The Note, 1/14/09: CHIPping Away -- Obama Agenda Starts Moving, Women and Children First


While we’re teaching a (probably) future Treasury secretary how to do his taxes, and while we’re teaching the Obama team about this whole vetting thing . . . 

And while we’re waiting to find out how a future president prepares to spend $1 trillion or so, just to get his feet wet (while wondering what future dinner guests he might have in mind). . .

Don’t look now -- but the Obama agenda is already on the move.

It’s starting slowly. But this week the nation is being shown what the difference between an Obama administration and the Bush administration is about.

Wednesday brings a House vote on the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. No huge headline there by itself, since it passed the House with ease last year and was vetoed twice by President Bush.

This year it won’t be vetoed. It will almost certainly become law early in the Obama presidency, just like the gender pay-equity measures that have already passed the House. (Women -- check. Children -- check.)

By the time the stimulus works its way through Congress, new initiatives on energy, education, and healthcare will be law, too.

President-elect Barack Obama’s term will be defined by huge battles -- over healthcare reform, the environment, union rights, social issues.

But by design, it’s starting small. Congressional and transition aides are calling the quick actions “down payments” on the far more expansive pushes that will come in future months and years -- the ones that will need broad public buy-in to happen.

“A new day has dawned,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told ABC’s Chris Cuomo on “Good Morning America” Wednesday. “President Bush objected. President Obama supports it and supports providing healthcare for our children. It's a shared value that we have in a bipartisan way in the Congress -- and now, with the president of the United States.”

Ready for action? “Even as President-elect Barack Obama plans an ambitious push to expand health coverage nationwide, states are slashing health services to their poorest residents amid the economic downturn,” Noam Levey writes in the Los Angeles Times

“Congressional Democrats hope to begin offering some help today, as the House takes up legislation to expand the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program, a top priority of the incoming administration. The expansion, which could extend coverage to an additional 4 million low-income children, was vetoed twice by President Bush in 2007, but is expected to easily win approval now.”

“Congressional action on the popular SCHIP measure, which passed Congress with bipartisan votes twice in 2007 but died under President Bush’s veto pen, would give the incoming Obama administration a quick victory on healthcare, one of its major priorities,” The Hill’s Jeffrey Young reports. “Passing an SCHIP expansion also would stand as a down payment on the comprehensive health reform effort promised by President-elect Obama.” 

“A quick vote could provide momentum for President-elect Barack Obama, who supports the program and campaigned on a proposal to require all children to have some form of health insurance. Congress is not moving nearly so quickly to embrace the economic stimulus proposals Obama wants passed,” Lisa Wangsness writes in The Boston Globe

Nothing’s simple, though: “The one remaining sticking point concerns the fate of recently arrived legal immigrant children and pregnant women. They are currently required to wait five years before applying for coverage. The House bill would give states the option of allowing legal immigrants into the program,” Shailagh Murray and Ceci Connolly write in The Washington Post

“Some supporters of the expansion, while urging quick action, said it nevertheless falls short of Obama's campaign pledge to guarantee health care for every American child,” they write.

Can the good feelings in the Democratic caucus last through this push -- for the second half of the TARP money?

“The test is whether he can persuade enough members of his own party to support an extraordinarily unpopular program and avoid an embarrassing veto fight with a Democratic-led Congress at the outset of his presidency. A critical vote could come as early as Thursday,” the AP’s Liz Sidoti reports. “The onus is primarily on Democrats saddled with a politically uncomfortable decision: They can side with voters generally angry over the sweeping government intervention of Wall Street, or they can line up with a president-elect of their own party looking to open his term with a clear-cut win.” 

“On Tuesday, the President-elect journeyed to Capitol Hill to try to avoid the possibility that his first act in office could be vetoing a bill passed by both houses of Congress,” Time’s Jay Newton-Small writes

“For all the famous Obama cool, it’s an immense balancing act at almost every level,” Politico’s David Rogers writes. “His immediate challenge is to win a Senate vote this week on the release of the last $350 billion in the financial markets rescue fund -- a fight that puts him in the odd position of threatening to use his veto power to uphold a request that formally came from outgoing President George W. Bush.” 

