In a rare flicker of bipartisanship, the Senate has managed to overcome a threatened Republican filibuster on a jobs bill, dispelling at least temporarily a growing sense that gridlock in Congress has brought the country close to ungovernability.
Of itself the Senate measure, focused on tax breaks for companies that take on unemployed workers, is modest, worth a mere $15bn (£9.7bn). But Democratic leaders hope it will help speed action on other major bills including climate change legislation and financial market regulatory reform.
The defeat of the filibuster, on a 60-32 vote, came thanks to the support of five Republicans. Ironically, one of them was Scott Brown, whose capture last month of Ted Kennedy's old seat in the traditional Democratic fiefdom of Massachusetts deprived the party of the 60-vote super-majority needed to bring legislation to a final vote.
The result is an especial relief to Harry Reid, the embattled Democratic majority leader who is facing a tough re-election battle in his home state of Nevada in November, and whose combative handling of Senate business has drawn criticism even from some Democrats. But whether passage of the jobs measure improves prospects for President Obama's top priority of healthcare reform, is another matter.
Initially, Mr Scott's victory, and the loss of the filibuster-proof majority, seemed to have doomed that bill to a lingering death in the Senate, where every single Republican opposed it. Now, however, Mr Obama has stepped directly into the fray, setting out his own plan for reform, and calling a healthcare summit of both parties at the White House for tomorrow.
In essence, he is challenging Republicans to put up or shut up – either to work in good faith for a compromise, or reveal themselves as obstructionists pure and simple. But it is a huge gamble, and initial reaction to the President's proposals suggests that renewed deadlock is on the cards.
The Republican leadership gave them a comprehensive thumbs-down yesterday: "the same massive government take-over of healthcare", was the verdict of John Boehner, the Republican minority leader in the House. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, accused Mr Obama of clinging to a plan "that Americans have overwhelmingly rejected, again and again, for months".
The new Obama plan, which the White House says will cost $950bn over 10 years, generally sticks closely to the healthcare reform package passed by the Senate just before Christmas. But it allows the government directly to regulate premium increases by insurance companies, and delays a controversial tax on high-end plans offered by companies to their employees.Reuse content