Lawmakers assert their role in working with Obama

Democrats (not to mention Republicans) won’t roll over on economic recovery.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., answered questions following a bipartisan meeting with President-elect Barack Obama on Capitol Hill on Monday, Jan. 5, 2009. Lawmakers are demanding more explicit assurances from the Obama administration that they will ensure accountability for how funds are spent.

When President-elect Franklin Roosevelt arrived in the capital on March 2, 1933, America had lost 16 million jobs and the banking system no longer functioned in 34 states.

“We must act and act quickly,” he said in his first inaugural address, two days later. If Congress failed to act, Roosevelt pledged to seek “broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency.”

It wasn’t necessary. Subdued by the depth of the crisis, the Congress – once dubbed “a wildcat cage” by a journalist of the era – took fewer than eight hours to pass the president’s emergency banking bill, without changing a comma.

The times aren’t quite that grave as Barack Obama takes the reins of the country, but job losses are mounting and banks remain shaky. The Congress he’ll be working with, though, is not on track to be as accommodating as the one in FDR’s first 100 days.

This Congress, while run by Mr. Obama’s fellow Democrats, looks set to insist on its own role in writing the history of economic recovery.

But that doesn’t mean that it will be purely business as usual in the 111th Congress. Already, a change of tone is evident. At least for the first days of the new Congress, partisan sniping isn’t the first reflex when views collide.

Senate confirmation hearings carry less of an edge; even critics convey a respect that nominees are not heading off to a sinecure (that they may not deserve) but to a tough assignment.

“This is the worst economy we’ve had in 75 years, and both sides understand it,” says Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, majority whip. “Students of history know that America did rise to the occasion under FDR in 1933 and started moving forward with new ideas. Many of the Republicans I’ve spoken to are trying to find ways to work with Barack.”

While GOP leaders are still working out new talking points after devastating fall elections, individual caucus members are making their own terms with the new administration.

“There appears to be a lot of energy on our side to affect and address policy, and the fact that the president-elect has talked a lot about bipartisanship has given people opportunities that they’re willing to take advantage of,” says Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee.

Dispensing with the traditional time off between the start of a new Congress and the inauguration, Democratic leaders spent their first week working out the terms of a massive financial rescue package with the president-elect and his team.

They also signaled to the incoming and the outgoing presidents that approval for access to the second half of a $700 billion financial rescue package voted in the last Congress would take a fight that is shaping up – although not along partisan lines.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are demanding that the Obama team give more explicit assurances that the new administration will ensure accountability for how the funds are spent.

“Many of us originally supported the economic rescue plan because we recognized we needed to act immediately to prevent an economic disaster,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in remarks on the floor on Wednesday.

But Republicans want assurances that, if Congress releases the additional $350 billion of funding in the troubled asset relief program (TARP), “it will not be used for the industry-specific bailouts that some House Democrats are already requesting,” he said.
Meanwhile, Democrats are calling for more transparency and accountability in the use of TARP funds. Legislation proposed by House Financial Services chairman Barney Frank mandates that $40 billion of the remaining TARP funds be used to reduce the number of home foreclosures and enforce rules on executive compensation for firms accepting TARP.

On Tuesday, Obama met for an hour with former Senate colleagues in the Democratic caucus at their weekly luncheon.

“It was a very sentimental and a very powerful moment for us, because he knows us all,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, who wants assurances that recovery funds will be used to help manufacturing industries.

“It’s also an amazing moment of hope and optimism at the same time we’re in an incredibly deep hole,” he adds.

Congress wound down its last session with near historically low approval ratings. Over 2008, only 19 percent of Americans on average said they approved of the way Congress is handling its job, according to the Gallup Poll. “That’s the lowest we’ve had,” says Frank Newport, the poll’s editor in chief.

But in a recent Rasmussen Reports poll, 62 percent of voters said they expect Congress to address serious issues over the next year – the highest level found since tracking began in November 2006.

What people don’t like about Congress is the appearance of obstruction and gridlock, says congressional historian Julian Zelizer, at Princeton University.

“There’s an attractiveness of speed and the appearance of decisiveness that we see in a president but don’t really see in the Congress,” he says. “In a crisis moment, we want that even more.”

Fresh from time at home with anxious constituents, members of the incoming Congress say they are aware of the dire circumstances many Americans are facing, but insist that their deliberations will improve the response from Washington.

“You pick up the same things anecdotally that the statistical information confirms,” says Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona. “It’s not a matter of not knowing the nature of the problem. The question is: What are the best ways to deal with it, and on that you have some divergence of opinion.”

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