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Capitol Hill feels Obama’s hand

The president-elect’s influence is altering both policy directions and the partisan tone in Congress.

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On the House side, Obama did not publicly intervene in the Democrats’ fight over the leadership of the Energy and Commerce Committee. But last week’s secret ballot to oust longtime chairman Rep. John Dingell of Michigan in favor of Rep. Henry Waxman of California replaces a defender of the auto industry with a chairman more in line with Obama’s views on climate change and global warming. In the run-up to the vote, Waxman aide Philip Schiliro was appointed to be Obama’s top liaison to Congress.

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Not business as usual

Typically in recess during November and December, the Democrat-controlled Congress is instead gearing up for a fast start in January and preparing for hearings and possible votes next month on a bailout for the auto industry.

In a radio address Saturday, Obama said he had directed his economic team to come up with a recovery plan to save or create 2.5 million jobs by January 2011. It’s “a plan big enough to meet the challenges we face that I intend to sign soon after taking office,” he said.

Democratic leaders say they are moving forward to have elements of this plan in place early in the 111th Congress.

Obama has also had an impact on moves on Capitol Hill to bail out the auto industry. In a Nov. 16 interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Obama appeared to tap the brakes on a bipartisan bid to quickly pass a bailout plan.

“Let’s see how this thing plays itself out,” he said. “It’s my belief that we need to provide assistance to the auto industry. But I think that it can’t be a blank check.”

Last week, Speaker Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid balked at an emergency loan of $25 billion for the industry. On Friday, they sent a letter to the CEOs of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler that set out what the automakers need to do to demonstrate “viability and accountability to the taxpayer.”

If congressional Democrats are following Obama’s lead on some matters, they expect to be out ahead of him on others. Take healthcare reform. Sens. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Max Baucus (D) of Montana, chairmen of two key committees, are planning to introduce legislation early in the new administration.

“It’s obvious that the Obama administration will be giving a broader berth to the Congress in terms of working on this legislation,” says Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, a member of the Senate Finance Committee.