Tag Archives: congress

Tied to the Rails

We begin this week with a tragedy. No, not Jon and Kate’s divorce. No, not Ed McMahon, either. A D.C. Metro train jumped its tracks yesterday. METAPOR ALERT!

Already, President Obama is keeping an eye on what else might derail.

Let’s start with healthcare. The hospitals, doctors, and insurers are all aboard, but the price tag has fueled a mounting GOP criticism of Team Obama. Is the tiny GOP remnant on Capitol Hill yet powerful enough to stop this speeding locomotive? You betcha.

Congress is slated to begin sifting the specifics this week. Enough blue dogs are on the fence that the White House will have to do some courting, even if the House bill little resembles his requests.

Here’s the Blog’s take: for decades, we have been committing fiscal child abuse. The debts we continue to grow have implications for the security and health of Americans yet unborn. But we gotta, hafta, needta fix the healthcare system. If Congress can’t come up with something that will do the job, we need a new Congress.

As pressing and dire as healthcare reform is, the primary topic at this morning’s presidential presser was the Islamic Republic. Iran’s ruling clerics (some of them, anyway) began blaming the U.S. last week for the continuing protests over their recent presidential election.

Here’s why: protesters were mainly using Twitter to organize rallies. Twitter was supposed to shut down for maintenance one night last week. The State Department—broken arm and all—called the Twitter folks and asked if they’d stay online to help out the protesters.

Naturally, Iran’s leadership didn’t take kindly to that. Now, since we’re getting blamed anyway, the White House finally began putting direct pressure on Iran.

The past week’s events make Iran’s rulers look silly, and the U.S.—not to mention the Blog—doesn’t mind that one bit. This is a country that shoots protesters, tells women how to dress and what to do, that espouses bigotry and narrow-mindedness. But as always, dear reader, you must watch what Iran’s rulers do, and not heed what they say.

And despite tough talk, the Supreme Council is struggling with hard questions about democracy, human rights, and how government should work. They have ordered an official inquiry into the results and even admitted irregularities at the ballot box, atypical behavior for an autocracy.

So which will win out: popular sovereignty or religious pedantry? We’ll all have to stay tuned.

Beyond these major headlines, weird stuff keeps happening in politics. As previously mentioned, the Secretary of State has a boo-boo. The governor of South Carolina went missing, then found himself, and said he was just on a hike. And apparently shooting the messenger is now something we do.

It’s a mixed-up world, dear reader.

Top 5

The week’s best political reporting and commentary…

International Herald Tribune: “Iran’s Chinese Lessons” by Philip Bowring.

The New York Times: “A Supreme Leader Loses His Aura as Iranians Flock to the Streets” by Roger Cohen.

Bloomberg News: “Gods in White Coats Hold Key to Health Care Reform” by Margaret Carlson.

The Washington Post: “Public Confidence in Stimulus Plan Ebbs” by Balz and Cohen.

RealClearPolitics: “Hysteria from Right and Left” by Cathy Young.

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Legislative Bratwurst

The Wrap: Golden Anniversary

Today, Team Obama passes the halfway point of the First 100 Days. What have we learned about our president so far?

 

Obama was elected by talking like an idealist and campaigning like a realist. He seems to be governing the same way. On Day One, he ordered Gitmo closed to signal the end of the Bush era, but stayed its shuttering for one year to address security concerns. He asked Congress for a game-changing stimulus package, but conceded some of his priorities to get the necessary votes. Similar dynamics are developing on education, health care, and energy in the wake of his joint-session speech.

 

Republicans call this crass cynicism, just as they did during the campaign. All hat and no cattle, they charge. Liberals see Obama learning to master the art of the possible.

 

The week building up to the Hawaiian’s Five-Oh was dominated by two contests, one important and one inane. The important contest involved the budget – more on that in today’s Feature. The inane contest involved Rush Limbaugh.

 

Since the Blog abhors giving El Rushbo any digital ink, we’ll keep this short. Cool that the Dems want to whack this guy like a piñata. He’s a distraction from genuine political debate, and any excuse to marginalize his hypocritical, self-important boorishness is okay by us. But it lowers the president to Rush’s level, and let’s stay away from the whole if-you-criticize-the-president-you’re-criticizing-America thing. Too soon.

