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New Congress Faces Economy, Foreign Policy Challenges

January 6, 2009 at 6:10 PM EDT
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On the opening day of the 111th Congress, a newly expanded Democratic majority was sworn in and President-elect Barack Obama sought support for a stimulus package. Former lawmakers discuss the challenges ahead.

KWAME HOLMAN: The first day of a new Congress traditionally is reserved for pomp and circumstance, but today was no ordinary day on Capitol Hill.

Members were sworn in this afternoon under extraordinary circumstances, with the country enmeshed in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and faced with an ambitious stimulus plan being put forward by President-elect Barack Obama.

Beyond the legislative agenda, there also was the matter of how to handle embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s appointment of Roland Burris to fill Mr. Obama’s Senate seat.

The press swarmed around Burris as he arrived this morning to present his credentials to the secretary of the Senate. Afterward, Burris told reporters that he’d been turned away and now was considering legal options.

ROLAND BURRIS, senator-designate, Illinois: I presented my credentials to the secretary of the Senate and advised that my credentials were not in order, and I would not be accepted, and I will not be seated, and I will not be permitted on the floor.

And, therefore, I am not seeking to have any type of confrontation. I will now consult with my attorneys, and we will determine what our next step will be.

KWAME HOLMAN: In addition to not seating Burris, the Senate also was short a senator from Minnesota, as Democrat Al Franken’s apparent victory there has not yet been certified fully by the state.

Despite those outstanding seats, Democrats in both houses of Congress will hold majorities not seen since the early 1990s. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said today Democrats would not use their advantage to strong-arm Republicans, touting the need for the parties to work together to solve urgent problems.

SEN. HARRY REID, D.-Nev., Senate majority leader: There’s no question that the challenges ahead of us are staggering. I don’t think anyone would disagree. But I am confident that, if we renew in this body our commitment to bipartisanship, the 111th Congress will be a tremendous success.

KWAME HOLMAN: Reid’s GOP counterpart, Mitch McConnell, also struck a bipartisan note in his floor remarks.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R.-Ky., Senate minority leader: The parties will continue to disagree. This is good for democracy. But political conflict is not an end in itself. At this moment, we have an opportunity to show the American people that we know that.

KWAME HOLMAN: One of the first opportunities for bipartisanship will come on the massive spending and tax relief program soon to be presented by President-elect Obama, with debates starting in the House.

Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, who chairs the Financial Services Committee, said Democrats should not be shy about acting boldly when it comes to solving the country’s economic problems.

REP. BARNEY FRANK, D.-Mass.: There’s a very strong sense among those of us on the Democratic side that we are in a position now to do more for the national interest than almost any of us here have ever been able to do.

KWAME HOLMAN: Fellow Democrat Charles Rangel, who chairs the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, urged Republicans to give the proposal a chance.

REP. CHARLIE RANGEL, D.-N.Y.: They might say it depends on how much input they’re going to have. Are we going to take into consideration their concerns? They would be right in saying that.

But, right now, I’m spending a lot of time talking with minority members in my committee, as well as the minority leaders, in trying to determine, have they made up their mind? Do they really want to cooperate? Or do they think, because of their dramatic losses, it would be better just to be the devil’s advocate and to be the opposition?

KWAME HOLMAN: Kansas Republican Lynn Jenkins, one of more than 50 new House members, promised to give the stimulus plan a fair shot.

REP. LYNN JENKINS, R.-Kan.: It’s overwhelming to be met with that day one, but I think we all knew coming into this deal that that was going to be job one. And I think we’re all trying to approach this with an open mind, knowing that our nation needs to find some bipartisan solutions, and we just need to get folks some relief.

KWAME HOLMAN: North Carolina Republican Patrick McHenry said he could get behind a plan, as long as it includes sensible prescriptions for cutting taxes and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure.

REP. PATRICK MCHENRY, R.-N.C.: It’s very difficult for me as a policymaker to give someone a blank check and say that I’ll support a piece of legislation sight unseen. So the issue here is, is the public view, the openness of the process, and that will determine where people end up voting.

If you know the full scope of the legislation, I think you could make a better determination on whether that’s the right approach or the wrong approach.

What’s clear, though, is something has to be done. Republicans and Democrats are willing to work together for the American people. And on this economic package, we can come together with something that’s sensible.

KWAME HOLMAN: The exact timing of the stimulus plan is uncertain, but once Mr. Obama puts forward a proposal, it’s expected to be completed by Congress by early next month.

Opportunity for bold actions ahead

David Bonior
Former Rep., D-Mich.
It can happen this time. The president wants to be bold. The Congress has a tradition of not necessarily being bold, despite what Barney Frank said, and I give him credit for stepping up and wanting to be bold now.

JIM LEHRER: And to Gwen Ifill.

