This week’s Washington Report! To sign up for the direct email, click here.
The Washington Report is ‘officially’ back. And so is Congress. They are back in town after five weeks off, plenty of Republicans and Democrats started the week with clear priorities … passing a spending bill to avoid a government shutdown … reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank … and, there was also a lot of bipartisan consensus, it turns out, on another prioritiy that can be summed up fairly neatly under the heading “Make the Other Guys Look Bad Ahead of the Elections.” All that changed with the President’s announcement regarding the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL)…much more on that below.
So, we are in a final, jam-packed sprint to Nov. 4 — the House is in session just 12 days, the Senate 15 (could change).
Joyce Rubenstein and the Capstone Team (John Rogers, Alan MacLeod, Steve Moffitt, Erik Oksala, Diane Rogers, Kate Venne and Kathryn Wellner)
MIDTERM ELECTION DAY 2014 COUNTDOWN: 53 days.
FIRST THINGS FIRST RollCall writes, “No one wants another government shutdown. Federal funding runs out on Sept. 30, so Congress has to pass a short-term continuing resolution (CR) to keep agencies operational or risk a repeat of last year’s disaster that put congressional approval ratings at an all-time low. Leaders on both sides of the aisle and rotunda say they want a policy-rider free CR that runs through early December.”
WHICH LEADS TO ” Reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank. Funding for the institution that underwrites sales of U.S. goods abroad will expire at the end of the month, and its future is shaky: Far-right lawmakers say the Export-Import Bank represents corporate welfare, while other Republicans say that dissolving the institution would be catastrophic for small businesses. There’s growing interest in extending the bank’s charter for just a few months to buy Congress more time to reach a long-term agreement, but aides to senior GOP lawmakers caution that a deal on how to proceed is still elusive.”
TICK-TOCK … SYRIA REQUEST UPENDS SLEEPY SEPTEMBER Politico writes, “Last weekend, [Obama counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco] scored a major coup during a visit to the Middle East: Saudi Arabia finally agreed to serve as a host country for training Syrian rebels in the fight against ISIL militants. … The White House needs a divided and reluctant Congress to provide new authority to the Pentagon – and $500 million — for Syrian rebel training in S. Arabia. And, Congress needs to grant this before lawmakers leave Washington. … There was little resistance among the four top congressional leaders — House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. … with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden personally engaging with lawmakers (more than they have at any point this year). BOEHNER BACKS OBAMA In “a rare display of unity,” the speaker of the House threw his weight behind Obama’s plan to destroy ISIS. “At this point in time, it’s important to give the president what he asked for,” he said. (NYT) PATH TO FUNDING UNCLEAR WSJ reports, “Congress broadly expressed support Thursday for President Barack Obama’s plan to combat Islamic State militants with the help of Syrian rebels, but its path toward granting that authority was unclear. Lawmakers resisted White House pressure to slip a provision to aid rebels into a broader spending bill (CR) that must be passed this month to keep the government running. Many argue the issue should be voted on separately.”
… The House isn’t expected to vote until Friday at the earliest. But it might not vote until next week, giving lawmakers a weekend at home to hear whether their constituents want to openly ship U.S.-made weapons to Syria – a program that has been underway covertly for almost a year. WIDE CHASM “House Republicans will … be forced to confront the wide chasm between their pro-defense hawks and isolationist libertarians – an internal GOP divide that’s simmered beneath the surface for several years. The debate is re-injecting the ‘War on Terror’ into the political dialogue, a topic that’s been in the background for a few election cycles. WHO WILL OWN THIS? A vote for arming the Syrian rebels – a risky proposition, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say – would give Congress responsibility over the outcome.” … a number of senators in both parties raised concerns about the tricky proposition of identifying moderate rebels to take on the ISIL …”
MILITARY TO TARGET ISIL LEADERS WashPost reports, “The president has now authorized the military to target ISIL’s leaders, beginning his offensive against the terrorist group. At the top of the list is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the movement’s self-declared leader.” SO, ARE WE AT WAR? [Sec. of State John] Kerry declined to characterize the mission as such. ‘What we are doing is engaging in a very significant counterterrorism operation,’ he told CNN. According to AFP: “Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria now have about 20,000 to 31,500 fighters on the ground, the [CIA] said, … much higher than a previous estimate of 10,000. Among those in Syria are 15,000 foreign fighters including 2,000 Westerners.”[CIA statement:]
HEY CONGRESS, DO YOUR JOB NYTimes writes, “As the Pentagon gears up to expand its fight against ISIL, a fundamentalist Sunni militant group that controls large areas of Iraq and Syria, Congress appears perfectly willing to abdicate one of its most consequential powers: the authority to declare war. The cowardice in Congress, never to be underestimated, is outrageous. Some lawmakers have made it known that they would rather not face a war authorization vote shortly before midterm elections, saying they’d rather sit on the fence for a while to see whether an expanded military campaign starts looking like a success story or a debacle. … EXPERTS PONDER OBAMA’S WAR POWERS CURVEBALL From the Constitution Daily
SPEAKING OF THE KOCH BROTHERS “In the Senate, the amendment to overturn Citizens United got voted down on Thursday. No one who voted against it is going to face many electoral ramifications; voters care about campaign finance, but not passionately (NPR). Jonathan Bernstein at Bloomberg View called the amendment a “time-waster.”
THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING DEFENSE INDUSTRY “The number of employees at the five largest U.S. defense firms has dropped 14% from a peak in 2008 – and 10% over the past decade, according to a Politico analysis of employment figures filed with the [SEC]. … After years of growth starting with … Sept. 11 … and continuing with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, companies have been making massive cuts to adjust to the budget declines they’ve seen so far – and further anticipated reductions.”
ANTI-OBAMACARE VOTES ARE BACK “In the first vote on the health care law since April, the House passed a bill 247-167 Thursday, to allow individuals to remain on once-canceled plans until 2019. All House Republicans and 25 Democrats backed the legislation. (Politico) ARE WE STILL TALKING ABOUT THIS? A GOP-controlled Senate would likely vote to repeal Obamacare, and should present an alternative health care proposal, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) said Thursday. “I suspect we will vote to repeal early to put on record the fact that we Republicans think it was a bad policy and we think it is hurting our constituents.”
AMERICAN POLITICS HAVEN’T BEEN THE SAME SINCE SEPT. 11, 2001. HERE’S WHY. The Fix writes, “… While it’s a cliché to suggest that everything changed that day, it’s clear that American politics — the art (and science) of understanding and channeling public opinion into legislation and leadership — has been radically altered over the intervening years. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, there was a rally-around-the-flag effect the likes of which hadn’t been seen in post-World War II America. President George W. Bush, who had struggled to move beyond his narrow and protracted victory over Al Gore in the 2000 election, became a massively popular figure overnight.” Full Article Well Worth Reading.
THE FIGHT FOR THE SENATE MAJORITY IS COMING INTO SHARP FOCUS. AND IT (SLIGHTLY) FAVORS REPUBLICANS Excellent Fix analysis, “Now is the time in an election cycle where the tectonic political plates undergirding key Senate races begin to shift in real and meaningful ways. People start, actually, paying attention. Millions are spent. Debates happen. In pursuit of clarity, we’ve broken down their thoughts into three categories: 1) Races where Democrats feel good/Republicans don’t 2) Races where Republicans feel good/Democrats don’t 3) Races where opinion is mixed. Obviously this is not a comprehensive guide to where the races will end up but it does reflect the thinking of several well-connected operatives who are seeing lots and lots of good polling. So, let’s go! (NOTE: These categories don’t include three open Democratic seats — West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana — that everyone agrees will flip to Republicans.)
Races where Democrats feel good/Republicans don’t
Races where Republicans feel good/Democrats don’t
Races where opinions are mixed
* New Hampshire
* North Carolina
FOR POLITICAL WONKS ONLY… To the line, races are ranked by their likelihood to change party hands (remember, Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take the majority):
11. (tie). Kansas (Republican-controlled): The most shocking entry to make our list all year, this one’s a little complicated. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) clearly has problems. The Democrat Chet Taylor dropped out of the race, which could help independent Greg Orman consolidate the anti-Roberts vote. The race is close, according to robo-polls. But two issues here: 1) Taylor apparently didn’t do what he needed to in order to get his name off the ballot (litigation is ongoing), and 2) we don’t know which party Orman would caucus with. If he wins and caucuses with the GOP, this seat really wouldn’t be changing hands. Given that very real possibility, we’re keeping this toward the bottom of our list. (Previous ranking: N/A)
11. (tie) Kentucky (R): A look at the polling of late in the race between Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) suggests that the incumbent has opened up a mid-single digit lead. That jibes with what strategists are seeing in unreleased data too. McConnell’s team always insisted that once he united Republicans behind his candidacy, the numbers would shift toward him. Looks like he/they were right. (Previous ranking: 9)
10. Colorado (Democratic-controlled): Rep. Cory Gardner (R) is a talented politician. Unfortunately for him, some of the votes and positions — particularly on personhood — during his time in the House are being effectively used by Democrats as a cudgel against him with suburban Denver women. Those women, of course, also represent the swing constituency that a Republican must make inroads with to have a chance of winning statewide. (Previous ranking: 10)
