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September 1, 2014

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.

April 12, 2013

15 Fun Facts About the Obamas’ and Bidens’ Taxes

obamabiden041213 398x335 15 Fun Facts About the Obamas and Bidens Taxes

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. released their tax returns Friday — three days ahead of the April 15 Tax Day deadline.

Both men filed jointly (although Dr. Jill Biden also filed a separate non-resident tax return in Virginia). The Obamas reported adjusted gross income of $608,611 and paid $112,214 in total tax. The Bidens reported AGI of $385,072 and paid $87,851 in total federal tax for last year. They paid $13,531 in Delaware income tax and $3,593 in Virginia income tax.

Our ace White House reporter Steven T. Dennis has been tweeting out some noteworthy nuggets based on his perusal of the filings — the Obamas’ filing was 38 pages and the Bidens’ was 31 pages. You can download the returns over at the official White House site.

Here are Steve’s fun facts:

  • Obama’s net tax rate on his $608K AGI: 21.2% Biden’s net tax rate on his $385K AGI: 22.8%
  • AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax) hit the Obamas with a $21,221 bill
  • AMT also hit the Bidens — $5,987
  • Barack & Michelle Obama gave $150K to charity. Joe & Jill Biden gave $7,190 in cash & goods
  • Obama’s biggest charitable contribution by far — $103K — went to the Fisher House Foundation for military families ‪
There is no mention of a Trans Am anywhere in Biden’s tax return.

 Full story

Maybe Obama Dinner Guests Voted With Their Stomachs

Evidence that the Obama charm offensive is starting to pay legislative dividends becomes available by comparing three lists: the 12 GOP senators who dined with the president last week, the 12 others whom Obama treated to supper a month ago, and the 16 Republicans who voted Thursday to begin debating gun violence legislation.

Among that last group of 16, all but three had attended one of those dinners, where the Senate guests were chosen mainly for their perceived willingness to entertain ideas for a budget deal.

Nine senators were guests in March at the Jefferson Hotel dinner, where the president launched his overt new effort to improve legislative relations:

  1. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire
  2. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina
  3. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia
  4. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma
  5. Bob Corker of Tennessee
  6. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina
  7. John Hoeven of North Dakota
  8. John McCain of Arizona
  9. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania

Four more Republican votes he secured from the roster of people he entertained at the White House just 12 hours before the vote:

  1. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee
  2. Susan Collins of Maine
  3. Johnny Isakson of Georgia
  4. Roger Wicker of Mississippi

Maybe the dinner fare had something with it: Senators at the hotel supper had a choice of four appetizers including crab risotto; entrée choices of roasted striped bass, grilled lamb, beef filet or lobster thermidor; and for desert peanut butter crumble, chocolate tart or an “iced Tahitian vanilla and praline bar.” The White House menu, by contrast, was the same for everyone: a relatively pedestrian grilled and sliced ribeye, sautéed vegetables, green salad and coconut sorbet with pineapple.

In any event, it’s impossible to view their cloture votes as a coincidence. It’s more likely that Obama’s good-food-and-candid-conversation strategy has helped him find the baker’s dozen who are most likely to break with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his super-conservative rank-and-file. They won’t vote that way as a group or all of the time, of course. But perhaps enough of them will, especially on the top-tier items that could make or break the president’s second-term legislative legacy.

And the other three senators who voted to advance the gun bill?

  1. Jeff Flake of Arizona
  2. Dean Heller of Nevada
  3. Mark S. Kirk of Illinois

In the immortal words of comedian Red Buttons: They never got a dinner!

‘Entitlement Trap’ Is Alive and Well on Capitol Hill

It’s been a full two days since Greg Walden, who runs the House GOP’s political arm, derided the Obama budget as a “shocking attack on seniors” — and his fellow Republicans are still working to recover from their gob-smacked whiplash.

It’s no surprise, of course, that the congressman in charge of recruiting and financing GOP candidates in 2014 would have little nice to say about the president’s plan. But the focus of Walden’s criticism was so surprising that many people in both parties assumed he’d misspoken on Wednesday — and would surely row back his comments on Thursday.

But Walden is sticking by the view that Obama should be derided for his embrace of “chained CPI,” the shorthand for changing how the government calculates inflation in order to reduce cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security and some other benefits.

