Democrats Prepare Next Act

Posted March 23, 2010 at 6:34pm

Fresh off the biggest Democratic achievement in generations with the enactment of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, enthused House Democrats said Tuesday they are eager to go home to sell the plan while simultaneously pivoting to an agenda tightly focused on jobs.

Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), chairman of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, said Democrats now have two big, concrete accomplishments they can sell: the health care overhaul and a student loan package still percolating through the Senate. He said the intraparty fighting that has marked much of the past year’s health care negotiations is finally in the rearview mirror.

“We’re all going to be reading off the same page,” he said.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), a Chief Deputy Whip, said now that health care reform has passed — House Democrats voted 219-212 on Sunday night on the Senate-passed bill — Democrats need to focus on selling its benefits. “I think the really critical thing is to tell the American people what this bill does right away,” she said, pointing to items such as banning discrimination against sick children and new small-business tax credits.

But even as Democrats market health care by focusing on the provisions that take effect in the first year, they have been itching to focus all year on job creation in the face of near-double-digit unemployment. Some Democrats feel that much of what they have already done on the issue has been overshadowed in the “total eclipse” of health care.

“The economy and jobs has to be No. 1,” Crowley said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters that the economy would take center stage from here on out.

“This success is not the end of what we need to be doing in this Congress,” Hoyer said. “Our focus in this session of Congress is on jobs and economic growth, on growing our economy, getting people back to work.”

Heading into the Easter break this week, House Democrats are already passing smaller jobs-related items, including a small-business tax credit and infrastructure bill and an appropriations measure providing disaster relief and summer jobs.

And Hoyer said Democrats still want to see through a financial regulatory overhaul and an energy bill — two major domestic initiatives that cleared the chamber last year but are still pending in the Senate.

Crowley said Democrats should push aggressively to finish financial reform, which is being teed up in the Senate. And if Republicans continue to oppose everything, Crowley said, Senate Democrats should start forcing old-fashioned filibusters and put them on the spot.

“The American people are entitled to a real filibuster,” he said, arguing that Senate Republicans will pay a price if they use their 41 votes to block popular bills.

“They may not work with us on anything if [Sen.] John McCain [R-Ariz.] is going to be believed,” he said.

Still, Democrats aren’t yet the party of unanimity; apart from financial reform and targeted jobs proposals, Democrats don’t have a consensus on whether to use their newfound momentum to push for big, new initiatives or to slow down and give the public time to digest health care first.

And a number of rank-and-file Democrats still want leaders to keep atop the agenda a larger transportation bill. The effort has been languishing with no consensus on how to pay for it.

“That’s the best jobs bill there could be,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said.

Still others are split on whether to use their new momentum to tackle other controversial subjects such as comprehensive immigration reform.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), the point man on the issue for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said he expects the victory on health care to provide President Barack Obama the political capital to take it on and believes a bill can make it into law this year.

Gutierrez agreed to support the health care overhaul — which included tough Senate-authored language barring illegal immigrants from using their own money to buy health insurance — only after he got Obama to pledge that the administration would push for immigration reform. And while the Illinois Democrat maintains that the Senate needs to pass a bill before the House takes it up, he said he is planning a new push to lay the groundwork for it in his chamber. Gutierrez wants to gather 125 Democratic co-sponsors for his immigration reform bill by the end of next month. “Look, it’s not going to be easy, but I believe you can get it done in the House,” he said.

But others aren’t so sure.

Connolly said Congress could stay busy the rest of the year with the nearly 300 bills the House has already sent to the Senate, and he has doubts about whether Congress can take up an entirely new and difficult issue from scratch, such as immigration.

“You may introduce legislation to lay down the marker and begin the debate,” he said.

Connolly said the party’s base has been awakened by the health care victory, noting that he raised $11,000 overnight after the vote.

“The Democratic base has been hungry for victory,” he said. “They just got one.”