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Biggest Part of Budget Deal May Be Having One at All
By Niels Lesniewski and Emma Dumain
Roll Call Staff
Dec. 9, 2013, 5:59 p.m
As the contours of a potential two-year budget agreement have emerged in advance of a Friday deadline, those outside the talks are expressing displeasure with both sides — perhaps a sign that a deal really is close.
And any deal, although certain to fall far short of the aborted grand bargains of yore, would be remarkable in its own right, ending a year of historic dysfunction in Washington, D.C., with a road map for a return to some semblance of normalcy.
Each side would get something: Republicans can avoid another messy government shutdown in an election year while softening a new round of defense cuts, and they seem likely to declare victory on the major sticking point: no tax increases.
Democrats will get to restore some of their favored domestic spending programs while they extract at least some small amount of revenue from the GOP — albeit in categories such as spectrum sales or user fees rather than closing tax breaks for the wealthy or corporations.
While the talks began with a formal budget conference, the important part of what’s taking shape won’t be a budget resolution, per se. That’s a nonbinding document that can merely instruct other committees to move legislation. Rather, spending and benefit changes would be enshrined in law, along with language to deem discretionary spending levels for the two-year length of the agreement, including a roughly $1 trillion cap for fiscal 2014 that will allow anxious appropriators a chance to finally craft an omnibus spending bill.
The legislation would amend the 2011 Budget Control Act that put the sequester cuts into law in the first place — provided leaders can line up the votes.
An aide familiar with the talks said the need to get 60 votes to limit debate in the Senate won’t be much of a concern, but threading the needle in the House could prove quite a task.
Heritage Action for America, a conservative group influential in the House, said in a statement Monday that it was against short-term spending above sequester levels.
“Heritage Action cannot support a budget deal that would increase spending in the near-term for promises of woefully inadequate long-term reductions. While imperfect, the sequester has proven to be an effective tool in forcing Congress to reduce discretionary spending, and a gimmicky, spend-now-cut-later deal will take our nation in the wrong direction,” the group said.
Aides to House Democrats and Republicans close to, or with knowledge of, the status of budget negotiations implied what has become all too apparent: The chamber has only one representative at the table, and that’s Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis. Everyone else is being kept largely on the sidelines of discussions, from party leaders to appointed conferees.
Despite murmurs that a deal could be announced as soon as Tuesday, Rep. Chris Van Hollen — the Maryland Democrat who is a budget conferee and ranking member on the House Budget Committee — on Monday was still saying he thought the chances for reaching an agreement were “50-50.”
In an interview on MSNBC, Van Hollen said it was “absolutely” a deal breaker for him should the budget deal, as rumored, find savings in requiring federal workers to contribute a greater amount into their retirement. Van Hollen seems to be trying to maximize the limited leverage that House Democrats have overall, since any deal that Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., would strike with Ryan would have to have broad backing of Senate Democrats.
Though a Ryan-Murray deal would fall short of the grand, multiyear budget blueprint for which lawmakers in both chambers had been clamoring, the outcome is expected to give Congress better tools to fulfill one of the body’s chief responsibilities: passing spending bills.
The big test, then, would be the drafting of an appropriations package. Of the 12 regular spending bills, those dealing with defense and security needs are usually easy to informally conference between the chambers, but the bills that focus on domestic spending regularly get stuck over partisan policy battles.
“That one might be a little more difficult,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., the chairman of the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said of his bill. “What we would probably do is get everybody to convene and take a look at it.
“The other 11 might be a little bit easier,” Kingston added.
Still, House Appropriations ranking member Nita M. Lowey, who also happens to be a budget conferee, said last week that she thought appropriators would largely complete their work.
While preventing a government shutdown would be an accomplishment in its own right, the budget talks would portend somewhere from $30 billion to $40 billion in relief from sequester cuts for the current budget year alone, since the post-sequester limit in current law is $967 billion.
That’s small potatoes relative to the multitrillion-dollar grand-bargain deals. And it’s only about twice the cost of blocking a scheduled cut in the payments doctors get for treating Medicare patients for another year.
Providing the “doc fix” is something of an annual ritual in the Capitol that will play out again, with a stopgap bill of three months likely to come up in the House before that chamber leaves for the Christmas holiday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., mentioned the Medicare payment issue in opening the Senate on Monday afternoon, reprising a familiar argument about using budgetary savings associated with the wind downs of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to pay for the patch.
Is a Budget Deal Close? Depends on Whom You Ask
By Emma Dumain
Posted at 2:21 p.m. Dec. 3
House Republican leadership’s decision to call the chamber back into session next Monday for legislative business — a change to the set 2013 congressional calendar — is sparking all kinds of speculation about what it might mean for fiscal 2014 budget prospects.
Namely, is the budget conference committee nearing a deal to replace the sequester and provide higher spending levels for appropriations bills? Or will the committee’s Dec. 13 deadline come and go with an agreement still elusive?
While some speculation has centered on a possible plan to move a continuing resolution to fund the government, one GOP leadership aide told CQ Roll Call that the chamber was likely set to be in session on Dec. 9, so that the Rules Committee could pave the way for a House vote on a deal secured by House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash.
