Congress is going along with Obama, at least for now

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 16, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The opening weeks of the 111th Congress made it clear: President-elect Barack Obama is going to find lawmakers — even Republicans — unusually friendly and cooperative.

Controversies that usually would snarl action have come and gone and not affected the workmanlike, often bipartisan mood.

Why? Because lawmakers see the economy reeling and U.S. forces bogged down in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and because they have a keen sense of today's political landscape. Obama will begin his term with an unusually high public approval rating — and a strong electoral mandate for change and civility — and his Republican opposition is reeling from its worst losses in 16 years.

"There is tremendous pressure from the whole democratic process for Congress and the president to get along," said Gleaves Whitney, the director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies in Grand Rapids, Mich.

That's why, analysts said, the controversy over Treasury Secretary-designate Timothy Geithner, who didn't pay $34,000 in taxes from 2001 to 2004, hasn't erupted into a major controversy. It's also why the Senate on Thursday smoothly approved spending another $350 billion to bail out financial institutions, despite public and congressional concern about the measure.

There've been some signs that Obama could face the usual Washington turmoil once this honeymoon ends. Republican leaders in the House of Representatives were quick to rail against the House Democrats' $825 billion stimulus proposal.

"I don't know how this is going to stimulate the economy," Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said derisively.

Obama has said that he'll work with Republicans on the plan, however, and he's already visited the Capitol to meet with Republican leaders. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., usually a fierce partisan, also said Thursday that the stimulus blueprint was only "the first step along the way."

Later that day, Republicans showed that they're eager for comity. After the Senate voted on the package, Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was almost apologetic for opposing it.

"While I voted on the losing side, I hope the new administration will consider some of my concerns and our concerns on this side," he said, adding, "Republican interactions with the incoming administration have been quite encouraging and appreciated."

Geithner would appear to present the first big challenge for the new administration, as some blogs and a few Republican lawmakers are full of outrage over his tax troubles. The Senate Finance Committee will hold his confirmation hearing Wednesday, the day after Obama is sworn in.

Unlike past years, however, when that kind of stumble would be the buzz of Capitol corridors, there's little talk about Geithner, and key Republican senators are saying they see few problems. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, met with Geithner this week, and they reviewed in detail how the nominee made mistakes on his tax forms.

Hatch, a senior committee member, was satisfied. "He's a very fine man," he said. "I'm not one who holds mistakes against people."

The dynamics producing this good will — tough economic times and a perceived mandate for Obama's approach to politics — are likely to persist for a while.

Former U.S. Rep. Robert Michel of Illinois, the House Republican leader from 1981 to 1995, explained that his party can't re-establish an identity overnight. In the meantime, he said, "You don't want to be opposed to everything."

Republicans also don't have the numbers to make much trouble. Democrats have a 256-178 seat House majority, with one vacancy, and they control 58 Senate seats, with another one possible once the Minnesota race is resolved.

"Republicans will have a very hard time just breaking through and getting attention," said John Fortier, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research center.

The first signs of distinctive Republican positions should surface during deliberations over the stimulus, which are scheduled to begin in House committees next week.

Boehner said he'd target Democratic programs that weren't likely to be investments in the country's economic future. One example he cited was $650 million to help consumers buy converter boxes when television signals switch from analog to digital next month.

"I want to know how digital TV coupons are going to stimulate the economy," he said.

Republicans and Democrats alike, however, know that the public is in no mood for prolonged bickering, and Obama and President George W. Bush are trying to set a calm mood.

Whitney thought it significant that Bush hosted the three living presidents and Obama last week. "Good for Obama for calling the meeting, and good for Bush for being so gracious," Whitney said.

Lawmakers know that the public is high on Obama: An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken last Friday through Monday found that 71 percent of those surveyed approved of how he was handling the transition. The survey also found Congress' approval rating at 23 percent, which doesn't embolden lawmakers to try to trip up the president-elect as he takes power.

"Everybody hates Congress as much today as they did the day before," said Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla.

With unemployment rolls swelling by 3.6 million since the recession began 13 months ago, financial markets staggering and more than 4,220 Americans killed in Iraq, constituents want results, not gamesmanship.

As Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., put it, "They are preoccupied with getting the economy back on track."

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