President Obama and congressional Democrats can begin to address the rest of their agenda now that the massive health care overhaul is law. After a year of bruising internal battles, Democrats are looking at energy and financial re-regulation as issues more likely to divide the opposition.
The White House is now turning its attention to a cluster of issues that are by any measure easier politically than the grueling slog of rounding up just enough Democratic votes for health care. White House officials are looking forward to slightly smoother sailing.
"There is a reason we've been trying to pass comprehensive health care reform for 100 years," White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said. "It is a degree of difficulty unmatched by anything else in the domestic policy arena, hands down, no question about it.
"We are not going to do anything legislatively that hard ever again, because nothing that hard exists."
Next On Agenda
Financial regulatory reform is next up on Obama's legislative agenda. One bill with new rules for Wall Street has already passed the House of Representatives, and another is poised to go to the Senate floor. Obama will discuss the measure Wednesday with a bipartisan group of lawmakers at the White House. Although it got through the Senate Banking Committee on an all-too-familiar party-line vote, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is still hopeful about getting some Republican support on the Senate floor.
"There's a lot of parts of society that aren't popular, and Wall Street happens to be one of them," Emanuel said. "If you're asking pure politics ... I would not want to be on the side of making sure that you prevent the agencies that are necessary to prevent this from having the tools that are important."
On an issue that can be framed as Wall Street lobbyists vs. the taxpayers, the White House clearly believes it has the higher ground.
Assuming a financial regulation bill passes by the White House's Memorial Day deadline, and assuming the next Supreme Court nominating battle doesn't suck all of the oxygen out of the Senate, the White House wants to move next to an energy bill.
Like financial reform, the energy debate has a dynamic very different from health care. A small bipartisan group of senators — one independent, one Republican and one Democrat — is drafting an energy bill. Obama has made a big gesture to the Republicans, as he had promised to do during the election campaign: He has now embraced two Republican priorities — offshore drilling and nuclear power.
Emanuel says now the Republicans have to decide how they want to respond to the president.
"I do think, to those on the Republican side, it shows that he's looking at all aspects of what's important for an energy policy," he said. "If you want to be part of the solution, he's giving you ample room to come on over and work with us.
"The question on both of these is are the Republicans going to offer a set of policies that basically go backward, a set of policies of just obstruction, only in the interests of an election, or are they going to do something to help the country move forward?"
Right now, on financial re-regulation and on energy, there are no Republican filibuster threats, reflecting an important calculation on the part of GOP leaders in Congress. Vin Weber, a veteran of the Republican leadership in past congresses, says Republicans want their opposition to be a strategy — not an automatic reflex.
"I think Republicans on the one hand know that they have substantially improved their position by being in opposition to some things that turned out to be very unpopular, notably the stimulus package and the health care," Weber said. "But they also are aware of an undercurrent of criticism that says that they are simply the party of 'no,' and I don't think they want to be in the position of announcing in advance that they're simply going to be against everything this administration wants."
Weber says that in the end, there just might be some Republican votes for the financial reform bill — but, he says, not many, and none for sure. Because they've gained so much ground with their uniform opposition to health care, Weber says, Republicans are not too worried about being accused of voting for Wall Street.
"The Democrats are playing the financial regulation issue as their populist card," he said. "The Republicans' populist card, for the last year or so, has been an anti-big government card. The Democrats' is an anti-Wall Street card. And we'll see which one has the greater potency in this election."
We'll also see if the shift of issues can level the playing field just a bit for Democrats, who are now marching uphill into a difficult November.