GWEN IFILL: President-elect Obama and congressional Democrats have promised to bring big change to both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, but haven't we heard that promise before?

We examine the challenges ahead with two former congressional leaders who have been there, done that: David Bonior, who was the House Democratic whip and now serves on the president-elect's economic transition team; and Vin Weber, a former member of the Republican congressional leadership.

Welcome to you both, gentlemen.

Big challenges ahead. We just saw them laid out. You heard the freshman congresswoman said, "We knew this was part of the deal when we got there." How realistic is it that big change can happen quickly, Mr. Bonior?

FORMER REP. DAVID BONIOR, D.-Mich.: How realistic is it? Well, it hasn't happened that often, historically. There was big change, bold change that occurred after the great stock crash in 1929, when Roosevelt took over, and you had the New Deal, which was bold. It was big. It was quite historic.

And then, of course, you had, after the Johnson victory in '64, big similar types of majorities in the House and Senate. You had a strong leader in the presidency. And we saw a big change socially, especially on civil rights and other issues.

It can happen this time. The president wants to be bold. The Congress has a tradition of not necessarily being bold, despite what Barney Frank said, and I give him credit for stepping up and wanting to be bold now.

And so that -- they're going to have to make that decision. But my sense is that there's going to be so much positive energy because of the victory that President-elect Obama has had that he will have a relatively easy time getting his stimulus package through, all $775 billion to date.


Mr. Weber, you were part of the big, bold Newt Gingrich revolution. How bold -- how quickly can something like this happen?

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER, R.-Minn.: Well, correction, I was part of the big, bold Ronald Reagan revolution...


VIN WEBER: ... which I was going to add to David's list of times that there was big change. And one of the things that that period of time had in common was it followed a period of severe economic distress.

And that's the reason that there's an opportunity for this president and this Congress to make big changes, is because people are genuinely concerned about -- about the economy. I'm pretty optimistic that there will be a lot of change on the economic stimulus front that will be good for the economy.

Now, this president, of course, has an agenda that goes beyond that. He wants to reform health care. He wants to reform energy policy. He wants to reform environmental policy. And we'll just have to see.

I think he's very wise to be looking at the Congress now and saying, "I want to pass these first stimulus bills in a bipartisan way," not so much because he has to -- he could pass it, essentially, without Republican votes, if he wanted to -- but he's looking down the road at other battles to come and saying, "I'd like to establish the best, positive attitude I can in the Congress so that I don't falter when I get to health care, energy, the environment, and some of those other issues."

Obama Cabinet knows Congress well

Vin Weber
Former Rep., R-Minn.
Congress is not going to roll over and just abdicate its responsibilities, even when the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue is held by its own party.

GWEN IFILL: Does it make a difference if both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are controlled by the same party?

VIN WEBER: Well, it, of course, helps a lot, but there are still some pitfalls. I mean, the Democrats have substantial majorities in both houses of the Congress, but they're not uniform majorities.

There's factions within the Democrat Party, so-called Blue Dogs, the New Democrats, and more liberal elements of the party. They have to be able to forge unity there. And that gives the Republicans an opportunity to play a role if they want to.

GWEN IFILL: You saw when Democrats controlled Congress and Bill Clinton was president, there wasn't necessarily -- they weren't necessarily all on the same page all the time.

DAVID BONIOR: No, we weren't. And actually what's different I think here -- and I think Vin has touched upon a very important point -- is that there will be a lot of wonderful communication between the White House and this congressional leadership because so many of the people in the Obama administration came from the Congress: Tom Daschle, Leon Panetta, Rahm Emanuel, Hilda Solis, all these cabinet selections and White House staff people have worked in the Congress and know the Congress very well.

So I expect that there will be really very close communications between them.

GWEN IFILL: Well, you mentioned Leon Panetta. It seemed like there was a simple mistake made -- at least that's what Joe Biden said today -- in floating the name or inadvertently allowing the name to leak of Leon Panetta before due diligence had been done among Democrats in the Senate.

DAVID BONIOR: It seems like it was a mistake. And they can't afford too many of those. And I don't expect you're going to see too many mistakes like that, Gwen, because they didn't perform that way during the campaign. They haven't performed that way up to now in the transition.

And so you can't have too many of those, because then you start to erode the confidence that people have in you on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and in the public in general.

VIN WEBER: It seemed to me that what that did show is that, no matter -- even when you do control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Congress still has an institutional integrity to it. You saw Senator Feinstein and Senator Rockefeller, Democrats, criticizing the choice.

And I think Leon Panetta is an excellent public servant. I think he'll be confirmed. I think he'll be a fine CIA director.

But you saw Congress is not going to roll over and just abdicate its responsibilities, even when the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue is held by its own party.

