In the span of a week there were three new proposals from President Barack Obama as the White House unveiled ambitious plans to fight cyber crime and expand broadband access, help kids go to college and give workers paid family leave.
Add those new proposals to an existing plan to give more help to first-time homebuyers and there appears to be a full year’s agenda on tap as the President prepares to give his annual State of the Union address before Congress on Tuesday.
The rapid-fire “spoilers” coming out of the White House ahead of Obama’s State of the Union address may seem like good ideas – but many of them may remain just that.
The Republican majority on Capitol Hill hasn’t sounded receptive to many of the new White House proposals, though that’s not a surprise to anyone who’s watched House Republicans resist most of Obama’s agenda for the past four years.
On some areas there appears to be early agreement. Both sides say they want a new cyber security law. But nearly everywhere else, the most aggressive White House plans appear likely to be blocked.
Here’s a reality check on the chances for success of Obama’s latest proposals:
Community college and paid leave
Of all Obama’s pre-State of the Union schemes, a new proposal offering free community college for two years appears the least likely to gain much traction in Congress – and the least likely to become a reality. The two Republican senators who accompanied Obama to Tennessee to announce the plan both rejected it out of hand.
That was the general reaction from most Republican lawmakers, who balked at the plan’s $60 billion price tag.
Obama’s aides aren’t surprised by the GOP reaction; after all, they’ve spent the bulk of the Obama presidency dealing with a Republican-controlled House. Instead, they say the proposal gets a conversation started about the importance of community colleges in educating Americans.
That’s similar to the White House’s approach to raising the minimum wage: while action won’t happen in Congress to increase the federal wage, individual states and private businesses are increasing their workers’ pay.
That mantra will inform the administration’s push for paid leave - while Obama called this week on lawmakers to pass $2 billion in legislation requiring employers to offer paid sick days, such a measure has no chance of being approved by a GOP-controlled Congress.
“It’s not necessarily all about bills and funding,” said Sen. Angus King, the Maine Independent who serves on the Senate Budget Committee. “Sometimes it’s about the bully pulpit and raising the profile of an issue.”
Cyber security and broadband
The other major push this week – made at the Federal Trade Commission and at the law enforcement agency responsible for investigating hacks – was toward bolstering the country’s cyber protections. It’s a goal Republicans and Obama both say they aiming for.
When GOP leaders met Obama at the White House Tuesday it was one of the areas where both sides said they agreed, though formal legislation – where hang-ups usually arise – hasn’t yet been introduced.
There’s disagreement on which U.S. agency should gather information about cyber threats, and just how much information about Americans should be shared with the government. But lawmakers on both sides say they think something can pass.
“We need cyber-security legislation and need it passed now,” said Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “When you’ve got a committed White House, I can assure you it’s going to be matched with a committed Senate.”
The issue is ripe for action by Congress and the White House - last month’s hack at Sony Pictures was only the latest example of a major American corporation being targeted by cyber criminals. Consumers are skeptical their banking information is safe after breaches at Target and Home Depot. And government networks appeared vulnerable after a hack of U.S. Central Command’s Twitter account.
On the White House’s other digital pitch - expanding high-speed broadband internet - Obama will likely have less luck convincing Republicans, some of whom say it’s another move to overregulate private industry. Others are worried about the costs.
In the end, Obama doesn’t need approval from the U.S. Congress to enact his broadband plan - it’s individual states that regulate whether or not community-based internet providers are allowed to compete with giants like Comcast and Time Warner.
Obama can only do so much to expand access in states. While the White House has called on the Federal Communications Commission to block state laws preventing competition in cable markets, the body is independent and will come to its own decision.
Republicans may be fuming about Obama’s plan to lower fees on government-backed loans, but there’s not much Congress can do to prevent the president from putting his new rate structure in place. In theory they could withhold funding for the agency in response to Obama’s move - though none have threatened that yet.
The White House argues the new plan would save low- and middle-income homeowners nearly $1,000 per year, but the GOP claims the plan cuts against the goal of getting the federal government out of the mortgage business altogether.
Obama and Republicans at least partially agree on that front, and the president reiterated his call on lawmakers to wind down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac last week. But Democrats on Capitol Hill have been resistant to sign on, saying the government mortgage giants provide a way into the housing market for millions of Americans.
With Republicans in the majority on Capitol Hill, a wind-down measure could come for a vote in the Senate - something that failed to happen in the last Congress.