By Alexander Bolton - 03/24/10 10:00 AM EDT
Democrats are debating whether to spend political capital earned by passing healthcare reform or hoard it so it pays dividends in the midterm elections.
Liberals argue the new momentum offers a rare opportunity to pass top priorities, such as immigration reform and climate change legislation, and warn that the party is likely to see its large majorities in the Senate and House diminished next year.
“It shows us that when we put our mind to something and we tackle it, we can get it done,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which passed a climate change bill last year.
But conservative Democrats, many facing tough reelection fights, say the time has come to rein in the ambitious agenda and focus on creating jobs and spurring the economy.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in December declared that she is in “campaign mode,” and many centrists interpret that as a call for the party to adopt a safer strategy in the aftermath of the long, hard-fought healthcare fight.
“I’d have to see what comes from the leadership on the floor, but I’m speaking with a very loud and clear voice that we need to do what we can to get this economy more robust,” said Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat from North Carolina, which President Barack Obama won narrowly in the 2008 election.
In the middle are those who say the best approach is for the party to catch its breath and take stock of the situation.
“I don’t know, a lot of it is going to depend on what the economy does this month and next month,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).
McCaskill said if the employment situation improves in March and the national economy creates new jobs over the next two months, “that gives us the political elbow room to work on really hard problems.”
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said he would prefer that Democrats pass an energy bill without controversial climate change provisions and leave immigration reform for the future.
Nelson said the healthcare bill “is not the beginning of running the table.”
He said Democratic enthusiasm has surged since passage of healthcare reform but that it’s now time “to temper that with a dose of reality.”
Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), one of the Democrats’ most likely Republican partners on any controversial legislation, urged Democrats on Tuesday to scale down their ambitions.
“On these other issues I think we’ve got to get modest and practical, and practicality is job creation and jumpstarting the economy,” said Snowe. “[If] you start to overlay massive initiatives that are going to require more transfer of wealth from the private sector to the government, that’s a problem in this economy.”
Snowe, the ranking Republican on the Small Business Committee, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had promised to bring a small business bill to the Senate floor before the Easter recess. That package will now have to wait until lawmakers return to Washington in mid-April.
Hagan, who serves on the Small Business panel, endorsed Snowe’s view.
“I agree, I think jobs is the No. 1 priority and that’s what I’m focused on,” she said.
Some Democratic lawmakers and centrist Republicans such as Snowe say that it makes sense to pass financial regulatory reform through broad, comprehensive legislation because Wall Street excesses caused the financial crisis of 2008.
They are wary, however, of vigorous efforts by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Boxer and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to advance energy and climate legislation and immigration reform.
Other lawmakers feel emboldened by historic passage of healthcare reform, an issue that has eluded policymakers for decades. Given the growing partisanship of Capitol Hill, they argue that big legislative wins can only be achieved with large majorities and time is running out.
Pelosi urged Obama to press ahead with comprehensive healthcare reform at a time when some Democrats wanted a downsized bill because he would soon have fewer Democratic allies in Congress.
“We’ll never have a better majority in your presidency in numbers than we’ve got right now,” Pelosi told the president, according to The New York Times.
Democrats who call for bold action on climate and immigration say the Congress can pass comprehensive reform bills this year with bipartisan support. They note that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has teamed up with Kerry and Schumer on both issues.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who is pushing a broad tax reform plan with Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), said ambitious legislation can pass if it is framed as bipartisan jobs initiatives.