Evans-Novak Political Report

Week of February 1, 2007

February 1, 2007
Washington, DC
Vol. 42, No. 3a

Outlook

  1. Although President George W. Bush officially is opposed to setting any time table for getting out of Iraq, senior administration officials and Republican leaders in Congress privately say there cannot be U.S. boots on the ground or blood being spilled in Iraq when 2008 begins if Republicans are to have a chance in next year’s elections. That effectively sets a December 2007 deadline for getting out.
  2. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is clearly trying to run the House of Representatives from her office, which former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) tried and failed to do a decade ago. The question is whether she will back away from this effort or prove a failure.
  3. Pelosi’s most daring venture is attempting to preempt the senior member of Congress, Rep. John Dingell (R-Mich.), as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee by establishing a select energy and environment committee under Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). All of Congress is watching the test of wills between Pelosi and Dingell.
  4. The Senate is still the Senate, even under Democratic control. The legislation that roared through the House under Pelosi’s "First Hundred Hours" regimen is log-jammed in the upper body. Even the widely supported rise in the minimum wage is tied up, causing a delay on the Iraq resolution (see below).
  5. Republicans are reacting to their ’06 defeat by showing how terrible the Democrats are, and that is usually a sign of trouble for the opposition party. Typically, Republicans are shutting down debate about what course their party should take.

Congress

After rolling over a divided Republican caucus in the U.S. House, Democrats have stalled on some of their big initiatives and are watching others get pared back in the Senate. The short version of the story is that the Senate, which caused such difficulty for Republicans when they controlled it, is similarly slowing the advance of the Democrats’ agenda. The Senate continues to be the saucer that cools the boiling beverages served up in the House.

Iraq Resolution: The saucer phenomenon is most clear with respect to the non-binding resolution being planned to oppose President Bush’s new strategy in Iraq. Democrats had high hopes — and the Bush Administration faced long odds — just last week on the prospect of a strongly worded and bipartisan resolution against a troop surge or "escalation" in Iraq. Somehow the administration dodged a bullet.

  1. The Democratic plan was for Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.) to sit down over the weekend with Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) and hammer out a consensus bipartisan resolution opposing the troop surge. But not even the influx of anti-war protesters on Saturday — who vandalized the Capitol and the Capitol South Metro station — could focus the Senate on finishing this work. Warner, who has been making backroom deals for 28 years in the Senate, informed Biden late last Thursday that the "will of the Senate" should be determined in "open" session. This effectively killed the Democrats’ hopes of passing a Biden-crafted anti-surge resolution. Such a proposal now cannot get the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster (and could even fall short of the 50 senators needed for a simple majority). It remains unclear whether any resolution will pass the Senate.

  2. Biden wanted to force through a harsh resolution condemning Bush’s plan, but advisers prevailed on him to meld his proposal with Warner’s milder non-approval language. Biden and his principal Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), said last Wednesday that they would negotiate with Warner. Biden would have accepted most of Warner’s resolution, except for the parts leaving the door open for further troop increases and perhaps its affirmation of the President’s constitutional role as commander in chief. Biden was surprised when Warner and the conservative Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) asserted that "issues set forth in [the resolution] should occur as a consequence of the will of the Senate, working in ‘open’ session." In other words: no private negotiations.

  3. That stand poses a dilemma for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) because of bipartisan support for Warner’s resolution. Besides Nelson, co-sponsors include Democrat Senators Mary Landrieu (La.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Ken Salazar (Colo.), and Republican Senators Norm Coleman (Minn.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Gordon Smith (Ore.). If they all stick together, Biden cannot change the Warner resolution. With Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) joining Hagel as the only other Republican backing Biden’s version, it may lack even enough votes for a simple majority. Reid faces a difficult choice: He could crack the whip on Democrats to get a majority to pass the Biden resolution, or he could swallow an unaltered Warner resolution to win a bipartisan vote.

  4. Democrats are learning what Republicans found out after they last regained Senate control in 2002: The U.S. Senate is a sluggish, quirky and madly frustrating body that slows all progress and stops most legislation in its tracks. In the House, Speaker Pelosi has held back quick House passage of an anti-surge resolution, awaiting action in the cooler Senate.

  5. Despite the apparently good result for Bush with regard to the resolution, all is not rosy. Republicans feel withdrawal of troops must begin in the next six months for their party to have any chance at retaining the presidency in 2008. Even if Biden can’t have his way, there is little or no enthusiasm for sending more troops to Iraq.

Minimum Wage: Even in the case of the popular, populist minimum wage increase legislation, the Senate saucer is cooling the hot tea from Pelosi’s House.

  1. The clean minimum wage bill, without tax cuts for small businesses that would be hurt by the minimum wage hike, lacked the votes it needs to gain cloture in the U.S. Senate. This was demonstrated in a vote January 24. Last year, the Republican majority brought up both the clean and amended minimum wage increases with a view to letting both fail. This time, the Democratic leadership must pass something to prove their effectiveness. Senate Democrats therefore have no choice but to allow small-business tax breaks into the bill.

  2. Several small-business tax provisions already received the go-ahead with a cloture vote on January 30. Other Republican tax provisions have been broken up into a series of amendments that will probably fail.

