9:45pm

Fri December 24, 2010
Politics

Obama's Next Hurdle: Funding His Plans

Before adjourning for Christmas this week, senators passed a stopgap spending bill. It keeps the lights on and the government operating for the next couple of months, but it doesn't include money for new initiatives, including two of President Obama's signature programs: the health care overhaul and financial reform.

That's a sign of the budget battles to come when the new year brings a new, more Republican Congress to Washington.

The stopgap spending bill avoids the drama of a full government shutdown. But if Republicans haven't gone so far as to "starve the [government] beast" with the bill, they have at least kept it on a restricted diet. That presents a challenge for the Obama administration as it launches new government programs.

"Over the course of the next several months, our budget office will work with Congress to ensure the necessary funding for critical government operations," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. He added that the White House still expects to find the money to carry out its ambitious plans.

Funding Health Care

The House of Representatives is likely to have a very different idea of what's critical once Republicans are in charge.

Soon-to-be Majority Leader Eric Cantor said the GOP is determined to put the brakes on the president's plans, especially when it comes to health care. "We will do everything we can to delay and defund the Obamacare bill," he has said.

That's easier said than done. But there are certainly opportunities for Republicans to hold up money for parts of the health care law -- such as a new Medicare oversight panel, or IRS programs to enforce the individual insurance mandate.

Ethan Rome, who campaigned for the measure as head of the group Health Care for America Now, says the battle didn't end once the president signed the bill. "There will be a budget fight over this law, just like there will be a budget fight over other priorities," he says.

To Restrict Wall Street Or The Regulators?

Another White House priority that could be hobbled for lack of funding is financial reform. Barbara Roper, who's with the Consumer Federation of America, thinks Republicans will try to use their newfound political power to sideline Wall Street regulations they don't like.

"Spencer Bachus, who's going to be chairing the House Financial Services Committee, has made no secret of the fact that it's his goal to roll back some of those reforms," Roper says. "And one of the ways that you rein in reform is by not giving the agencies the money they need to implement the law effectively."

Roper says GOP spending moves will not affect bank regulators or the Federal Reserve's new Consumer Protection Bureau, because they have their own funding sources that are independent of Congress. But that's not true of the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Roper says those agencies will be hard-pressed to meet their new responsibilities under the law, unless Congress OKs some additional money.

"Members of Congress from both parties like to point the fingers at the regulatory agencies for their regulatory failures that contributed to the financial crisis. But they're not as quick to acknowledge that when they starve these agencies of funding, they are directly responsible, at least in part, for those regulatory failures," Roper says.

'The Power Of The Purse'

It would be unusual for Congress to cut off funding for a big initiative just one year after approving it, according to Congressional expert Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution. But there are plenty of smaller examples of lawmakers using the government's checkbook as a way to steer policy -- cutting off funds for abortion, for example, or a military weapons system that's fallen out of favor.

"The power of the purse really is quite a real power, and it's one that Congress is going to guard -- certainly Republicans are going to guard -- quite judiciously," Binder says.

Of course, that power is not all one-sided. Democrats will still have a small majority in the Senate next year. President Obama will still occupy the White House. Binder says that gives the president and his allies a chance to defend their favorite programs from the Republicans' budget-chopping block.

"The first recourse is getting Democrats to hold the line when a bill comes to the Senate," Binder says. "And, of course, the next recourse is Obama actually wielding the veto pen to say, 'Look, that is my line in the sand, and I'm not going to stand for these types of restrictions on how the agencies go about implementing the new laws.' "

That showdown could come as early as March, when the stopgap spending bill runs out. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.