 

Top 5

The week’s best political reporting and commentary…

 

The Washington Post: “Democrats Stung by Dissenters” by Shailagh Murray.

 

Slate: “Winning Smugly” by William Saletan.

 

Economist: “Troubled Again.

 

The New York Times: “Terror-War Fallout Lingers Over Bush Lawyers” by Charlie Savage and Scott Shane.

 

The New York Times: “2 West Africa Slayings May Signal a New Day” by Lydia Polgreen.

 

Feature: Legislative Bratwurst

Bismarck’s old saw about laws and sausages—it’s better not to see them being made—is never truer than with spending bills.

 

This week, Congress debates a $410 billion omnibus bill. It’s gonna be gross. While the Democrats hold decisive majorities in both houses, they must work with their conservative counterparts to craft a bill that will reach 60 yea votes in the Senate, and because Democrats like being the Big Tent Party, intra-party divisions may also prove crippling.

 

When some version of Congress’ extrusion becomes law, nobody will be totally satisfied. That may be for the best.

 

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In the wake of last month’s stimulus debate, the president seemed to acknowledge that leaving spending details up to Congress was a bad idea. Yet he again set only broad priorities for the omnibus bill, asking the legislature to hammer out specifics.

 

They signaled their agreement by paring away several Obama priorities. Obama’s budget relied on an ambitious revenue increase. Much of that would come from three places: limited tax deductions on wealthy Americans, reduced subsidies to big farming operations, and lower spending on entitlements.

 

Whoa, whoa, whoa, said Congress. The chairmen of the House and Senate tax committees objected to the deduction limits because they might discourage charitable contributions. The revenue generated by the cuts would have been a down payment on health care overhaul. Now that plan is in jeopardy.

 

Agriculture committee wallahs upheld current subsidy rates because they come from places like Nebraska and North Dakota, which depend on agribusiness. Blue Dogs like John Spratt of South Carolina didn’t think Obama went far enough on entitlement cuts, so they, too were dismembered.

 

Who cares? So a few unruly Dems want to bail on the president. Why not pass the bill over their objections?

 

One word: filibuster. We can thank the Framers for this pickle. To make sure wacky majorities didn’t oppress the rest of us, they wrote into the Constitution a rule which means any minority of more than 40 votes in the Senate can effectively block any legislation. The Democrats have 57 functional members of the Senate, which means even if every one of them voted for whatever the president asked, they’d still have to get three Republicans to agree.

 

So each Democratic vote is precious to the president. He must work with them, and with a few Republicans. But his credibility is on the line more than anyone else’s, so he can’t afford to get railroaded. If the bill slips out of his control, he may be forced to veto legislation he originally proposed.

 

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We Americans like to think of ourselves as uncompromising, but that’s where our national genius lies—in the ability to make one from many.

 

There may be a temptation to see objecting senators as obstructionists, or parochialists, or worse, but they raise some legitimate questions. Can government encourage charity? Should it? How much? To which causes?

 

We can’t ruminate on these quandaries indefinitely. A spending bill must be passed, and these economic times mean time is of greater-than-usual essence. But if this legislative sausage making is gory and grotesque, it’s also the synthesis by which we determine what kind of country we want to be.

 

On Deck: All Hands

Coming storms for the White House will continue to revolve around the omnibus bill. Watch how it shapes priorities and expectations on everything from energy to Afghanistan.

 

Also, keep a weather eye for thoughtful write-ups (one in this week’s Top 5) about stem cell research, which underwent its expected policy reversal Monday.

 

Finally, batten the hatches. Someone is drafting Sarah Palin for president.

Pair of Parables

The Wrap: Four-Year Sprint

The new administration shot out of its starting block faster than Michael Phelps on Red Bull. The first week was a three-stroke medley. First leg, Gitmo. Second leg, the economy. Third, announced just yesterday, is energy. So far, so good for Team Obama.

 

Want the latest on new senators? Blog goin’ give it to you. Change has come to Illinois, New York (extra insight from Mike Lupica), Minnesota, and Colorado.

 

Blagojevich update—the end may be nigh. Key Blago quotes last week:

 

·        On his, er, expansive vocabulary: “If I knew [the Feds] were listening, I wouldn’t have used those words,” Compromising democracy? Meh. Dropping the f-bomb? My bad.

 

·        On going to jail: “I thought about Mandela, Dr. King, and Gandhi and tried to put some perspective to all this and this is what I am doing now.” Puke.