  3. Democratic House committee chairmen are upset at Senate Democrats’ willingness to accept these provisions, since it is the prerogative of the House to first pass tax and spending legislation. Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) of the powerful Ways and Means Committee paid a visit to the Senate January 30 to express his displeasure to the senators leading the fight on minimum wage, Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

  4. One other issue on the minimum wage is the failure of either body to include American Samoa in the bill. Del. Eli Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) has fretted that if the federal government compels businesses in American Samoa to pay a higher wage, the tuna canneries there could lay off workers and devastate the local economy. After Republicans objected to American Samoa’s exclusion (considering that businesses elsewhere will also suffer), Speaker Pelosi vowed to have the issue fixed in the Senate, but Senate Democrats will not allow a vote on an American Samoa amendment. Because Democrats pledged not to insert such measures in conference, it appears unlikely that the final version of the bill will include American Samoa. There are no solid indications that Republicans will block the bill on this basis, but Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) appears willing to try.

Prescription Drugs: Here is another example of something that easily passed the House with Republican support, and could now be endangered in the Senate. Democrats ran on a platform of using the government to negotiate the prices of drugs in the Medicare Part D prescription drug program. The program, a signature new entitlement dreamed up by President Bush, has thus far created lower prices than originally expected through private competition between government-subsidized insurance plans.

Now that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has projected that a government negotiation plan would increase costs for most seniors in the program, there is some incentive — and there may be some will in the Senate — to shut it down. In fact, this issue could become an even bigger Senate showdown than the non-binding Iraq resolution.

Democrats begin this debate with a rhetorical advantage that already served them well in the 2006 election. At first blush, voters like the idea of the government’s negotiating prices, because the putative alternative is that the government simply pays a higher price. But Republicans believe they can win on this issue if they explain it, and so they are expected to resist, citing the Government Accountability Office and CBO warnings that the change would cause prices to go up in other segments of the market as well as a growing number of mainstream to left-leaning newspapers editorializing against it.

Embryonic Research: This is one issue where the Senate is not expected to slow down the Democrats’ advance. Even as the House failed to produce a veto-proof majority to open federal funding to research that destroys human embryos, the Senate is expected at least to come within one vote of doing so. In fact, the ability to produce a veto-proof majority of 67 could hinge on how soon Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) gets back to work.

Democrats gained 30 House seats, but picked up only about 13 votes on this issue because so many of the Republicans who lost or retired in 2006 had voted for embryonic stem-cell research funding. The Senate is much more promising ground, since the gain on this issue will probably end up at four seats when the votes are counted.

President 2008

Public Funding: The institution of public matching funds for U.S. presidential campaigns could be shattered this year in a way that only new legislation can solve.
New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton‘s refusal of public funds for both the primary and general presidential election next year is a first in presidential campaign history. In the past, candidates (such as Bush and Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry) have declined the matching funds for the primary, but not the general election.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) has said he will also decline funds, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is expected to do likewise.

Clinton has raised the bar for fundraising in a presidential race that could cost well more than $1 billion by its end. Her decision to decline public funds means that she expects to raise $100 million by the end of 2007. It is a sign that any competitive presidential candidate will have to far, far exceed the limits on fundraising for candidates who want the public funds. The "arms race" of presidential fundraising has created this natural development in which candidates ask for money earlier and earlier in the cycle.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) has proposed a bill that would increase the amount of the matching funds as well as the spending limit for candidates who seek them. This would reduce the incentive to raise so much money for a presidential race. But it could just be campaign finance reform’s dying gasp. The Supreme Court could soon strike key provisions that keep some moneyed groups from advertising during campaigns, and this alone would probably result in many more millions’ being spent.

Senate 2008

Minnesota: Liberal comedian Al Franken has announced that his radio show will end on February 14, and his announcement hints that he will follow up on his long-stated desire to run against Sen. Norm Coleman (R) next year.

Democrats in Minnesota are on a roll right now after two successful state-level elections. They failed to unseat Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), but they gained several seats in the state legislature in both 2004 and 2006, in addition to the U.S. House seat of Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.).

Franken is the Republicans’ favorite candidate. Rep. Betty McCollum (D), also talked about for the race, is comfortable in the House majority with her seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee. She would be considered weak outside the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, but Franken would probably be even weaker.

Rep. Tim Walz (D) gets an occasional mention for the race despite being a freshman, but House Democrats have invested heavily in him by giving him seats on the Agriculture, Transportation and Veterans’ Affairs committees. They also gave him a recent opportunity to deliver the Democratic response to the President’s weekly radio address, a clear sign that they hope he can hold on to the Republican-leaning district he just won (see below).

The bad news for Coleman — perhaps the most endangered incumbent senator in 2008 — is that even Franken can be competitive in this "purple" state that appears to be reverting to blue. Minnesota Republicans tremble as they ask themselves whether the progress they had been making in Minnesota through 2004 has been truly reversed, or whether it was just a hiccup from a bad 2006 cycle.

House 2008

Minnesota-1: The decision by Rep. Gil Gutknecht to sell his well-located Capitol Hill condo and leave everything behind — including all of his furniture and even his Select Comfort bed — gives a strong impression that he will not be running to get his seat back any time soon. Democrat Tim Walz defeated Gutknecht by a wide margin in one of the big surprise upsets of 2006.

The first Republican to publicly express interest is Mark Meyer, chairman of the Lake Crystal school board. Former state Senate Minority Leader Dick Day (R) is reportedly considering the race as well, but so far this does not seem to have risen above the level of barroom chatter.

Sincerely,
Robert D. Novak


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