By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 9:42 PM
The Senate is emerging as a laboratory for the centrist agenda President Obama outlined in his State of the Union address, a testing ground that could show whether the comity of recent weeks was a passing phase or a more powerful shift that might help lawmakers find solutions to the nation's pressing problems.
It is the narrowly divided Democratic-led Senate - not the Republican House - that is most likely to tackle the bipartisan initiatives Obama laid out Tuesday, including free-trade deals, border security and immigration reform, and an overhaul of the corporate tax code.
Although many Senate Democrats say that liberal priorities such as climate-change legislation have fallen off Obama's agenda, they also see an opportunity to begin a political recovery by pursuing more moderate legislative goals with Republicans' help.
"We're going to try to ease out onto the frozen lake," a senior Democratic leadership aide said of the GOP outreach effort. "If it starts to crack, we'll run back."
Before the November midterm elections, Democrats had such commanding majorities in the House and Senate that they could pass ambitious legislation, including the health-care overhaul, without a single Republican vote. The change now taking place reflects the new math in Congress and an altered landscape nationwide, as the economic recession eases and policy-makers turn their focus to job creation and private-sector innovation to foster long-term growth.
Obama's address on Tuesday reflected "a centrist Congress and what our agenda is likely to be," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate leader. "It wasn't the speech the president gave two years ago, but he wasn't facing a Congress as he did two years ago."
Senate Democratic leaders have played a stealth game in recent weeks, declining to engage in a public tit-for-tat as newly empowered House Republicans advanced such legislation as a repeal of the health-care law and deep domestic spending cuts. Nor have they revealed what bills they will bring to the Senate floor in the coming weeks.
Instead, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and his leadership colleagues have worked behind the scenes with their GOP counterparts to overhaul a set of arcane procedural rules, with the aim of curtailing filibusters and allowing a more free-flowing debate. Started as an effort to appease junior Democrats who are frustrated by the chamber's slow pace, the process has evolved into a strategic imperative by both sides as party leaders seek ways to build on the bipartisan spirit that emerged during the December lame-duck congressional session.
The Senate is not expected to go as far as the freshmen would like, but senior Senate aides said Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are close to a gentleman's agreement aimed at curbing disruptive practices.
Senators plan to try the new approach with modest initiatives. One starting point under discussion is a slate of pending non-controversial judicial nominations that stalled last year on the Senate floor, aides said.
Another early test could come when the Senate attempts to change a provision in the health-care law that small-business owners say would overly burden them with new paperwork requirements. Democrats are eager to find out whether Republicans confine their broader repeal efforts to that one debate.
The new centrism also could come into focus during a trade debate expected to begin as soon as February. Congress must reauthorize a program that assists workers who lose their jobs as a result of a rise in imports, an opportunity for free-trade supporters to offer a pending trade agreement with South Korea. In his speech on Tuesday, Obama said the South Korea pact could create 70,000 American jobs and urged Congress "to pass it as soon as possible."
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a swing vote on many issues, said trade is an ideal way to measure the Senate's bipartisan resolve. "There's common ground there," he said.
He and other free-trade supporters would add pending Central American pacts to the list. "A free-trade agreement with Colombia and Panama, as well as South Korea, are things that we can work on together to help with private-sector jobs in this country," Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told reporters before the president's address.
Obama's address was remarkable for the absence of a partisan to-do list, leaving many in polarized Washington struggling to find a new center of gravity.
One of the many odd outcomes: a joint statement released Wednesday by U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. The longtime adversaries endorsed Obama's call for new infrastructure spending, an idea conservative House Republicans have dismissed as waste.
"Whether it is building roads, bridges, high-speed broadband, energy systems and schools, these projects not only create jobs and demand for businesses, they are an investment in building the modern infrastructure our country needs to compete in a global economy," the statement said.
But such big-ticket spending remains a long shot, particularly in light of the Congressional Budget Office's estimate Wednesday that the federal deficit for the current year will approach $1.5 trillion, a record number. The announcement could give House conservatives a short-term lift in their quest for deep spending cuts.
The Democratic National Committee circulated a digest Wednesday of positive responses to the speech from Republicans, including a quote from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) that singled out the corporate tax overhaul, and praise from former senator Judd Gregg (N.H.), a fiscal hawk, for Obama's bid to freeze domestic spending for five years. Up-and-coming GOP Rep. Kristi Noem (S.D.) called Obama's address "a winning speech if he really wants to be viable for 2012."
McConnell said he is prepared to work with Democrats, provided Republicans are treated as equal partners.
"The president has made some good suggestions on areas where we could work together," he said in a speech Wednesday. "But achieving these things should be an end into itself" and not - as with health care and other recent debates - "a bargain whereby the party offering to work together has no real intention of working together at all."