Bloomberg’s Brian Faler: “Democratic criticism of the stimulus package and the nomination of Leon Panetta as intelligence chief shows lawmakers intend to flex their muscle after eight years of a Bush administration that treated Congress more like employees than a separate branch of government. The disputes may become more frequent when Congress takes up contentious issues such as overhauling health care or cutting the federal budget deficit.” 

Pelosi is offering assurances: “Things will be different because we will have a president that will enforce the law. And again, with the light of transparency on it, that will be dealt into any new -- if there is to be any more TARP funding,” she told Chris Cuomo on “GMA.” “You will see a difference.”

And can the good feelings last through this push -- for Obama 2.0?

“As Barack Obama builds his administration and prepares to take office next week, his political team is quietly planning for a nationwide hiring binge that would marshal an army of full-time organizers to press the new president's agenda and lay the foundation for his reelection,” Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times. “People familiar with the plan say Obama's team would use the network in part to pressure lawmakers -- particularly wavering Democrats -- to help him pass complex legislation on the economy, healthcare and energy. The plan could prompt tensions with members of Congress, who are unlikely to welcome the idea of Obama's political network targeting them from within their own districts.”   

New operational details, per Wallsten: “One source with knowledge of the internal discussion said the organization could have an annual budget of $75 million in privately raised funds. Another said it would deploy hundreds of paid staff members -- possibly one for every congressional district in certain politically important states and even more in larger battlegrounds such as Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina.”

So far, good communication all around: “President-elect Barack Obama’s Congressional outreach effort appears to be having the desired effect on Capitol Hill, with even the most skeptical of Republicans feeling the love from the man who has made ‘changing the way Washington does business’ his mantra,” Roll Call’s Keith Koffler writes. “But the new comity has not prevented family spats from breaking out between Obama and Democrats -- and Republicans say they are determined to assert themselves against the popular new president, even as some acknowledge it won’t be easy at first.” 

And a very traditional looking battle is emerging over Obama’s choice for Treasury secretary, with a too-familiar story standing in Tim Geithner’s way.

The housekeeper with the lapsed immigration status isn’t the big story here. The man in charge of the IRS sort of needs to know how to do his taxes. (And the folks in the Obama transition office need to know what it means to review tax forms.)

“Timothy F. Geithner, President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for Treasury secretary, failed to pay more than $34,000 in federal taxes over several years early this decade, and also faces questions about the employment papers of a former household employee, suddenly complicating what had seemed to be an easy confirmation process in the Senate,” Jackie Calmes writes in The New York Times

“Timothy F. Geithner, the man tapped to lead the nation out of the greatest economic crisis in decades -- and who would oversee the Internal Revenue Service -- trekked to Capitol Hill yesterday to explain to senators how he made almost $43,000 worth of mistakes on his own tax returns,” Michael D. Shear and Lori Montgomery write in The Washington Post. “There was little evidence yesterday that Geithner's errors, which included a related disclosure about a housekeeper who worked for him briefly without proper employment documentation, would derail what has been a smooth confirmation process for Geithner, who is the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. But the revelations could delay consideration of Geithner's nomination.” Not sinking -- yet: “Several senators said after the [Finance Committee] meeting that they intended to remain supporters of Mr. Geithner, who has playing a central role in tackling the financial crisis. Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D., Mont.) called the issue serious, but not disqualifying. ‘I still support him,’ said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah),” writes Jonathan Weisman who broke the story online Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal

“Obama aides said they didn't think these issues would present a problem, given what they characterized as the minor nature of the infractions and the gravity of the role Mr. Geithner has been nominated to take,” Weisman writes.