9. Georgia (R): National Republican Senatorial Committee Vice Chairman Rob Portman (R-Ohio) sounded very confident about Republican David Perdue’s chances against Democrat Michelle Nunn at a Thursday breakfast with reporters. Recent polls have shown Perdue leading, on average. This is far from a done deal — the NRSC would not have made a significant investment of resources here if it was — but the GOP appears to have the upper hand. (Previous ranking: 11)
8. Iowa (D): It seems like Rep. Bruce Braley (D) has done just about everything he can to lose a race in which he was the favorite from the outset. Polls did close for a while, leading most (including us) to label this a toss-up. But a Loras College poll this week showed Braley leading Republican Joni Ernst by four points, and a CNN/Opinion Research poll has him up one. Given the water he’s taken on in recent weeks, that’s pretty good for him. (Previous ranking: 7)
7. North Carolina (D): President Obama’s recent visit to the state forced Sen. Kay Hagan (D) to walk a tightrope. She greeted him on the tarmac but distanced herself from him on veterans’ issues. She adopted a similar posture in her reaction to Obama’s speech on his plans to target the Islamic State, pointing out where she has pressed Obama without really taking issue with his strategy. Hagan will continue to have to strike a careful balance as her campaign against state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) rolls on. (Previous ranking: 6)
6. Alaska (D): Democratic Sen. Mark Begich’s decision to air a TV ad holding former attorney general Dan Sullivan (R) partly responsible for releasing a man from prison who later allegedly killed an elderly couple and sexually assaulted their grandchild backfired on him, putting him on defense. The ad also showed that Begich intends to hammer Sullivan over his record as AG. Republicans, meanwhile, have been targeting Begich’s record as mayor of Anchorage. (Previous ranking: 8)
5. Arkansas (D): Rep. Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) campaign hasn’t been the smoothest, but so far, it’s looks like it is going to be good enough. He’s led in 10 of the last 11 public polls and enjoyed his biggest lead — five points — in a high-quality NBC News/Marist College poll released this week. That same poll showed Sen. Mark Pryor (R-Ark.) leading by 11 points among registered voters back in May (the new poll is of likely voters). But between the two polls, Pryor’s image has gone from 50 percent favorable/35 percent unfavorable to 44/42 (again among the more restricted sample). (Previous ranking: 5)
4. Louisiana (D): Everyone agrees that Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) will finish far ahead of Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) and Rob Maness (R) in the Nov. 4 jungle primary. The problem for Landrieu is that no one think she will break the 50 percent mark, meaning that she will have to face off against the second highest vote-getter — almost certainly Cassidy — in a Dec. 6 runoff. The runoff electorate — particularly if control of the Senate is at stake — isn’t going to be a friendly one for Landrieu. (Previous ranking: 4)
3. West Virginia (D): Of the three open Democratic seats on our list where Mitt Romney won in 2012, West Virginia appears to be Democrats best chance of pulling off an upset. But that’s not saying much since the other two are virtual locks to flip Republican. The Real Clear Politics average of recent polling in this race shows Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) leading Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D) by 19 points. (Previous ranking: 3)
2. South Dakota (D): National Democrats have written off their nominee, Rick Weiland, from the outset. But there was a really interesting poll this week. The poll, from automated firm SurveyUSA, showed former governor Mike Rounds (R) leading Weiland 39-28, with former GOP senator Larry Pressler (I) at 25 percent. In a race without Pressler, though, Weiland would actually be within the margin of error against the once-popular former governor. Of course, Pressler remains in the race, but independent candidates often flame out at the end of the race when it’s clear they have no chance to win, and if Pressler voters gravitate toward Weiland, who knows? Also, even Republican acknowledge Rounds is running a mediocre (at best) campaign. (Previous ranking: 1)
1. Montana (D): Little-known state Rep. Amanda Curtis (D) is the replacement nominee for Sen. John Walsh (D), who dropped out over a plagiarism scandal. She’s no match for Rep. Steve Daines (R), who is firmly in control of this race. How confident are Republicans in Daines? American Crossroads canceled $1.7 million worth of fall air time here. (Previous ranking: 2)
DINOSAUR DISCOVERY ALERT Newly dug-up fossils have revealed the first dinosaur known to have swum: the Spinosaurus. And it wasn’t small, either: From tip to tail, it measured 50 feet long. (National Geographic)