No matter that the proposal would cost the typical senior about $50 next year, and that it is just the sort of modest limit on entitlements that Republicans howl is long overdue, mainly because Democrats starting with Obama haven’t been willing to embrace them. No matter that Walden’s derision of Obama for “trying to balance this budget on the backs of seniors” is impossible to square with the budget endorsed last month, not only by Walden but also by almost all the fellow Republicans he’s trying to re-elect next year. It would achieve balance by altogether ending federal medical benefits for the elderly under Medicare as an entitlement.

And no matter that he’s made the top leaders of his caucus furious and prompted the prominent conservative Club for Growth to encourage a 2014 primary challenge against Walden in eastern Oregon.

“This is the least we must do to begin to solve the problem of Social Security,” Speaker John A. Boehner said Thursday. “Chairman Walden and I have had a conversation, and we’ll leave it at that.”

The head-spinning situation could be laughed off as so much pandering and posturing were Walden another backbench tea partyer or even in that rare camp of GOP House members vulnerable to defeat in a swing district. But instead he is the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, someone who’s won wide praise as a savvy strategic thinker for his party.

Does this mean House Republican candidates are going to be urged to run away from even the most modest of the entitlement curbs they’ve clamored for? Does it mean the NRCC has concluded that voters have no memories or respect for ideological consistency? Does it mean Obama has just found a convenient exit hatch from the grand bargain budget talks that he probably didn’t know existed on the GOP side of the talks just a few days ago.

Those were some of the questions MSNBC’s Karen Finney, Indiana GOP spokesman Pete Seat and I talked about with Chuck Todd on “The Daily Rundown” this morning. You can watch it here.

April 11, 2013

Anthony Weiner, Mark Sanford: 2 Paths to Redemption

weiner041113 445x321 Anthony Weiner, Mark Sanford: 2 Paths to Redemption

Weiner resigned from Congress in 2011 and is now considering a bid for mayor of New York City. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

To their fans, the comeback drives of first Mark Sanford and now Anthony Weiner are happy signs that the American electorate is willing to embrace redemption. To their detractors, such ambitions are evidence that shame has lost its rightful place on the roster of politically effective motivators.

Either way, their stories are absolutely fascinating to the people who watched them launch their congressional careers in the 1990s, when their futures seemed almost limitless, then crash because they suffered from a pair of all-too-familiar politicians’ problems: believing in their own personal infallibility and not believing that the cover-up is almost always a bigger problem than the transgression.

Beyond the facts that both were driven into the political wilderness by self-generated sex scandals, both have been publicly contrite for a couple of years now and that both kept plenty of campaign cash in reserve for the moments at hand, the Sanford and Weiner stories have plenty of important differences. What makes the current comparisons doubly interesting is that those distinctions suggest the inverse of what’s likely to happen.

A review of facts would make you think Sanford, the conservative Republican, has much less of a shot at reclaiming his old House seat in South Carolina than the liberal Democrat Weiner has at realizing his lifelong dream of becoming mayor of New York City. Actually, the opposite is more the case. Sanford is the clear if not in-the-clear frontrunner in his May 7 special election, but if Weiner makes a late entry into the crowded mayoral primary field, he would be an underdog to get beyond the first round on Sept. 10 and into a runoff.

Both men were at political pinnacles when they allowed their libidos to get the best of them. Sanford remained popular at the midpoint of his second gubernatorial term in 2009, when he hid his whereabouts for six days to pursue a secret extramarital affair in Argentina. Weiner had become one of the most prominent spokesmen for House Democrats in 2011, when he denied for weeks that it was his pectorals and groin pictured in a series of texts, Tweets and emails to a variety of women.

The first difference, obviously, is that Sanford eventually admitted he was romancing a woman who was not his wife, while Weiner eventually admitted that he was sexting women he hardly knew at all.

Recovering from cuckolding your state’s first lady would seem to be a taller order than recovering from the ridicule of being revealed as a none-too-successful social media cad. But Sanford has done so, partly by becoming engaged to Maria Belén Chapur. And Weiner has not done so, partly because the combination of his surname and his behavior have been such a boon to the headline writers at the New York tabloids.

