The Note, 1/6/09: Business Unusual -- Democrats Convene Congress with Touch of Hubris

By RICK KLEIN

History will record that, on the first day of the 111th Congress of the United States:

Roland Burris showed up for a job he knew he’d be barred from getting.

Al Franken prepared to show up to claim a seat he hadn’t really won yet.

Joe Biden took the oath of office for a Senate term he had no intention of serving out.

A former congressman with no history in intelligence was tapped to lead the CIA.

A hole loomed in the president-elect’s incoming Cabinet, where a key teammate once stood.

House Democrats stood ready to jettison term limits for their committee chairmen, just when their chairmen had to start worrying about them.

It’s with those unusual twists on business as usual that the Congress of Great Expectations kicks off on Tuesday.

And that leaves a cloud (think Tom DeLay is laughing?) over the start of this era of grand hopes.

Maybe the thought of spending all that money makes it hard to think small. Maybe this will matter not at all to passing the stimulus bill President-elect Barack Obama is in town early to lobby for. Maybe this is precisely what you’d expect in politics, regardless of party.

But taken together, it’s an inauspicious start to a new era of politics, as Obama is trying to get something bipartisan -- and huge, and hugely important -- done.

Burris is in Washington -- intent on doing more than watching TV in Sen. Richard Durbin’s office -- but won’t be allowed on the Senate floor, at least not Tuesday.

Not that the (maybe) senator-designate won’t try, with the choreographed clash set for just outside the Senate chamber at 10:30 am ET.

“The imagery of authorities stopping a graying African-American man at the threshold of political power promises to be a moment of high drama in a controversy that has joined the complicated politics of race with the sensational corruption scandal swirling around Gov. Rod Blagojevich,” Mike Dorning and Monique Garcia report in the Chicago Tribune.

“Because of Senate rules that restrict the use of cameras in the hallways around the second-floor entrance to the chamber, any theater over the actual refusal to admit Burris may not be captured by TV cameras. But there will plenty of opportunity for television and photographic imagery, including Burris walking up the Capitol steps to appear at the Senate's first-floor appointment desk,” they write.

“Senate Democratic leaders want to avoid a spectacle that would attract a media frenzy should Burris attempt to gain access to the Senate floor to be sworn in as Barack Obama’s replacement,” The Hill’s J. Taylor Rushing reports. Said Burris: “We're going to go up to the [Senate] door, and if we're turned away, then we'll document all of that and consult our lawyers.”

“I am a solution to the problem,” Burris told reporters -- just maybe misunderstanding his situation.

“Not since Mr. Smith came to Washington, in that old Frank Capra film, has an idealistic senator appointed by a corrupt party boss been so unwelcome at the Capitol.  But at least Mr. Smith got his seat,” David Wright reported on ABC’s “Good Morning America” Tuesday. “But it's also distinctly possible the scene will look more like ‘Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?’ The senators may seem out of touch, if this overwhelmingly white group refuses to admit the one and only black man seeking to join their exclusive club.”

The real way to Harry Reid’s heart: “Democrats privately expressed concern that Burris would not be able to hold the seat in a special election that must be held in 2010. Reid has denied that political calculations are involved, but one Democratic official suggested that one potential outcome would be for Burris to be seated and pledge to retire in 2010,” the AP’s David Espo reports.

Lynn Sweet, in the Chicago Sun-Times: “I have a well-informed hunch that if Burris wants to get a deal done quickly, he needs to say he won't run for the seat in 2010.”

Softening, just a bit: “No one in the Democratic leadership suggested Monday that Burris would actually be seated when he arrives at the Capitol on Tuesday -- or at any point thereafter -- but the rhetoric was clearly softening as a potential showdown at the Capitol loomed, and Democrats were eager to get past the distraction,” Manu Raju and Amie Parnes write for Politico.

Adding to the drama: “At the same time, Senate Democrats were considering when they might make an effort to seat Al Franken of Minnesota, the Democrat who was declared the winner Monday of a prolonged recount of votes but who faces a court challenge from Norm Coleman, the incumbent Republican, and cannot be certified by the state as senator for at least a week,” Carl Hulse reports in The New York Times.

“While the House will convene without the uncertainty of the Senate, a partisan clash is likely there over an opening-day package of rules changes on which the Democratic leadership intends to force a vote, including one eliminating a six-year limit for committee chairmen,” Hulse continues.

“Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) initially planned to try to seat Franken on Tuesday, but after Republicans said they would block the effort -- and warned that such a move could poison the atmosphere in the Senate at the start of the 111th Congress -- Reid decided late Monday not to move forward with the seating,” Shira Toeplitz and John Stanton write for Roll Call.

