Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/reid3.jpgSenate Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (flickr)
In the wake of Tuesday’s elections — which swept a Democrat into the White House and widened the party’s margins in the Senate and the House — it’s tempting to conclude that the Democrats’ legislative challenges just eased, that the days of GOP obstructionism are over and that the party’s congressional leaders will have their way next year on Capitol Hill.
It would also be misleading.
As Democratic leaders shift their energies from electoral politics to policy choices, they’re in for no cakewalk. Internally, the party will probably move toward the center, as many of Tuesday’s congressional gains came in conservative-leaning regions. Republicans, meanwhile, are vowing to unite ideologically to thwart Democratic plans, largely in fear that 2010 could be a repeat of 2008.
Most important, the country is broke. It is using borrowed money to fight two long-running wars and to address the worst economic downturn in 80 years. On Friday, the news got worse. The Labor Dept. reported that roughly 240,000 people lost their jobs in October, pushing the unemployment rate to 6.5 percent, the highest in 14 years.
Still, besides their greater majorities, Democrats have accumulated a good sum of political capital in the wake of the vastly unpopular Bush administration. The problem is that their ambitious priorities don’t come cheap. Proposals to expand health coverage, cut taxes for middle-class workers and revamp the energy industry to produce a greener 21st century would benefit the economy over the long run. But they would cost billions of dollars now. Some economists anticipate a budget deficit near $1 trillion next year even without these items.
So Democratic congressional leaders will have to pick their battles carefully.
“Those are the two 800-pound gorillas (two wars and the economic downturn) that you’ll have to address before you get around to doing many other things,” said Michael L. Mezey, political science professor at DePaul University. “The budget debate is going to be front and center.”
Last week, President-elect Barack Obama laid out his domestic priorities, including sweeping plans for energy and health-care reform. Yet nothing will be possible if the economy continues to tank. On Saturday, Obama urged more government intervention to reinvigorate the economy.
“We need a rescue plan for the middle class that invests in immediate efforts to create jobs and provides relief to families that are watching their paychecks shrink and their life savings disappear,” Obama said.
Democrats want to pump billions into infrastructure projects, unemployment benefits and help for states, many of which face severe budget deficits. Party leaders hope to pass legislation this month, but the Bush administration has opposed any such plan. It’s unclear who will win the partisan battle. Obama, however, has vowed to make an economic-stimulus bill his first priority in January if Congress fails to act this year.
With Democrats having picked up at least six seats in the Senate and 19 in the House, a stimulus plan should pass easily. Yet numbers are not the only factor determining the success of the Democrats’ agenda.
Many newly elected Democrats represent moderate or conservative-leaning districts, and they tend to favor balanced budgets. These Democrats may oppose big-ticket reforms if they require more deficit spending. Membership in the House’s Blue Dog coalition — fiscally conservative Democrats — now stands at 47, but that figure could grow with the arrival of 2009′s freshman class. As federal revenues fall because of the sinking economy, the burden on Congress to find precious dollars without cutting vital services will only get heavier.
Much will also depend on Obama’s working relationship with congressional leaders, particularly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). If the new president doesn’t consult Congress on his agenda — the way President Bill Clinton did with his health-care reform in the early 1990s — he could face push-back from his own party.
“It’s a matter of melding their priorities with Obama’s priorities,” Mezey said, referring to Reid and Pelosi. “The question is whether there’s a willingness on both sides to find common ground.”
On many party plans, Obama and congressional leaders are on the same page. Yet sticking points remain.
Take energy issues. Reid, for example, opposes greater reliance on coal as an energy source. Obama has pushed hard for what he calls clean-coal technologies. (Illinois is a large coal producer.)
Obama also wants to increase fuel-efficiency standards for the nation’s automobiles — a goal almost certain to be opposed by Michigan’s powerful Democrats.
Then there’s this paradox: While wider congressional margins should make it easier for Democrats to carry the legislative day, greater numbers also increase the chances of dissension. “It’s always easier to have discipline with a minority party,” Mezey said. “As you widen the tent, it’s going to be very difficult to maintain the same level of unity.”
To help their chances, Democratic leaders have been quick to reach across the aisle. In a news conference Wednesday, Pelosi vowed to work next year “in a strong bipartisan way and with civility in our debate.”
No amount of civility, though, will probably curb the ubiquitous influence of lobbyists, who tend to care much less about party affiliation than who holds power. For example, there has been a strong push among some Democrats to reform the credit card industry. In September, the House passed a bill to do just that. But in the Senate, the legislation remains mired in the banking committee.
The stalemate may be due to the fact that the finance industry is the single greatest contributor to Washington lawmakers regardless of party — a trend that’s not about to change just because more Democrats will be arriving on Capitol Hill in January.
“It’s less partisan than it is the tremendous industry influence treading on a committee,” said Ed Mierzwinski, program director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization.
Republicans, meanwhile, are down but not out. In an Op-Ed in The Washington Post Friday, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the GOP is ready to fight the Democrats’ “far-left agenda.”
“This election was neither a referendum in favor of the left’s approach to key issues nor a mandate for big government,” Boehner wrote. “Obama campaigned by masking liberal policies with moderate rhetoric to make his agenda more palatable to voters. Soon he will seek to advance these policies through a Congress that was purchased by liberal special interests such as unions, trial lawyers and radical environmentalists, and he’ll have a fight on his hands when he does so.”
Obama seems to recognize the Herculean task he faces. In his victory speech Tuesday night, the president-elect pointed to the many issues plaguing the country — crumbling infrastructure, rising unemployment, war in Iraq and skyrocketing health-care costs. He asked the nation for its patience and sacrifice as he attempts to tackle them.
“The road ahead will be long,” Obama told the crowd in Grant Park. “Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term.
“But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.”
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