Another difference is in how the wives — each so accomplished and telegenic that it’s often said they’d make the better candidates  — reacted to their embarrassment. Jenny Sanford publicly and combatively pursued divorce. Huma Abedin privately and diligently pursued reconciliation. Being flamed by an ex-wife is undeniably a bigger campaign liability than being supported by a current wife.

Perhaps the most important differences seeming to favor Weiner’s chances for a comeback over Sanford’s, though, are their different means of political ascent, the different natures of their political base and the contrasting ways in which they sought to bring morality into the public square.

Sanford was a businessman at the vanguard of the “citizen politician” movement that helped the GOP take over the House in 1994. He railed often in his early career against the dangers of allowing hubris to envelop the career politicians. It would be reasonable to have expected the local GOP political establishment to have given him a wide berth long ago.

Weiner, by contrast, spent his whole adult life in politics; he was a congressional aide and city councilman before coming to Congress in 1998. And so it would be reasonable to suspect the city’s Democratic bosses would have stuck by him, in private if not in public.

Beyond that, the South Carolina coast is a reliably Republican place where the “culture wars” aren’t close, where old-line Christian virtues are still in vogue and where Sanford was eager to cultivate all of that with discussions of his own social conservatism. Queens is more Democratic, socially liberal and Jewish, and Weiner never had all that much to say in those neighborhoods about the hot button morality issues of the day. In short, Sanford was much more obviously vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy than was Weiner.

And yet it’s much more likely that Sanford can hike all the way back from the Appalachian Trail than that Weiner will be allowed in the locker room of the House gym. The would-be-congressman-again seems likelier to find patron saints in Newt Gingrich and David Vitter than the would-be mayor will in Bill Clinton.

The “god of second chances” may be a bipartisan deity — yet without sufficient power to conquer the phenomenon of all politics being local.

Gun Filibuster Thwarted, Debate Just Beginning

“The hard work starts now,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid just declared.

The most important vote in Congress so far this year for President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda was relatively anticlimactic. The Senate voted just a few minutes ago, 68-31, to overcome the filibuster launched to prevent any discussion at all of gun control legislation, well more than the 60 votes required because more than one-third of Republicans broke with the party mainstream and supported at least having a full debate.

The 16 Republicans who voted to break the filibuster were Sens. Lamar Alexander, Kelly Ayotte, Richard M. Burr, Saxby Chambliss, Tom Coburn, Susan Collins, Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham, Dean Heller, John Hoeven, Johnny Isakson, Mark S.  Kirk, John McCain, Patrick J. Toomey and Roger Wicker.

Sens. Mark Begich and Mark Pryor, both of whom are seeking re-election next year in Republican-leaning states, were the two Democrats who wanted to kill the bill in the cradle.

Even before the roll was called, proponents of the most ambitious gun control package possible announced they had an agreement for an even more pivotal vote on Tuesday — on language embodying the bipartisan agreement, unveiled Wednesday, for expanding the reach of required background checks to cover customers at gun shows and online transactions, but not noncommercial sales. Background checks now are required only before sales at the country’s 55,000 licensed gun dealers.

The delay is because, knowing they were going to lose Thursday morning, the conservative orchestrators of the filibuster served notice they would insist on their right to delay the debate another 30 hours before any consideration of amendments could begin.

The outcome of the background check vote is still too far in the future to predict, and a huge wave of lobbying on both sides is sure to wash over middle-of-the road senators when they’re back in their home states this weekend.  But the momentum seems to be with the authors of the compromise — Toomey and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III — a sense undoubtedly reinforced by the solid bloc of GOP support for taking up the bill in the first place.

Expanding background checks, it has become clear, has become the aspirational high-water mark of the Obama administration and its allies on gun violence. The lobbying by the National Rifle Association has all but officially sealed the fate of the two other central proposals in the president’s package: bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.

Both will get roll calls, but almost no one thinks they’ll come close to winning inclusion in the final Senate measure.

April 10, 2013

Obama’s Budget: A Picture Worth a Trillion Dollars

President Barack Obama’s $3.77 trillion fiscal 2014 budget would cut the deficit to $744 billion next year, down from more than a trillion in fiscal 2012. Driven by the costs of mandatory programs, outlays are expected to increase to $3.8 trillion in 2014, but fall as a share of gross domestic product to 22.2 percent, the lowest level since 2008. And after dipping during the recession, revenue is expected to grow steadily but stay below 20 percent of GDP. Full story

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