Back to politics on domestic front
By: Jake Sherman and Manu Raju
May 2, 2011
Capitol Hill was awash in unity Monday in the immediate aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s killing.
But unlike the post-Sept. 11 environment, the feel-good moment might not survive even the next 24-hour news cycle.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced Monday afternoon that his chamber will quickly move on to a repeal of subsidies for oil companies. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday will unveil a mostly partisan jobs agenda. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has every intention of sticking with this week’s floor agenda to increase oil drilling and further roll back the Democratic health care law.
And House Republicans declined to immediately ready a measure congratulating the U.S. military for killing bin Laden — the GOP leadership has a rule against laudatory resolutions. The Senate, though, is planning one.
The failure of congressional leaders to alter their agendas even in the aftermath of the most significant achievement in the 10-year war on terror is the clearest sign yet that the two parties on Capitol Hill have concluded that the economy and the budget — not foreign policy matters — will still determine next year’s election. But by snapping so quickly back to partisan warfare when the rest of the country is still waving flags and celebrating, Congress also risks showing, once again, why voters have such a low opinion of Capitol Hill.
“I wish I could say that the sense of unity that our government had in leading us to this attack — and, I think, the thrill and the increased sense of security that the American people had — would lead us here on Capitol Hill to sustain this unity on the other big threat facing our country, a very different threat, which is our debt and deficit,” Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said Monday afternoon. “But I’m not optimistic about that.”
Democrats are also hoping that President Barack Obama’s newfound political capital will give him leverage on other fronts. Democrats believe Obama’s poll numbers will improve and he will be viewed by voters as a stronger leader, allowing him to wield a bigger stick to prod Congress to reach deals on a range of issues. For months, Democratic senators have been growing weary of his hesitance to engage in budget battles — but some think there may be more faith in his leadership style in the aftermath of the bin Laden episode.
“I hope it gives him a boost, and he deserves a boost here,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said Monday.
Both sides are looking to gain a political upper hand from the bin Laden killing when it comes to homeland security and foreign policy.
Republicans will try to capitalize on the moment by aiming to build fresh support for an extension of the PATRIOT Act when it comes up for debate later this month, with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith saying Monday that “despite yesterday’s victory, we cannot afford to leave our intelligence community without the resources it needs.” House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) seems even more determined to continue his hearings exploring the radicalization of American Muslims, telling POLITICO that it “reinforces” his push to continue with the controversial inquiries and “to make sure that we are preventing an attack in this country, and that means putting aside political correctness.”
King was also effusive in his praise of Obama, saying in an interview that the president “functioned masterfully as a commander in chief.”
Both parties seem united on intensifying scrutiny of Pakistan, given that bin Laden was residing in a compound near a Pakistani army installation.
“This tells us once again that unfortunately Pakistan is playing a double game, and that’s very troubling,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ranking member on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview that he’s worried about another issue uniting the two parties: “an unholy alliance of right and left on leaving Afghanistan.”
The elimination of bin Laden gave new momentum to the liberal movement to keep troop withdrawal in Afghanistan on schedule. Levin said Monday that there should be a “robust reduction” in troops by July, and “that will be reinforced by the events of yesterday.”
Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, told POLITICO that he “would expect our national security team, as well as our other people directly involved in it, to reassess what role we should continue to play [in Afghanistan], and I think with this success of the killing of bin Laden, it is time to give it additional review.”
There’s no such unity in the House on withdrawing troops from the region. Speaking to reporters Monday afternoon, Boehner said the episode “makes our engagement in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan more important — not less.”
Democrats could use Republican resistance to a resolution to their advantage. Speaking to reporters Monday evening, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said, “as we go forward, I hope we have the chance to speak about this on the floor in the form of a resolution and perhaps go to New York in a joint session, as the New York delegation has suggested; in a way, that is a much better occasion now that this historic event has taken place.” Pelosi was referring to a trip to New York to mark the 10th anniversary of the attacks. Boehner has not yet made a decision on that trip.
With Congress reacting to news of bin Laden’s death, it was also preparing to move on to other debates where the dividing lines are stark.
“While the nation and world absorbed this crucial development, the work of the Senate continues,” Reid said on the floor Monday.
Reid was prepared to move to a bill to repeal oil subsidies — and wanted to set in motion a sharply partisan debate over the House Republican budget plan that has little chance of passing the Senate. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans were preparing to roll out an agenda, spearheaded by freshman Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), on tax reform, trade deals and spending cuts that they say would spur economic growth.
Republicans on Monday said the successful mission gives new importance to fully funding the nation’s intelligence apparatus. And Republicans believe they’re emboldened to keep open the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
To many congressional insiders, those are all signs that not much will change in the weeks ahead.
“It’s a great thing for our country,” said one senior GOP aide, “but I’m not sure it’s a game changer.”