Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/Getty Images
The loss of the Democrats' Senate supermajority has surely imperiled President Obama's health care initiative. But the outlook for the rest of his agenda — from climate change to financial regulation — may be no worse than it was before.
The loss of the Democrats' Senate supermajority has surely imperiled President Obama's health care initiative. But the outlook for the rest of his agenda — from climate change to financial regulation — may be no worse than it was before. Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/Getty Images
There is little argument that the Democrats' impending loss of their 60-vote supermajority in the U.S. Senate severely imperils President Obama's health care initiative.
But how Massachusetts senator-elect Scott Brown's arrival in Washington as the chamber's 41st Republican affects the rest of Obama's ambitious — and largely incomplete — agenda is not so clear.
While Republicans and some spooked Democrats were already spinning out doomsday scenarios for the president's efforts in Congress on issues that include climate change, financial re-regulation and immigration law overhaul, the Brown effect on Capitol Hill may not be as consequential as advertised.
After all, even though Democrats over the past year have controlled the Senate with a 60-vote caucus, and the House with a substantial 78-vote margin, the White House has struggled to move its largest initiatives through the legislative meat grinder.
Agenda Status Check
Health Care: Massachusetts senator-elect Scott Brown would provide Senate Republicans with the 41st vote they need to filibuster the president's health care overhaul.
Climate Change: It's not clear yet where Brown stands on climate change and the regulation of greenhouse gases. But Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute says that even before Brown's election, Democrats were going to have a hard time getting to 60 votes to pass a cap-and-trade system for regulating emissions.
Financial Regulation: In the Senate, banking committee chairman Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, has been leading the charge. However, plans for a stand-alone consumer protection agency have attracted conservative opposition. Though Dodd seemed open to compromise on the agency, the White House says President Obama isn't.
And on any number of issues — most notably, Obama's health care initiative — the Democrats' vaunted 60-vote filibuster-proof majority has proved to be more mirage than magic.
Infuriating many party members, the pursuit of the magical Senate supermajority has given outsized power to swing senators like Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats; Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska; and Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine — none particularly committed to major parts of Obama's agenda.
The House last year, and with only a handful of Republicans on board, approved an energy bill that included mandatory emissions cuts.
And though a Senate committee has endorsed a cap-and-trade scheme under which companies would be charged for carbon emissions that exceed established limits, there has been no action on the proposal.
"On climate change, [Brown's election] doesn't have any significant impact," says Norm Ornstein of the business-oriented American Enterprise Institute.
"There was no way they were going to get 60 votes in the Senate on cap-and-trade, and whether you've got 59 Democrats or 60, it doesn't make a huge difference."
Additionally, it's not yet clear where Brown stands on climate change and the control of greenhouse gases.
The president still has a couple of ways to make headway on the climate change front without Congress, Ornstein says.
He can pursue regulatory reforms through the Environmental Protection Agency, and, with his renewed focus on jobs, can create so-called "green" jobs as part of his climate agenda.
"I suspect he'll succeed on that front — I can't imagine Republicans opposing something that creates jobs," Ornstein says.
Congress-watchers also say financial reforms proposed after last year's Wall Street meltdown may be largely unaffected by Brown's election.
"Financial reform is something he can still get done," says Stephen Hess of the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution.
Chris Kleponis/Getty Images
Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, seen here Wednesday on Capitol Hill, is spearheading Senate efforts at financial overhaul. Dodd has decided not to seek re-election this fall, so the overhaul could prove to be his legacy.
Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, seen here Wednesday on Capitol Hill, is spearheading Senate efforts at financial overhaul. Dodd has decided not to seek re-election this fall, so the overhaul could prove to be his legacy. Chris Kleponis/Getty Images
Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts is moving the legislation on the House side, Hess says. And in the Senate, the effort, headed by banking committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, has not been as polarizing as other issues.
It's a popular though somewhat under-the-radar issue with the public, but also subject to heavy lobbying efforts by banks and financial services companies.
Dodd, who faced a tough re-election campaign this fall, recently announced he will retire. So the financial overhaul legislation, Hess says, could be the longtime senator's legacy.
"He was a fine senator for a long time. He should have a lot of friends around and should be able to get it done," he says.
One sticking point in the financial overhaul legislation that may cause the president some problems: his commitment to a new, stand-alone consumer protection agency, opposed by conservatives. When Dodd indicated willingness to compromise with the opposition party on the agency, he was invited to the White House.
"Sen. Dodd was here yesterday," White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs said during his Wednesday briefing, "and the president addresses this morning in his interview that financial reform has to include a consumer protection agency.
"That's what he's talked about for quite some time, and that's what he continues to want."
White House Moves Forward
In his daily briefing, Gibbs said the agenda the president will focus on in the coming year includes "jobs, fiscal responsibility — many of the things he's talked about over recent weeks."
In his annual State of the Union address next Wednesday, Obama will address the Massachusetts results, Gibbs says, as well as the economic way forward for the nation.
"I don't believe the president thinks we should stop fighting for an economic recovery," Gibbs said. "No doubt there will be calls to abandon financial reform, that there will be calls by some to abandon the notion of wanting taxpayers to be paid back for their loans to Wall Street.
"I don't think the president would agree with those," he said.
To be clear, the arrival of Brown and his pledge to help kill the health care overhaul bill is a blow — to the Democrats' political courage during an election year, if not directly to legislation that was already on its way somewhere or going nowhere.
The president was headed to a solid victory on health care, Ornstein says, and the now-looming loss or re-start will rob him of momentum he needed to continue to sell his agenda.