Congress is itching to get started

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Hook, Levey and Nicholas are Times staff writers.

More than two months before he is sworn in, Barack Obama already is facing a Congress busily asserting itself on the timing and details of the president-elect’s agenda, including major issues like healthcare and economic policy.

Committee chairmen are unveiling legislation to expand health insurance coverage and curb global warming. Democratic leaders have called a lame-duck session next week to consider an auto industry bailout. And other economic stimulus measures may be enacted even before Obama is inaugurated.

The activity is in part a measure of the pent-up demand among Democrats who have had little legislative power for more than a decade. Obama, by contrast, has been constrained in an awkward limbo by his assertion that the country has “only one president at a time.”


But the congressional clamor raises a question that will loom larger after inauguration day: Will Congress be leading or following the Obama administration as it gets its sea legs?

Congressional leaders say they will take their cue from the new president and are consulting with the Obama transition team even as they step out on their own. But after cowering for eight years under President Bush’s veto authority, many Democrats are champing at the bit.

“Congress is filled with people who have been working on these questions for a long time, and they’re not constrained,” said William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former advisor to President Clinton.

Amid concern that economic problems may prompt Obama to delay action on healthcare reform, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) unveiled his own plan Wednesday and called for immediate action.

“The need is so great we have to act now with dispatch,” Baucus said, adding that he wanted Congress to send Obama legislation before summer. “We have no choice.”

Obama has been working to build strong relations with Congress by choosing lieutenants who are well known on Capitol Hill, including former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who is advising the president-elect’s team, and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), picked as White House chief of staff.


Obama has consulted with party leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. And he has spoken with House Ways and Means Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) about upcoming economic stimulus legislation.

One of Obama’s transition chiefs, John Podesta, said recently that Obama would proceed immediately with plans to cut taxes for the middle class, revamp the healthcare system and curb the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

Rather than push for the plans sequentially, Obama aims to do them simultaneously, Podesta said. One of the projects of the transition team is to develop a strategy to do so.

Some in Congress, including House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), would prefer a moderate pace and are urging Obama not to overreach.

“He is recommending a prudent, cautious approach,” said Clyburn spokeswoman Kristie Greco. “Managing expectations is going to be one of the challenges. We don’t have to do a radical restructuring of the healthcare system to make change.”

Former Clinton aide Galston, reflecting on his experience in the White House, warned, “It is easy for Congress to get overwhelmed if too many big things are submitted all at once.”


One factor that can help or hurt Obama: His agenda includes complex issues that members of Congress have been working on for years.

For example, the House Energy and Commerce Committee was already circulating a draft bill on global warming before Obama was elected.

And with Baucus’ announcement, the first post-election health reform proposal has come from the Capitol, not the White House. Moreover, it includes elements that Obama opposed during the campaign.

Baucus’ plan envisions sweeping federal intervention to ensure every American has health insurance.

It parallels Obama’s campaign proposals in important ways. Like Obama, Baucus has proposed a new federal “exchange” to help individuals and small businesses buy coverage, and would push insurers to cover more people. Baucus and Obama both have emphasized extra prevention efforts and a new focus on quality of care.

Unlike Obama, Baucus would mandate that every American get health insurance, an approach endorsed by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) during her presidential run but rejected by Obama. Baucus also has proposed taxing some health benefits, an idea that Obama dismissed when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) proposed it during the campaign.


Baucus was careful Wednesday to emphasize his cooperation with Obama.

“Much of what’s here dovetails with the president-elect’s own health plan,” Baucus said. “And where we differ, I have committed to work with him to find a consensus.”

Baucus also framed his plan as a move to avoid a repeat of the problems that doomed President Clinton’s efforts to overhaul the healthcare system 15 years ago.

“The health proposal by the Clinton administration was too top-down,” he said. “And, frankly, they waited a bit long before they sent it up to the Congress. Basically, they worked on their plan and said, ‘OK, Congress, this is it.’ ”