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Obama Looks to START for Lame Duck Re-Branding Effort
"I mean, is there no shame, ever, with respect to the arguments that are made sometimes on the floor of the United States Senate?"
-- Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) on the Senate floor accusing Republicans of delaying the New START treaty and then complaining that it was late in coming to a vote.
The Obama administration and Senate Democrats are pulling out all the stops in an effort to get the New START with Russia treaty passed before the end of the year.
There is little doubt that the treaty will eventually pass, with the only question being whether it is during this lame-duck session or in the next Congress. Waiting means that the president would have five new Republican Senators to contend with, and their votes might force an awkward discussion with the Russians on missile defense.
The treaty, though, is also an important part of President Obama's apparent strategy to use the lame-duck session as a re-branding phase. If the measure is approved this week, the White House will be able to point to a tax-rate compromise, passage of a law to allow gay military members to express their sexualities and a major foreign policy initiative.
While Democrats may have come up short on a plan for a limited amnesty program for illegal immigrants and a $1.1 trillion pending plan, the treaty would give Obama a foreign-policy victory to cap off success in forging a bipartisan compromise on taxes and in securing his campaign promise to the left of removing restrictions on gays in the military.
Remember, the new census numbers due out today will provide a daunting picture of Obama's reelection prospects. Electoral votes will be migrating out of the Democratic Northeast to the Republican South, meaning that Obama may have to replicate his success in places like Indiana, Ohio and Virginia to win reelection.
For an administration very conscious of the narrative arc of Obama's story, the lame duck agenda is the turning point in the presidential plotline. Obama and his team depict the first two years of his term as dealing with crises and forecast the next two years as seeking reform. The historical choreography, then, calls for the current session to be the turning point.
Most presidents govern with an eye on the history books, but Obama is particularly conscious of his place in the story of mankind. Note that when the president congratulated Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo on winning the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month, Obama framed the moment in the context of his own win the year before.
Senate Democrats have pushed hard to get the treaty passed before year's end and Republicans have pushed hard to delay the process.
And while there are policy-oriented arguments that speed will reassure Russians of American friendship and then more time is needed to examine ambiguous language in the treaty, the question of timing seems to be largely a political consideration.
The president's lame-duck victories have come at a high price. Liberals detest his tax deal and it undercuts his ability to seek future deficit reduction measures. His vision for a gay-friendly military deeply displeases the combat troops carrying out Obama's central international objective in Afghanistan. The START treaty will complicate American efforts on missile defense.
But the president means to start the second-half of his term with victories on taxes, a pet liberal cause and foreign policy. Republicans mean to deny him at least some of that success. Remember that Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell said that the goal for his caucus in the next two years was to deny Obama a second term.
He wasn't kidding.
GOP's Missile Fight Shows Shape of the Next Two Years
"There's much for them to be angst-ridden about. If they think it's bad now, wait ‘til next year."
-- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell discussing with Politico his plans to thwart Democratic aims in the next Congress.
The only two speeds for the U.S. Senate are typically "slow" and "stop," and Senate Republicans are making a virtue of that pokey pace.
As Democrats have rushed to show progress and vitality following the worst electoral setback for their party in three generations, Senate Republicans have made them pay dearly for forward motion.
In order to claim victory on President Obama's New START missile treaty with Russia, Democrats may end up having to accept new language that commits America to an ambitious missile defense program.
Democrats generally oppose the idea of a large-scale missile shield, as they have since the days of Reagan. But because Russian officials believe that the treaty negotiated by President Obama sets limits on U.S. missile defenses, Republicans may succeed in altering the terms of the so-called "resolution of ratification," sort of a preamble to the treaty that lays out the terms as the Senate understands them.
Because of ambiguous language in the original document and because of the Democratic desire to have the measure passed immediately, Sen. John McCain may succeed today in his bid to change the terms on missile defense so that it proclaims the American intent to develop a global missile shield by 2020.
President Obama rolled out the 2020 plan in a bid to allay Republican concerns when he scrapped a Bush-era missile defense project for Eastern Europe last year. McCain's measure would put it in writing and likely annoy Russians, who have never liked the idea of America popping up an anti-ICBM umbrella.
The Senate is on track to end debate on the measure today, but to get to the 67 votes for final ratification, Democrats might have to accept McCain's modification.
As in the previous tax negotiations, Republicans have weathered the claims of obstructionism in order to wring key policy concessions from Democrats. When five new Republican members join the Senate and the House comes under the largest Republican majority in more than 60 years, that trend will accelerate.
The price of victories for President Obama and his party will continue to rise.
Reid Sidetracks 9/11 Fund Deal
"My plea to Senator Reid is that if you're going to send us anything that we need to deal with, send it, frankly, by [Tuesday]."
