- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The accomplishments of President Obama and his allies in Congress over his first six months in office are — depending on whom is asked — either tackling the recession and heralding a new era of progressive reform or bankrupting the nation with unprecedented speed.

Either way, the new administration and congressional Democrats have spent the first half of the year pushing through key elements of Mr. Obama’s economic agenda, though the fate of his two biggest priorities, energy and health care reform, still hang very much in the balance.

The $787 billion stimulus bill was on the president’s desk within a month of his inauguration. The legislation — the largest single spending measure in the nation’s history — included funding for unemployment benefits, food stamps, health care subsidies and aid to states. Democrats, touting the measure as an aggressive response to the recession, hail it as one of many successes so far this session.

“It really has been, from my perspective, a very, very productive first five months, first six months of the year for the Congress of the United States, as productive a first six months as I have participated in in terms of not only bills passing the House but becoming law,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said.

While brief, the weeklong July 4 recess is seen by both parties as a critical break point. The president’s honeymoon is ending, the rush of early legislative victories has tapered off, and the next six months could determine the fate of Mr. Obama’s domestic priorities and perhaps of his entire first four years in office.

As lawmakers return to face the voters during the recess, both parties are trying to spin the events of the first half of the year — and prepare the battlefield for the legislative trench warfare to come over health care, energy, financial regulatory reform, a Supreme Court nomination and possibly immigration reform.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Mr. Hoyer last week distributed a list of talking points to House Democratic members, who were urged in the letter to hold “at least two public events or media interactions in your district” during the break.

Clearly mindful of Republican criticisms that the activity in Washington has not translated into change outside the Beltway, the letter notes, “While the economy is showing the first signs of recovery, we know Americans will feel the impacts for months to come, and we must communicate the change that is underway.”

Republicans insist that the more the public learns about the Democrats’ agenda — and how much it will cost — the better their opposition will look.

“The public is becoming very aware of what’s happening here in Washington and the amount of spending, the amount of borrowing, and the amount of taxing that’s occurring,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, new head of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, last week.

“And that bears on the debate about health care, because people are now realizing that all these promises about covering more people and lowering costs are going to come at a great cost to the American taxpayer,” he added.

Entering the White House in the teeth of the worst recession in decades, Mr. Obama found his early days dominated by the fight over a massive pump-priming government spending program.

Written by Democrats with little Republican input, the stimulus bill was anything but bipartisan. No House Republican voted for the plan, and it passed the Senate with just three Republican votes. Republicans have since cited instances of waste as the stimulus money is spent and point to rising unemployment rates as evidence of its failure to reverse the economic slide.

“The president and Democrats in Congress claim this spending binge is necessary to put Americans back to work,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner in the Republican’s weekly radio address over the weekend. “After all of this spending, after all of this borrowing from China, the Middle East, our children and our grandchildren — where are the jobs?”

Democratic leaders were able to pick up some Republican support for subsequent bills, however.

Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, aimed at eliminating wage discrimination; a bill to expand government-sponsored health insurance for children; and what supporters called the most far-reaching land conservation bill in decades.

Then came the president’s sweeping $3.6 trillion budget proposal for the coming fiscal year. Though Mr. Obama saw many of his key provisions stripped by Democratic budget chiefs, the White House said the plans from both chambers were “98 percent the same” as the those of the president.

Mr. Obama signed into law a bill that took aim at abusive credit card lending practices, a measure giving the Food and Drug Administration regulatory authority over tobacco and a $106 billion supplemental war funding bill that includes a $1 billion “cash for clunkers” program to encourage the purchase of fuel-efficient vehicles.

But even with sizable Democratic majorities in both chambers, Congress has not been shy about reining in Mr. Obama when members think the White House is meddling with their prerogatives.

The new president’s first major lesson on this front came in March with the consideration of the $410 billion omnibus spending bill, a bundle of appropriations bills that Democrats held over from the Bush administration. The package contained about 9,000 member-direct “earmarks” totaling about $8 billion — a feature on which fiscal hawks were quick to seize, citing pet projects such as pig odor research to hammer congressional leaders for spending money irresponsibly during a recession.

The bill put Mr. Obama in the precarious position of signing a pork-laden bill after he had pledged on the campaign trail to root out wasteful spending. The White House attempted to distance the president from the legislation by referring to it as “last year’s business,” though critics, including a vocal Arizona Sen. John McCain, his Republican presidential rival, called on him to veto the bill.

Perhaps the most notable instance of executive-legislative dissonance, however, came when congressional Democrats joined Republicans in refusing Mr. Obama’s request for funds to shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying the administration must first submit a plan on what to do with the detainees currently being held there.

But by all accounts, the biggest challenges for the White House lie ahead.

The Senate continues to wrestle with drafting a bill to overhaul the nation’s health care system. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently said a bill going through the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee would cost $1 trillion over 10 years, a conclusion seized on by Republicans critical of the proposal, while Democrats scrambled to trim the costs of the package.

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee is still crafting its version, which Chairman Max Baucus hopes will be a bipartisan effort. To help pay for the bill, the Montana Democrat is proposing a tax on employer-sponsored health benefits, an idea Mr. Obama opposes.

Liberal groups are ratcheting up the pressure on lawmakers over the need for a government-run health care insurance plan, which has several moderate Democrats on the fence. A bipartisan Senate health care bill that would create state-based purchasing pools where Americans would enroll in a private insurance plan has been ignored by the White House.

As for Mr. Obama’s other priority — energy — the White House and Mrs. Pelosi scored a major victory just before the recess when the House last week approved a massive bill that would, among other changes, impose a new cap-and-trade system to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

But the bill passed by just seven votes, with 44 House Democrats opposing it. Even supporters concede the fight will be even more difficult in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said senators probably won’t get to the energy reform bill until fall.

Yet the situation in the Senate improved for Democrats earlier this year when Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania switched parties to avoid a contentious Republican primary battle. If disputed Senate candidate Al Franken of Minnesota is seated, Democrats will then have a filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes.

White House advisers continue to say they’re confident Mr. Obama will not only see action on his two signature issues this year but, on the heels of a meeting with Hill leaders last week, there’s now the possibility that immigration reform — another hot-button issue — might be addressed this year.

“It’s not impossible to do it this year,” White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told reporters last week. “I think everybody agrees that, we all as a party agreed that those were going to be the priorities to get done. Could you get it in this year? Yes.”

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