Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Today In Washington
THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama is leaving his office at 12:40 for an afternoon pitching the payroll tax break in swing-state Pennsylvania and an evening of fundraising in big-money New York.
After a photo op with a family in Scranton, the president will take the podium at a high school at 2:45 to make his case for extending and expanding the payroll tax holiday. He’s sure to mention a Treasury report, released this morning, with state-by-state estimates of how many taxpayers benefited from this year’s 2 percentage point reduction in the Social Security tax — including 6.7 million Pennsylvanians who are sharing a $4.7 billion tax cut this year.
After arriving at JFK at 5, Obama will attend three fundraisers: at a private residence where tickets begin at $10,000; at the Gotham Bar and Grill in Greenwich Village ($35,800 a seat) and at the Sheraton Hotel ($1,000). He’ll also attend a reception celebrating the six-month anniversary of New York’s gay marriage law. He’s due back in the family quarters half an hour after midnight.
THE SENATE: Convened at 10 and is voting to limit debate and restrict amendments to the defense authorization bill. The cloture move puts senators on course to pass the measure Friday. The leaders of Armed Services, Carl Levin and John McCain, are working to limit the range and roster of amendments that will require roll calls in the next three days — but their effort to circumscribe the rest of the debate with a sweeping package deal came up short this morning.
THE HOUSE: Convened at 10, will start legislating at noon and will be done for the day around sundown, after voting along party lines to advance the next piece of the Republican deregulatory agenda — legislation that would overrule changes to union election rules proposed by the National Labor Relations Board. (The measure is a dead letter in the Democratic Senate.) Lawmakers will also vote to name one of the biggest meeting rooms in the Capitol Visitor Center in memory of Gabe Zimmerman, the Tucson district aide who was killed in the Gabby Giffords shooting melee.
CHECKS AND BALANCES: As the president heads out to campaign on the issue, another day of maneuvering over the future of the payroll tax has made clear that this year’s break on employee pay stubs will surely be extended through 2012. But there’s only a coin-flip chance, at best, for a new reduction in what businesses put toward their workers’ Social Security benefits.
McConnell essentially sealed the deal yesterday, when he blew past his principal deputy, Jon Kyl, and declared that Republicans would not be trumped by Democrats when it comes to supporting a popular tax break. And at the same time, the White House made it more clear than ever that the president isn’t concerned about the effect his payroll plan would have on the deficit.
What’s looking to happen is that the extension of last year’s nearly one-third cut (from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent) will end up happening relatively easily, and without any offsets, and then the debate in the coming weeks will be over what sort of pay-for might be embraced to theoretically finance the expansion to help employers. (Doing both would cost $265 billion.) Since even the smallest and most symbolic tax hike for millionaires is going to be rejected out of hand — the next test vote proving that will come Friday — the Democrats who favor that approach are essentially stepping aside and telling the Republicans to come up with their own way of paying to help the business community, if they want to. And the Senate GOP leadership is going to reply as soon as this afternoon that, yes, they do want to. Their initial offer looks to be to embrace one or both of the two most frequently adopted offsetting revenue raisers in the GOP arsenal: Selling the rights to use more of the broadcast spectrum to the wireless industry, and raising the fees imposed on people who pass through airports and board commercial flights.
If the Democrats don’t choose to deride those ideas, the payroll tax fight could end sooner than it looked like only yesterday — and maybe even be a springboard into an easy decision by the GOP to acquiesce in an extension of unemployment insurance benefits for the long-term jobless. (Their decision to put off the defense sequester fight until next year — when they’ll try to shift more of the automatic spending cuts to domestic programs — suggests the Republicans may be choosing to ratchet back their fighting instincts for a little while.)
Debates over the tax extenders, and the annual “patches” for the alternative minimum tax and the Medicare doctor payment formula, are still far away from ready-for-prime-time. (The delay, at least, affords more time for those senators with visions of grand bargains in their heads to continue their search for the sort of deficit reduction formula that so readily eluded the supercommittee.)
SENATE’S TURN: Reid has laid out the plans for Senate votes next month on two versions of a balanced-budget amendment. Neither has a shot at getting the required two-thirds to advance in the face of significant Democratic opposition. (Majority Whip Dick Durbin is driving that point home at a Judiciary hearing he arranged for this morning titled “The Perils of Constitutionalizing the Budget Debate.”)
Ben Nelson, Jon Tester, Claire McCaskill and perhaps a few others also running for re-election will back the proposal by fellow Democrat Mark Udall, which is a bit looser than the one the House rejected this month because it would keep Social Security receipts and outlays off the budget-balancing ledger. But it would take 20 members of that caucus to join all 47 Republicans to assure adoption, and that’s not remotely close to happening. Beyond that, no Democrats will back the language the Republican leadership plans to put to a vote. It would cap federal spending at 18 percent of GDP and require a two-thirds majority vote to increase taxes.
THE ‘E’ WORD: The votes will also come, curiously enough, just as lawmakers are deciding whether to fish or cut bait on the overdue completion of the new budget year’s appropriations process — in which a subtext of the deliberations over a comprehensive package or another stopgap CR will be the future of dozens of don’t-call-them-earmarks — parochial or otherwise narrowly drawn provisions. A decision to press ahead with the line-by-line omnibus for dictating the $800 billion in spending would bring intense pressure for the Senate, especially, to at least cast a vote for the binding earmark ban legislation being unveiled today by McCaskill and Pat Toomey. It would not pass, but at least then it would afford a veneer of cover for so many of the lawmakers who see every other special project as a bedeviling earmark – except their own.
HINCKLEY HEARINGS: John Hinckley won’t testify on his own behalf during the eight days of hearings that began this morning before federal Judge Paul Friedman, who will decide (probably early next year) whether the man who came within an inch of killing Ronald Reagan is mentally healthy enough to spend most of next year living with his 85-year-old mother.
Hinckley lawyer Barry Levine says his client won’t take the stand unless he’s shielded from cross-examination, and federal prosecutors say they won’t agree to that. So the hearing will be mostly conflicting testimony from teams of psychiatrists. The doctors at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital say Hinckley — a patient since he was found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1982 — is well enough to be discharged for good, assuming all goes well in a supervised series of eight visits of 17 to 24 days each to Jo Ann Hinckley’s home in Williamsburg. Prosecutors maintain that Hinckley, now 56, remains capable of and inclined toward more violent behavior. What’s not legally an issue is whether the would-be presidential assassin should ever be released from federal custody.
‘HUMILIATED, EMBARRASSED’: “The funny thing about Herman Cain is that never in a million years did he probably think I would speak out on this,” Ginger White said today on ABC’s “Good Morning America” in describing her version of their 13-year affair — which she said included regular gifts and money from him (but "not sex for cash”) and even a date to see Mike Tyson fight Evander Holyfield in Las Vegas (not clear if it was the famous ear-biting one).
“I came out being very honest and so far I have been absolutely humiliated, embarrassed,” she said, because of the GOP candidate’s decision to deny their relationship. (Before telling his top team that he was “reassessing” his presidential bid yesterday, Cain described White as a “troubled Atlanta businesswoman” in a letter to supporters that declared “this woman’s story is completely false.”) For her part, White said she did not think Cain would be a good president but declined to join those thinking he should get out of the race, saying: “That’s something that he has to look himself into the mirror and ask himself.”
— David Hawkings, editor
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Copyright 2011 CQ Roll Call Inc.