Tone May Be Key to Obama's Agenda

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By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 4, 2009

Rarely have lawmakers confronted an agenda as ambitious as the one Congress will face upon convening this week, with an incoming president pushing to stabilize an economy on the brink of long-term recession, to create universal health coverage and to overhaul federal energy policies.

There are signs that the usual divisions that send so many ambitious bills down to defeat will confront President-elect Barack Obama in his first weeks on the job. Some Republicans are spoiling for an early policy fight that will test Obama's mettle. Conservative House Democrats want to include statutory deficit-reduction language in a economic stimulus package that could cost $1 trillion. And Senate centrists have warned that the incoming administration's ambitious global warming legislation might be a non-starter.

Over the past 15 years, during which a large majority of current lawmakers were first elected to Congress, partisan feuding has reduced Congress's output to a bare minimum of must-pass measures. Party-line voting peaked during the Bush presidency, while productivity slumped. In 2008, the Senate voted the lowest number of times since 1951, according to a Congressional Quarterly survey.

With Republicans holding just enough seats to put the brakes on sweeping initiatives in the Senate, the fate of Obama's agenda may rest on his ability to deliver on another campaign pledge: to change the way Washington does business by adopting a more pragmatic and inclusive governing style. And as the nation's economic woes deepen, there are early indications that lawmakers may be willing to put aside precedent, as the incoming administration -- at least so far -- sends welcome signals to key constituencies.

"I'm encouraged by their talk. But their talk has to be followed up with action," said Rep. Baron P. Hill (D-Ind.), co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of 47 fiscally conservative House Democrats.

Rahm Emanuel, who recently resigned his House seat and will serve as Obama's chief of staff, said that a shift in sentiment is palpable and that the new administration plans to take full advantage. Lawmakers sense that the need for action is urgent, Emanuel said, and they recognize that Congress's dismal approval ratings will make them easy scapegoats if the gamesmanship continues. "You never allow a serious crisis to go to waste," Emanuel said. "People sense that we're at a different moment in time, and that you have to put aside preconceived notions and partisanship to solve problems."

Committee leaders in both parties worked through the holidays on several initiatives, including a mammoth overhaul of the health-care system that is moving on a faster track than Obama officials had anticipated, and the stimulus bill, which lawmakers hope to have ready for the new president to sign soon after his swearing-in.

Republicans will hold at least 41 Senate seats, enough to filibuster if they maintain discipline in their ranks. Soon after the election, Obama began to reach out to individual Republicans through phone calls and meetings led by Emanuel. Tomorrow the president-elect will meet with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio), who have expressed skepticism about the cost, scope and timetable of the stimulus plan.

Senior Democratic aides said they are prepared for Obama to push for Republicans to be included in major policy negotiations, starting with the stimulus, as they unfold. The goal is to set a precedent with the economic package and store goodwill for subsequent battles.

"We are not going to be hampered by ideology in trying to get this country back on track," Obama said at a post-election National Governors Association meeting in Philadelphia. In his radio address yesterday, he spoke of the stimulus -- which he labeled the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan -- almost in apolitical terms. "I am optimistic that if we can come together to seek solutions that advance not the interests of any party, or the agenda of any one group, but the aspirations of all Americans, then we will meet the challenges of our time, just as previous generations have met the challenges of theirs," Obama said.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, is one of many GOP members eager for Congress to act big, for a change. He has spoken by telephone with Obama, a "welcome conversation," as the veteran lawmaker put it. But Grassley also is a realist, saying his party would be wise to reexamine its tactics.

"There's a reality for Republicans that with lesser numbers, we're going to have to pick and choose where we draw the line," Grassley said. He predicted, "There won't be as many lines drawn as in the past."

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