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?Happy Days for House Democrats?

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/house-leaders.jpgDemocratic House leaders, with Nancy Pelosi. (flickr)

For the past two years, the House of Representatives has been busy as bees getting not much done. Under Democratic leaders who took the helm in 2007, the party has had great success moving the policy priorities that propelled it into power in 2006 — only to see most die an early death by Senate filibuster or White House veto.

Measures to shift the nation’s energy policy toward renewable fuels, rehabilitate crumbling infrastructure and expand health coverage to millions of uninsured kids are just a few of the proposals to hit a wall of GOP opposition after sailing through the lower chamber.

Congress-150x150_3961.jpg
Congress-150x150_3961.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

With Barack Obama assuming the presidency in January, congressional leaders should be eager to return to their wish list. And it seems likely they will. In an interview last week with CNN, Obama listed the priorities of his (then-theoretical) administration, which amounted to an agenda that could have been written by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Energy independence. Health-care reform. Middle-class tax breaks. Education investment. Obama’s list melded with Democratic priorities of the past few years.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Pelosi deferred to Obama’s yet-unspecified strategy but seemed to anticipate a well-coordinated effort.

As a result, the days of the Democratic Congress’s ineffectiveness may be over. In the wake of Tuesday’s remarkable win, Obama not only controls the White House but has influence over a Democratic Congress that owes much of its electoral success to his presence on the ticket. Party leaders have been careful not to call his victory a mandate — at least not publicly. But the enormous popularity of Obama — combined with wider Democratic margins in Congress and public anxiety over the sputtering economy — gives the party a rare opportunity to get something done.

At the top of Obama’s domestic wish list is energy independence. On the campaign trail, the Illinois senator vowed a 10-year, $150-billion investment in renewable technologies as a way to wean the country from its foreign-oil addiction and create jobs in the fast-growing clean-energy sector.

The goal is shared by Democratic leaders. Last month, Congress allotted $18 billion to extend tax credits for investments in renewable fuels. That extension, though, is temporary — eight years for solar technologies and one year for wind.

Environmentalists view Obama’s green-investment plan as a vital part of any shift toward green technologies. “The tax credits alone are not enough,” said Nick Berning, spokesman for Friends of the Earth.

To pay the tab, Obama’s plan calls for a cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions — another goal of Democratic congressional leaders. The president-elect’s proposal would require large-scale polluters to pay for every ton of carbon emitted. The effort would reduce emission levels 80 percent by 2050, according to the Obama campaign.

Obama is also pushing for an increase in fuel-efficiency standards. Last December, Congress passed legislation setting a 35-mile-a-gallon floor by 2020, but many Democrats have called for stricter measures. A proposal pushed by Democrats almost two decades ago would have bumped that floor to 40 mpg.

Daniel Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, pointed out that because the new law doesn’t include a ceiling on fuel standards, Obama could make the change without going through Congress. “They can go well beyond 35 miles a gallon,” Becker said.

Obama also told CNN that health reform will be one of his top priorities. Many experts predict that a logical place for Democrats to begin next year would be children’s health care. A year ago, Democrats passed a $35 billion expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, to cover millions of kids currently without insurance.

The proposal attracted enough Republican support to elude a Senate filibuster, but not enough to override two presidential vetoes. With a Democrat in the White House, the bill would easily become law — a scenario some policy experts predict for early next year.

“They’ll do it very quickly,” said Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, a child-welfare group. “They’ll be looking to get some things done, get some quick wins. And of course they’ll have a president who won’t veto it.”

Lesley also pointed to the likelihood that an Obama administration would repeal a controversial Bush administration regulation — issued quietly in the summer of 2007 — that sets strict (some say impossible) limits on states wanting to expand their SCHIP programs.

Yet many key Democrats talk about health-care reform that far transcends the SCHIP slice. This leaves some experts speculating that party leaders might try to use the post-election momentum to pass a far larger package.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) is busy crafting one such plan. The nine-term Democrat hopes to tackle the proposal early next year, putting pressure on Obama to join the effort. Michael Myers, staff director of the Senate health committee, which Kennedy heads, told reporters Thursday that the details of that plan have yet to be worked out. But he stressed that the issue will certainly come up next year.

“With the Obama victory,” Myers said, “the question is no longer whether we will pursue comprehensive health reform, but when — and in what form.”

Much of what the 2009 Congress will confront hinges on what the 2008 Congress gets done this month. Democrats are pushing hard for yet another economic stimulus measure, to be taken up when Congress returns to Washington on Nov. 17 for a short, post-election “rump session.”

Party leaders hope to include billions of dollars in new infrastructure spending, unemployment benefits and low-income health-care funding. The Bush administration opposes much of the plan, however, leaving the real possibility that passage will be delayed until early next year.

Another wildcard: How the nation’s lenders respond to the infusion of cash from last month’s $700-billion Wall Street bailout. “We don’t know yet what’s going to happen in January,” Obama told CNN last week. “None of this can be accomplished if we continue to see a potential meltdown in the banking system.”

Legislatively, the Democrats have a formidable playbook from which to draw. Since taking control of Congress in 2007, the House has passed dozens of bills fulfilling the campaign promises that led to their dramatic takeover the November before. The issues run the gamut — everything from pulling troops out of Iraq to curbing discrimination against gays; from expanding stem-cell research to regulating tobacco as a drug. One bill would force mining companies to pay royalties to Washington for metals harvested from federal lands. Another would expand funding for low-income affordable housing. The list goes on.

The House is the best barometer of party priorities because its rules prohibit filibusters, meaning bills pass with a simple majority. That is, the party in control can do what it pleases — assuming leaders can unite the caucus.

In all of these cases, the White House had either threatened a veto, or applied one.

Under an Obama White House, of course, the veto threat all but vanishes. Meanwhile, Democrats picked up at least six Senate seats Tuesday, while adding at least 19 new members in the House. Several races in each chamber are still too close to call.

Party leaders are vowing not to abuse the new power. Senate Majorty Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday night that the election results are “not a mandate for a party or an ideology, but really a mandate for change.”

Still, the changes the Democrats hope to see are pretty overt. Four years after President George W. Bush proclaimed his thin victory over Sen. John Kerry to be a mandate, Democratic leaders will be hoping, at least inwardly, that this year’s historic election constitutes the real thing.

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