“No CR is currently being written,” said the aide, adding that Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., and other senior Republican appropriators did not support a stop-gap spending bill at this time “given the fact that the budget conference appears to be close to a deal.”
Rogers and the twelve chairmen of the House Appropriations subcommittees recently sent a letter to Ryan and Murray all but begging the House-Senate budget conferees to come up with a more workable topline number at which to write spending bills — and to do so sooner rather than later.
Rogers and Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., wanted the top-line spending level by Monday. With that deadline having passed, the odds only increase that another stopgap spending bill will become necessary, even if Ryan and Murray hammer out a deal.
But if a budget deal is in the offing, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., appears to not know about it. He said Tuesday morning that his “suspicion” is that the House was reconvening next Monday to allow the Rules Committee to set the gears in motion to vote on a short-term CR. Were that the case, it would be a clear sign that confidence in the budget conference committee had eroded.
Hoyer, for his part, seemed to have gone from cautiously optimistic to somewhat pessimistic, saying Tuesday that Republicans’ “energy toward getting a budget deal seems very minimal.”
He also said he wouldn’t support a stop-gap spending measure that would, for any length of time, perpetuate sequestration at the austere level of $967 billion — a sign that Republicans would largely be on their own in passing such a measure, and many members of their own party are sour to the concept.
Speaker John A. Boehner, too, sounded a pessimistic note Tuesday, accusing the Senate of not being serious about getting a budget deal.
Multiple House Republican leadership aides confirmed that while the Ohio Republican was inclined to move on a CR before the holiday recess, he would not do so until it was clear an agreement on a larger budget framework could not be reached. Moving before the new year makes sense, in Boehner’s estimation, to avoid a scramble to renew government funding in the days before the current CR expires on Jan. 15.
6 Questions to Ponder About the Senate’s Nuclear Winter
By David Hawkings
Posted at 12:08 p.m. Nov. 22
Thirty years ago this week, more than 100 million Americans tuned in for the first airing of “The Day After” on ABC — the audience eager, during the final years of the Cold War, for a blockbuster vision of what the heartland might look like if both Washington and Moscow exercised their nuclear options.
On the day after the biggest change to the congressional rules in four decades — sharply curtailing the power of the filibuster, an essential element of life in the Senate — the public may be clamoring for some insight into what just happened.
These six questions and answers may help.
1. Why is it called the “nuclear option”?
The allusion to an atomic blast is as much about how the Senate rules were changed as about the way in which the rules were changed.
The breadth of the impact on the legislative process, and on the balance of power at the Capitol, is undeniably significant, although its extent cannot be precisely measured just now. The number of political players who have seen their power hobbled by the move is also extensive, but can’t yet be quantified.
In those ways, the situation is analogous to the detonating of a nuclear bomb: Plenty of the damage is plain to see, but the breadth of the fallout takes a long time to measure. For now, it’s only clear that the minority’s right to filibuster most judicial and all executive branch nominees has effectively been destroyed, and that means the Republicans are the only victims. But there is nothing to prevent efforts to end the legislative filibuster from bubbling up soon enough. And it’s a dead certainty that whenever the Republicans win control of the Senate, whether next fall or in an election years later, they will turn the tables on the newly-entrenched-in-the-minority Democrats with a vengeance.
The way in which Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., deployed his power play on Thursday also had some similarities to the start of a nuclear war. Like many missile attacks, his series of choreographed parliamentary moves and roll call votes had been threatened for a long time, was stealthy in the planning, undisguised in the execution and swift to reach completion. And it was impossible to contain the damage once the launch sequence was begun.2. How did it come to this?
The change is the most fundamental alteration to the way the Senate functions since 1975, when the supermajority required to break a filibuster, known more formally as invoking cloture, was reduced to 60 from 67.
For the next three decades, meeting that three-fifths-of-all-senators threshold was relatively rarely required for overcoming either ideological objections, or dilatory protests, in order to advance legislation or nominees. But the situation devolved quickly in 2005, when a Republican majority sought to confirm a series of President George W. Bush’s judicial picks and were thwarted by a unified Democratic bloc, which labeled the nominees too conservative for confirmation. Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., came within as a day of trying a maneuver similar to what Reid executed Thursday, but pulled back after seven senators from each party – the “gang of 14″ — announced they would begin opposing filibusters of judicial nominees except in “extraordinary circumstances,” a phrase left undefined.
That eased tensions a bit through the end of the Bush years. But, soon after President Barack Obama took office with fellow Democrats running the Senate, the filibustering of nominees spiked to unprecedented levels. The official numbers from the Senate confirm a principal talking point of Reid’s – that half of all the filibusters to thwart confirmations in the history of the Senate have come during this administration.
3. Why did this happen when it did ?
After a couple of bipartisan compromises on the margins of the debate failed to do much to change the situation, Reid came under increasing pressure this year from the junior members of his own ranks, who have now come to dominate the Democratic caucus. Thirty-three of its 55 members have arrived since 2007, meaning they have been in the majority their entire Senate careers and have never needed or experienced the benefits of the main Senate rule created to preserve power for the minority party.
