WASHINGTON — While President Barack Obama still faces stiff headwinds on a range of major legislation on his agenda, he has been signing into law a slew of smaller initiatives that had gathered dust on the Democratic wish list for years.
Many of the bills had been blocked by Republicans who considered the measures unnecessary expansions of government or too costly. But facing Democratic majorities in Congress, conservatives are picking their battles and in many cases letting the legislation roll through.
Last week, Mr. Obama signed defense-policy legislation that included an unrelated measure widening federal hate-crimes laws to cover sexual orientation and gender identification — 12 years after it was first introduced. The same legislation also tightened the rules of admissible evidence for military commissions, an issue that consumed Congress in debate in 2007 but received almost no attention this go-round.
Other new measures signed into law since the administration took office, all of which kicked up controversy in past congresses, make it easier for women to sue for equal pay, set aside land in the West from development, give the government the power to regulate tobacco and raise tobacco taxes to expand health insurance for children. Congress and the White House, in the new defense-policy bill, also killed weapons programs that have survived earlier attempts at termination, among them, the F-22 fighter jet, the VH-71 presidential helicopter and the Army’s Future Combat System.
Rob Nabors, the White House’s deputy budget director, called the series of new laws “a very, very quiet but important victory.”
To conservatives, they are Democratic payback to liberal interests. “The left knows what it wants,” says former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “It’s been trying to get it for some time, and this is its moment.”
Some promises that Mr. Obama made during his campaign, such as repealing much of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, Patriot Act, allowing openly gay service members into the military or making major changes to the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act have gone nowhere.
But other issues that once consumed Congress are now sailing into law, often without much public notice. Senior White House political adviser David Axelrod said his opponents in Congress are absorbed with defeating Mr. Obama’s health-care overhaul, what he calls “the shiny object that they’ve chased.” As a result, he contends, other measures have been left to pass into law.
Rep. Tom Price (R., Ga.), a conservative leader in the House, concedes that, in some cases, Republicans are being outflanked. “The administration is pushing so many things so rapidly it’s difficult to concentrate on all of them,” he said.
In his first year in office, President George W. Bush had more modest success with a conservative wish list. His 2001 tax cut ended the tax penalty on marriage, a longstanding Republican desire, and it slowly phased out the estate tax. But Mr. Bush didn’t champion many other conservative wishes, which had been pushed by the Republican-dominated Congress during the years Bill Clinton was in the White House. Proposals from some in the party to eliminate certain government agencies in Washington and roll back work-place and environmental regulations stayed on the shelf.
In contrast, the Obama White House has reached into the Democratic archives, as some of the measures illustrate:
The hate-crimes bill became law 11 years after the slayings of the men it is named after: Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man left for dead on a split-rail fence in Wyoming, and James Byrd, a black man dragged to death behind a pickup truck in Texas.
The legislation gives the Justice Department the power to investigate and prosecute an expanded definition of hate crimes and to pre-empt local police when Washington decides too little is being done about a crime. The legislation has long been controversial. In fact, it took 14 votes in Congress to pass it. Opponents believe the measure is an unwarranted expansion of federal power. They also say it creates a new category of violent crime that isn’t necessary because the acts it addresses would be crimes regardless of motivation. Mr. Price, the congressman, called it an “unconstitutional thought-crimes law.”
The new public-lands law signed this spring was also once hotly debated. Among other things, the new law declares 1.2 million acres of Wyoming range land off-limits to oil and natural-gas development. Some who opposed the measure see an essential problem: The U.S. Geological Survey, they note, has estimated the area holds large natural-gas and oil deposits, which could help the U.S. toward energy independence.
Regarding the new tobacco law, the Food and Drug Administration and allies in Congress have been seeking regulatory authority over tobacco since the early 1990s. Republicans have argued for just as long that a federal regulatory agency established to police medicine and food had no business regulating a legal product that is neither. Indeed, they argued, because the FDA couldn’t create a tobacco product that is safe, regulatory authority could in the end make tobacco illegal.
The legislation expanding children’s health insurance has been equally controversial. Mr. Bush vetoed the expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program twice in 2007. While there were supporters of the measure in both parties, who were concerned that too many children were without health insurance, opponents said the price tag was too big and would ultimately outstrip the revenue from tobacco taxes designed to pay for it.
Republicans also say that as eligibility for government health insurance moves up the income scale, parents could drop private coverage to enroll their children in a government plan. The new law makes families with incomes up to 300% of the federal poverty level — or $63,600 for a family of four — eligible. The previous cutoff was 200%, or $42,400 for that same family.