by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, and Ryan Powers
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Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said that in the next five weeks until Memorial Day recess, the Senate will "tackle a hefty legislative agenda that includes bills to rein in predatory practices in the housing and credit card industries and a reform of government procurement." Looking back on what Congress has accomplished since the beginning of the year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said, "The three pillars of the president's budget -- education, energy and health care -- have already been advanced down the field to a significant extent in the first three months." The optimistic tone of the Democratic leaders in Congress, however, is not shared by their counterparts in the Republican Party. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) said in a press conference yesterday that, in the last four months, "it's become clear to him [Obama] that the idea of bipartisanship 'was a ruse.'" However, the seeming absence of bipartisanship isn't a result of the Obama administration's lack of trying. Congressional Republicans have done little but delay key executive branch nominees and attempt to block key legislation, all the while failing to offer any alternative ideas of their own.
DELAYING NOMINEES: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) objected to a motion to begin debate on the nominations of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-KS) as Secretary of Health and Human Services, David Hayes for deputy secretary of the Interior Department, and Thomas Strickland for assistant secretary for fish and wildlife at Interior. Regarding Sebelius, McConnell said he objected because members of his caucus had not yet had time to consider her candidacy properly. However, the real reason is that a select few in the Republican caucus are attempting to delay her appointment -- at the insistence of right-wing social conservative groups -- because of her commitment to pro-choice women's health policies. The delay is reminiscent of what transpired after Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill's nomination, when a small group of Republican senators -- including John McCain (AZ), Lindsey Graham (SC), and Sam Brownback (KS) -- announced their opposition, claiming Hill "lacks experience in the Middle East." As the National Security Network's Max Bergmann pointed out, they really took issue with his desire to avoid bombing North Korea. Further, the only substantive result of delaying Hill was to hinder the Obama administration's ability to effectively and efficiently make progress in Iraq. Indeed, Gen. David Petraeus was reportedly "frustrated by the delay." A similar chain of events is likely to play out with Sebelius, Dawn Johnsen, Harold Koh, and many other key nominees. The goal in holding up Obama nominees, it should be clear by now, is not to find better qualified nominees or answer substantive concerns. Rather, it appears to be part of an attempt on the part of Republicans in Congress to "obstruct and delay" the implementation of the legislative agenda the American people voted for last November.
BLOCKING THE PROGRESSIVE AGENDA: Since January, Congress has expanded access to health care for low-income children through the passage of SCHIP Expansion, laid the ground work for economic recovery with the passage of Obama's Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and passed a budget resolution that demonstrated the Obama administration's intention to push for real progressive changes in the tax code, the health care system, and environmental regulation. On health care in particular, congressional Republicans have worked hard to register their opposition to reform. As the Wonk Room's Igor Volsky explained yesterday, "Key Republicans voted against the popular SCHIP legislation, eight Republican senators (including health care heavy weights Grassley and Hatch) voted [in committee] against Gov. Kathleen Sebelius's nomination to head the Department of Health and Human Services, misrepresented the intent of health information technology...in the stimulus, and have already taken the public option off the table." But both the Senate and House leadership are serious about making health care reform happen this year. Due to obstructionism, however, they may now have to implement health care reform through the budget reconciliation process, which would allow the reform measures to be "protected from filibusters and passed by a simple majority vote." Republicans used reconciliation to pass the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, key provisions of their signature legislative agenda in 1994, the Contract with America, and on many other occasions in the last 30 years. Now, however, the Republicans have developed a bit of "political amnesia" and are calling the use of reconciliation the "Chicago approach to governing" and "a declaration of war." Further, they are plotting retaliatory parliamentary tactics -- including refusing to attend committee hearings and demanding that the text of bills, often hundreds of pages long, be read aloud -- that would "grind the Senate to a virtual halt." Yesterday, however, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) conceded that Democrats have the "right" to pass health care reform using the reconciliation process.
FAILING TO PROVIDE AN ALTERNATIVE: While Republicans have worked hard at saying "no," they have repeatedly failed to offer realistic alternative proposals. Several days after presenting his budget proposal, Obama pointed out during a prime-time press conference that congressional Republicans were failing to offer concrete alternatives to his budget. In response, Boehner hurriedly assembled a news conference to introduce their alternative "budget." "Here it is, Mr. President," Boehner declared, brandishing a glossy 19-page document in his hand. The only problem was that Boehner's budget didn't contain any numbers. When Republicans finally offered a detailed plan on, ironically, April Fool's Day, it did not appear to make any more economic sense than the brochure of recycled ideas they released the week before. Indeed, despite the growing recession, the plan called for a five-year spending freeze which, as the Wonk Room's Pat Garofalo explained, would "negate the stimulus, while betting economic recovery will occur thanks to an abundance of supply-side tax cuts." This trend appears likely to continue. Indeed, in a week dominated by congressional hearings on energy and health care, Boehner mentioned each issue only once yesterday in his press conference -- and that was to tell reporters that House Republicans still have no alternative health care plan and no alternative energy and environment plan. "Our health care solutions group is continuing to do their work. Our energy solutions group continues to do its work." Still, he insisted that "you'll continue to see us try to be the party of better solutions."