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The Promise and Peril of a Congressional Majority

Sen. Arlen Specter comments on his switch from the Republican to the Democratic Party, which will likely give Democrtas a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)

By Dan Balz
The last president who had congressional majorities comparable to those President Obama now enjoys was Jimmy Carter. That's not to draw a direct comparison between the presidencies of Obama and Carter, but only to suggest that big numbers don't assure presidential success.

There are two risks Obama faces in dealing with a Congress with such sizable Democratic majorities. One is the temptation to overreach, as other presidents with even smaller majorities -- and sometimes smaller victory margins -- have often done. The other is a reemergence of intraparty warfare between the left and the center.

The party switch by Sen. Arlen Specter and the prospect that Al Franken will eventually be seated give the Democrats, theoretically, the ability to choke off Republican filibusters on a Supreme Court nominee, a health care package or an energy plan that is unpalatable to the right.

Even under the rosiest scenarios last fall, few thought the Democrats could hit the magic 60 in the Senate. Now they are tantalizingly close. That gives White House officials some additional breathing space as they plot their moves, if they manage their agenda carefully.

The locus of power in the Democratic Party is on the left and Obama owes much to the activists and groups that populate that wing of his party. They were drawn to his candidacy because of his early opposition to the war in Iraq and provided energy, volunteers and money as he mounted his challenge to Hillary Clinton in the primaries and caucuses last year.

After eight years of George W. Bush's presidency, they want to see a dramatic change in policy under Obama. So far he has done a number of things seemingly aimed at accommodating them, but it is an incomplete record that has left the left urging more.

He ordered the closing of the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, but has not resolved what to do with all the prisoners. He ordered an end to the harsh interrogation tactics employed by the Bush administration, but left open the possibility of rethinking how to deal with some terrorist detainees. He released the Justice Department memos offering legal justification for those techniques, but has resisted a full public airing of those decisions.

Domestically, House Democrats showed the pent up demand for spending and pet projects on the left in putting together the initial stimulus package. The White House was later forced to scale back that measure to win enough support to pass the bill in the House. Obama will face pressure on health care from advocates of universal coverage. Already there is a debate underway about whether to include a public insurance plan as part of a reform package and if so how to construct it.

Obama's Republican critics say he already has shown a tendency to overreach -- not only by the breadth of his agenda but also by the composition of the stimulus package. There is little he hasn't been willing to take on, either because a crisis greeted him when he arrived in the Oval Office or because he's been reluctant to scale back his ambitions in the face of having to spend record amounts to deal with the economy and the financial industry. Republicans have made their bet that there will be a public backlash against the amount of government Obama has embraced.

Obama's economic program may not work. It's too soon to know the answer to that. But Democratic strategists say they doubt that Obama or congressional leaders will ultimately succumb to pressures from the left that might lead them to pursue a politically risky course as they shape the details of the president's agenda.

"I don't get the sense that either he is inclined to do that or that the congressional leadership is inclined to do that," said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist who was chief of staff to former House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt.

Elmendorf said he believes that both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid learned the lessons of 1993 and 1994, when the Democrats overreached under President Clinton and lost their majorities. "Pelosi and Reid are very cognizant of what they have to do to protect their majorities," he said. "We're not going to have a 1993-94 experience."

That optimism is shared by Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democratic moderate. "Bush alienated the moderates and independents and his policies had significant failings," he said in an interview. "So it gives us the opportunity to cement the allegiance of those folks. The one thing I can see out there that might actually resuscitate the Republican Party would be us moving in an extreme ideological direction. I think President Obama and Leader Reid and the people around them are smarter than that."

Still, Bayh believes some pressure may be needed to assure that outcome. He is one of a dozen centrists who have been meeting regularly with the goal of keeping the party closer to the center.

The Democratic moderates have become the critical swing block in reaching the 60-vote threshold. Obama may find them useful as a foil to play off against the left, particularly some of the outside groups clamoring for more aggressive changes. But the more they exert themselves, the greater the possibility of open conflict between the left and center within the party.

Over the past few years, the Democrats have been so united in their opposition to Bush's policies that they have largely avoided internal ideological battles. But with their ranks enlarged and expectations raised, that may be more difficult, unless Obama, Pelosi and Reid skillfully manage the Democratic coalition as they try to complete the president's big first-year agenda.

By Web Politics Editor  |  May 5, 2009; 1:48 PM ET
Categories:  Dan Balz's Take  
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Let's hope that he ends up closer to Carter ; )

Posted by: JakeD | May 5, 2009 7:43 PM | Report abuse

Swine flu (A-H1N1) and Healthcare In America

Well my fellow Americans, and people of the World. That was yet another very close potential catastrophe. Especially for those of us that live in America with our busted, greed driven, private for profit healthcare system. What ever you do World. Don’t copy our current healthcare system.

If that virus (A-H1N1) had emerged just a few months earlier our busted healthcare system in America would have collapsed. Just like our economy almost did. And hundreds of thousands more Americans, if not millions would have needlessly lost their lives. As hospital ER’s became choked with the sick, and dying.

All on top of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who needlessly lose their lives in America each year from a rush to profit by the private for profit healthcare industry. Rich, middle class, and poor a like. Insured, and uninsured. Men Women, Children, and Babies.

This was yet another big WAKE-UP! call for America, and for our Government. It’s time for Congress to end the debate. And stop dancing around the issues of how they can continue to try and justify protecting the private for profit healthcare industry, and the private for profit healthcare insurance industry. These industries are killing hundreds of thousands of Americans every year in America, and endangering our National security.

“the health-care system is, first and foremost, for the American people—not the companies that profit from it.” (Tom Daschle | NEWSWEEK)

IT’S OVER! The Private for profit healthcare experiment in America is dead. It FAILED! And it was a DISASTER!


Essentially HR676 (enhanced, and expanded medicare for all). Just like every other CIVILIZED! country in the developed World has. There is no other way to truly fix or reform our current disastrous healthcare delivery system. NONE!

Congress, fix our healthcare crisis while you still have time.

President Obama, VP Biden, the Obama administration and the rest of his advisors, along with Speaker Pelosi and Harry Reid are doing an excellent job of protecting you. And also an excellent job of representing you and the best interest of the World. But it’s time for the rest of Congress to get on board.

To those of you who keep standing up and fighting for single-payer universal healthcare for all. YOU! are Americas true HEROES! And I am proud of you. :-) Don’t let up.

I will have more to say about this VERY! unusual virus (A-H1N1), and flu in general, later. There are some things you really need to know and think about... All of you.

Till then, God Bless And Keep You All

Jack Smith — Working Class

Posted by: JackSmith1 | May 5, 2009 7:14 PM | Report abuse

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