 

·        “I’ve done virtually everything right on behalf of the people.” Virtually—VIR-chu-al-lee—(adj.): almost entirely, with several exceptions: subverting democratic principles, blatant egoism, and dumb hair.

 

More from ABC News’ The Note: “Think he doesn’t know politics? He says he still wants to call Valerie Jarrett, Rahm Emanuel, and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., as well as a ‘whole bunch of senators’ as witnesses.”

 

Top 5

The week’s best political reporting and commentary.

 

The Washington Post: “Week One,” Editorial.

 

Economist: “And Now to Work.”

 

Real Clear Politics: “In Obama Era, National Service’s Time Has Come” by Mort Kondrache.

 

The Boston Globe: “Roe and Doe, 36 Years On” by Jeff Jacoby.

 

The New Yorker: “The President’s Hero” by David Remnick.

 

Feature: Pair of Parables

When legendary Celtics center Bill Russell first broke into the NBA, larger, tougher opponents kept shoving him out of the paint. Then, before a nationally televised game, Celtics Coach Red Auerbach pulled Russell aside.

 

“Throw an elbow so everyone sees it,” Red advised. “It’ll be the only elbow you have to throw all season.”

 

The stimulus bill before Congress is about fixing the economy in one sense. But don’t miss the politics at work, dear reader. President Obama’s political goal in this debate is to assert himself with Congress. Land a sharp blow early, and each successive legislative priority will be easier to pass. Congress’ goal is to weaken the White House before it can get its sea legs. Parry this first presidential effort, and Obama will have diminished authority on the Hill for the rest of his term.

 

Both sides know everyone is watching. Both want to throw an elbow, and both hope it will be the only one they have to throw all season.

 

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When presidents try to throw elbows, they inevitably confront the constraints of their office. Bad presidents ignore those constraints (see: Nixon, Richard M.). Good presidents manage them. They manipulate the pressures of the political system to achieve their goals.

 

One key pressure is public opinion, which the presidency can affect more than any other single institution. Public opinion might seem trivial to folks inside the Beltway bubble, but remember: every two years, public opinion determines which members of Congress get to keep coming to work.

 

Both sides in the stimulus debate want to shape how the bill is defined in public opinion. Obama wants it to be about whether we’ll save the American economy. If you’re in favor of that, he’ll say, support my bill. Republicans want it to be about whether America really wants to let this rookie president dig us into deeper and deeper debt. If you’re against blank checks, oppose this bill.

 

But in addition to being president, Obama has three advantages. First, he’s a new president, and Americans want new presidents to succeed. For as long as presidential approval ratings have been measured, no president has entered office below 50 percent approval. Obama clocked in at 68 percent last week, the second-highest all time.

 

Second, he’s not George W. Bush. The previous chief executive was so reviled by last Tuesday that had Derek Jeter been inaugurated president, even Boston would have celebrated.

 

Third, Obama is a great communicator. Lawyers are professional persuaders, and HLS-grad Obama is better at it than most. During the campaign, he convinced more people to donate more money and volunteer more hours than any campaign for any public office ever.

 

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A group of progressive lobbyists once came to the Oval Office for a meeting with FDR. They asked for the president’s support on several necessary but politically unpopular measures, and presented a succinct rationale for each. When they were through, FDR shook their hands.

 

“I agree with everything you’ve said,” he offered. “Now go out and make me do it.”

 

To turn his stimulus plan into law, Obama will have to use his advantages to generate public pressure on moderate Republicans. He wants to force them to vote for his legislation.

 

Obama has already spoken eloquently about the need to quickly, boldly remake the economy, and will continue to make his case to the American people. But teetering members of Congress will not miss the prose beneath the poetry: fall in line, or prepare to defend your job.

 

On Deck: Find the Oxymoron

By Friday, the House may have voted on the stimulus bill. President Obama went to the Hill today to discuss his proposal with Republican leadership. After a brief conversation, the whole gang went out for banana splits. Not really, but the meeting was amicable.

 

Also by Friday, Illinois may be without a governor and Israel may be back at war in Gaza. The Blog will update you on both next week.

The Transition Tango

Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States last week. Now the work begins. 

The first couple (-elect) had plenty to celebrate last week, but now they have to housbreak a puppy.