Not that things are close to concluding in Minnesota: “The lawsuit that Coleman's attorneys said they would file today is called an election contest. It will prevent Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, under state law, from officially certifying Franken's election until the legal process has run its course,” per the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

“In other words, the conclusion of the long, drawn-out recount also is the start of a long, drawn-out election lawsuit,” Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Dave Orrick write in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “According to Minnesota law, an election lawsuit stops Franken from receiving the certificate of election that normally serves as a candidate's credential to join the Senate. Since Franken lacks that, it is unclear when he will go to Washington to join the new class of senators.”

Too late to avoid the circus: “The nine incoming freshman who have secured their places will be greeted by a barrage of media. All those cameras, though, will be there primarily because of the two men who most likely won't be,” Time’s Jay Newton-Small writes. 

Over in the House: “House Democrats are poised to approve new rules that will significantly increase their authority while taking the bullets out of the few legislative weapons Republicans have in the lower chamber. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has approved the changes from the last Congress, when House GOP members frustrated their Democratic counterparts by winning over two dozen amendment battles on the floor,” Molly K. Hooper writes for The Hill.

“The rules package also calls for the end of six-year term limits for committee chairmen. This move is not popular with younger members, but panel chairmen have been pressing for the change since Democratic leaders surprisingly kept the six-year limits intact in their rules package for the 110th Congress. The change means that House chairmen could be in their posts until they retire or die,” Hooper writes.

Democrats are edging up to “the regrettable repetition of the Republicans’ folly, which occurred after they gained the majority in Congress in 1994,” Jennifer Rubin blogs. “Like their counterparts did in 1994, the Democrats led by Nancy Pelosi pledged in 2006 to be the most ethical Congress ever; they wouldn’t fall prey to the excesses and overreach which took down their opponents. Not them. But then it happened.”

Between sticker shock and Bill Richardson’s withdrawal, some early setbacks: “It's a hard dose of reality to swallow at the threshold to the White House,” the AP’s Ron Fournier writes. “While these are hiccups in what has otherwise been a smooth transition, Obama's response suggests that he is a patient and pragmatic politician, willing to trade time for consensus on legislation and to jettison allies who jeopardize his carefully built reformist image. . . . Like any good politician, Obama knows how to cut his losses. He must be most diligent when the promise of ‘new politics’ rubs up against the realities of the old.”

“For an outfit known for its lack of drama, Team Obama has become a downright thrill show,” Politico’s Roger Simon writes. “Bill Richardson! Rick Warren! Rod Blagojevich! Roland Burris! Talk about a ride through the fun house. President-elect Barack Obama doesn’t bear responsibility for all these speed bumps on the road to a better, happier, more respected America, but he certainly bears responsibility for some of them.”

Tempering the enthusiasm: “What's to stop the Democrats? There are serious obstacles, starting with the party itself, which is hardly unified,” The Wall Street Journal’s Naftali Bendavid and Greg Hitt report. “Some Democratic congressional factions, like the more-conservative Blue Dogs, are deeply suspicious of expanded federal spending. Democrats from old industrial states worry that colleagues from California want to be too hard on the auto industry. Coal-state Democrats fear the party's environmental wing will go too far with efforts to clamp down on fossil fuels. Republicans, meanwhile, have made it clear they won't simply accept whatever Democrats propose, unlike in Mr. Roosevelt's day.”

Reaching out: “Mr. Obama, on his first full day in Washington since the election, held a series of face-to-face meetings with Democrats and Republicans as he began spending his political capital. He spoke of the nation’s economic condition in dark terms and urged Congress to pass the legislation within a month,” per The New York Times’ Jeff Zeleny and David M. Herszenhorn. “The meetings were a mix of symbolism and substance between the man who will be sworn in as the 44th president and the Congressional leaders who hold the fate of his agenda in their hands. The sessions, aides said, were particularly aimed at encouraging Republicans to buy into the plan and help ease resistance over a $775 billion price tag.”

Welcome to the party: “Pitching a plan that is expected to include $300 billion in tax cuts, Obama pledged to consult Republican leaders, who until yesterday had been left out of negotiations between the president-elect's advisers and congressional Democratic staff,” Paul Kane, Lori Montgomery and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post.

On the symbolism: “Perhaps most important was the day's tone. Obama met first with Democrats at the Capitol, then McConnell and other Republican leaders joined the session,” David Lightman and Kevin G. Hall report for McClatchy Newspapers. “Obama, participants said, didn't attempt to negotiate in the meetings and didn't express specific views of specific proposals. Still, the tone was upbeat.”

“One apparent area of agreement between Obama and Republicans -- transparency,” ABC’s Jake Tapper reported on “Good Morning America. “House Minority Whip Eric Cantor said the bill should be put on the Internet before the vote so everyone can see what's in it. ‘I'll do you one better,’ the president-elect said -- and he and his team said they’re planning a Google-like search engine for the stimulus package.”

