Bolder Obama may press other big parts of agenda
By Michael Kranish and Susan Milligan
The Boston Globe, March 23, 2010
Washington, DC — Buoyed by a historic victory, President Obama and the Democrats hope to quickly tap the momentum from passage of their big health care bill to advance other initiatives on their political agenda, including curbing greenhouse gases, imposing new rules on Wall Street, and overhauling immigration laws.
But success on any of those fronts is by no means assured, despite the popping corks and bumping fists. Republicans are seeking to blunt any sense of Democratic progress, starting this week with efforts to scuttle a health care reconciliation measure in the Senate, and followed by a blistering repeal campaign that will target the health legislation leading up to November's congressional elections.
At a bill signing today, Obama will celebrate the most significant domestic policy victory of his term when he enacts a sweeping health care bill to help an additional 32 million Americans obtain health insurance. It is the most significant expansion of health coverage in America in four decades.
Democratic senators, meanwhile, are laying their strategy to pass the second piece of the landmark health care deal, a package of “budget reconciliation'' fixes that can be approved with a simple majority and do not require a filibuster-proof 60 votes.
But mustering this same display of strength on other issues would be difficult, according to lawmakers and political experts.
Obama and Democratic leaders would need support from Republicans who have fought him bitterly in recent weeks. And they could face opposition from Democrats unwilling to take another controversial vote that could hurt their reelection chances.
“My own view is there's only so many `profile in courage' votes that the average House or Senate member wants to take,'' said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, co-founder of research firm Public Opinion Strategies. “This health care bill has used up enormous political capital.''
The safer bet for Democrats, in this view, would be to focus on smaller, job-producing spending bills in the months before the 2010 mid-term elections.
Unlike the overall health care measure, which had already passed the Senate before the arrival of Senate Republicans' “41st vote,'' Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown, the legislation on climate change, Wall Street, and immigration have yet to win Senate passage.
Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who lost the presidential election to Obama and is now facing a reelection fight, set the tone for his party this week when he said in a radio interview that the GOP would not cooperate with the White House this year on other measures after the health care passage.
“They have poisoned the well in what they've done and how they've done it,'' McCain said.
Similarly, Senator Judd Gregg, the New Hampshire Republican who briefly was Obama's nominee for Commerce secretary, said in an interview yesterday that there was little hope of progress on other bills “if they pursue the health care template, which was to take the bill into a back room.''
Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, however, held out hope for passing a climate bill, among others.
“Some people will be angry and fight for the sake of fighting,'' Kerry said in an interview. “Do people really want to play more politics with national priorities? At some point the Republican Party will have to decide if it's for something.''
Obama is set to go to Iowa Thursday to build public support for the health care measure, which was approved 219-212 by the House late Sunday night.
Despite widespread public skepticism – and, Democrats say, confusion – about what the bill will do, the Obama administration is confident that they can assure Americans that the overhaul will improve their lives and make delivery of their health care more secure.
“After the president signs this bill, the American people are not going to have to wait long to see benefits,'' Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a conference call with reporters. “From the moment he puts down his pen,'' groups such as senior citizens on prescription drugs and young adults without health insurance will begin to feel relief, she said.
Obama plans to make periodic trips between now and November to tout the health care package, said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
Some analysts said Obama's health care victory will embolden him to revive a variety of campaign promises.
“The victory on health care without any Republican support should steel Obama for additional partisan wars ahead, especially on financial regulation,'' said Thomas Mann, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution, the nonprofit Washington think tank. “I think Democrats will be much tougher and dare the Republicans to filibuster. Immigration and climate change have their own politics but Republicans began a strategy of opposition before Obama was inaugurated and I see no change yet in that strategy.''
But immigration reform will prove so divisive that, in pollster McInturff's analysis, it has only a 1 percent chance of being approved before the midterm elections. Climate change, he said, won't have a chance in the Senate unless it is substantially changed from the version the House passed last summer. He rated passage of stricter Wall Street regulations a “tossup.''
Powerful interests are lined up on either side of all three of the major bills.
On rules to limit greenhouse gases, Kerry is already working with Republicans and has signaled his willingness to compromise. But the climate bill is opposed by some Democrats from energy-producing states, meaning that Obama will need significant amount of Republican support. Kerry, however, said he believes there are enough Republicans who support the measure to pass it in the Senate.
On financial regulation, Senator Chris Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat, yesterday began hearings on legislation that he said will be designed to win over at least a few Republicans. This may provide Obama's best chance for success, particularly if the president can galvanize voter anger against financial institutions that played a role in the economic meltdown. But the details are complex and difficult for voters to understand, and Obama's proposal for a Consumer Financial Protection Agency might have to be sacrificed in order to win enough bipartisan support.
Congress is discussing immigration legislation that would provide a pathway for citizenship for some of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. While members of both parties want to win over the important Latino vote for the midterm elections and beyond, there are members in both parties opposed to the measure.
If nothing else, the passage of the health care bill has the practical impact of freeing up the time of legislators to focus on other issues.
“It should make it easier because health care sucked up a lot of the oxygen in the political room as well as consumed a lot of time,'' said Daniel Weiss, an expert on climate change at the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund. Weiss cited the example of a Democrat who was unable to attend a key meeting on global warming with Obama two weeks ago because he was meeting elsewhere about health care.
Weiss believes that health care passage will strengthen the president's hand on climate change, particularly if his poll numbers go up in the coming days. “In politics, success breeds success. So instead of depleting political capital, it can replenish it.''
That is what advocates of immigration reform are hoping. Yesterday, the Rev. Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian who supports the reform effort, met with officials at the White House, urging them to take advantage of the momentum from health care passage.
In the meantime, Wallis said, he wants to help Obama by forming prayer groups for immigration reform in the same way that tea party activists have led protests against various Democratic policies.
“The country needs to know we are together,'' Wallis said.