WASHINGTON – Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Baltimore, painted his vision for the 111th Congress and the administration of President-elect Barack Obama with a soothsayer’s elusiveness in a meeting with reporters Friday.
“We’ve gone through worse times,” he said reflecting on the financial crisis that is likely to overshadow Washington for the foreseeable future, “but we’ve never gone through times like these.”
The economy will be the first priority when the new Congress convenes on Jan. 6. But the steps required for stanching the red ink remain a matter of dispute between Congress and the Bush administration, and even between many congressional Democrats.
As Congress members debated rescuing failing auto companies this week, Cardin’s focus remained ensuring Maryland companies and individuals have access to money and services as the government acts to stimulate the economy.
“There’s families that depend upon county governments for health care. Local services are more important than ever before,” he said, describing recent conversations with Montgomery and Baltimore county executives and Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon.
However, many state projects like Baltimore’s Red Line and the Purple Line through Maryland’s Washington suburbs will probably have to wait, he said, urging legislators to set aside “pet projects.”
Congressional Democrats and President Bush’s administration have disagreed over how to spend the $700 billion bailout bill that passed in October, and like other congressional leaders — and most economists — Cardin was unable to offer many specifics on what can’t wait: failsafe solutions for the troubled economy.
The administration focuses on shoring up financial institutions, while some Democrats urge rescuing car makers, individuals in foreclosure, and states with money problems.
Asked whether Congress would take up a plan to provide bailout money to states short on cash, he said, “I think it’s going to happen.”
As for the auto bailout, he said, “I really think the focus should be on the administration (rather than Congress).” The October bill has enough leeway for President Bush to divert a portion of that fund to automakers, Democrats argue.
“This administration has been very inconsistent” on choosing which businesses to help, he said.
Issues on the periphery of the economy, such as energy and health care, have been pushed back; big reforms will have to wait until the economy is more stable.
Nevertheless, “I hope we’ll see energy independence (during the next administration’s term),” Cardin said.
Health care will probably be a two-track issue, with Congress dealing with urgent issues like the Medicare and Medicaid budgets, but he “expects” Obama to come in with a “comprehensive” reform proposal.
Each of these hopeful priorities will be a challenge in the next session, he said, despite significant Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Two issues remain barriers.
“If we can deal with those two issues” — maintaining the political courage to make unpopular decisions and cutting through partisan gridlock — “we’ll have a great 111th Congress.”