One year later Dealing with Congress

2009 Democratic agenda severely weakened by Republicans' united opposition

By Shailagh Murray, Michael D. Shear and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 24, 2010

The breathless pace that President Obama set after taking office last January jolted lawmakers from the soporific haze of the final George W. Bush years, revving up dormant committees and lighting up phone lines with a frenzy of dealmaking.

Wielding large Democratic majorities, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) relied on their expert vote-counting skills to send Obama 13 major bills and bring an overhaul of the nation's health-care system to the brink of final passage. By Christmas Eve, when the Senate finally adjourned, lawmakers were exuberant, if exhausted.

Then the bullet train screeched to a halt. Republican Scott Brown's victory in the Massachusetts special election on Tuesday cost the Democrats' their filibuster-proof Senate majority. Obama's biggest priorities -- overhauling health care, expanding college aid, reducing climate change -- are now in limbo, facing dim prospects as Republicans show little interest in cooperating, and Democrats brace for a 2010 midterm election year potentially as volatile as 1994, when the GOP captured the Senate and the House two years after Bill Clinton was elected president.

The agenda, Obama acknowledged Friday, had run into a "buzz saw" of opposition. "It's just an ugly process," he told an audience at an Ohio community college. "You're running headlong into special interests, and armies of lobbyists, and partisan politics that's aimed at exploiting fears instead of getting things done. And the longer it takes, the uglier it looks. . . . I can promise you there will be more fights ahead."

Obama asked Congress to take on so many issues in 2009, it was as if the entire Democratic Party platform was submitted for a vote. From closing Guantanamo Bay, to loosening Cuba policy, to transforming the way Wall Street is regulated and Pentagon weapons are acquired, Obama set a course that he described in his inaugural address as "the work of remaking America."

In his Election Night speech, Obama implored Democrats and Republicans alike, "Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long."

And yet as the year unfolded, the divisions on Capitol Hill would only grow deeper, the rhetoric more hostile, the cooperation across the aisle less frequent and meaningful. The Senate, once a refuge of comity, is now as polarized as the House. And the president, rather than pushing back, relented.

Democratic leaders and White House officials insist they made the right decision to capitalize on the economic crisis and their outsize House and Senate majorities. Some of the bills that advanced in 2009 were perhaps too unwieldy for voters to digest and too easy for GOP opponents to demagogue. And six months of health-care talks may have suggested that Congress was ignoring more immediate problems, as Americans struggled to pay mortgages and tuition bills.

The challenge for Obama and his party now is to convince voters that it all adds up to progress.

"I viewed this year as the year we said we would do something, we did it, and now in this year of 2010, we'll talk about it," Pelosi said in an interview. "It's hard to talk about it when you're doing it."

Courting the GOP

The Obama legislative agenda was built around an "advancing tide" theory.

Democrats would start with bills that targeted relatively narrow problems, such as expanding health care for low-income children, reforming Pentagon contracting practices and curbing abuses by credit-card companies. Republicans would see the victories stack up and would want to take credit alongside a popular president. As momentum built, larger bipartisan coalitions would form to tackle more ambitious initiatives.

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