Dec 8th 2009

Another Tumultuous Week

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

Another tumultuous Washington week has come to a close and the dust has settled on President Obama's Afghanistan speech. Critical issues were addressed, though little changed in our fractious political environment.

The Senate is still struggling with efforts to pass healthcare legislation before adjourning for Christmas recess; the Administration is confronting the nation's economic crisis now fueled by worries that while there are signs of recovery, it appears to be a jobless recovery; and despite the President's best efforts, the deep partisan divide continues over the war in Afghanistan.

On healthcare, the Democratic majority is still unable to be assured of the 60 votes they need to overcome Republican efforts to block passage of a reform bill. Needing the votes of all 60 members of their caucus, the party has spent the last week seeking a consensus on a number of contentious issues:

-measures designed to bring down the overall cost of their health care reform bill. This they must do to secure the support of moderates who do not want to vote for legislation that will increase the federal deficit.

-ways of protecting what is known as the "public option" (that is a non-profit insurance program that would compete with and help to reduce the cost of insurance from private companies).

-and other contentious issues like how extensive should restrictions be on abortion funding and whether to place limits on expensive medical testing.

On each of these issues the Democratic leadership faces a dilemma. Tilting too far toward the position of liberals runs the risk of losing votes from more moderate members in their caucus, while failing to address the concerns of liberals, likewise, could cost votes. And with the Democrats having just 60 Senators, consensus is a necessity if any bill is to pass.

While the Democratic leadership remains confident that they can pass health care reform legislation before recess, time is running out and fear is growing that if they go home without a bill, whatever momentum they currently have will be lost by the time they return in January.

Even if the Senate does pass their bill before Christmas, the grueling process of reconciling that effort with the version passed earlier in the House of Representatives and then presenting this combined effort back to both houses for a final vote will bring us well into 2010, when members will be focusing more on their own elections than on controversial legislation.

Healthcare is not the only issue on the Administration's plate. The economy and the slow pace of recovery are top priorities. While this past month's unemployment figures showed the lowest monthly job loss in almost two years (an 11,000 net loss compared with 700,000 plus per month a year ago), there are no signs that the economy is robust enough to appreciably reduce the unemployment rate. With the nation's official unemployment remaining at 10%, and with some areas recording figures as high as 20%-25%, there is real pressure from Democrats in Congress to push for a hefty job creation bill. But with $800 billion having been spent on an economic stimulus package (which official reports note has saved or created 600,000 plus jobs), and another $700 billion spent in the closing days of the Bush Administration on bailing out the nation's financial institutions, and with healthcare reform estimated to cost just under a trillion dollars over the next 10 years, some Democrats and most Republicans are loath to consider supporting another big spending bill. While not ready to embrace any specific jobs bill, but still needing to address the issue, the White House convened a "jobs summit" in Washington last week with the President following up with a series of speeches on jobs and the economy in different venues across the country.

Obviously all of these issues were for a few days overshadowed by the President's Afghanistan speech. By the time he mounted the podium on Tuesday, the general outlines of his speech were already known. Obama had spent months deliberating on developing a strategy and responding to leaked reports from his commanders in the field who had requested an additional 40,000 troops. More than one observer noted that it would have been better had President Bush spent those same months in that same deliberative mode developing a strategy before he had entered both Afghanistan and Iraq early in his term. Nevertheless, President Obama was in a "damned if he did, damned if he didn't" situation and his speech, though sober and thoughtful, did little to change that dynamic.

While some leading Senate Democrats spoke in support of the President's approach, others were notably silent. Republicans in both Houses of Congress were supportive of the decision to increase troop strength, but couldn't help but find something to grouse about. And grouse they did. Democrats in the House of Representative were more vocal with some sharply critical of the expanded war effort.

Some are warning that this Afghan adventure may become Obama's Vietnam. The President argues that conditions in each case are dramatically different, and he is right, but only to a point. Given the major domestic issues currently on the table and the one's around the corner (Climate and Energy Legislation and Immigration Reform, to name just two), I am concerned that the President's effort to promote and secure passage of his broader agenda may be compromised by this expanding war - especially come next May when US troop levels are at 100,000 and the Afghan spring thaw upsurge in violence increases the number US casualties shaking confidence and increasing Democratic opposition to the war

In any case, one week ends and another will begin, critical issues will again be addressed with little changing in our fractious political environment.

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