Only in the past week, though, did Reid become confident he had sufficient votes to prevail in the parliamentary showdown; the tipping point seemed to come when veteran California Democrat Dianne Feinstein announced she was reversing her position and would support the nuclear option.
Beyond that, Reid looks to have concluded he had very little to lose in the short-term, and some not-unimportant benefits to gain. Essentially nothing substantive that his caucus or the president might propose looked to stand a chance of getting past a Senate GOP wall of resistance before the midterm elections anyway, so from his point of view, the post-nuclear-option outrage from the Republicans could not translate into any more obstructionism than was already taking place.
And, while the legislative system may remain totally locked up for as long as three years, Reid and the Democrats have gained virtually unfettered power for at least one more year to deliver to the president the people he wants to manage the executive branch and advance his regulatory priorities – a power made all the more important at a time when few new laws are being written
At least as importantly, the change means that, at least until the midterms, Obama will be able to fill as many circuit court of appeals and district court vacancies as exist with lifetime appointments, an opportunity to assure his vision for interpreting the law long outlasts his time in the White House.
Democrats had become confident that Republicans were preparing to “go nuclear” at their first opportunity, and it’s probably an even-money bet that could be in January 2015. So they concluded they were willing to take the blame for an institutional explosion that was inevitable anyway, because at least they would be able to reap the benefits for a year
In the interim, Reid is hoping the public takes little interest in the insiders’ complaints about “breaking the rules in order to change the rules,” as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., fairly described the move, and more about the chance of restoring some semblance of functionality to the place: “It’s time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete.”
4. How angry are the Republicans?
They certainly sound hopping mad — especially because they view Reid as having patently broken a promise, reiterated as recently as July, not to do what he just did. In these dysfunctional times, the reliability of a Senate leader’s word had been one of the few filaments of trust that kept the place operating at all.
To vent their disapproval, Republicans mounted a filibuster that prevented the Senate from finishing deliberations on the annual defense authorization bill this week — although a lopsided GOP majority wants the measure enacted, just as it has been 52 years running. The two-week recess bracketing Thanksgiving will in theory give the GOP time to get beyond its feelings of betrayal. If the Senate returns with even the normally collaborate Republicans intent on tying the place in as many parliamentary knots as possible — and plenty of dilatory maneuvers remain available even without as many filibuster openings — that will mean the cooling off period didn’t work.
Nonetheless, such public fury from the Republicans in the short term might be masking a little bit of relief that the Democrats have done some of the long-term dirty work for them.
There’s little reason to doubt that McConnell was ready to curb the power of the filibuster were he to become majority leader – especially if a Republican wins the presidency in 2016 and the GOP holds the House, giving the party control of all the policymaking levers for the first time in a decade. Reid’s move means McConnell won’t have to press the initial detonation button, and probably wouldn’t take all that much criticism if he moves to eliminate the legislative filibuster as well in order to advance his party’s agenda.
5. Why didn’t Democrats eliminate filibusters on legislation?
There is nothing, procedurally, to prevent them from doing so. As Thursday’s developments show, changes in the Senate rules, which are supposed to be fully debatable and subject to a two-thirds-majority vote, can effectively be changed by a simple majority.
But there does not appear to be any move afoot by the Democrats to take the next logical step by ending the filibuster altogether. The main reason is that they would reap no benefit from dropping that second nuclear bomb. Because nominations aren’t handled by the House, the new rules give the Democrats uncheckable ability to give their president what he asks for. Not so with legislation, which of course has to be passed in identical form by both the House and Senate to become law. Democrats have nothing to gain by streamlining the system so their bills can get more quickly across the Capitol, because the current House GOP majority would still be likely to shelve the measures in opposition to the policy changes being proposed.
But, to drive the point home, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has declared that he House would not touch a bill, no matter its merits, if it had been passed by the Senate without having to run the current cloture-first gantlet.
6. Why the exception for Supreme Court nominees?
Democrats were willing to accept that someday a Republican Senate will be able to quickly fill lower-court vacancies with the super-conservative nominees from a GOP president. But they were unable to acquiesce in that same scenario for the highest court in the country — especially at a time when its ideological balance is on a knife’s edge, and when advocates for abortion rights and other liberal causes were expressing wariness of the risk.
The tradeoff is that, by preserving the filibuster as a tool to stop Supreme Court nominees, Reid has made it potentially significantly difficult for Obama to install a new justice for the rest of his presidency. Especially if an opening unexpectedly occurs soon, while the pain of nuclear winter is still palpable, Republicans would be very tempted to unite against anyone Obama might choose — even if that meant leaving one of the court’s nine seats empty for a time.
Of the two liberal anchors of the court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be 83 at the time of the next presidential election, and Stephen G. Breyer 78. Both Anthony M. Kennedy, the only genuine swing vote, and Antonin Scalia, the leader of the conservative bloc, will turn 80 in 2016.
How the Capitol Turned the Day JFK Died
By David Hawkings
Posted at 8 p.m. on Nov. 17
Nov. 22 falls on the Friday before Thanksgiving this year, just as it did 50 years ago. And that extraordinary day in 1963 began on the Hill in ways that would seem familiar to the congressional denizens of today.