Maureen Dowd has her fun: “How does a guy on the fast track to be Treasury secretary fail to pay $34,000 worth of federal taxes ($43,200, including interest), or forget to check on the immigration status of a house cleaner -- the same sort of upstairs-downstairs slip-up that has tripped up other top-drawer prospects on their way to top jobs here? Americans expect the man who’s in charge of the I.R.S. to pay his own taxes,” she writes in her New York Times column. “Obama has proselytized about a shiny new kind of politics, and it’s déjà vu all over again with the smart being dumb, the rich being greedy, the powerful being sketchy.” 

The choice, for a party that’s learning how to be the opposition: “It was unclear, however, whether Republicans would attempt to make a major issue of the revelations. Similar incidents have sunk nominations in the past,” CQ’s Joseph J. Schatz and Richard Rubin report

Fast action: “Democratic and Republican senators say a full-court press by Barack Obama’s transition team is likely to keep ethical questions from sinking the nomination of Treasury Secretary-designee Timothy Geithner,” Politico’s John Bresnahan and Martin Kady II write. “Minutes after the news broke, the Obama transition team pushed back with talking points -- distributed to Capitol Hill, K Street and congressional reporters -- in which it portrayed the problems as simple mistakes or oversights.” 

Asks ABC’s Jake Tapper: “If the IRS notified Geithner in 2006 that he owed self-employment taxes for his time at the IMF in 2003 and 2004, why did he not realize that those taxes should have applied to him in 2001 and 2002 as well?” 

Another wrinkle: “A bipartisan document released by the Senate Finance Committee showed that on Geithner's tax returns in 2001, 2004 and 2005, he claimed a dependent child-care tax credit for time that his children spent at overnight camps. When an accountant apprised him in 2006 that the credit is for things such as after-school care, not overnight camps, Geithner failed at the time to amend his past returns,” McClatchy’s David Lightman and Kevin G. Hall report

Elsewhere in the Cabinet . . . The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus sees Labor secretary-designate Hilda Solis dodging and weaving -- not even answer questions on card-check. “Solis wouldn't comment -- despite the fact that she, not to mention the president-elect, co-sponsored the measure. Indeed, she said, she and Obama hadn't even discussed it,” Marcus writes. Said Solis: “My position as a nominee for President-elect Obama to serve as secretary of labor doesn't, in my opinion, afford me the ability to provide you with an opinion at this time.”

Marcus: “Solis didn't seem stumped by these questions. Perhaps she simply decided -- or was instructed by her handlers -- to say nothing controversial, nothing that would bind the new administration, nothing that would either enrage its labor allies or alienate Republicans and moderate Democrats. The new transparency, it seems, has its limits.”

Sensing a pattern? “I would think that in this era of freshness and transparency the new administration would want to come forth with detail instead of this mumbo jumbo that is going on,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a member of the Senate Budget Committee, said during Peter Orszag’s OMB confirmation hearing, per The Hill’s Alexander Bolton.

Some specifics can change: “Physics met politics at the confirmation hearing Tuesday for Steven Chu, the Nobel laureate scientist chosen by President-elect Barack Obama to head the Department of Energy, and the physics bent a bit, as Dr. Chu backed away slightly from earlier statements he has made -- that gasoline prices should be higher, and that coal was his ‘nightmare,’ ” Matthew L. Wald reports in The New York Times

On another nomination -- where’s that pledge now? ABC’s Jake Tapper: “President-elect Barack Obama today put forth his second nomination of an individual whose immediate past experience as a lobbyist seems to run in direct contradiction with Mr. Obama's rhetoric on the campaign trail against the ‘revolving door’ of lobbyists working for the government. William Corr, whose name Mr. Obama put forward this morning to be deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, was, until September 2008, a federal lobbyist with the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, lobbying Congress unsuccessfully to require the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco.” 

Who’d have guessed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., would be the easy one to confirm?

“Hillary Clinton never got her coronation as President, but her confirmation hearing to be Barack Obama's secretary of state on Tuesday came mighty close,” Michael McAuliff writes in the New York Daily News. “With her daughter, Chelsea, sitting behind her right shoulder, the soon-to-be former New York senator took a few jabs for hubby Bill's foreign work, but the rest was all hugs -- literally.”

