkish defense posture and an interventionist foreign policy. Full story

Ahead of Hearing, Solid Support for Syria Strike at Senate Foreign Relations

While President Barack Obama spent the morning behind closed doors rallying the bipartisan congressional leadership to his side, an equally important hurdle for his Syria policy comes this afternoon, when 18 senators on the Foreign Relations Committee will publicly reveal whether they’re for, against or undecided on authorizing U.S. military intervention.

The White House’s basic strategy for getting congressional approval of the president’s plan of attack looks to be simple: Lobby hard to secure a strong bipartisan majority in the generally more interventionist Senate during the first half of next week, and hope that show of support assist the president in persuading a narrow majority in the more skeptical and isolationist House to go along.

How easily that approach can be sustained will become clear soon after the committee convenes Tuesday at 2:30 p.m., but the initial indications look promising for the president. Full story

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