Sunday, Jan. 3, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Around the Senate historian’s office, the rule of thumb is it takes about seven years for an idea to go from concept to law.
Immigration reform. Climate-change policy. Wall Street oversight. Card check for labor unions. Some of the top legislative issues heading into the New Year are old ones, ideas that have been kicked around the halls of Congress for years.
This year will tell whether their moments arrive or whether those issues will be overshadowed by the health care debate that consumed Washington in 2009.
As the first year of the 111th Congress comes to a close, it feels more like a half-time pause rather than a tidy wrap on President Barack Obama’s inaugural year with Democrats running both houses of Congress.
The start of 2009 could not have been headier. Obama rode the train to his inauguration in Washington, retracing then-President-elect Abraham Lincoln’s journey, with Las Vegas schoolteacher Rosa Mendoza and dozens of other community leaders on board.
The sound of a million mittens clapping welcomed Obama to his chilly inaugural ceremony on the National Mall.
This New Year begins more soberly, with the economy, terrorist threats and wars overseas continuing their emotional and financial drain on households across Nevada and the nation.
The legislative work in 2010 will determine whether Washington is seen as able to govern or whether the 111th Congress will become just another dysfunctional also-ran that fizzled in the face of conflicting goals and a looming midterm election.
“It could wind up to be one of those record congresses or it could be frustrated in the second year,” Senate Historian Donald Ritchie said of the 111th Congress. “That part of the story hasn’t been written yet.”
Midway through last year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid liked to say that in less turbulent times the accomplishments of Congress during Obama’s first year would merit mention in the history books.
Congress released a logjam of bills, resembling the first full-term of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration in 1965 or the New Deal legislation under Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.
Obama held a flurry of bill signing ceremonies in the Rose Garden and stately White House rooms: an expansion of the children’s health insurance program that former President George W. Bush vetoed twice; the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which ensures women are not discriminated against in the workplace; credit card reforms to end industry practices of double-cycle billing and shifting statement due dates; a tobacco law that will require bolder health warnings on cigarette packages; and the largest public lands release in a decade.
Closer to home, Congress slashed the Yucca Mountain budget to its lowest level in years, beginning the end of the long-fought proposed nuclear waste dump 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Bush’s fired U.S. attorney, Daniel Bogden, got his job back. Nevada’s growing Hispanic community watched as Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic on the U.S. Supreme Court.
To stem the foreclosure crisis, the Obama administration launched a $75 billion housing rescue plan to modify and refinance mortgages to mixed reviews.
The passage of the $787 billion economic recovery act, the largest injection of fiscal stimulus since the Great Depression, showed the force that can be unleashed when elected officials face a crisis — and exposed a deep partisan divide that will follow Democrats into the midterm elections.
Nevadans benefited from extra unemployment checks and money to preserve teaching jobs and launch roads projects. But earmarks were forbidden in the bill. (Remember the uproar over the mob museum in Las Vegas possibly benefiting from stimulus funds?)
Without pork for Nevada, Gov. Jim Gibbons and other Republicans complained that Reid had not done enough for the state — outlining a campaign issue sure to dog the majority leader and the state’s Democrats in 2010.
The to-do list
Ritchie said that after the “do nothing” Congress of 2005-06 and the deadlocked Congress of 2007-08, when Democrats had a much slimmer majority, 2009 looks much more productive.
But even the arrival of Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota over the summer — giving the Democrats a 60-member, filibuster-proof supermajority unseen since the Carter administration — did not give the Senate the momentum needed to move other priorities.
Labor’s top goal — changing the law to allow unions to form by card check rather than secret ballots — remains on the to-do list. Climate-change legislation passed the House in a tough vote for Democratic Rep. Dina Titus and other freshman lawmakers from politically split swing districts, only to stall in the Senate.
Immigration rights advocates who were instrumental in electing Obama want to revisit the comprehensive reform bill that failed in 2007, potentially reopening that divisive debate.
Obama decided to send more troops to Afghanistan, escalating a war that Democrats once hoped to end.
Which of these issues Washington will take on this year remains to be seen.
A difficult midterm election is on the horizon for Reid and other Democrats, as the party in power typically loses seats in the off-years and Republicans are motivated to halt Obama’s agenda.
In Nevada, the state’s struggling Republican Party hopes to tap into the national GOP resurgence. It calls 2010 “A New Dawn,” after enduring a rough year that saw little resources and a top leader, Republican Sen. John Ensign, sidelined after disclosing an extramarital affair.
Nevada will be a battleground state in 2010 as Republicans nationwide seek to topple Reid.
The defining issue
Yet health care, Obama’s top domestic priority, will define this Congress, the administration and could sway the midterm elections.
If the historians say it takes seven years for an issue to morph into law, health care is long overdue. Administrations dating to Theodore Roosevelt have considered national health care plans, never to succeed.
As the New Year begins, Congress will try to merge the House and Senate bills into one that can arrive on Obama’s desk by late January.
Polls are mixed on health care in Nevada, with respondents opposed to the current bills but wanting changes in the health care system. Even if health care reform is sent to Obama, Democrats will need to successfully sell it to voters if they want to win in November.
But most political analysts agree that passing health care reform would be better than not passing it for the party in power. Former President Bill Clinton’s inability to pass his priority health care legislation became a defining moment in his first term — and Congress suffered as a result, seen as a dysfunctional body that was ousted in Republican electoral sweep of 1994.
“That’s what it’s remembered for — what it didn’t do,” Ritchie said. “If indeed the health care bill is actually enacted into law, then this Congress will probably get good grades for starting out to accomplish what the president asked for and what the majority was seeking.”