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COVER STORY

First Things First

In speeches and interviews this year, Barack Obama has laid out an initial agenda focused on three priorities. The first, changing course in Iraq, does not require congressional action. But the second two priorities—introducing universal health care legislation and pushing a package to deal with energy problems and global warming—will center on Capitol Hill.

“Within my first six months of office, I will have introduced a health care plan, and I want to try to pass it by the end of my first year in office,” Obama said at a June 13 campaign stop in Ohio. “I want a universal health care plan.”

 

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has been preparing for the introduction of health care legislation for well over a year. He has been lobbying senators and industry officials to build support for a basic framework that ensures universal coverage by relying on private-sector insurance plans. His legislation has seven Democratic and eight Republican co-sponsors, including his lead partner, Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah. In the House, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., has filed a companion measure with 18 bipartisan co-sponsors.

“I think that all of us are saying that on something as important as health care, you’ve got to have something bipartisan,” Wyden said. “The idea that you’re just going to scorch the earth—and just say you can do it with one party—history shows there’s not much record of that.”

Wyden said he expects the next president to introduce his own proposal, but then to see his bill—which the Congressional Budget Office has said would not increase the deficit—as the starting point in the Senate. “I think a new president will say, ‘I want to spend my political capital on the first real bipartisan effort to fix health care in the history of the Senate,’ ” Wyden said. “They’re going to say, ‘You know, it looks like there’s something to work with.’ ”

 

Numerous other House and Senate Democrats also talk up the need for bipartisanship on health care. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., a House Ways and Means Committee member, predicted that Democrats will “try to break the mold of the past”—possibly through quick action on a broader children’s health insurance plan than the version that President Bush vetoed last year. “Obama will continue to lay out a comprehensive health care plan on a piece-by-piece basis,” Levin said.

Likewise, Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., emphasized the need for a careful approach: “There needs to be a period of putting issues on the table.”

On energy issues, Obama discussed his interest in taking a broad approach during his Ohio speech last month. “I’ve got to focus on energy,” he said. “We’ve got to get a handle on that, by investing in alternative energy, [by] helping the automakers retool hybrid cars, plug-in hybrids, electric cars. You know, we’re really going to have to just change how we use energy.”

The House and Senate have taken up numerous energy-related proposals during the 110th Congress, many designed to encourage renewable-energy alternatives. The debate has turned highly partisan in recent months, as Republicans have seized upon record gas prices to push for more domestic drilling.

 

The Senate is further along on global-warming legislation, having considered on the floor in June legislation spearheaded by Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. That bill was doomed from the start, said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., because it lacked substantial support among Republicans. “It didn’t have close to the bipartisan support that Ron has with his bill,” Corker said of Wyden’s health care effort.

In the House, Reps. John Dingell, D-Mich., and Rick Boucher, D-Va., the chief leaders on global warming at the Energy and Commerce Committee, have conducted numerous hearings and compiled many internal studies. Each lawmaker has a constituency—Dingell’s auto industry and Boucher’s coal industry—that would be significantly affected by the proposals. But each expects that Obama could expedite energy and environment proposals. Boucher criticized Boxer’s plan as “a failure of legislative design flaws,” and said that Obama’s “capabilities to listen and understand these issues” could make him instrumental in finding common ground.

The politics in the House are complicated by the fact that the two other most senior Democrats on Energy and Commerce have filed separate proposals that take a more aggressive approach to confronting global warming. They are Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Edward Markey, D-Mass., who chairs the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming created by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “The chorus for change is deafening,” Markey said in a late-May speech. “The time for action is now.” —R.E.C. and B.F.

This article appears in the July 12, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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