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Obama emerges from defeat with a taste of victory

Less than two months after the midterm 'shellacking,' the president is buoyed by a series of important bipartisan accomplishments in the lame-duck Congress. But the new legislative session will present a different set of challenges.

December 22, 2010|By Paul West and Peter Nicholas, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Seven weeks after using the word "shellacking" to describe his political condition, President Obama left Washington for his annual Hawaiian vacation in a vastly different place, with a litany of legislative accomplishments and his party seizing the high ground on issues relating to civil rights, national security and Sept. 11 responders.

At his first news conference since the day after the midterm election, in which Republicans won control of the House, Obama said Wednesday he had heard the message of that vote: Seek common ground.

"That's a message I will take to heart in the new year, and I hope my Democratic and Republican friends will do the same," he said.

Bipartisan deals formed the basis of much of the legislation passed in a lame-duck session Obama lauded for its accomplishments. Hours earlier, the Senate passed the New START arms reduction treaty with Russia by a bipartisan vote of 71 to 26.

That vote was preceded in recent days by bipartisan passage of other landmark legislation, including repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law affecting gays in the military, an $858-billion tax-cut package and the largest overhaul of food safety regulations in more than 70 years. On Wednesday, a scaled-back bill to aid sickened Sept. 11 responders was sent to the president.

His last two years, with Democrats in charge in Congress, were "the most productive two years that we've had in generations," Obama told reporters.

Now, a more reactive phase begins. With split control of Congress and a Republican House determined to undo as much of his first-term agenda as possible, the president will continue trying to cut bipartisan deals.

But there are doubts, in both parties, that bipartisanship will survive into the new year. Obama said he was "not naive" and that there would be "tough fights in the months ahead."

Politicians in both parties say Washington is headed for a resurgence of acrimony and partisan division over the next two years.

"To somehow think that, beginning next Jan. 5, we will all love one another, and 'Kumbaya'? I don't think so," said Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who lost the 2008 presidential election to Obama, in a recent speech on the Senate floor.

Obama is confronting new obstacles that will redefine what success means for him. After pushing through his healthcare overhaul, he'll now have to work to assure funding for that law, the largest piece of social legislation in a generation.

Republicans were able to score a major victory that got little attention outside Washington. By blocking a Democratic plan to fund the government through the end of September, GOP lawmakers set the stage for a battle over the next two months that will revolve, at least in part, around a conservative plan to starve the government of new funding.

At immediate risk is money to run agencies responsible for administering changes in healthcare. Also up for grabs is new funding for enforcement of financial regulations put in place to prevent a repeat of the 2008 collapse.

At his news conference, Obama signaled some of the areas where he and Republicans were likely to clash, including spending for public education and college tuition aid; veterans healthcare; road, bridge and airport construction projects and scientific research and development. Battles also are likely over social spending, including aid to states for healthcare and nutrition for the poor.

A number of major Obama initiatives, such as a sweeping immigration overhaul, a "cap and trade" system to control pollution, and closing the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are all but moribund for the remainder of his term.

The president described the recent defeat of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to legal status for undocumented young people who met certain criteria, as "maybe my biggest disappointment." He also mentioned his disappointment over the failure of a measure promoting collective bargaining for firefighters and public safety workers.

There are prospects for progress on matters on which Republicans appear willing to engage. These include free-trade pacts with Colombia and Panama, a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind school law and various alternative-energy initiatives, coupled with a new push for nuclear power.

"It's easy to forget how factionalized Republicans are," said John J. Pitney Jr., a government professor at Claremont McKenna College who once worked for House Republicans. "It's only when they gain some power that the dividing lines come into bold relief."

Republican leaders will have to satisfy a new, more hard-line conservative element in Congress eager to cater to the demands of "tea party" activists. That could give Obama an opportunity to peel away the votes of moderate GOP lawmakers or those more interested in protecting local interests.

Princeton historian Julian E. Zelizer said Obama would need to "move sharply toward the center, indeed, to embrace parts of the Republican agenda, to rebuild his own political strength." The president could find it difficult to "win any support for significant legislation that Republicans don't want, when he doesn't have something as huge as tax cuts to give them in return," he said.

Lisa Mascaro of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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