Overview: Quick Start Vital for Successful 111th Congress

Posted December 5, 2008 at 2:22pm

Newly empowered Democratic leaders are aiming for a blockbuster agenda in 2009 as they look to jump-start an economy in recession, overturn a host of Republican policies and enact universal health care. And save the planet, to boot.

Then, of course, there’s the nearly $600 billion in off-budget monies that have already been spent on the Iraq War.

Still, the fiscal crisis has set off a frenzy of lobbying as every interest group looks to get its slice of bailout pie — from governors looking for a federal helping hand to avoid higher taxes or massive layoffs to green-power advocates seeking new subsidies and highway construction interests hoping for a massive public works package.

All could find themselves in the winner’s circle, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also signaling that broad tax cuts will be on the table as well. That will present a challenge to Republicans, who have blocked spending-heavy stimulus plans for much of the past year as either premature or wasteful, but have supported tax relief.

First things first — President-elect Barack Obama wants a massive recovery package on his desk as soon as he takes office, and it looks to be several hundred billion dollars. That’s in addition to the $850 billion tab of this year’s bailout bill; the costly rescues of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, American International Group and Bear Stearns; the first stimulus package; and the trillions in debt guaranteed or bought by the Federal Reserve on its own authority.

But even if they stand in opposition, Democrats are all but certain to roll them with their increased majorities, as even Democrats who have touted the importance of pay-as-you-go budget rules have signaled that those budget protections will be of secondary importance until the economy is out of recession.

Democrats who say they’ve learned their lessons from the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress understand the importance of getting a fast start and racking up accomplishments before Obama’s presidential honeymoon fades.

“All of the things that we didn’t pass in the 110th — now we have the votes,” noted one senior Senate Democratic aide.

Instead of President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, they are looking as their guide to 1933, the year Franklin D. Roosevelt took office — complete with New Deal-like plans for assistance for the ailing economy and bold proposals to expand social services.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Pelosi and Obama “need to work on the exact agenda for next year, but we expect a significant amount of time to be spent on efforts to improve the economy and on providing access to health care for those who currently don’t have access,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.

Despite those plans, Democrats plan to step gingerly into those debates, having been humbled by what House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) recently termed their years in “the wilderness.”

Democrats were shocked to lose in 1994, but they now are hungry to not only keep their majorities but also to show they can govern.

“We had been in the majority for 38 years in ’93 and ’94. And there was a sense that we would perhaps always be in the majority,” Hoyer said.

Beyond the stimulus package, Democrats also have a full plate of unfinished business to tidy up from 2008 — namely, the domestic appropriations bills they left undone to avoid a veto showdown with President George W. Bush.

Their gambit of delaying the bills until Obama takes office could yield about $20 billion in extra domestic spending — and thousands of earmarks — shortly after Congress reconvenes.

Democratic leaders also want to start work quickly on two massive but complex tasks — a health care overhaul and passage of a cap-and-trade system intended to dramatically reduce carbon emissions.

Both projects will require months of negotiating between various Democratic factions and the two chambers, and will be a key test of Obama’s ability to get his agenda enacted.

The last time Democrats held the White House, Clinton’s universal health care agenda flat-lined and a massive energy tax scheme imploded in the Senate; Democrats are intent on not repeating that result.

Already, Senate Democratic stakeholders — such as Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) — have made an effort to avoid the internecine rifts that characterized the Clinton-era health care debate.

The two chairmen with primary responsibility for writing legislation based on Obama’s health care plan have been holding joint meetings with each other and with interest groups throughout the fall, in the hopes of having something ready to be introduced and vetted by the beginning of the year.

In the House, the path for health and energy legislation will move in part through the Energy and Commerce Committee, where new Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has some fence-mending to do after unseating the dean of the House, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.). Some moderates have worried the party will lurch too far to the left with Waxman in charge.

Dingell had a record of bipartisanship on the committee, while Waxman had criticized Dingell for being too accommodating to Republicans and to industry groups, particularly on environmental regulations.

A Democratic leadership aide predicted Waxman would work with moderates once the dust settles. “It depends on how Waxman proceeds, and I think he’s a pretty pragmatic, smart politician who gets that he needs them to be on board,” said one aide. “He’s not a left-wing loon.”

On both health and energy, Democrats seem likely to start off with smaller bites, with renewable energy subsidies and an expansion of health insurance for children potentially first out of the gate, and with money included in the omnibus spending package.

Bush vetoed children’s health insurance legislation, making it a natural choice for Democrats to put on Obama’s desk quickly. Stem-cell research legislation likewise could quickly get enacted, although Obama could simply sign an executive order.

On energy, a test vote on cap-and-trade legislation failed earlier this year in the Senate, but Democrats are hopeful that with greatly expanded numbers and the backing of the White House they will be able to get it done.

Democrats also have to decide whether to try to use special budget reconciliation rules to smooth passage of either cap-and-trade or health care by allowing them to be passed with bare majorities in the Senate with limits on debate.

The battle over the budget also will give Blue Dogs a chance to extract long-term demands for fiscal responsibility in return for leeway for short-term spending and tax cuts.

“Blue Dogs will be looking for something that shows long-term restraint,” said a Democratic leadership aide.

There are also plenty of smaller agenda items that are nonetheless important to various Democratic-backing constituencies. Unions want card-check legislation; trial lawyers and women’s groups want to roll back a Supreme Court decision dramatically limiting pay discrimination lawsuits.

Environmental groups will also seek legislation rolling back recent Bush administration regulations, and Hoyer said Democrats will look to restore some restrictions to offshore drilling beyond the three-mile ban still in place, but still do not plan to return the blanket ban along most of the nation’s coastline before Sept. 30.

Meanwhile, smoldering issues remain that could give Washington’s new masters some heartburn.

Immigration remains one of the most divisive issues around, and although Obama has pledged to push for an immigration reform plan, passage is far from certain.

Still, Reid said recently that he wants to deal quickly with immigration and hopes that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is returning to the Senate after his presidential bid, will be a constructive part of that effort.

Likewise, gay rights advocates want an end to the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on openly gay soldiers, but Democrats aren’t likely to move quickly on such a divisive issue, remembering how it tripped up Clinton in 1993.

The fate of these smaller issues, however, may depend greatly on the overall path of the economy.

“A lot depends on the national context,” said one House leadership aide. “If the markets are in the tank and the Dow is at 5,000, that’s going to dominate everything.”