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Democratic groups ready their agendas

Labor, health and other interests want a say. Party members debate whether to take a centrist course.

November 06, 2008|Janet Hook | Hook is a Times staff writer.

WASHINGTON — The nation's capital woke up Wednesday to a political landscape upended by voters clamoring for change, delivering to Democrats more power than they have wielded in a decade and a half.

With Barack Obama's election as president and Democratic gains in the House and Senate, the party is now poised to rewrite the capital's agenda and interrupt a generation of conservative dominance.

"This president goes into office with more expectations than any president I can ever remember in my lifetime," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) at a postelection news conference.

The victory unleashes pent-up demand for a host of Democratic goals: broader maneuvering room for labor unions, universal healthcare, appointing liberal federal judges and raising taxes on the wealthy. Democratic factions and interest groups are jockeying to advance their causes with the public, Congress and Obama's inner circle.

Already, the party's factions are debating not only what their agenda should be but also how to pursue it: as pragmatic centrists or bold progressives.

"The country must be governed from the middle," Pelosi told reporters. "You have to bring people together to reach consensus on solutions that are sustainable and acceptable to the American people."

But some liberals such as Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, warn against progressives lowering their sights.

"Govern from the center? Americans voted overwhelmingly for change," Borosage said. "Obama's instincts will be to be very cautious, but the economic situation gives him no choice but to be bold."

Not since Jimmy Carter three decades ago has a Democratic president been elected with so many members of his party in Congress. Bill Clinton had a Democratic-controlled Congress in 1993 and 1994, but the majorities were narrower.

Democrats were not given carte blanche, because their Senate gains fell short of the 60-seat majority needed to prevent filibusters. Still, the majority party has the power to set the legislative agenda.

The polls had barely closed when interest groups and factions started flooding the capital with their wish lists. People for the American Way insisted that the election was a mandate for Obama to appoint liberal federal judges. Women's rights advocates called for equal pay legislation. The House Hunger Caucus urged Obama's transition team leader to attack global hunger.

But all that will take a back seat to efforts to shore up the economy, which is clearly the first priority for Obama and Capitol Hill. Congress might move to pass economic stimulus measures during a lame duck session this month, weeks before Obama is sworn in. The House passed a $61-billion stimulus package in September, but the measure died in the face of a Senate filibuster threat. Pelosi said lame-duck action is unlikely if Republicans and Bush still oppose the measure.

When asked about Democrats' agenda next year, Pelosi said Congress would take its cue from Obama. But she suggested that, to boost voters' confidence and score an early victory, lawmakers may try to move quickly on legislation that had been passed by Congress but vetoed by Bush.

That might include legislation expanding federal support for stem cell research or an expansion of a children's health insurance program.

Some health advocates are opposed to moving last year's children's health bill, because it was scaled down in an effort, ultimately unsuccessful, to make it acceptable to Bush. The Children's Defense Fund, for example, has told Democrats to aim for a broader bill, one in keeping with Obama's proposal to require all children to have health insurance coverage.

Labor leaders, who poured money and resources into Obama's election, are pushing hard for legislation to make union organizing easier. That would be a tough fight that could undercut Obama's goal of fostering bipartisanship, because the bill is bitterly opposed by the business community.

John Engler, president of the National Assn. of Manufacturers, warned Democrats against picking that fight.

"I would hope other priorities would come up first," Engler said. "This isn't the place to start, if we are going to talk about working together. . . . One of the risks to a new Obama administration is to get typecast" as beholden to unions or other interest groups.


Times staff writer Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.

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