Competing ends of Pennsylvania Avenue

COMPETING ENDS OF PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE…. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel seems delighted by recent legislative progress. Beyond the early victories on economic stimulus, S-CHIP, Lily Ledbetter, and the budget, Emanuel sees a productive Spring: “[A] credit card bill, anti-contract waste, the financial fraud bill, a major housing bill, F.D.I.C. finance bill, let alone the supplemental. I challenge you to go back to anybody in a spring session and see something like that.”

The near future is likely to prove far more challenging.

In the end, a president and a Congress trying to achieve big things invariably see things differently and at some point Mr. Obama and lawmakers will come to a showdown over the direction they want to take the country. At that point, Mr. Obama’s measure will be taken more fully.

The opening of the Obama presidency has been characterized by energy, action and Democratic solidarity but the truly big decisions are only now coming into view over the horizon. While deferential to Mr. Obama’s enduring popularity, the Democratic Congress is showing increasing signs of restlessness over his national security policies and has signaled that it will not necessarily bow to his wishes on the form of health care or climate change legislation. His plan to reorient the defense budget away from big-dollar hardware to Special Operations strikes at the heart of many lawmakers’ district jobs.

So, there will be conflicts, in part because there are still just enough Republicans and conservative Democrats to paralyze the legislative process in the Senate, and in part because even Democratic allies of the president have their own vision of how best to shape the national agenda.

It’s a point Time‘s Michael Scherer also emphasized this week: “While much of the political chatter continues to focus on the waning Republican opposition, Obama’s real challenge comes from within his own party. With increasing frequency, Democrats have been scratching away at the promises Obama made during his campaign, watering down reforms, removing possible revenue sources and protecting key constituencies.”

Obviously, Congress is a co-equal branch of government, and it stands to reason that Democratic lawmakers, free of Bush veto threats, would want to govern as they see fit. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, except for the inconvenient fact that too many Dems on the Hill are reluctant to pass truly progressive legislation. This leads them to water good bills down, quietly support GOP obstructionism, and embrace committee tactics that ultimately gum up the works.

If nothing else, this certainly offers an illustrative contrast between Democratic control of the White House and Congress and Republican control. Indeed, it underscores an important difference between the parties — GOP lawmakers under Bush tended to look at Congress as a Parliament, while Democrats are a notoriously undisciplined bunch. As Matt Yglesias noted the other day, “Congressional Republicans from 2003-2006 showed a strong disposition to pass as much conservative legislation as they felt they could get away with politically whereas large numbers of congressional Democrats seem genuinely inclined to try their utmost to block progressive reform.”