It’s July 1, and the bell has rung for perhaps the most crucial month yet in Barack Obama’s presidency.
By the end of the month, it should be clear whether President Obama’s top legislative initiatives – healthcare reform and climate-change legislation – are on track. They don’t need to be signed and sealed, but both require significant progress in Congress during this next stretch before the August recess, analysts say.
The swearing-in next week of Sen.-elect Al Franken (D) of Minnesota, who won his eight-month recount battle on Tuesday, gives Obama another crucial vote heading into crunch time. But the challenge remains steep, and in fact, the danger is that the Democrats may feel less inclined to compromise now that, on paper, they have a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate.
On healthcare reform, which Obama highlighted Wednesday at a town-hall meeting in Annandale, Va., the next month might reveal whether Obama and Senate Democrats can converge on a plan. Obama has said he prefers a reform that includes an option for a government-run health-insurance plan that would compete with private insurers. But some Democratic senators, fearful that a “public option” would drive the private insurers out of business, prefer the idea of nonprofit insurance cooperatives, which would be owned and operated by their members.
At Obama’s town-hall meeting, the president called this “a defining moment” for the nation. “If we act now [on health reform], then we could rebuild our economy in a way that makes it strong, competitive, sustainable, and prosperous once more,” he said.
Obama did not break any new ground on details, such as how he would pay for healthcare reform, which he has promised would not add to the budget deficit. Rather, he continues to frame the debate as reform versus the status quo.
On climate-change legislation, which the House narrowly passed on June 26, the action now moves to the Senate. The bill limits greenhouse-gas emissions under a system called “cap and trade,” in which polluting rights are bought and sold. Republicans, and some moderate Democrats from rural and agricultural states, see the plan as a massive tax increase. On the other hand, some liberals wish the bill called for the auctioning of more of the pollution permits than the House bill prescribes, in order to raise more money.
Charlie Cook, a nonpartisan political analyst, sees victory for whoever best frames the debate. “Will the public see it as a long overdue first step toward reversing dangerous changes in our climate, as President Obama and Democrats would like to frame it?” Mr. Cook writes in the National Journal. “Or is it a massive tax increase with grave implications for our fragile economy, the case made by most Republicans?”
Analysts warn against reading too much into the July sprint toward the August recess. “It’s true that in the next months, important things will happen, but it’s not make or break,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Another important element will be the Senate Judiciary Committee's confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, slated to begin July 13. With such a large Democratic majority in place, she appears headed for confirmation. But nothing is certain going in, and if fireworks break out, that would distract from Obama’s legislative priorities.