Challenges Ahead For Obama And His Progressive Agenda
By Bernie Horn
April 6, 2009 - 12:07am ET
Let us heave a sigh of relief. Congress has left our Nation’s Capital for a two-week spring vacation, and President Obama’s ambitious agenda is still intact. Despite furious attacks from special interests of all kinds, the House and Senate each passed versions of the President’s budget.
Not a single Republican in either house of Congress supported Barack Obama, which was, politically, no big deal. A little more troubling was the fact that 20 Democrats in the House and 3 in the Senate failed to support the President’s budget. The vote was a basic test of loyalty, and those 23 failed.
Nevertheless, Obama won a pretty big victory, especially in the House. The President proposed a 3.9 percent increase in real domestic discretionary spending to accommodate his agenda. The House nearly matched the President’s request, approving a 3.5 percent increase. The Senate passed only a 1.5 percent increase. The House also agreed with Obama’s recommendation to place language in the budget making health care reform subject to the “reconciliation” process—which would allow it to be enacted without overcoming a Senate filibuster. The Senate budget does not include that crucial language.
During the last big House-Senate conference—on the President’s economic recovery plan—the Senate got its way. For that reason, the House is expected to fight harder this time. In a few weeks, we’ll see.
If something like the House version is adopted, Obama will have gotten just about everything he requested—in one sense. But in another sense, the President got very little early support. The budget gave Congress the opportunity to give preliminary approval to a series of practical decisions on global warming, education, taxes, subsidies, and more. The House and Senate Budget Committee chairmen, Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Rep. John Spratt (D-SC), chose to eliminate nearly all policy decisions from their budgets. In other words, Congress kicked the can down the road.
All the hard decisions are coming up. Obama made clear that he has four big priorities: health care, energy/global warming, education, and tax reform. Based on the budget fight, ABC’s Jonathan Karl opined, “Getting final passage of more than one of these before the end of 2009 will take a minor miracle.” Why is he so pessimistic?
Let’s examine some of the challenges ahead.
Health care for all
If a universal health care plan is subject to a Senate filibuster, it’s likely that nothing good can be approved. All the conservative special interests—especially the insurance companies—are just too politically powerful. In fact, it will be quite an accomplishment just to get 51 votes. Senate Republicans are acting as if the “reconciliation” process, that would prevent any filibuster, is somehow unprecedented or inappropriate. It is neither. Progressives must insist that the final Budget Resolution include reconciliation language for health care reform.
Even if we get reconciliation language, it is far from clear how Congress will agree to fund health care and whether it will include an all-important “public option.” Based on votes that took place just before adoption of the budget, a host of Senate Democrats are currently hostile to measures that would raise the needed funds from the rich.
Energy independence and global warming
The President proposed a “cap and trade” system in which polluters would pay for their carbon emissions. More than 25 Senate Democrats made it clear that they opposed budget reconciliation language that would allow “cap and trade” to pass without first breaking a filibuster. That probably means “cap and trade” won’t be done in 2009.
The President wants to end the wasteful federal subsidies to banks for college loans. He would rather subsidize students than banks. A number of Senators have grumbled about Obama’s plan—especially Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) who is trying to protect the profits of a student lending company based in his state.
The President campaigned on a “middle class tax cut” which was, according to some polls, the most popular proposal he made during the 2008 election. Congress funded a reduced version of the tax cut for 2009 and 2010 as part of the economic stimulus package in February. But neither the House nor the Senate included this program in the budget after 2010.
The President wants to freeze the federal estate tax at 2009 levels. Currently, the tax only applies to estates over $3.5 million in value, so 99.7 percent of estates are tax-free. Nevertheless, Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) proposed a budget amendment that would increase the estate tax exemption and lower the tax rate—a $250 billion tax cut for the rich. I’m sorry to report that 51 Senators voted for it. The battle’s not over, but things don’t look too good.
The President has suggested limiting the charitable tax deduction for very rich Americans. A number of Senate Democrats have complained about that. They’ve also complained about proposals to cut obsolete military programs or unnecessary subsidies for big agri-businesses.
If you haven’t already noticed, the budget fight shows that Obama’s problems are overwhelmingly in the Senate.
The House is able to limit debate and House leadership has successfully enforced some party discipline. Helping them along is the fact that House Republicans are too ideological for their own good—the GOP has offered no reasonable economic proposals to attract Democratic conservatives.
Senate Democrats, in contrast, are a mess. If President Obama and his progressive allies are to “change” Washington, that’s where the heavy lifting will be done.
The writer is a Senior Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and author of the recent book, "Framing the Future: How Progressive Values Can Win Elections and Influence People."
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