-- House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to The Hill on the bill to create a 9/11 responders' health fund.
Proponents of a plan to create a $7.4 billion fund to compensate 9/11 first responders and recovery workers who claim illness from exposure to toxic materials are furious over the Senate scheduling of the bill.
One of the lobbyists pushing the measure told Power Play that hopes for speedy passage following a compromise plan crafted by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand were dashed when Senate Majority leader Harry Reid declined to put the bill up for a vote this week.
Reid has cleared the decks in order to deal with President Obama's missile treaty with Russia and to consider a stopgap spending resolution to fund the government through March. The treaty is a sticky subject and even the temporary spending measure is difficult, particularly since Reid has added a measure to provide natural gas royalties for his home state.
Gillibrand's plan, designed to win Republican support by reducing the cost and paying for the measure with new fees for foreign tech worker visas, would likely be well received in the House, where lawmakers already approved a more generous, deficit-funded version.
But proponents of the plan say that Reid's move makes passage of the plan all but impossible.
Reid has suggested that he may reconvene the Senate after Christmas, but it's not so easy in the House. The House is scheduled to break for Christmas on Wednesday, and isn't scheduled to return. With a such a large number of lawmakers not returning, bringing them back to Washington for a single vote looks unlikely
"They want to go home for Christmas on Wednesday, instead of pushing the Republicans for the 9/11 bill," said one Hill insider.
The measure, controversial because of its unclear provisions on eligibility and redundancy with other compensation funds, is not on the to-do list for the incoming GOP House majority.
FCC Makes Bid to Regulate Internet
"I have been fighting for nearly a decade to make sure the Internet doesn't travel down the same road of special interest consolidation and gate-keeper control that other media and telecommunications industries - radio, television, film and cable - have traveled."
-- Statement from FCC Commissioner Michael Copps in support of a plan to give the agency regulatory control of the Internet.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski says his agency has the power to regulate the Internet, and today will roll out his plan to do so.
Genachowski's bid for Internet power comes on the question of whether the FCC can dictate the terms of Internet service providers' data plan. The agency intends to treat the Internet as it does the telephone industry, as a regulated public utility.
To understand the terms of the debate, think back to the debate over the president's national health-care law.
In both cases, liberals complained that the measure did not go far enough in handcuffing the rapacious corporate interests they believe are preying on consumers. But in both cases accept the measure they deplore as weak because it establishes the precedent for broader government regulations in the future.
Liberals and conservatives agree on the long-term significance of the measure, while only those creating the plan argue that it is moderate effort.
Genachowski, a Harvard law classmate of President Obama's, has designs for the agency as a digital powerhouse. Without the power to control the Internet, the agency might be made irrelevant by technological advances.
The move, though, has stoked fears on the right from those who see a trend toward regulation of ideas, not just technology.
Wishful thinking by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) that he could shut down MSNBC and FOX News and proposals by Democrats on the FCC to take a stronger hand in regulating the content provided by broadcasters has done little to allay those fears.
Genachowski's new rule today will certainly be challenged in court and possibly overturned in Congress, but it is a major moment in the battle for control of the Internet.
Feds Preparing to Regulate Exec Pay
"The ironic effect will be another hike in salaries, which is a fixed cost, which rather makes a nonsense of the idea of pay for performance."
-- A top banker, quoted by the Financial Times, discussing the push to regulate financial-sector bonuses.
In a move to match new regulations on executive compensation in Europe, officials at the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission are getting their own pay rules for American banks and trading houses.
The new Dodd-Frank bank bill gives the Fed and SEC the power to limit compensation that federal regulators believe will encourage too much risk taking at institutions worth more than $1 billion and deemed "too big to fail."
The Wall Street Journal reports that the rules are soon to be released, and may include a provision that executives must accept payment partially in stock and defer compensation for years in order to make sure that executives don't take large severance packages after big losses.
The government was embarrassed when bailed-out AIG paid out millions in executive bonuses. This measure is presumably intended to prevent such political debacles.
Bankers are already bragging in blind quotes about ways to circumvent the new rules, including paying even more over-the-top salaries in order to lure the best talent despite the long-range set asides to be dictated by the Fed.
And Now, A Word From Charles
"Obama has written a letter [to Congress] where he says it won't restrict us in any way. The problem is the treaty is not negotiation between Congress and president. It's between the United States and Russia, and the Russian understanding of the preamble and the interrelationship is that if the United States does anything qualitatively or quantitatively to advance its missile defense, it will withdraw from the treaty. It requires a status quo, which we do not want."
-- Charles Krauthammer discussing the New START treaty.
Thanks to today's Power Play crew: Wes Barrett, Varuna Bhatia, Whitney Ksiazek, Jen Suzara and Bree Tracey