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank: “Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who had drawn an elaborate doodle of an eight-pointed ship's wheel, told Clinton that she had ‘done a marvelous job’ at the witness table. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) thrice informed Clinton that she had gone ‘above and beyond’ ethics requirements. Even Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) was smitten. He paraphrased Clinton's opening statement and then asked her, ‘Do you agree with that?’ ‘Senator Isakson, I couldn't say it any better,’ came the nominee's reply.” 

Feel the change: “Senator Hillary Clinton pledged yesterday that as secretary of state she would revitalize US leadership by embracing a host of treaties on arms control and climate change that the Bush administration has been reluctant to endorse,” The Boston Globe’s Farah Stockman reports

“Things could not have gone more smoothly for Secretary of State-nominee Hillary Clinton in her Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday,” Time’s Massimo Calabresi reports. “Everything went perfectly. Everything, except for one detail: the matter of President Bill Clinton's charitable endeavors, including the William J. Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, and the danger that they might taint Hillary Clinton's role as Secretary of State.” 

The hard part comes later: “Can Hillary corral her commanding personality and submit to President Obama's direction as secretary of state?” writes Newsweek’s Michael Hirsch. “Clinton's powerful, controlled performance at her confirmation hearing Tuesday -- at which even most Republicans seemed rather tongue-tied -- was another reminder that the woman is a force of nature, whatever you might think of her views.” 

As for those bipartisan calls for more Clinton Foundation transparency -- it didn’t seem like senators were pressing the issue Tuesday. 

Wednesday’s movement: Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden make an afternoon visit to the Supreme Court. Per the transition team: “This will mark the third time in recent history that a President-elect and Vice President-elect have visited the Court. William Clinton and Al Gore visited on December 8, 1992. Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush called on the Court on November 19, 1980.  The President-elect and Vice President-elect will join the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices in the ceremonial West Conference Room. They may also join in a tour of the Court.”

And Biden’s back: “Senator Biden, in his capacity as the outgoing Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, along with Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) of the Armed Services Committee, were in Southwest Asia this past week as part of a bipartisan fact-finding delegation to Kuwait, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. Senators Biden and Graham will return early [Wednesday] morning and will brief the President-elect on their findings and assessments at the Washington, DC transition headquarters [Wednesday] afternoon.”

Blago’s back, too (awkward!): “The bright hopes for a new political beginning that often accompany the inauguration of an Illinois legislature will be overshadowed by awkwardness Wednesday when Gov. Rod Blagojevich oversees the swearing-in of a Senate that will sit in judgment at his pending impeachment trial,” Rick Pearson and Ray Long write in the Chicago Tribune

Is Obama courting Sen. John McCain? Reed Galen examines the evidence, at Real Clear Politics: “Continuing the thread of wise political judgment that has so far defined his transition, Obama understands that having John McCain as an ally in the United States Senate is a major boon to his policy initiatives. . . . From Senator McCain's perspective, this scenario would allow him to return to the role he truly relishes: Being the deal-maker or swing vote in the Senate is much more his style and most importantly to him, keeps him imminently relevant.” 

Is an old McCain idea in order? “During the presidential election, it was John McCain who first mentioned the idea of an independent bipartisan commission, much like the 9/11 Commission, to study the financial crisis. In the midst of a heated election, calling for a commission seemed an impotent response; faced with any crisis, the public wants real action, not study,” Chris Kofinis writes for The Hill. “But what you will not hear is a real understanding of what happened, because the truth is, aside from an array of media reports, it has not been provided. The truth is the American people deserve better. The truth is the American people deserve answers.” 

The Kicker:

“It's probably more awkward for him than it is for us. I'm not sure he understands that.” -- State senator Christine Radogno, the incoming Illinois Senate minority leader, on being sworn in by a governor she’ll soon be voting to remove from office.

“This is for real, folks. The bloggers are going to love this.” -- Ken Bazinet, of the New York Daily News, in his transition pool report Tuesday, as Barack Obama dined with conservative columnists including George Will, David Brooks, Bill Kristol, and Charles Krauthammer. 

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