The first couple (-elect) had plenty to celebrate last week, but now they have to housebreak a puppy.

Governing is usually less exciting than campaigning, but this is what it’s all about. The crucial transition phase sets the tone.

 

Obama’s transition began by expanding the White House staff by one member: a puppy for Malia and Sasha. The Obamas may adopt a rescue animal. The pup will be the latest in a distinguished lineage of White House pets.

 

Leading the non-canine transition is a triumvirate of Obama advisors: former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, Obama’s senate chief of staff Pete Rouse, and long-time Obama homegirl Valerie Jarrett. Over the next 70 days, these three will begin hiring 3,000 people to help run the Executive Branch.

 

The gossip in Washington during a presidential transition is like a high school cafeteria the month before prom, and Obama wants the folks he trusts most to fill out everyone’s dance cards before the party ever starts.

 

Podesta, Rouse, and Jarrett began by hiring Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff.

 

Next to Obama, the most important person in the White House is chief of staff. Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman once said: “Every president needs a son of a bitch, and I’m Nixon’s.” Emanuel will kick butt and take names to advance the president’s agenda, a task to which his sharp elbows are well suited. The transition team also hired Robert Gibbs as press secretary.

 

Several Bush appointees are likely to stay on into Obama’s term. Among them are Fed Chairman Ben Bernake, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, and FBI Director Bob Mueller. The Fed, the JCS, and the FBI are all places where continuity is most important.

 

Defense, State, and Treasury are tops on the transition team’s cabinet agenda. Defense is trickiest. Current Sec. Robert Gates has done well, and Obama may want Gates to stay on. But Gates would like to retire to the Pacific Northwest. It’ll likely work like this: an Obama aide calls Gates and ask if he’s interested, Gates says no, and Obama won’t formally ask him. After Gates, short-listers include John Hamre and Sens. Jack Reed, Dick Lugar, and Chuck Hagel.

 

State has a similar list: Lugar, Hagel, Sen. John Kerry, and Dick Holbrooke.

 

At Treasury, the two top choices are Larry Summers, Pres. Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, and Timothy Geithner, who now runs the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Other cabinet gossip: RFK, Jr. for EPA chief, Howard Dean for HHS, Jim Clyburn for HUD, and Penny Pritzker for Commerce.

 

Part of the transition is about getting a good demographic balance in the cabinet. Look for high-level appointments to go to women, Republicans, and minorities. Jarrett, Lugar, Hagel, Clyburn, Pritzker and others fit the bill nicely.

 

The transition team makes choices with an eye toward policy. Many challenges, foreign and domestic, await. The economy, energy, and healthcare will top his legislative agenda, but order and tone are still under consideration.

 

Finally, the transition team is also a party planning committee. Obama’s inauguration will be themed, “A New Birth of Freedom,” honoring Abraham Lincoln, whose 200th birthday we mark this year. Want to come? Get on it.

 

Top Reads

Politico: “The Obama Revolution” by J. Harris and J. Vandehei

 

Economist: “Obama’s World

 

Newsweek: “How He Did It

 

New York Times: “G.O.P. Dog Days?” by William Kristol

 

The Washington Post: “Bold is Good” by E.J. Dionne

 

On Deck:  

In the coming days and weeks, more campaign details will emerge. Newsweek has already divulged a secrets list, including how the vitriol at McCain-Palin rallies led to a rise in threats on Obama’s life. Similarly, statistical breakdowns will shed more light on what happened at the polls. Timothy Egan has already taken a look, for example. One key may be the youth vote, which Nancy Gibbs at Time brilliantly dubbed the “golden snitch of American politics.”

 

Other political headlines this week: Terry McAuliffe is eyeing the Virginia 2009 governor’s race. Henry Waxman is challenging John Dingell to a slap-fight for the House Energy Committee chairmanship. Sen. Byrd is ceding his Senate Appropriations chairmanship. Joe Lieberman will probably be put in time out.

 

All of this seems petty (and it kinda is), but it has important implications for how Obama and the Dems will go about reforming energy policy, trimming the budget, fixing America’s finances, and reinventing foreign policy.

 

Finally, the current president hosts a global economic dialogue next week. We can all rest easy. Obama will not attend; he’s being careful not to step on Pres. Bush’s toes. Instead, Obama’s economic advisors will meet with foreign leaders on the conference’s sidelines.