The House was done for the week, having pushed through spending bills for public works, arms control and military construction in plenty of time to allow a cluster of Texas Democrats to get home for a high-profile political photo op.
The Senate convened for general speech-making and preliminary debate on the bills set for consideration after the weekend: restricting wheat sales to Soviet bloc nations and delivering federal funds for local library construction. As was the custom, then as now, the chore of acting as presiding officer had been parceled out to several of the freshmen with the lunchtime slot assigned to the youngest in the class, 31-year-old Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
He was in the chair when his brother was killed.
And from that instant, the scene at the Capitol unfolded in ways that may be difficult to comprehend in today’s congressional culture of commuting lawmakers, hyper-partisanship, legislative stasis, saturation live coverage and social-media press relations.
Almost 20 minutes elapsed between when the shots were fired at John F. Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas and when a messenger delivered the first ominous alert to the president’s youngest sibling, who hustled off the rostrum and called the White House to learn more.
“Will the senator from Vermont yield for an emergency?” Democrat Wayne Morse of Oregon asked, interrupting a speech by Republican Winston Prouty to propose a quorum call while the horrific explanation for the young Kennedy’s departure swept through the chamber.
Sketchy and confused reports — some maintaining the president was merely wounded, others asserting he was dead — had by then started to surge across the otherwise quiet complex. A Capitol Police officer clamored through the halls to alert whichever members he could find. Longworth cafeteria servers stunned their patrons with the news. Staffers clustered in the offices equipped with radios or televisions, or joined groups of members heading to nearby churches.
Majority Leader Mike Mansfield took the Senate floor for just long enough to secure approval of a couple of unanimous consent agreements, then asked colleagues to “stand in recess, pending developments.” The Montana Democrat returned 15 minutes later and summoned all senators to the chamber. Sixty-nine streamed in, an astonishing number by today’s standards for a Friday afternoon when no roll calls had been scheduled.
They all stood and bowed their heads while the chaplain, Methodist minister Frederick Brown Harris, beseeched God to spare a president felled “like a giant cedar, green with boughs” that “leaves a lonesome place against the sky.”
By the time the prayer ended, it had been 20 minutes since JFK had been administered the last rites and pronounced dead at Parkland Hospital.
The senators did not know that. In an era when news services still used a form of telegraphy to send their dispatches, television news was in its infancy and multitasking smartphones were science fiction, the official word did not come for another agonizing third of an hour — because it took The Associated Press and United Press International eight minutes to get their “flash” headlines out after a White House press aide announced that the president was dead.
The most prominent lawmaker waiting by the teletype was Speaker John William McCormack. Though the House was gone for the weekend, the speaker had stayed in town and was having lunch in the Members’ Dining Room when a reporter approached with grim word about his former Democratic colleague in the Massachusetts delegation. McCormack rushed upstairs to the House Press Gallery and hunched his tall, thin, 71-year-old frame over its wire service machines.
When the tickers definitively declared that JFK had died, McCormack became “ashen-faced” and slipped out of the room without saying a word, Roll Call reported at the time. Although he had just moved up to first in the line of presidential succession, he was accompanied by neither staff nor security.
For the congressional community, the bewilderment, anger and grief that took hold of the nation in the ensuing days was even more intense than elsewhere, because Capitol Hill took particular pride in having one of its own in the White House. In 1960, the 43-year-old Kennedy became not only the youngest person ever elected president, but also the first incumbent member of Congress sent to the White House in 40 years.
“We saw him come to this body at age 35, we saw him grow, we saw him rise, we saw him elevated,” went one of the most effusive eulogies delivered in the Senate — and it came from a Republican, Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois.
“If at any moment he may have seemed overeager, it was but the reflection of a zealous crusader and missioner who knew where he was going,” Dirksen said just before the funeral the following Monday, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral near Dupont Circle.
Such Victorian rhetoric — preserved in an issue of the Congressional Record with highly unusual black-bordered cover pages — is out of fashion now. And in today’s political climate, it’s tough to imagine an elder statesman of one party paying such complement, even in death, to an opposing party leader’s straining youthful ambition.
Dirksen’s words are not the only reminder about how different Washington’s metabolism was back then. In the days after JFK’s burial, first the Republican and then the Democratic national committees announced that the total suspensions of their partisan activities would extend to the end of the year.
The top GOP presidential aspirants for 1964, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the eventual nominee, also stopped campaigning for a full month, leaving just 10 weeks to stump before New Hampshire’s opening primary.
But the 88th Congress got right back to work. It did not use the period of mourning and the impending holiday as excuses to take the whole week off.
A bipartisan Senate majority had given Kennedy the final legislative victory of his life a day before the assassination, clearing a bill raising the debt ceiling to all of $315 billion, less than 2 percent of what it is today. The day after the funeral, senators rejected the grain export bill and endorsed the library money.
And by early afternoon Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, House members had returned to hear President Lyndon B. Johnson’s first speech to a joint session, in which he declared that enacting the long-stalled civil rights expansion would be the best possible tribute to his slain predecessor.
