WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, eager to maintain momentum after U.S. lawmakers passed his cornerstone overhaul of healthcare on Sunday, still faces a stack of pressing domestic issues. Here is an overview of his inbox, led by the economy and financial reform:
Obama, in a clear signal financial reform could be the next priority after healthcare passed, used his weekly address on Saturday to urge support for laws cracking down on Wall Street excess that would eat into banking profits.
On Monday, Senator Chris Dodd will lead a vote in the Senate Banking Committee over a package of measures he has crafted to prevent a repeat of mistakes that triggered the 2008 financial crisis. Republicans oppose crucial elements of the measures, allowing the White House to portray them as sticking up for rich bankers at the expense of ordinary Americans.
Dodd has enough votes without Republican support to move the bill out of committee and onto the floor of the Senate. Debate could begin after its two-week Easter break. The House of Representatives passed its own bill three months ago.
Obama wants a strong consumer financial protection agency to prevent banks from luring customers into risky products they don’t understand and action to prevent leading firms from getting too big to fail. Obama has also called for a tax on big banks to repay the multibillion dollar bailout they got at the height of the crisis, and a rule barring them from risky trading named after White House adviser Paul Volcker. The White House says he expects to sign a financial reform bill in 2010.
Jobs are still Obama’s top domestic priority and failure to dent unemployment that notched 9.7 percent last month could condemn his Democratic Party to painful losses in November mid-term congressional elections.
But with voters nervous over federal spending, Democrats are adopting stealth tactics by advancing job-creation efforts in a series of small steps to avoid the sticker shock of last year’s $787 billion stimulus package.
Obama last week signed into law a bill that includes a $13 billion payroll tax cut for businesses that hire unemployed workers, and $19.5 billion for highway-repair programs.
Other measures pending in Congress would expand subsidies for state and local construction bonds, extend jobless benefits through the end of the year, and help states pay the salaries of teachers and other public employees. But these measures have been delayed by differences between the House and the Senate, where Republicans have greater power to block legislation.
Now that it has passed, Obama has to convince the public to be happy about the healthcare overhaul, in the face of furious opposition by Republicans and polls showing many Americans oppose the plan or are confused about it.
The president is starting his public relations blitz with an event in Iowa City, Iowa, on Thursday.
With more than one-third of the Senate and every seat in the House of Representatives up for grabs in November, the stakes are especially high for congressional Democrats. Obama and other party leaders will have to work hard to sell the plan to the public to ward off expected intense election campaign attacks from healthcare opponents.
WHAT’S HAPPENING WITH PLAN TO CLOSE GUANTANAMO PRISON?
Obama missed his one-year deadline to close the internationally condemned military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and has yet to set a new target date.
The administration’s effort to shut the prison has been stymied by legal and political hurdles, not least the divisive question of how and where to try high-profile prisoners. Other countries have been slow to accept Guantanamo detainees.
It will be hard to make much progress in the run-up to the November congressional elections, with Democratic lawmakers reluctant to give Republicans ammunition for accusing Obama’s party of being soft on terrorism.
The Justice Department’s original plan to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, accused mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks, in New York has run into strong opposition, leading the administration to consider other options.
Critics say Obama underestimated the complexities entailed in closing Guantanamo prison, which was set up under former President George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks. Despite that, Obama’s pledge to do so — plus a ban on torture — has helped America’s image abroad.
Obama benefited from a huge turnout of reliably Democratic Hispanic voters as he won the presidency in 2008, drawn by his promise to deliver immigration reform allowing millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
But the effort has been sidelined during Obama’s long push for healthcare reform, and with the November elections looming, time is running out for Obama to deliver, or risk Hispanic voters staying home.
Obama won support for his healthcare plan only late last week from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which had been unhappy with language in the bill barring illegal immigrants from benefiting from its provisions.
Members of the caucus said they were partly swayed by Obama’s assurances that he would push for an immigration plan. He backs offering citizenship to illegal immigrants in good standing, while cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers and tightening the border with Mexico.
Obama made reforming U.S. energy practices and fighting climate change a top promise during his campaign and a key policy priority during his first year in office, but progress on the issue has stalled.
The House of Representatives passed a bill that sets a 17 percent reduction target for U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 from 2005 levels, but a new Senate version of a bill is still in the works.
The White House has said comprehensive energy legislation would be a priority in 2010, but with the election looming, the controversial measures are likely to take a backseat to financial regulation reform and a jobs push.
Reporting Patricia Zengerle, Alister Bull, Matt Spetalnick, Jeff Mason and Andy Sullivan, editing by Cynthia Osterman