Barack Obama will lay out his vision for a massive economic stimulus plan in meetings with congressional leaders Monday. Perhaps more important, he'll be taking a major step toward rebuilding the broken relationship between the executive branch and the legislative branch.
Doing so will be critical to the success of his agenda.
If Obama seems unwilling to take lawmakers' ideas into account, he could risk whatever goodwill he's getting from the GOP and irk Democrats expecting to play a big role in a new Washington. But if Obama bends to the demands of Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, the public could perceive him as a weak president even before he takes the oath of office.
McConnell, the Senate minority leader, said on ABC's "This Week" Sunday that Republicans just want to be "a part of the process." Obama has signaled that he wants them to be a part of the process, too. While Democrats often complained that President Bush left them in the cold - lining up just enough votes to pass whatever he wanted - Obama's strategists have indicated that he wants not 51 or 60 but at least 80 Senate votes for his stimulus plan.
To get there, the president-elect's stimulus plan will put nearly as much emphasis on tax cuts as on new spending. As Politico reported Sunday night, 40 percent of the plan's price tag will come from tax breaks that could help woo GOP support. Obama and his vice-president-elect, Joseph Biden, have said that they'll keep earmarks out of the package - another bone for Republicans - and Hill Democrats say they may slow consideration of the package to assuage Republicans who have been complaining in advance about heavy-handed tactics.
"Whatever we do must be done on a bipartisan basis," Reid, the Senate majority leader, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.
Obama takes office at a critical moment in the country's economic history but also at a critical juncture in the relationship between Congress and the White House. Bush and his predecessor, Bill Clinton, were both former governors accustomed to exerting their wills over state legislatures, and that translated into frosty relationships with Congress.
A standoff between Clinton and House Republicans led to a government shut-down in 1995, and the House voted to impeach Clinton in 1998. Bush and the Democrats in Congress were often at war over the Iraq war and other issues. And over the last few months, even Republicans have abandoned the president on economic issues, resisting his administration's pleas for a $700 billion financial-markets bailout and rejecting his plan for a $14-billion bailout of the auto industry.
Since Election Day, Obama and his senior aides have tried to heal the wounds. The president-elect has placed dozens of phone calls to key Republicans and Democrats, insisting that his administration will want Hill input as it crafts its agenda. A former senator himself, Obama picked another senator as a running mate, a third senator as his secretary of state, a fourth as his interior secretary and Rahm Emanuel - a fast-rising member of the Democratic House leadership - as his White House chief of staff.
Now, a day after arriving in Washington, he plans to make the trip to Capitol Hill himself.
Linda Fowler, professor of government at Dartmouth College, said Obama's trek to the Hill is "unusual and potentially quite important" since it is more than just a courtesy call.
"I think it sends an important symbolic message in the sense that it is a very definite break with the Bush-style of policy-making," Fowler said.
Eight years ago, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott got a pre-inauguration meeting with Bush - but to get it, they had to fly to Texas, where the not-quite-yet president-elect received them at his ranch in Crawford.
Obama's early moves suggest that he will do things differently. At 2:30 p.m. Moday, the president-elect will meet Reid and Pelosi in Reid's office. At 3:15 p.m., he'll meet for 45 minutes with the House and Senate leaders and whips from both parties in an ornate room off the Senate floor - a room named after Lyndon B. Johnson.
Front and center at the meetings will be the stimulus package, which could cost $775 billion or more over two years and will include a huge investment to rebuild the nation's infrastructure, provide jobless benefits, pump money into ailing state budgets, invest in energy projects and cut taxes for workers and businesses.
In details provided to Politico Sunday evening, Obama's plan will include a $500 tax credit for individuals and $1,000 for families to offset payroll taxes -- ideas designed to encourage Americans to spend extra cash. In addition, Obama's team is considering a massive tax credit for employers making new hires or averting layoffs and a rewrite of rules to allow for broader tax deductions for businesses.
Those points may help Obama sell the plan to Republican leaders. But the president-elect will have to determine how much further he's willing to go to win over Republicans - especially when doing so risks angering Democrats.
One issue that may hang in the balance: A proposal to allow bankruptcy courts to renegotiate mortgage rates of distressed homeowners. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has sought the measure as a way to help stabilize the mortgage crisis, but some in the GOP call it a deal breaker because of its potential for passing on costs to other borrowers.
Another negotiating point: McConnell is suggesting that money in the stimulus package for state governments come in the form of loans rather than grants. But it's not clear whether Democratic lawmakers - many of whom represent states with huge budget problems - would be open to the idea.
Outside the stimulus, Obama could curry favor with congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle by offering to move quickly on the unfinished spending bills from last year. Bush and the GOP rarely sparred over spending, but the president began vetoing appropriations bills that exceeded his proposed limit after Democrats took control of Congress in 2006. Members of Congress said Bush was stubbornly refusing to negotiate. The White House accused Congress of being reckless in its spending. In the stalemate, most of last year's bills went nowhere.
McConnell said Sunday that the bills - wrapped up in a single omnibus package expected to cost $410 billion - have been vetted by both parties and can pass Congress quickly with Obama's support.
Although some Democrats may be looking for payback, Reid - who could face a tough re-election fight back home in 2010 - suggested Sunday that it's time to move ahead.
"Whatever program we have, let's not talk about the last eight years," Reid said. "Let's talk about the next eight years."