Democrats on Fast Track to Govern

Posted January 22, 2009 at 11:23am

President Barack Obama and a strengthened Democratic Congress have their eyes on a blockbuster first 100 days in office, hoping they will begin to break the gridlock that has thwarted liberal agenda items for decades.

Democratic lawmakers and the Obama team, while trying to set realistic expectations, know they need to produce quickly as they confront two wars, an exploding national debt and a continuing economic crisis that has already thrown millions out of work and out of their homes.

“The first thing is we’ve got to pull this economy out of the ditch here and promote recovery because everything else depends on economic recovery. It’s very hard to do a lot of other things unless we provide some recovery for the economy,” Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.) said.

But Dorgan said Congress would also tackle other issues with an eye toward moving the economy forward.

“I think at the same time you have to begin thinking about how you reform health care, how do you make us less dependent on Saudi and foreign oil,” he said.

Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) echoed that sentiment, saying the first 100 days of the new Congress would include “lots of things. You’ll see, getting the economy going, work on health care, work on energy, work on education, Iraq — a lot.”

The first major pieces of legislation Obama will likely sign are high up on the Democratic wish list and have little to do with the crises facing the nation.

At the end of last week, both chambers appeared close to putting the finishing touches on an equal-pay bill and an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Both measures are holdovers from President George W. Bush’s days in office, and Democrats have been champing at the bit to get them enacted. Last year, Republicans filibustered the equal-pay measure, whereas Bush vetoed the SCHIP bill in 2007.

On SCHIP, Democrats are trying to expand the program from 6 million to more than 10 million children, and they have made no secret of the fact that they consider the effort a precursor to passing comprehensive health care reform later this year. No issue defined the differences more starkly between Bush and Democrats over the last two years than the SCHIP fight, and Democrats appear headed for an easy victory after racking up a more than two-thirds majority vote in the House.

The even bigger kahuna right out of the gate is an $825 billion economic stimulus package that would be one of the most ambitious and expensive bills in the nation’s history, eclipsing last year’s $700 billion Wall Street bailout.

Obama and Democrats have repeatedly said Republican input is not just welcome but key to the success of the economic package. However, GOP House leaders were miffed that House Democrats crafted their version of the plan with only minimal GOP consultation.

On the other hand, Senate Republicans, who are more consequential because they still have the power to filibuster, have praised Obama’s willingness to include a nearly $300 billion tax-relief component to the bill. Even if Senate Republicans don’t attempt to block the measure from moving forward, Obama has put a premium on attracting broad bipartisan support for the bill. To achieve that goal, he will need to persuade 15 to 20 GOP Senators to sign on.

House Democrats are largely counting on public pressure to persuade endangered Republicans to support their package.

“For eight years we tried the Republican way and look where it got us,” one senior House Democratic leadership aide said. “They are trying to have it both ways, saying they will work with you but only supporting tax cuts. It’s a dangerous game.”

Democratic leaders promise to finish the stimulus by the Presidents Day recess — with an omnibus spending bill wrapping up and the 2009 spending bills not far behind.

“The No. 1 priority is passing the economic recovery and reinvestment plan,” the leadership aide said. “We’re committed to our deadline. Otherwise, we’ll stay until it’s done.”

But House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) has already said Congress may need another stimulus later in the year, given that some economists have suggested $825 billion may not be enough.

By mid-February, Congress will have to quickly pivot to deal with the fiscal 2010 budget resolution, which will set out the parameters for the major bills to follow and, perhaps, include special reconciliation rules that would allow some measures to sidestep potential GOP filibusters in the Senate.

Reconciliation rules include strict time limits for debate, with just 51 votes needed to advance the legislation through the chamber. Only items with an impact on the budget are allowed in the bill.

If Democrats decide to protect some policy proposals from filibuster, they risk angering Republicans who will be needed on other issues. However, the temptation to insulate a massive rewrite of health care laws could prove too much for Democrats as they seek to make good on both their own campaign promises and Obama’s.

Without protection from a filibuster as well as a measurable economic recovery, any plans for passing Obama’s near-universal health care proposal could run into serious budgetary obstacles, Democrats have acknowledged. Some have even suggested that health care reform may have to wait until another year.

Democrats also have to negotiate how to handle the war in Iraq, but they are likely to see what withdrawal plans Obama devises in his first weeks in office. However, the issue will likely come to a head for both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue this spring when Congress is faced with passing another funding bill for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Congressional Democrats also are considering putting together yet another housing reform package to tackle the foreclosure crisis by lifting a prohibition on adjusting mortgages in bankruptcy.

Plus, Democrats hope to pass in the coming months a new regulatory regime for the financial markets that promises greater scrutiny of hedge funds and industry in general in the wake of Wall Street’s collapse and the Bernie Madoff scandal involving a massive Ponzi scheme.

Washington, D.C., residents also could finally get voting representation in Congress in the first 100 days. Democrats are determined to push through legislation that would give the District a voice in the House.

And Democrats also will get the ball rolling on a global warming and energy reform package in the first three months — although final passage is not expected until later in the year.

New House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) wants a global warming bill by Memorial Day, while aides say the ultimate timing of that and energy reform will likely be dictated by Obama.

“It’s something that must be addressed and we have an administration that is fully engaged on the issue,” the leadership aide said. “It’s a new day.”