In just 120 hours, one era had ended in Congress and a new generation had begun.
Obama Tries to 'Win Back Some Credibility' With Obamacare Fix (Updated)
By Steven T. Dennis
Roll Call Staff
Nov. 14, 2013, 12:44 p.m.
A deeply frustrated President Barack Obama moved to quell a growing revolt in his party Thursday morning, announcing an administrative fix that would let health insurance companies extend existing policies for a year.
The announcement by Obama — at the top of what became an unscheduled, nearly hourlong press conference — came as Democrats in both chambers are eyeing legislative fixes that would go much further and require insurers to extend such coverage.
At times introspective and contrite, but also defiant and determined, Obama acknowledged that he needs to “win back some credibility” after “we fumbled the rollout” of the 2010 health care law.
Obama also admitted that he was not “informed directly that the website would not be working,” but he avoided blaming any specific person on his staff or in his Cabinet for that oversight.
“That’s on me, and that’s why I’m trying to fix it,” he said of problems with the rollout of the website and other parts of the law.
“There’s going to be a lot of evaluation of how we got to this point,” Obama said, noting he’s been asking a lot of questions.
He also said that his promise that people could keep insurance plans they liked was made in error.
“There is no doubt that the way I put that forward unequivocally ended up not being accurate,” the president said. He said he believed it was true at the time he said it because he thought 98 percent would be happy with their new options and the law’s grandfathering provision would take care of the other 2 percent.
Administration officials emphasized in a background call with reporters that the fix for canceled policies would not allow insurance companies to sell old policies to new customers, unlike a bill by House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan to be voted on by the House on Friday.
The administrative fix, however, is far from a guarantee that people will be able to keep their plans if they like them.
Insurers would have to go along with it, as would state insurance commissioners.
It might be more accurate to describe Obama’s fix, as well as the Upton bill, as “If your insurer likes your plan, you can keep it for a year.”
The fix also does not prevent insurers from increasing the premiums on those plans.
A proposal by Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., would require that the plans be extended.
Obamacare Meeting Set for Senate Democrats, White House Aides
By Meredith Shiner
Posted at 3:29 p.m. on Nov. 13, 2013
Senate Democrats will hold a closed-door full caucus meeting Thursday with Obama administration officials to discuss their growing concerns with problems in the health care law, Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday.
The Nevada Democrat also said that President Barack Obama called him late Tuesday night to discuss an array of issues, including the problems with the health care law and its rollout.
“There are many questions about health care, and that’s why tomorrow we’re having a full caucus … the White House is going to be there,” Reid said.
The majority leader declined to say whether he would bring to the floor amendments from Democratic senators that would make changes to the Affordable Care Act. Some of the key changes being proposed even by Democrats include bills to delay the individual mandate penalty payments as well as legislation to grandfather in individual’s old insurance plans that likely would get cancelled in the reformed system.
The bill to grandfather in existing health care plans that don’t meet ACA standards — proposed by Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La. — has been picking up a little steam among Democrats in recent days, with Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Jeff Merkley of Oregon announcing their support this week. The measure is aimed at making good on Obama’s promise that people who liked their existing health insurance plans could keep them under the Obamacare law. That has turned out to not be true for millions of Americans.
On Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president shares the goal of the Landrieu bill, but he stopped short of endorsing it.
“We’re going to work with her and work with others,” Carney said.
Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.
Budgetary Tunnel Vision: No Early Light at This End
By David Hawkings
Posted at 11:54 a.m. Nov. 12
One month before their no-penalty-attached deadline, budget negotiators are convening Wednesday morning for only their second public meeting. There’s still no sign anything was accomplished behind the scenes since the opening session two weeks ago – except, maybe, a downgrading of the already de minimus expectations.
As a practical matter, a grand bargain fell off the table almost as soon as the government reopened in October, and ever since the scope of the talks has been narrowed to one modest topic: How much discretionary spending to permit in the final two-thirds of this fiscal year.
The range of the dispute is at most $50 billion — the difference between sticking with the second hatchet-fall of the sequester in the middle of January, which is what many conservative Republicans are all about, or increasing the grand total for appropriations 3 percent above the current amount, which is the most even the most liberal Democrats are dreaming about.
The one point of bipartisan agreement is that any pull-back from the sequester will have to be accompanied with dollar-for-dollar offsetting deficit reduction.
In the abstract, that decision represents a significant concession by the Democrats, who in the main have been less committed to additional long-term deficit reduction than the Republicans. That’s one reason why the chief negotiator for her party, Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., looks to insist that the formal chairman of the 29-member conference committee, House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., go first in unveiling an opening bargaining position on behalf of the Republicans.
Ryan, who is under intense scrutiny from his side’s tea party faction, has made clear he’s not open to raising any additional tax revenue as part of an offset package.
Murray, who is representing President Barack Obama’s position in the talks, is just as adamant that some of the offsets come from ending tax breaks that benefit wealthy individuals and corporations.
