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Administration Willing to Go It Alone

“You should pass this jobs plan right away.”

If only it were that easy for President Barack Obama to get Congress to implement his agenda.

Many of Obama’s priorities have sputtered and stalled, and the president blames gridlock in Washington for the lack of progress that voters might hold over his head come next November. But the White House has signaled it is willing to use other options such as executive orders, administrative action at the agency level and a review of regulations to implement the president’s wishes without Congress on board.

In recent weeks Obama has exerted his executive authority on issues ranging from education to housing policy to the environment.

Obama signed an executive order granting a waiver for states wanting to opt out of No Child Left Behind. It’s a move backed by even GOP governors, and one that has broad support in Congress. But nothing happened legislatively, so the White House took matters into its own hands.

Obama overruled his Environmental Protection Agency by repealing an ozone regulation, and he’s commissioned Cass Sunstein, head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, to identify other regulations that can be tweaked or rolled back to save the government money or to relieve pressure on the lagging economy.

The administration also implemented several policies related to mortgage assistance and housing without Congressional action.

Will the American people see the president bypassing Congress more frequently?

“It’s possible,” a top White House aide told Roll Call.

Don Stewart, a top aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said the No Child Left Behind executive order became necessary because Senate Democrats never brought up legislation for a floor vote. And while the GOP agrees with some of Obama’s actions and wants to see more regulation changes, “Any big picture item, you want Congress to be involved,” Stewart said.

In the past two weeks, the White House used an administrative maneuver to make it easier for foreclosed properties to get back on the rental market. The aim is to help keep property values stable and to provide affordable rental housing.

In another move, the administration worked through the Department of Housing and Urban Development to extend from four months to 12 months the forbearance on mortgage payments for Federal Housing Authority-backed homeowners who have been laid off.

In his speech Thursday night to Congress, Obama said he agrees with many Republicans who feel “there are some rules and regulations that do put an unnecessary burden on businesses at a time when they can least afford it.”

The president said Sunstein has found more than 500 reforms that could save “billions of dollars over the next few years” and that his standard is to have “no more regulation than the health, safety and security … the American people require.”

Environmentalists and activist groups on the left were furious earlier this month when Obama scrubbed his EPA’s clean-air regulation that Republicans said threatened to cost jobs and harm the private sector.

“I assume that we haven’t seen the last of that,” said Jim Manley, a former longtime aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Sunstein wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last month that “significant burden-reducing rules have been finalized or publicly proposed by the Department of Labor, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation — and they are expected to save more than $4 billion over the next five years.”

The administration estimated that once all of the regulations are examined, they could find private-sector savings of as much as $10 billion over five years.

As for Obama’s outline to Congress on Thursday, the administration believes several proposals the president called for passing have a chance. “These really do have bipartisan support,” the White House aide said. Indeed, Obama mentioned past GOP support for his proposals at least eight times during the 34-minute speech, one of which was sent to Obama’s desk last week.

Stewart said Obama can’t pin the lack of action entirely on Congress because there are a number of trade agreements with bipartisan support that are “gathering dust on his desk.” He said Republicans have identified 20 to 30 pending items that have bipartisan support, including trade deals and patent reform.

Most of the administration’s efforts have been small and have created little friction with Congress. The administration contends that, collectively, the moves make a difference and hints there could be more where those came from, especially when it comes to scaling back regulations that Obama can tinker with on his own.

But Manley and others from both parties cautioned Obama against overusing his authority.

“Even though some Democrats might, in fact, wish that he could govern by executive order, he can’t do that. You’ve got to pick and choose your spots,” Manley said. “It’s not like he’s going to issue one executive order after another dealing with X, Y and Z major problems. It’s going to be a majority of Congress getting done what’s doable on the economy, managing expectations on the rest and using executive orders when he can.”

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