Unfinished business in the Senate

David Bonior
Former Rep., D-Mich.
There needs to be...a new regulatory regime set up in Washington to deal with the serious problems of Wall Street today. We don't have enough transparency. We don't have enough regulatory pieces in place to deal with the new financial instruments.

GWEN IFILL: Does it matter at all the unfinished business that we saw Kwame talk about in that report, with what's happening in Minnesota, what's happening in Illinois, the Bill Richardson appointment made and then withdrawn? Does that make it more difficult for the president-elect?

DAVID BONIOR: Well, you'd prefer not to have these uncertainties out there, in terms of these people that are in question, in terms of their election, the Minnesota race, of course.

VIN WEBER: We'd certainly rather not have this uncertainty.

GWEN IFILL: In Minnesota, yes.

DAVID BONIOR: And we think that certainty is there, but we'll just -- I think Senator Reid handled it very well on the floor today when he said, "We'll let it play out and take its natural course." But I think the natural course will lead to Al Franken's position.

But with regard to these other distractions, yes, they're distractions, but I think you're going to have that through the four years or through the eight years. It's just part of what happens in Washington, D.C.

It's how you handle it. It's how you go about creating the coalitions that you need to build to get your programs done.

And I think the president is doing a good job in terms of reaching out, as Vin said, to Republicans. I mean, this stimulus package is one in which he can reach out and he has on the tax issue, for instance.

VIN WEBER: It's very important.

DAVID BONIOR: You know, he's -- $300 billion of that proposal is going to be in tax relief. Some of it's going to business. Some of it's going to individuals. And that's a big piece that the Republicans were looking for.

GWEN IFILL: How important is it that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leaders who had been Democratic leaders at a time when there was a Republican in the White House, find a way to recalibrate the way they exercise power on Capitol Hill now that they have someone of their party at the White House?

VIN WEBER: Well, I think that the Democrats have a little bit of an ambiguous situation on their hands, because, during the years when the Republicans controlled everything, the Democrats made a very strong -- and, I have to say, a fair -- case that the Congress did not perform its oversight responsibilities effectively, that they subordinated themselves to the Bush White House.

Well, now they have to conduct themselves in a way that both supports their president, whom they want to succeed, but doesn't ignore the fact that they've been making the case that the Congress is a separate branch of government and should not subordinate itself to the executive.

GWEN IFILL: How do they do that, Mr. Bonior?

DAVID BONIOR: Well, first of all, the oversight that will be done will be basically on the last eight years, because that's what we've just gone through, OK?

So let's take the financial situation, for instance, on Wall Street. I mean, there needs to be, it seems to me, a new regulatory regime set up in Washington to deal with the serious problems of Wall Street today. We don't have enough transparency. We don't have enough regulatory pieces in place to deal with the new financial instruments.

After 1932, when Roosevelt took office, one of the first things they did was the Securities Act of '33, the Securities Act of '34, that dealt with insider trading. It dealt with setting up the Securities and Exchange Commission, SEC. It dealt with a whole host of regulatory issues that would put a stop to the kind of abuses that we've seen with the Bernie Madoffs and the whole piece on Wall Street.

How will confirmations play out?

Vin Weber
Former Rep., R-Minn.
I don't see any nominees that he has yet that are not going to get confirmed. They've done a good job. But, you know, there's a process here. Congress does have a role. And they're going to go through it.

GWEN IFILL: But you don't think these Democrats have a responsibility to impose oversight over the next eight years, to the sitting administration?

DAVID BONIOR: They do. And I'm sure there'll be opportunities to look at some of the problems that will occur over the, hopefully, next eight years.

GWEN IFILL: OK, four years. Let's give you that.

DAVID BONIOR: No, I'll take it. But we'll see. But I think the first order of business is to look at, really, where the big problem is right now and that's been as a result of, I think, of lax enforcement over the last decade.

GWEN IFILL: Cabinet confirmations a test of whether this administration and this Congress really can move smoothly together. Do they all have to happen smoothly?

VIN WEBER: No, they don't all have to happen smoothly. Congress has the proper oversight responsibility. They should be asking nominees for the cabinet, even those that are coming out of the Congress, some of the tough questions about how they're going to conduct themselves in office.

It has been a slower process for a long time than most people who look at the executive branch would like it to be.

Now, I think it's going to be slower than President-elect Obama wants it to be, as well, but he's got at least one big advantage, in that he's kept Bob Gates as secretary of defense, so the one department where you might have had serious risk if we had a delayed confirmation process is not in play.

But the other nominees -- I don't see any nominees that he has yet that are not going to get confirmed. They've done a good job. But, you know, there's a process here. Congress does have a role. And they're going to go through it.

GWEN IFILL: OK, Vin Weber, David Bonior, thank you both very much.

DAVID BONIOR: Thank you.

VIN WEBER: Thank you.