Only if that seemingly intractable dispute is resolved will the negotiators be able to wade into discussing even the most modest limitations on entitlement programs. That’s the richer fiscal vein where the president and GOP leaders agree the bulk of money to “pay for” an easing of the spending strictures should properly be found — especially if this year’s talks are to contribute anything toward forestalling subsequent swipes of the sequester scythe, which are otherwise on course to keep coming to the end of the decade.
The almost sure bet is that a breakthrough is out of the question in the two weeks before Thanksgiving, and the odds look only a little better for a framework by Dec. 13, the date set in the end-the-shutdown agreement for conferees to finalize a budget resolution agreement. While Murray looks to have been handed deal-making proxies by both the president and the Senate Democratic leadership, it’s not clear Ryan has been given comparable authorization from his leadership (let alone his hard-liner colleagues) to strike whatever he views is the best available bargain.
Any deal at all would represent an anomalous achievement to close out the first half of the 113th Congress. With the possible exception of the farm bill, Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate look to send the closing weeks of the session at legislative cross-purposes — each half of Congress acting on things in which the other half has minimal interest.
The only tangible consequence for missing the Friday the 13th mark is that anxiety about budgetary brinkmanship would start building — potentially hobbling the holiday economy just as the shopping season (already shortened by a quirk in the calendar) enters its climatic final 10 days.
The next binding deadline remains Jan. 15. That’s not only when the current stopgap spending authority runs out, but also when Year Two of the sequester kicks in. Absent an enacted alternative, overall spending is sliced to an annual rate of $967 billion from the current $986 billion — with almost the entire $21 billion cut assigned to the Pentagon to absorb, and domestic programs essentially frozen at current levels.
Democrats are expecting those looming defense cuts will persuade Republicans to relax their no-new-revenue bargaining position. GOP leaders say their-rank-and-file is much more willing to live with the next round of cuts than Democrats expect.
That’s because there’s a solidifying sense in the Republican ranks that the first months under the sequester haven’t been so bad, even for the military — certainly not as harsh as Obama and many in his administration warned. In part, that’s because many departments have been able to use accounting maneuvers and reserve funds to avoid furloughs and keep government services running pretty close to normal. What the rank-and-file has yet to absorb is that many of those bookkeeping aides won’t be available a second time.
Without a top line compromise, appropriators will lack the starting point they need for writing a line-by-line omnibus spending package. Under the best of circumstances — a sequester-easing deal blessed by Congress just before heading home for Christmas — filling in the thousands of blanks in such a measure would probably take until the time lawmakers return the week of Jan. 6.
Otherwise, the only responsible course around a second potential shutdown will be a relatively straightjacketed continuing resolution, at new-sequester levels, lasting through the end of fiscal 2014 in September.
Would a Congress with record-low approval ratings even think about keeping this mess in limbo into the new year? Well, can this same Congress be reasonably expected to perform otherwise?
Now the Midterm Campaign Begins — With Both Sides on Offense
By David Hawkings
Posted at 8:05 p.m. on Nov. 5
The off-year election is over. Now the midterm campaign can genuinely begin.
The twin gubernatorial races settled Tuesday — always the marquee political events one year into each presidential administration — will be dissected endlessly for insights into the nation’s ideological shift and the outlook for each party’s congressional candidates next Nov. 4. Much of the extrapolation will be overwrought.
Yes, Virginia is turning a bluer shade of purple, but Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s performance is only somewhat a referendum on the GOP’s shutdown strategy or Obamacare — let alone a sign about the electorate’s interest in a Clinton restoration to the White House.
And, yes, New Jersey’s blue is now tinged a bit more purple, but Chris Christie’s vote totals only say so much about whether the establishment or the tea party will direct the future of his Republican Party in the next year or if he runs for president.
Most close House and Senate races will be decided next fall by a very different set of circumstances and arguments than those that saturated Virginia and New Jersey for the past year. Most Democratic congressional candidates will be stressing a menu of topics that only slightly echoes the things McAuliffe talked about, and a large collection of Republicans will be emphasizing issues that Christie seldom mentioned.
Predicting where each party’s campaigns will be on offense next fall is a risky proposition, because of the obviously true cliché that a year is way more than a lifetime in politics.
Just two weeks ago, remember, the national storyline was all about how Democrats were ready to make unexpected inroads now that the GOP had taken its confrontational tactics one step too far in pursuit of a lost cause. And now, the narrative is about how President Barack Obama’s twin self-inflicted wounds over health care — the mess with the insurance marketplace website and his at-best overly simplistic claims about retaining existing policies — have given Republicans a big new opening to make 2014 into what midterms are mainly supposed to be: A final opportunity for voters to express their presidential buyer’s remorse by strengthening the congressional hand of his opposition.
There’s no reason to expect the GOP will let up on its attacks of the health law, and as a political matter, the party may be better off having been denied its goal of an outright repeal. Because implementation will continue through the heart of campaign season, Republicans will be able to point to every new or continuing problem as evidence of their talking point that the federal government never should have gotten into the insurance business.
Republicans will use health care as Exhibit A in an allied line of attack, which is that their stewardship of Congress is essential to stopping the wave of burdensome, job-killing regulations that Obama and the Democrats lust after. For a third campaign in a row, this looks to be the principal focus of their campaign against Big Government. Republicans will ensure the coal-fired power plants keep burning, the offshore oil wells keep pumping, the industrial factories keep humming and the small businesses keep expanding by thwarting Obama’s energy, environmental and employment rule-makers at every turn.
