Obama’s Pen to Get Little Practice in First Days

Posted January 20, 2009 at 6:44pm

Congressional Democrats had ambitious plans to get a number of key bills onto President Barack Obama’s desk by the day he was sworn into office, but the realities of legislating made that task next to impossible in the beginning days of the 111th Congress.

If lucky, Democrats will have a measure to clarify equal pay laws to the White House by the end of this week, and they hope to complete a reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program by the end of next week.

But for this week, Senators and aides said they were apt to keep it relatively simple.

“The principal issue this week is to do the ceremony that represents the change in government and then try to confirm as many Cabinet officials as we can,” Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.) said. He said the equal-pay bill also could come to a vote before Friday, but he noted that with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Monday and the inauguration on Tuesday, “It’s going to be a real short week.”

One Senate Democratic leadership aide said the House and Senate are working to get long-stalled Democratic legislative priorities to Obama as soon as possible.

“We’re diligently working to get legislation passed,” the aide said. “With Republican cooperation, we will have bills such as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and children’s health care to the president’s desk shortly.”

While Democrats may not be able to claim a symbolic legislative victory in the next week or so, the main event continues to be the $825 billion stimulus package, with House committees marking up the bill this week in anticipation of House passage next week. House and Senate Democratic leaders initially aimed to finish the stimulus by Inauguration Day, but they backed off that timeline when Republicans objected to rushing through such a massive package in the space of two weeks.

The package, one of the largest spending measures in the nation’s history, already has come under fire from House and Senate Republicans who would prefer much less spending and more tax cuts. However, Obama has made it a priority for the measure to be supported by a broad bipartisan coalition and has already tweaked the tax portions in an attempt to make it more attractive to Senate Republicans.

The draft measure already enjoys widespread support from many House Democrats worried about the state of the economy and eager to show they are responding, with the liberal wing of the party pushing for even more spending.

Work also continues on the main unfinished business from last year — the annual domestic spending bills that were held hostage in a tug of war between Congressional Democrats and the Bush White House. A senior Democratic leadership aide reiterated Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) vow to finish the stimulus by the mid-February Presidents Day recess, and said the omnibus 2009 spending measure should be done by then as well.

Even if the Senate passes the equal pay bill by Friday, however, it will have to be re-passed by the House to account for differences between the two chambers’ versions. That scenario also could prove to be a hang-up on the children’s health insurance expansion, but the Senate Democratic leadership aide said Senate leaders hope to clear the House version for the president’s signature without changing it.

However, some Republican Senators — such as Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (Iowa), who voted for previous versions of the SCHIP bill — recently withdrew their support because of changes that would allow the offspring of illegal immigrants to use the program.

House Democrats have already pushed through the equal pay bill and an expansion of the SCHIP bill and are hoping the Senate swiftly follows suit.

Of course, Obama’s first legislative victory came before he even took office, when the Senate voted last week to release the remaining $350 billion of the Wall Street bailout package.

The House will hold its own vote on the bailout this week, although the issue is moot with the Senate’s action. The House also will take up Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank’s (D-Mass.) legislation this week to tighten restrictions on the use of that money, but the Senate has already indicated it will not advance similar legislation — effectively giving the Obama administration nearly unlimited authority to spend the money as it sees fit.

Meanwhile, the Senate is set to vote Wednesday afternoon on the nomination of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to be secretary of State. In the morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to confirm Eric Holder to be attorney general, while the Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing on Timothy Geithner’s nomination to be Treasury secretary.

The Senate on Tuesday confirmed by voice vote Obama’s picks to head the Office of Management and Budget as well as the departments of Energy, Agriculture, Education, Homeland Security, Interior and Veterans Affairs.