Economy tops everyone's agenda as Congress returns

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 2, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The 111th Congress will convene next week determined to avoid the mistakes of two eras: the Great Depression and the Carter administration.

The first task for the Democratic leaders of the House of Representatives and the Senate is to contain the economic crisis by passing a stimulus package worth $500 billion to $850 billion. They're hoping to complete it before Barack Obama is sworn in Jan. 20 as the 44th president.

On a parallel track, congressional Democrats who spent eight years in a confrontational relationship with President George W. Bush are shifting gears as they prepare to work with a president — and former senator — from their own party.

Senators also have been making contingency plans in case Roland Burris, whom scandal-plagued Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tapped to replace Obama in the Senate, tries to report to work. Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he won't seat any Blagojevich appointee, not because Burris has done anything wrong but because federal prosecutors have evidence that Blagojevich at some point sought to sell the Senate seat. It's unclear, however, that the Senate has the authority to refuse to seat a senator based on accusations against his appointer.

Obama plans to visit Capitol Hill on Monday and meet with Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and congressional Republicans.

"While the economic situation is likely to be front and center, this will be the first chance for everyone to sit down and discuss the entire legislative agenda," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.

"I look forward to meeting with President-elect Obama . . . and I hope this is the first of many bipartisan meetings on the significant challenges facing our country," House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said in a statement.

Democrats want to make the most of their control of the legislative and executive branches and avoid the legislative, policy and personal missteps that marked the relationship between President Jimmy Carter and congressional Democrats when Carter took office 32 years ago.

Carter, intent on changing what he saw as a culture of corruption in Washington, assembled for his staff a team of outsiders who couldn't work well with Congress. He distrusted lawmakers and went after appropriators' pet projects. He and his aides were accused of not returning telephone calls, not giving lawmakers notice when he planned to visit their districts, not developing personal relationships with lawmakers and being unwilling to make deals on legislation. Congress pushed back, and it cost Carter much of his agenda on consumer protection, energy and tax policy, welfare and some foreign policy.

"The economy is on everyone's mind, and they have to show they're thinking about what to do at this point. That's got to be issue No. 1," said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University history professor. "But just as important is getting the groundwork ready to work with the new president. They're desperately trying to avoid another Jimmy Carter situation."

Congressional Republicans, struggling to rebuild their party, have their own challenge: how to be an effective voice of dissent against a party whose incoming president starts with huge approval ratings and the public's call for change.

The Senate has been preparing for confirmation hearings on Obama's Cabinet picks.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the nominee for commerce secretary, would have faced questions about a grand jury probe of a donor who's being investigated for "pay-to-play" dealings, but Richardson withdrew on Sunday. Eric Holder, the nominee for attorney general, expects questions about his involvement in President Bill Clinton's pardon of tax fugitive Marc Rich. Otherwise, Democrats are supporting Obama's nominees and Republican objections appear modest.

Obama's transition team and House and Senate members also are discussing how quickly to proceed with legislation involving equal pay for women, more relief for homeowners facing foreclosure, stem cell research, children's health insurance and offshore oil drilling. Congress will engage with Obama on the Iraq war and other foreign-policy issues once he takes office.

"President-elect Obama is looking forward to working with Democratic and Republican members of Congress to address the economic crisis and the many challenges this country is facing," Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Pelosi said in a statement released Wednesday that "the state of our economy demands Congress act quickly to pass at the earliest date an economic recovery plan to provide immediate relief to Americans and to create or save millions of American jobs."

In a letter to colleagues a day earlier, she told incoming Democrats to expect "an ambitious schedule that corresponds with the opportunities and challenges that we face as a country," and warned, "The opening days of the Congress will be intense."

Pelosi also wrote in her letter that she expects to vote on pay equity legislation — which could allow more lawsuits by women against employers — in time for Obama's inauguration.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Minority Leader Boehner are positioning themselves as watchdogs against wasteful stimulus spending. Both issued statements predicting that Democrats would seek as much as $1 trillion and demanding that Republicans be fully included in shaping the terms.

McConnell said he wanted a minimum of a week to review the Democrats' plan. "Surely the Democrat leadership in Congress doesn't plan to spend a trillion dollars of taxpayer money — nearly $10,000 in new debt for everyone who pays federal income tax, charged to the credit card for our children to pay — without safeguards, without appropriate hearings to scrutinize how tax dollars are being spent," he said. "Without proper oversight and safeguards, a trillion-dollar spending bill invites fraud and waste on a massive scale."

Hearings on economic recovery plans are scheduled beginning next week, and House and Senate leaders are huddling privately as well on what to include in terms of spending on jobs, housing, transportation construction, schools, aid to states and emergency food assistance.

A hearing also is set for Monday on the alleged $50 billion Ponzi scheme by Bernard Madoff, as Congress considers legislation to tighten regulation of financial markets.

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