By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008
Eager to avoid the missteps that plagued the first months of the Clinton administration, aides to Barack Obama have begun working in concert with top Democrats in Congress to craft a preliminary legislative agenda that would guide the senator from Illinois should he capture the White House in November.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has assigned her committee chairmen to begin with low-hanging fruit to build confidence and provide a new, young president quick legislative victories, then pivot to more challenging issues, from ending U.S. military involvement in Iraq to broadening health-care coverage. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) said his policy staffs and Obama's have been working together for more than a month.
"This is my last chance," Rangel, 78, said of his opportunity to make a lasting legislative imprint. "This is the big one."
Pelosi's priorities begin, in order, with ending the war in Iraq, expanding access to health care, rebuilding infrastructure and weaning the nation off oil. But with economic problems looming ever larger, she and other Democrats say providing relief could be their first target: "I'll just use a four-letter word," Pelosi said. "Jobs."
Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill hope to dramatically expand their ranks in the fall election and are even allowing themselves to contemplate securing a potentially filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Their enthusiasm is tempered by some Democrats' caution against overreaching for fear that an agenda geared too much to the party's most liberal elements could make the 2010 elections a repeat of 1994, when Democrats were exiled from power on Capitol Hill for 12 years.
With Republican retirements and a political playing field still tilting away from the GOP, most independent political analysts predict the Democrats will expand their majority in the House by at least 10 seats and maybe twice that number. But a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate -- which would require a nine-seat Democratic gain -- is a long shot.
"The odds are pretty high we won't get to 60, but it's not out of the question," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Recent polling has shown that the seat of Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) is in more jeopardy than it was just weeks ago. The indictment of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has imperiled the longest-held Republican Senate seat in history. New numbers indicate that Republican-held seats in states that have been little more than an afterthought for Democrats in most election years -- including those of Sen. Saxby Chambliss in Georgia, Sen. Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, Sen. Roger Wicker in Mississippi and even Sen. James M. Inhofe in Oklahoma -- are becoming more competitive.
"The chatter about whether Democrats can pick up enough seats in November to hit the magic number of 60 and a filibuster-proof majority is getting louder," the nonpartisan Cook Political Report said last week.
Even if the Democrats fall short, moderate Republicans such as Sens. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and Arlen Specter (Pa.), and possible survivors, such as Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Gordon Smith (Ore.), could still provide the votes next year to break Republican filibusters. "It's not as good as 60, but it's close enough to get a lot done," Schumer said.
If Obama prevails, Democrats hope to revive legislation that was vetoed by President Bush or filibustered in the Senate. Among the bills that would be pushed within days of the opening of the next Congress would be a significant expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, paid for with an increase in the federal tobacco tax, and an extension of tax credits for renewable energy sources, financed largely by the repeal of recent tax breaks for oil companies.
"You start small and build confidence," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.).
Congress would also likely take up Obama's economic stimulus package quickly, which includes one-time tax rebates to help offset rising energy costs, and money for state and local governments to fund infrastructure projects and cope with rising health-care spending. Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said he recently spoke to Obama and that the agenda would include Iraq, health care and global warming. But, Durbin added, "his mind is really fixed on the economy. That might eclipse everything."
After those first bills, Democrats are split. Some Democratic leaders are already fretting about the lessons of 1993, when Bill Clinton took office with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and immediately moved to try to enact deficit reduction through tax increases, universal health care, an overhaul of the nation's welfare laws and new gun controls. Democrats lost control of Congress the next year in a wave of voter discontent and anger.
"Normally, when all your dreams are realized in an election, that's when it becomes a nightmare," Moran said. "2008 could be a dream election. 2010 could be a disaster."
Those Democrats worry that the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq alone could leave Democrats politically vulnerable in 2010, especially if violence flares. Committee chairmen have been advised to steer clear of troop withdrawal legislation until the spring, to give Obama time to mobilize a diplomatic offensive and get the Iraqi government and its neighbors more involved in maintaining regional stability.
In tandem with that challenge, the prospect of defeat on an issue as big as universal health insurance is already kindling memories of 1994. Some Democrats argue that Obama should start with universal health insurance for children and a federally backed catastrophic health insurance fund that would lower the costs of traditional insurance policies and take the pressure off businesses tempted to drop employee coverage.
Schumer said they should stick to the "vowels": energy, immigration, education and Iraq. But other Democrats say they need to think big and move fast.
"My experience is the president's best chance for a big idea is his first year. After that, you're already into another election cycle," Durbin said.
Rangel said: "All I know is, I want to see America educated, healthy and with enough money in their pockets to go out and get a good job and raise a family. And we're going to have a ball doing that."
One challenge that seems destined for the back burner is balancing a federal budget that has been swimming in red ink for eight years. Obama and leaders in the House and Senate insist they will stick to the party's reinstituted rules to pay for new spending or tax cuts with offsetting tax hikes or spending cuts. But that would only stabilize the deficit, approaching $500 billion, not reduce it.
"People have to understand how far the road back is to sea level," Pelosi said.
How all this unfolds will depend at first on the scope of a Democratic victory in November, leaders say. A strong win for Obama and congressional Democrats would force Republicans into the new president's camp and allow him to be more aggressive. A narrow win would force him to make good on his promises to meet Republicans halfway and find truly bipartisan compromise.
"As whip, I am just praying for a number as close to 60 as possible," Durbin said. "I don't know if we can reach it, but it's possible."
Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.