Passing the health-care-reform bill may have been a historic achievement, but it was also an enormous distraction for both congressional Democrats and President Obama. For months, other initiatives languished while health care sucked up all the available oxygen. Now it's time for Democratic leaders to turn their attention to other policies.
White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is fond of declaring that success begets success. Wins provide momentum, buoying the victors and whetting their appetite for achievements. But this particular win came at a hefty price. Republicans, rightly or wrongly, felt shut out of the process, railroaded by the majority. The experience has solidified their opposition to the Obama agenda in all its forms and dimmed already flagging hopes for bipartisanship. "There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year," Sen. John McCain declared on Arizona radio Monday. "They have poisoned the well in what they've done and how they've done it." Whatever Democrats pivot to, they're not going to get much love from across the aisle. That may not be a hindrance in the House, but Democrats are now one vote shy of a supermajority in the Senate, which means that Republicans can block just about anything they try to do. And odds are, Republicans will do just that.
Democrats also face problems within their own ranks. Several issues on the agenda, especially immigration reform and climate change, have proved divisive and controversial in the past. With midterm elections looming, many House Democrats in shaky seats—and a few moderate senators, like Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who are polling poorly at home—will be skittish about taking another risky vote. They've already gone out on a limb for Obama and will be hesitant to do so again. Nancy Pelosi will have a much harder time calling in favors for difficult votes among House Democrats before November.
Adding to Pelosi's worries are increasing tensions between the House and the Senate. Recall that House members have already passed cap-and-trade legislation, only to watch it stall and then be pared back in the Senate. Similarly, they acted first on the stimulus, the jobs bill, and health-care reform, and then stood on the sidelines while the upper house diminished their efforts. That's bred distrust in the House: why should it take all the tough votes if the Senate won't keep its end of the bargain?
Moving on from health-care reform will be difficult but not impossible. Some representatives are eager to burnish a few legislative trophies in November, and will try to drag a few timid colleagues with them. And let's not forget that the cat-herder in chief, President Obama, no doubt wants his second year in office to be more productive than his first. The big question is, which issues will he throw his weight behind and which ones will he throw under the bus? We asked our NEWSWEEK experts for their views on what's next in a few important policy areas.
Oops! They Did It Again
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The Wages of Partisanship
Republicans, feeling steamrolled on health care, may not play ball on climate change.
By Daniel Stone
Gay-rights advocates want repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' sooner rather than later. Will they get it?
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The Right Not to Remain Silent
By Sarah Kliff
Some women's rights advocates want payback for going along with anti-abortion-rights provisions needed to secure health-care reform. But women have already come out ahead.
Sí, Se Puede
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Congress was busy debating health care while immigrant advocates marched for reform outside the Capitol. Will legislators start to listen?
School of Hard Politics
Even if student loan reform passes in reconciliation, Obama has a long way to go on his education agenda.
By Pat Wingert
Health-care reform will help mitigate America's obesity problem, but there are more contentious issues that will need to be resolved to fully address it.
By Claudia Kalb