John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Who will wield power: House or Senate?

Posted on August 5, 2008

This originally appeared in The Politico

We are now inside 100 days until the longest presidential campaign in the history of American politics will finally come to a close. Either Barack Obama or John McCain will then start the real hard work of squaring his campaign promises with the stark reality of a new Congress.

Both Obama and McCain have campaigned on the theme of dramatic change, but aside from the bully pulpit, both have only one little pen that gives them the authority to tame a willful and often disobedient Congress. And that pen can do only one of two things: approve or disapprove the legislation sent to the White House from the Congress.

On the issues that matter most to the American people — the economy, health care, taxes, education, war and peace — it is Congress that must actually pass the bills that the president signs into law. 

Obama and McCain would likely use different approaches in dealing with Congress. Obama would rely more on the House to push the Senate further to the left. McCain would spend much of his time trying to get the Senate to stop the bad bills that come from a Democratic-dominated House of Representatives.

On tax policy, Obama would have to repair his complicated relationship with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), who supported Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary. Rangel would want to be very aggressive in raising taxes on the so-called rich and on corporate America. He would promote refundable tax credits on a variety of social issues while pushing to increase the capital gains tax rate to pre-Bush (and perhaps pre-Clinton) levels. Taxes for dividends and for Social Security would also likely increase in the Rangel tax package. Rangel, with Obama’s help, would push to get the highest tax revenue possible to strengthen his bargaining position with the Senate and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.). 

Rangel would likely be more realistic with McCain in the White House. McCain would likely work with Baucus and his former colleagues in the Senate to keep tax increases to a minimum and extend many of the most popular Bush tax cuts (marriage penalty, capital gains, etc.).

On spending, Obama would not veto many appropriations bills. He would agree with the spending allocations put forth by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-Wis.), which would increase funding for the Appropriations’ labor and health subcommittee and for veterans’ health care.

McCain would be likely to veto most appropriations bills, at least in his first year as president, to make his point about wasteful spending. Working with his allies on the Hill, such as Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), McCain would expend a great deal of effort and political capital bringing the Congress to heel on spending. His biggest challenge would be finding enough friends on the Hill in either chamber to sustain his vetoes.

 On energy and the environment, Obama would push a climate change bill that would alienate old bulls in the House who tend to be more centrist, such as Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), but would make the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her environmental allies very happy. The bill would have tough new mandates that would sharply increase the costs of energy production. Obama would not push for more gas exploration, including offshore drilling. Obama also would not be able to push for more nuclear energy, as it is not supported by his political base.

McCain, too, would push for a climate change bill, but he would likely work with guys such as Dingell and centrists in the Senate, as well. McCain would have greater flexibility than Obama to push for more drilling in the U.S. and for more nuclear energy.

When it comes to war and peace, Obama would be forced by his House colleagues to take a more forceful position in withdrawing our troops from Iraq. The impact could be devastating to our efforts to leave Iraq in a better position to fight terrorism and resist the Iranians.

McCain would push hard for the U.S. to finish the job in Iraq and to maintain an active presence that would allow America to keep pressure on the Iranians and keep the Iraqi oil flowing to our consumers. He would have the upper hand, because the Democrats would not be able to cut off money. If they couldn’t under Bush, they wouldn’t under McCain.

An Obama White House would work hand in glove with the Democratic House leadership, led by Pelosi, to push the Senate to bend to its philosophical will. A McCain White House would work with the Senate leadership to achieve compromise on some things of national importance and achieve gridlock on other things where compromise is not possible.

Both Obama and McCain are promising real change if elected this November, and on that score they are both right. But can their visions of change work in the Congress and then ultimately work for the American people? For Obama, the change will be led by a Democratic House eager to push the country significantly to the left. For McCain, he will use his vast experience of cutting deals in the Senate to craft a more centrist approach to governance.

John Feehery worked for the House Republican leadership from 1989 to 2005. He is the founder of The Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm, and blogs at