WASHINGTON — One day after what he called a “shellacking” at the hands of voters, President Obama stood in the East Room of the White House looking for examples of issues where he’ll find common ground over the next two years.
The GOP will hold the House gavel in the 112th session, beginning January, and came within a few seats of capturing the Senate as well. On balance, these new Republican arrivals are far more conservative than the Republicans they replaced or the Democrats they unseated.
“I think that there are some areas where it’s going to be very difficult for us to agree on,” President Obama said. These are, after all, lawmakers who campaigned hard against much of the health care reform, stimulus and financial reform laws Obama had championed in his first two years.
“But,” the president continued, “I think there are going to be a whole bunch of areas where we can agree on.”
And that’s where John Kline comes in. Yes, that John Kline, the one rated more conservative as compared to his district than any other returning House member. The same John Kline who wants to repeal much of the health care overhaul and looks forward to “increased congressional oversight” of the executive branch.
In a little less than two months, the Minnesota Republican will pick up the gavel of the House Education and Labor Committee, one of the most powerful policy panels in Congress. All of Obama’s signature (and most contentious) policies, from health care to financial reform, have passed through that panel. Kline, so far, has stridently opposed them all.
Yet it’s there — and with its likely new leader Kline — where Obama will look to have the best chance of finding the bipartisanship he sought Wednesday. Obama said so himself.
“I think everybody in this country thinks that we’ve got to make sure our kids are equipped in terms of their education, their science background, their math backgrounds, to compete in this new global economy,” Obama said Wednesday.
“And that’s going to be an area where I think there’s potential common ground.”
The Marine as dean
On the back wall of Kline’s dark wood-paneled Washington office is a photograph of President Ronald Reagan, confidently striding across the South Lawn of the White House while a young Marine walks beside yet behind him.
The Marine is carrying the nuclear football, containing the launch codes for the United States’ nuclear deterrent. The football is still carried today, though largely out of sight. This moment in time being captured at the height of the Cold War, however, the young Marine walked closely enough so that photographers (and implicitly the Russians) would see that the president was capable of unleashing the end of the world at any moment.
“That’s me in that picture,” Kline says.
It was one of many distinguished assignments he had over the course of a 25-year career Marine Corps, which included toting the nuclear football for not just Reagan but President Jimmy Carter before him. Before that, Kline was a pilot assigned to Marine One, the presidential helicopter.
The move to being the GOP’s point man on education came somewhat by accident – or at the very least Kline didn’t ever really set out with that as a goal. And ironically, it’s Obama who set the wheels in motion to his taking over the top spot on Ed & Labor.
When he came to Congress in 2002, Kline had his eyes (as many veterans do) on the House Armed Services Committee, a panel on which he now serves and hopes to one day chair. And one day in June 2009, Obama created a vacancy on the GOP side of that committee.
Obama decided to reach across the aisle to fill a high-ranking military vacancy, tapping New York Republican Rep. John McHugh — then the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee — to be secretary of the Army.
The newly vacated top GOP slot on Armed Services was then given to Rep. Buck McKeon of California, who had been ranking Republican on Ed & Labor. That, in turn, left the top GOP spot on Ed & Labor open. GOP leaders decided on Kline, who had at that point made somewhat of a name for himself inside the party conference as a voice on pensions and labor issues.
Since then, a parade of massive bills coming through the committee has forced Kline into the limelight. Kline led the opposition when health care reform went through Ed & Labor, then had an even larger starring role in opposing the Wall Street reform package.
And with Republicans taking the House, Kline is now the heir apparent to the chairmanship. It may be a very easy race for Kline — so far, no one else has stood up to contest the race.
Part of that may be because of Kline’s close association with the man who will likely become the next Speaker, John Boehner of Ohio. It’s a critical alliance because Boehner takes a particular interest in Ed & Labor, as he once served as chairman of the panel Kline aims to lead.
“As someone who proudly served as chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, I know firsthand how much John’s work on that committee can affect Americans’ lives,” Boehner said. “He’s a savvy legislator who knows how to lead and can bring together Members on both sides of the aisle to do what’s best for our country.”
Outlining a sequel to No Child Left Behind
The top priority for the Ed & Labor Committee from 2011-12 will be reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, otherwise known as No Child Left Behind. That policy, the signature education reform of the Bush administration, required schools to meet annual federal testing standards, with minimum standards increasing incrementally until schools would ultimately be required to have every single student test as proficient in basic subjects. Schools that failed repeatedly could be shut down as a penalty.
Obama’s Department of Education prefers a more carrot based approach to education, using incentive-based competitions in an effort to get states to revise their own education standards. The ideal system, according to DOE officials, involves high student achievement standards, expanded availability for charter schools and some link between student performance and teacher compensation.
Kline takes similar positions on charter schools, though he’s probably an even larger proponent of performance pay for teachers than the administration. In a statement of intent released Wednesday, Kline said he’ll pursue an education reform plan that “restores local control, empowers parents, lets teachers teach, and protects taxpayers.”
Yet both Kline and administrative officials believe they’re likely to find an accord sometime in the next two years. A handful of meetings were held this past summer between Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Kline and George Miller (the departing Democratic chairman) to sketch out initial proposals and begin to map out how the process might play out.
“While we’re going to have major disagreements on what the final product is going to be on education reform, we continue to have a bipartisan recognition that we have to do something about No Child Left Behind,” Kline said.
There are major caveats on the prospects of education reform going into 2011. A large number of the Republican House freshmen want little to do with compromising with Obama. Any plan that can garner a majority in the GOP-controlled House will also have to clear the Democratic-held Senate. In addition, it’s a safe bet that teachers’ unions and every education lobbying and interest group in America will be working flat-out to stall or kill a bill they don’t like.
The relationship between White House and Kline may also be strained if Kline, as expected, takes a leading role in trying to roll back large parts of the health care bill through his committee.
Still, Kline sees signs of hope for compromise on education reform.
“I think that the White House and the Democrats in Congress and the Republicans recognize that each of us might like to do it our way, but we all recognize that that’s not going to happen,” Kline said. “There aren’t enough votes…to get it done in a purely partisan way, so there will be some bipartisan work.”