“The day brought a full dress rehearsal for the role he assumes formally in two weeks, his first full working day since moving to Washington from Chicago over the weekend,” James Oliphant and Christi Parsons write in the Chicago Tribune. “Certainly, the foundation exists for Obama to work hand-in-hand with Congress, not only on the stimulus bill but also in enacting the sort of major reforms -- in health care, energy and education -- that he promised during his campaign.”

“Obama, still 14 days from being sworn in as president, has all but conceded that he will miss his goal of signing a spending bill on his first day in office, a move he hoped would signal urgency in tackling the nation's worst economic crisis in generations,” Joseph Williams writes in The Boston Globe. 

Looking at a smaller number (everything is relative): “President-elect Barack Obama told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi he favors a price tag of about $775 billion for the U.S. economic stimulus plan, a Democratic aide said,” per Bloomberg’s Laura Litvan and Brian Faler.

Obama’s Tuesday, per the transition office: “President-elect Barack Obama will hold a meeting with Rahm Emanuel, Chief of Staff-designate; Timothy Geithner, Treasury Secretary-designate; Peter Orszag, Director-designate, Office of Management and Budget; Rob Nabors, Deputy Director-designate, Office of Management and Budget; Christina Romer, Director-designate, Council of Economic Advisors and Lawrence Summers, Director-designate, National Economic Council tomorrow afternoon at his Washington DC transition office.”“During the meeting they will review the medium-term budget outlook and discuss their commitment to crafting a budget for 2010 that puts us on a path to bring down the deficit as the economy recovers.  President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Biden plan to work with their economic team to identify budget reforms necessary to restore fiscal discipline, take on major fiscal challenges like reigning in health care costs, and scour the budget line by line, looking for waste and inefficiencies to eliminate.”

On one of those other Senate vacancies -- Gov. David Paterson, D-N.Y., is keeping his own counsel, and his own pace (take that, Mayor Bloomberg).“I think the most prudent way to select a senator is to wait until the previous senator has actually vacated,” Paterson tells ABC’s Terry Moran, in an interview to air on “Nightline” Tuesday. “And there is a lot of pressure on me to make the decision early.  There are a lot of reports every day.  We have the rumor of the day around here that I have to appoint someone. I am not going to be coerced.  I am not going to be unduly persuaded. And I’m not going to be pushed around.”

Clashes to come: Obama’s choice of Leon Panetta to head the CIA could have used a bit of ground work.

“The choice, disclosed Monday by Democratic officials, immediately revealed divisions in the party as two senior lawmakers questioned why Mr. Obama would nominate a candidate with limited experience in intelligence matters,” Mark Mazzetti and Carl Hulse write in The New York Times.

Said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Intelligence Committee’s incoming chairman: “My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time.”

Mazzetti and Hulse: “A second top Democrat, Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the departing chairman of the Intelligence Committee, shares Ms. Feinstein’s concerns, Democratic Congressional aides said. Ms. Feinstein’s Republican counterpart on the Intelligence Committee, Senator Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, said he would be ‘looking hard at Panetta’s intelligence expertise and qualifications.’ ” “This is a little bit clumsy for the Obama team,” Jake Tapper said on “GMA.”

Some pushback, from former congressman and 9/11 commissioner Tim Roemer: “It is a savvy and insightful pick by the president-elect,” Roemer tells The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder. “I think Leon Panetta brings a terrific skill set and complements the national security team that Obama is putting together. Right now, we need a steady hand at the CIA. We need a strong manager. We need someone with good relationships with the Hill, someone who has a keen ability to explain difficult issues to the public.”

Driving the buzz out West: “Gov. Christine Gregoire is out of state, but her office won't say where she is or what she is doing -- other than to say she's not going to work for President-elect Obama,” per the Seattle Times. “Gregoire's mysterious absence left local political blogs buzzing this afternoon with speculation that she could be in Washington, D.C., preparing to accept a job with the Obama administration. Gregoire was on a plane to D.C. on Sunday morning. But Marty Brown, Gregoire's legislative liaison, said the governor's trip has nothing to do with a job in the new administration. . . . Spokesman Pearse Edwards said Gregoire will be making an announcement Tuesday morning, and no further information would be released before then.” 

The rumor mill at Commerce, per the Times’ Jeff Zeleny and David M. Herszenhorn: “Democratic officials familiar with the search said prospective candidates include William Daley, who served as commerce secretary in the Clinton administration, and Laura Tyson, who has advised Mr. Obama on the economy.”

Now we know why Joe Biden is being sworn in on Tuesday: He’s got one more trip planned. (But if he travels abroad as a senator and not vice-president-elect, does that mean any gaffes he makes won’t count?)

The Kicker:

“You really haven’t had much of a life, have you?” -- Barack Obama, to Evan Bayh, during his vice-presidential vetting process -- in a line he probably didn’t use with Bill Richardson.

“I am the magic man. . . . I am a solution to the problem.” -- Roland Burris, slightly off-target.

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