Whether on the right or the farther right, GOP congressional candidates will unite behind the party’s other long-running anti-government theme: Washington is taxing too much, spending too much and ignoring the red ink that’s spreading too much — and Republicans are better in tune with the public on which are the best tough choices for the entitlement curbs and discretionary cuts needed to tackle the problem.
And the GOP will supplement those tried-and-true value propositions by pointing to the IRS politicization imbroglio, the Benghazi scandal, the domestic spying revelations and whatever other foreign or domestic dust-ups come their way. Candidates will assert that only the reins applied by a Republican Congress can stop the president from two lame-duck years of deepening incompetence and deceit at home coupled with fecklessness abroad.
The Democrats, of course, believe they’ll be able to do more than withstand these assaults because they have at least as many opportunities for going on offense.
They will argue that sending enough of them to Congress to restore united government would not only boost economic confidence and the increased employment that comes with it, but also would allow Obama to realize his long-stifled plans for boosting job creation with targeted federal investments in old-school public works and newfangled research. Along the way, they will assert that their balanced approach to curbing deficits, which would pay for such spending by pulling the noose on some tax loopholes, is what the public wants.
With the path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants now disappearing off the legislative horizon, Democrats will argue that they are the party not only of economic opportunity, but also of demographic reality — and that only they have a sympathetic ear to what’s most important to the fastest growing segment of the rapidly-changing population.
The Democrats will similarly frame themselves as the empathetic party: Their efforts to stanch violence against women, squelch new federal restrictions on abortion and shield gay workers from discrimination all represent an understanding of evolving national attitudes the other side lacks.
And on top of all that, Democrats at every turn will be touting this overarching rationale for their candidacies: Electing many more of us is essential to stopping the default-tempting, shut-it-down wacko birds from taking over their party and then threatening even minimal functionality at the Capitol.
Which party drives the narrative will probably change several times in the next 52 weeks. Another budget standoff, terrorist attack or schoolhouse massacre could add new bullet points to each side’s plan of attack.
Appropriators: Hurry Up and Get a Deal
By Emma Dumain
Roll Call Staff
Oct. 31, 2013, 5:01 p.m.
Republican and Democratic appropriators alike are telling budget conferees to get a deal on a topline spending number sooner rather than later.
Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., and Sen. Barbara A. Mikluski, D-Md., sent a letter to the top members of the bicameral, bipartisan budget conference committee Thursday, asking them to “make reaching an agreement on the FY 2014 and FY 2015 discretionary spending caps your first priority.”
They want that number by Dec. 2 at the latest, though preferably by Nov. 22. Waiting until Dec. 13 would leave the chairmen of the Appropriations committees just a month before the Jan. 15 deadline to finish the 12 outstanding appropriations bills.
“While both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees will try with all our might to meet this tight deadline, it is clear that a much better product would result with additional time for Members to conference these critical bills,” the letter said.
Rogers and Mikluski want an agreement to include the 2015 spending level to avoid a repetition of this year’s impasse over budget plans that are $90 billion apart. The House, which has the lower number, has been able to finish its appropriations bills with sequester-level spending cuts in place.
“The House and Senate should mark-up and pass the 12 appropriations bill for the next fiscal year in a timely way, proceed to conference, send each of the individual bills to the President and avoid yet another budget crisis or ‘shutdown showdown,’” they continued.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, said the conference “should pick up the pace of the negotiations so we can get an agreement by Thanksgiving and give the Appropriations Committees time to do their work.”
Obama Concedes Obamacare’s Web Flaws
By David Hawkings
Posted at 11:57 a.m. Oct. 21
President Barack Obama is going much farther than he has in the past in conceding the problems with the health care law’s rollout. He’s hoping today’s promised improvements will ease the public apprehension that’s surged to the forefront of Washington’s attention now that the shutdown and default drama has been set aside.
“There’s no sugarcoating it,” Obama said about the new website’s limitations, which he admitted was leaving the impression that the new policies were also subpar. “Precisely because the product is good, I want the cash registers to work properly,” he said in the Rose Garden at his first staged event since the scope of the problems became apparent.
The president’s declarations will do nothing to change the perception of all congressional Republicans, who remain unified in describing the law as flawed beyond saving even as they remain deeply split on when to take another shot at repeal.
Many of the Hill’s politically vulnerable Democrats, who have remained largely unified in defending the law and dismissing its website failures as predictable and fixable, are now inclined to be even more critical than the president.
“What has happened is unacceptable in terms of the glitches,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “They were overwhelmed to begin with. There is much that needs to be done to correct the situation.”
One other important signal of Democratic restiveness came as Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., declared on Fox News that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius would ultimately have to testify about the Obamacare computer problems. She and other administration officials have so far declined requests to appear at congressional hearings to discuss the reasons such a crash-prone HealthCare.gov was opened and how quickly the system will be fixed. That reticence has only fueled GOP fury, with some lawmakers now calling for Sebelius to resign.
