Capitol Hill feels Obama’s hand

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

Lauren Victoria Burke/AP
Emissary: Rahm Emanuel (c.), tapped as Barack Obama’s chief of staff, was on Capitol Hill last week to meet with lawmakers of both parties.

Even before taking office, President-elect Barack Obama is becoming an essential player in decisionmaking on Capitol Hill.

From the pre-Thanksgiving “pardon” of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut to the shape of an economic recovery plan, the Obama team is setting directions even as it reaches out to both sides of the aisle in a bid to set a new tone and fast-action pace for the next Congress.

First the tone: practical, pragmatic, and – at least for now – essentially bipartisan.

In a break with recent practice, orientation events for incoming lawmakers were bipartisan – a tribute to Mr. Obama’s calls for a new tone on the Hill. Freshmen gathering here last week noted that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged them all to think as “independent representatives of your district” in the next Congress.

To signal a new tone, the speaker welcomed the freshmen with a bipartisan dinner – a first, she said – and led them onto the House floor together. “This class could be the class from which a spirit of civility and bipartisanship is strengthened in the Congress of the United States,” she said at a Nov. 21 briefing.

His reputation for knife-edged partisanship notwithstanding, Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has been on a charm offensive among Senate Republicans to solicit their ideas about education, healthcare, taxes, energy policy, and national security.

“As President-elect Obama has repeatedly said, the challenges for the country are large – the problems we face of [such] a serious magnitude – that there is enough area and enough goodwill for ideas from both parties to solve these challenges,” he said Nov. 20 before meeting with Republican senators.

‘Fresh start’ in the Senate

The Senate has been a sticking point for Democratic legislation in the current Congress and, with the outcome of two Senate races still undecided, Democrats remain short of the 60 votes needed to break a Republican filibuster.

“It’s a fresh start,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, who met with Obama and Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona last week. “[Obama] seems to be a practical guy.”

Some Senate Democrats had been eager to expel Senator Lieberman from a plum committee chairmanship – or even deny his participation in their caucus – because he had endorsed GOP nominee John McCain in the presidential race. But that drive lost momentum after Obama personally called on Democrats to keep Lieberman in place. The Democratic Caucus voted 42 to 13 last week to allow Lieberman to keep his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. However, he lost his seat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, including a subcommittee chairmanship.

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.

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.

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