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.
They feel a new political wind at their backs after attending a boisterous signing ceremony for healthcare reform in the East Room of the White House.
“It shows us that when we put our mind to something and we tackle it, we can get it done,” said Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerFirst senator formally endorses Bass in LA mayoral bid Bass receives endorsement from EMILY's List Bass gets mayoral endorsement from former California senator MORE (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 HaganKay Ruthven HaganInfighting grips Nevada Democrats ahead of midterms Democrats, GOP face crowded primaries as party leaders lose control Biden's gun control push poses danger for midterms MORE, a Democrat from North Carolina, which President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaEbay founder funding Facebook whistleblower: report Emanuel defends handling of Chicago police shooting amid opposition to nomination McAuliffe rolls out ad featuring Obama ahead of campaign stop MORE 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 McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillEx-Rep. Akin dies at 74 Republicans may regret restricting reproductive rights Sunday shows preview: States deal with fallout of Ida; Texas abortion law takes effect MORE (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 ReidHarry Mason ReidHarry Reid calls on Democrats to plow forward on immigration Democrats brace for tough election year in Nevada The Memo: Biden's horizon is clouded by doubt MORE (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 KerryJohn KerryQueen Elizabeth recognizes Kerry from video message: 'I saw you on the telly' Fossil fuel production must be cut in half to control global warming: study Pressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks MORE (D-Mass.), Boxer and Charles SchumerChuck SchumerFixing Congress requires fixing how it legislates Beware the tea party of the left Bottom line MORE (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 GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamMayorkas tests positive for COVID-19 breakthrough case A pandemic of hyper-hypocrisy is infecting American politics Republicans' mantra should have been 'Stop the Spread' MORE (R-S.C.) has teamed up with Kerry and Schumer on both issues.
Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenUnder pressure, Democrats cut back spending The Memo: Cuts to big bill vex Democrats Democrats say they're committed to reducing emissions in Biden plan MORE (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.