Saturday, January 3, 2009

Tone May Empower Obama's Agenda

From the Washington Post:

Rarely have lawmakers confronted an agenda as ambitious as the one Congress will face upon convening this week, with an incoming president pushing to stabilize an economy on the brink of long-term recession, to create universal health coverage and to overhaul federal energy policies.

There are already signs that the usual divisions that send so many ambitious bills down to defeat will confront President-elect Barack Obama in his first weeks on the job. Some Republicans are spoiling for an early policy fight that will test Obama's mettle, while a number of Democrats are seeking gains in exchange for supporting his initiatives. Conservative House Democrats are demanding that statutory deficit-reduction language be included in a pending economic-stimulus package that could ultimately cost a trillion dollars. And Senate centrists have warned that the incoming administration's ambitious global warming legislation might be a non-starter.


In sweeping initiatives in the Senate, the new president's agenda may rest on his ability to deliver on another campaign pledge, to change the way Washington does business by adopting a more pragmatic and inclusive governing style. And as the nation's economic woes deepen, there are early indications that lawmakers may be willing to put aside precedent, as the incoming Obama administration -- at least so far -- sends the welcome signals to key constituencies.

"I'm encouraged by their talk. But their talk has to be followed up with action," said Rep. Baron P. Hill (D-Ind.), co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of 47 fiscally conservative House Democrats.

Rahm Emanuel, who recently resigned his House seat and will serve as Obama's chief of staff, said that a shift in sentiment is already palpable and that the new administration plans to take full advantage. Lawmakers sense that the need for action is urgent, Emanuel said, and they recognize that Congress's dismal approval ratings would make them easy scapegoats if the gamesmanship continues. "You never allow a serious crisis to go to waste," Emanuel said. "People sense that we're at a different moment in time, and that you have to put aside preconceived notions and partisanship to solve problems."


Republicans will hold at least 41 Senate seats, enough to filibuster if they maintain discipline in their ranks. Soon after the election, Obama began to reach out to individual GOP members through phone calls and meetings led by Emanuel. Beginning with the stimulus debate in early January, Obama will push for Republicans to be included in major policy negotiations as they unfold, senior Democratic aides said. The goal is to set a precedent with the economic recovery package and store goodwill for subsequent battles.

"We are not going to be hampered by ideology in trying to get this country back on track," Obama said at a post-election National Governors Association meeting in Philadelphia. "If you can show me something you are doing that's working, or if you tell me that this program or this regulation is hampering us from doing smart things that will advance the interests of your state, then you're going to have a ready ear."

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, is one of many GOP members eager for Congress to act big, for a change. He has spoken by telephone with Obama, a "welcome conversation," as the veteran lawmaker put it. But Grassley also is also a realist, saying his party would be wise to reexamine its tactics.

"There's a reality for Republicans that with lesser numbers, we're going to have to pick and choose where we draw the line," Grassley said. "There won't be as many lines drawn as in the past."

As useful as Republican support could prove, Obama also is attempting to become the first Democratic president since the mid-1960s to forge an effective working relationship with a big congressional majority of the same party. The last two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, saw their party leaders on Capitol Hill turn against them, leading to electoral disasters for the party in 1980 and in 1994. An energy crisis helped to do in Carter, while a failed health-care proposal contributed to a Republican congressional landslide two years into Clinton's first term.


The good news for Obama is that other potential foes are taking a more cautious approach, reluctant to dismiss ideas outright, especially if the current conciliatory mood holds. Sen. Judd Gregg, the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, said he is encouraged by the burgeoning bipartisanship.

"The opportunity is there, but it's going to take a real diplomatic effort and effective procedure and leadership to pull it off," Gregg said. "You don't have to get too far into the waters of these issues to start aggravating the sharks."

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