With the budget wars now free of a countdown clock until early next year, implementation of Obamacare looks to be one of Washington’s preoccupations for the rest of the fall. Many Republicans lament that, in hindsight, they’ve realized they would have been better off waiting to pursue their repeal-at-all-costs strategy until after the rollout’s embarassing shortcomings had been revealed and been given the sort of publicity that didn’t happen during the government shutdown and debt limit crises.
Obama said about 20 million people have visited HealthCare.gov since it opened Oct. 1, but officials concede that only about 3 percent of those people (about 500,000) have applied for insurance policies through the federal or state-run exchanges. (People have to file applications before they may enroll, in part to find out if they can get subsidized coverage)
Obama promised ramping up staffing at call centers where people will now more easily be able to apply for insurance by phone. HHS also bringing in technology experts from inside and outside of government to help diagnose the software problems.
Many Existing and Would-Be GOP Leaders Opposed Budget Deal
By David Hawkings
Posted at 12:02 p.m. Oct. 17
All of the congressional Republicans with viable 2016 presidential ambitions voted against the bill enacted overnight to reopen the government and increase federal borrowing. So did two members of the Senate GOP leadership and three members of the party’s House leadership. The opponents also included a majority of the Republicans who are chairmen of House committees and most of the members of the House GOP caucus who aspire to election to the Senate next year.
While the Democrats were unified in their support for the legislation, a review of Wednesday night’s back-to-back roll calls in Congress reveals just how divided the titular and putative leaders of the GOP remained after their crusade to undermine Obamacare by shutting down the government and threatening default came up essentially empty-handed — but nonetheless spawned a serious erosion of public support for the party’s current course.
In the House, only 38 percent of Republicans supported the legislation, despite efforts during the evening to assemble the sort of narrow “majority of the majority” that would have given Speaker John A. Boehner some degree of face-saving comfort
In the Senate, by contrast, only 39 percent of the Republicans opposed a deal that was assembled by their floor leader Mitch McConnell, along with Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The four member of Congress who are considered serious contenders for the Republican presidential nomination all opposed the stopgap bill: Ted Cruz of Texas, who almost singlehandedly propelled the party’s confrontational strategy farther than many GOP leaders planned to take it; his Senate colleagues Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky; and House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the party’s 2008 candidate for vice president, who this morning helped to open the formal negotiations called for under the deal toward some sort of deficit reduction — or at least sequester modification — agreement in the next two months.
The top Senate GOP budget negotiator, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, was among the 18 “no” votes in that chamber, as was the party’s ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama. The other most powerful dissenters in that caucus were Minority Whip John Cornyn, who in the run-up to his re-election campaign in Texas next year is under significant pressure to echo Cruz’s fiscal views, and the chief deputy whip, Michael D. Crapo of Idaho.
The members of the GOP leadership who broke with Boehner were Republican Policy Committee Chairman James Lankford of Oklahoma, Conference Secretary Virginia Foxx of North Carolina and, perhaps most notably, Greg Walden of Oregon, who as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee is in charge of recruiting and underwriting the party’s House candidates in the 2014 midterms.
A dozen of the 21 committee chairmen also spurned the bill. In addition to Ryan, the most notable among them is Jeb Hensarling of Texas, who holds the gavel at Financial Services but was the House GOP chairman of the 2011 supercommittee that failed in its search for a budget deal that would have prevented the across-the-board spending cuts that took hold in March.
The others were Mike Conaway of Texas (Ethics), Sam Graves of Missouri (Small Business), Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia (Judiciary), Frank D. Lucas of Oklahoma (Agriculture), Michael McCaul of Texas (Homeland Security), Jeff Miller of Florida (Veterans Affairs), Candice S. Miller of Michigan (House Administration) , Ed Royce of California (Foreign Affairs), Pete Sessions of Texas (Rules) and Lamar Smith of Texas (Science).
The four members running for the Senate who voted “no” were Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy, who is expected to mount a serious challenge to Democrat Mary L. Landrieu’s bid for a fourth term, and all three Georgians vying for the GOP nomination for that state’s open seat: Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey and Jack Kingston.
The two Senate aspirants who voted “yes” were Shelly Moore Capito, the front-runner for West Virginia’s open seat, and freshman Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who decided not to differentiate himself on this matter from incumbent Mark Pryor, his opponent in what’s likely to be one of 2014’s hottest contests.
Since every Democratic vote was a “yes,” that means the deal got support from both the party’s House members who are seeking open Senate seats, Gary Peters of Michigan and Bruce Braley of Iowa. It also goes for all of the two-dozen or so Democrats who look at least somewhat vulnerable to losing their House seats next year.
But the bill also won the support of 18 of the 22 House Republicans who, at this still relatively early stage, look most vulnerable to defeat in next year’s general election — a reflection of the political reality that the independents who decide close elections have no use at all for the gridlock that has resulted from the pursuit of ideological purity. The dissenters were all members of the class of tea party conservatives who helped the GOP take back the House in 2010: Tom Reed of New York, Steve Southerland II of Florida, Jeff Denham of California and Bill Johnson of Ohio.