03.06.09

Whitehouse’s voice carrying more clout

If Dick Vitale did color commentary on the U.S. Senate rather than college basketball, he’d say Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has a nose for the ball.

I mean, you might be rooting for the other team. You might be a conservative who thinks President Obama’s team is engaging in the worst kind of March Madness. But you’ve got to admit, Whitehouse is hustling out there. He’s in the mix whether the topic is health-care reform, global warming or a proposed “truth commission,” which would scrutinize Bush administration policies on detention and interrogation. As Dickie V. might say, that’s a Democratic trifecta, baby. This first-term senator, this Diaper Dandy, seems to have the confidence of Team Obama, and Whitehouse could develop into a PTPer (prime time player) in D.C.

“I do think he’s getting a higher profile,” said Jennifer E. Duffy, who grew up in Rhode Island and now analyzes U.S. Senate and governor races as a senior editor for The Cook Political Report in Washington, D.C. “Some of that is the natural progression of time, making it through your first two years. But also he’s picked up some issues that have been high profile.”

For example, Whitehouse took part in Thursday’s White House summit on health-care reform, and when he summarized the highlights of the session, Mr. Obama twice quoted Whitehouse. (In the political game, having the president quote you twice in the same day is highlight-reel material — only the highlights appear on C-Span rather than ESPN.)

Duffy said Whitehouse was one of 120 people invited to the summit. So someone at the White House must like Whitehouse. “I don’t think they know him as well as they know (Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed), who they have relied on for military and banking issues,” Duffy said. But, she said, “If they didn’t like him, he wouldn’t have been given one of the 120 seats.” (Rep. Patrick Kennedy was also invited.) Whitehouse said, “They were courteous enough to invite me to the event although I’m not on the health-care committees.” He said he thinks the invitation reflects the credibility he’s established on health-care matters by working behind the scenes over the past two years.

During the summit meeting, Whitehouse noted former President Bill Clinton’s 1993 health-care plan was derailed in part by a TV ad, paid for by a health-insurance industry group, that featured “Harry and Louise,” a middle-class couple despairing over the alleged bureaucratic nature of the plan.

“We are past the Harry and Louise moment,” Whitehouse said. “We are at the Thelma and Louise moment. We are in the car. We are headed for the cliff, and I think everybody gets it. The default choice is no longer ‘do nothing.’ We have to do something.”

In his closing comments, Mr. Obama smiled as he repeated Whitehouse’s comment about Thelma and Louise. “If you did see the movie, they did drive over the cliff,” he said. “So I just want to be clear, that’s not our intention here.”

Soon afterward, Mr. Obama said, “Senator Whitehouse — you got two quotes in here — Senator Whitehouse pointed out that we pay more than $1 trillion more than other countries for the same or lower qualities of care.”

Whitehouse is joining the action in other areas. As a member of the Senate Budget Committee and its Environment and Public Works Committee, Whitehouse will work on the president’s plan to use revenue generated from a cap-and-trade program — where companies pay to emit carbon dioxide — to finance “investments in clean energy” and to make tax cuts for the middle class permanent.

Whitehouse said, “President Obama sent a strong signal that he intends to work aggressively with Congress to tackle the looming threat of global warming, setting the stage in his budget for a new cap-and-trade system that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Also, Whitehouse appeared on MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann on Wednesday night to talk about the “truth commission” proposed by Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy and about the release of nine previously secret Bush administration opinions, which claimed sweeping presidential powers in fighting terrorism.

My favorite basketball saying is: If you are going to take the rock to the iron, you better be ready to walk in the tall grass with the big dogs. In other words, be aggressive.

And Whitehouse flashed some aggression on MSNBC, telling Olbermann he has been “drilling into” the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel for some time. “I’ve described it as Dick Cheney’s Little Shop of Legal Horrors,” he said. “And this recent disclosure only makes it worse.”

Whitehouse said, “The difference between America, a country of laws, and some tin-pot dictatorship, where everyone does what the generalissimo tells them, is institutions like the Office of Legal Counsel.” And, he said, “for them to have rolled over and to have allowed themselves to be told what to say and to do so in ways that are just flagrantly apart from any defensible legal theory, really shows how bad things got, and it really helps make the case for why we need this kind of investigation. This kind of stuff can’t keep happening in America.”

I’m not sure the Truth Commission is ready for prime time. In his Washington Post column, Dana Milbank said Leahy “cut a lonely figure” as he tried to convince the Senate Judiciary Committee to back the truth commission on Wednesday. “About half of the audience seats in the committee room were full. The press tables: mostly empty,” Milbank wrote. “Even the dozen demonstrators in orange jumpsuits got bored with the proceedings and left before the hearing ended.”

Whitehouse noted questions about the Bush administration policies can be pursued in other ways, including “executive oversight,” “criminal prosecutions” and “congressional oversight.”

But in any case, this is the kind of issue that Whitehouse, a former prosecutor, seems primed to pounce on. Duffy said, “As a former U.S. Attorney and former (Rhode Island) attorney general, he does bring some unique skills to the table that have helped grow the higher profile.”

The extent of Whitehouse’s involvement highlights the extent of the major issues Mr. Obama is putting in play during his first 100 days in office. “Political capital expires, and he’s got an enormous amount of capital right now,” Duffy said of Mr. Obama. “So spend it, and spend it on the hard stuff.”

Whitehouse said Mr. Obama’s agenda might be too ambitious. “But it’s far better to shoot long and face the risk of falling short, which is an execution problem, rather than — with the problems coming at us the way they are — shoot too short and not set your goals high enough,” he said.

Also, Whitehouse said Mr. Obama’s high approval ratings allow him to pursue an ambitious agenda. He said a “polling briefing among the Democratic senators” showed support rises significantly if you call it Obama’s economic recovery plan rather than the Democratic economic recovery plan.”

Whitehouse said he welcomes the rapid pace of the Obama agenda. “We had basically an empty table with the Bush administration,” but now “we have this feast of legislative work in front of us.”

In his address to Congress, President Obama called for dealing with “the crushing cost of health care,” saying, “In the last eight years, premiums have grown four times faster than wages. And in each of these years, 1 million more Americans have lost their health insurance.”

“So let there be no doubt,” Mr. Obama said. “Health-care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year.”

Whitehouse said he was “absolutely thrilled” by those words. He noted that on his Web site, he is compiling stories from constituents regarding health-care problems. “These are family and personal tragedies one after another, essentially all resulting from people being caught in the traps and switches of our complex and broken health care system,” he said.

That’s the human factor. Then there’s the financial factor. “If you take a step back and see what the problem is, we have coming at us an absolute tsunami of health-care cost,” Whitehouse said. “The Medicare slice of that tsunami is $35 trillion, and we haven’t set aside a nickel to pay for it. Then there is the non-Medicare part of it, which is going to wash over and clobber private programs and businesses.”

In his proposed budget, Mr. Obama called for setting aside $634 billion for health-care reform. The 10-year reserve fund could be used to provide health insurance to some of the 46 million Americans who don’t have it today. To raise that money, Mr. Obama would cut itemized tax deductions for the richest Americans and trim federal payments to hospitals, home health aides, drug manufacturers and some doctors.

Those proposals are already running into opposition. And while the Obama administration has maintained a frenetic pace in its opening days, the process is bound to bog down, as it’s designed to do, Duffy said.

In short, this high-stakes political drama is about to become more bruising, and Whitehouse and the other members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation are going to be in the middle of the action. Stay tuned, baby.


By:  Edward Fitzpatrick
Source: Providence Journal