With Health Care Done, What's Next For Obama?
Now that the long and bitter fight to pass health care reform legislation is finally over, the Obama administration, wind seemingly at its back, is putting renewed focus on some of the other items on its legislative agenda. So what can we expect in the coming year?
Check out our breakdown below of what's on the agenda -- and how likely it is to ever be signed into law.
Regulatory Reform: President Obama met last week with the Sen. Chris Dodd, who is leading the effort to craft legislation in the Senate to overhaul the financial industry, and Rep. Barney Frank, who is leading that fight in the House. Both congressmen predicted that there will be a bill to restructure federal financial regulations by the end of the year.
But significant questions remain over whether a bill could pass -- and whether it will have any teeth if and when it does. In December, the House passed its version of the legislation, which would give the government the ability to break up companies that have grown "too big to fail," regulate derivatives and other high-risk instruments, and create an agency to protect consumers. It passed with the support of 223 Democrats and zero Republicans.
Dodd has offered a weaker version of the legislation in the Senate, where Republican opposition (as well as the misgivings of a small number of Democrats) is a more significant roadblock. Another problem: Pro-business groups are planning to spend tens of millions of dollars on a lobbying and advertising blitz with the goal of severely limiting or killing the legislation. They're arguing that the government should not be involved in the private sector and even going so far as to suggest that the legislation to reform and regulate the industry actually amounts to a bailout for banks.
In the end, the legislation is likely to pass -- Democrats see reforming the industry as critically important and realize that there are worse enemies to take on than Wall Street. (They also relish the prospect of explicitly linking the GOP to big banks.) The question is whether what passes represents real reform or instead is simply a symbolic piece of legislation that allows Democrats to save face.
Immigration Reform: This is something the president wants, and immigration rights groups have begun pushing the White House hard to take the issue on this year. (Rep. Luis Gutierrez, chairman of the Hispanic Caucus Immigration Task Force, essentially agreed to vote for the health care bill after extracting a promise for a renewed White House focus on the issue.)
But the politics are complicated, to say the least. A serious push for immigration reform could cause Tea Party-like anger that makes the health care reform protests seem tame by comparison, a situation the White House may (or may not) want to avoid. The White House may push immigration reform close to the midterm elections if they think it's worth the risk, since doing so could drive Hispanic turnout and potentially prompt alienating rhetoric from Republicans. But in a volatile political environment, it's simply not an easy calculation.
And then there are the political realities of providing a path to citizenship for perhaps 11 million illegal immigrants. Republicans in the Senate are likely to be virtually united in their opposition -- even Sen. Lindsey Graham, the one member of the GOP who seemed willing to work with Democrats, says the passage of health care reform kills immigration reform. It's worse in the House, where even many Democrats will likely vote against a bill that will be cast as providing "amnesty" at a time when many of their constituents can't find jobs.
Climate Change Legislation: Three senators -- Graham, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman -- have been working to craft bipartisan climate change legislation, and they are likely to unveil their proposal next month. But notably missing from it will likely be the cap-and-trade system that had not long ago been expected to be the centerpiece of any legislation.
Branded a "cap-and-tax" by opponents, cap-and-trade has been dropped from the Obama administration's budget and is being discounted by Kerry and Graham. Instead, lawmakers are crafting a proposal likely to include limits on greenhouse gas emissions only on the part of utilities as well as small taxes on gas and other fuel. It will also likely include incentives for oil and gas drilling and the development of nuclear and renewable energy facilities.
The House passed its climate change legislation last year, and it included cap-and-trade -- essentially, escalating limits on greenhouse gas production coupled with a marketplace that would allow polluters to trade permits that let them increase their emissions. But 44 Democrats opposed that bill, and to get the votes to pass it Democratic leaders had to offer significant handouts to coal companies and other industries that could be negatively affected by the legislation.
During an election year, in a lingering recession, lawmakers will be particularly resistant to casting a vote for a bill that could cast them as supporting a measure that will hamper their local economy. (Many House Democrats are still smarting from their vote on last year's version of the legislation.) For any bill to pass it will likely have to be marketed as not being a real threat to the bottom line of polluting industries -- a reality that has environmental groups worrying that, in the end, it won't be a real bill at all.
Jobs Legislation: This one is easier for Democrats, though it's still not easy. Earlier this month President Obama signed into law a downsized, $18 billion jobs bill giving tax breaks to companies that hire the unemployed. Democrats cast the bill as the first step in a series of measures designed to spur employment that they will unveil over the course of the year.
Jobs bills are a relatively simple sell -- 11 Republicans supported that first bill in the Senate, a significant fact in this polarized political environment. But there are still pitfalls to passing jobs bills. For evidence, look no further than the fact that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in February scrapped a planned $150 billion bill in order to make sure he could get something passed. Meanwhile, fiscal conservatives are poised to jump on any bill they feel isn't paid for -- even if it's a bill meant to goose the economy.
Smaller Agenda Items: Democrats have been making noise on a legislative pushback to the Supreme Court's controversial "Citizens United" decision that allows corporations and unions to pour unlimited money into political races in support or opposition to candidates. Possible legislation could mandate stricter disclosure rules and bars on participation by foreign companies. Also on the list is a possible trade reform push as part of an effort to double exports and Congressional ratification of the nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.
The Wildcard: Should Justice John Paul Stevens decide to retire this year, as is widely expected, the fight over the confirmation of his successor will likely dominate the Senate for months. Stevens is part of the court's liberal wing, so his successor would most likely not significantly change the ideological breakdown of the court. But if President Obama taps a liberal along the lines of Cass Sunstein or, to a lesser extent, Diane Wood, expect nothing less than a fierce fight over the nomination. And, of course, an unexpected event like a terrorist attack or foreign military offensive could change the landscape dramatically and push back efforts to pass all the legislation outlined above.
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