President Barack Obama's latest push for a $50 billion local aid package is sparking a backlash from Hill Democrats who say they got no notice of the plan and have no means to pay for it — a clash that puts on full display a growing lack of coordination between the White House and Congress.
In an unusually timed letter that went out Saturday night, Obama urged Congressional leaders in both parties to pass a sweeping emergency aid package — $23 billion to stem teacher layoffs and $25 billion for state Medicaid assistance — to help the economy get back on track, saying it is "a critical juncture in our nation's recovery."
But aides to several leading House and Senate Democrats are criticizing the White House's handling of the $50 billion request — not on policy grounds, but because the administration didn't coordinate with them first and seemed to have hastily thrown the plan together with no follow-through.
"They are not doing themselves any good by not reaching out and trying to coordinate a unified push with Congress on something of this importance," a House Democratic leadership aide said.
The aide grumbled that the move is just another example of the White House taking the House for granted and said Obama can no longer rely on Democrats approving his proposals without a more thoughtful messaging strategy, given the shift in Members' psyche, concerns about the deficit and fears about losses in November.
"They need to be a little bit more sensitive to these concerns that House Democrats have expressed," said the aide, who speculated that the White House has no game plan beyond sending out its letter. "They need to think more than just a news cycle ahead to figure out how you are going to package these things, so that when you roll them out there is a significant echo chamber to support it."
An administration official dismissed the idea that the timing of Saturday's letter was unusual and said the administration has been calling for more action to support state and local governments for weeks.
"The point of the letter was simply to reinforce the urgency of acting without delay. The president wanted to reiterate this commitment and the need to act now on these issues before heading into an important week legislatively on these key provisions," the official said.
But another senior Democratic aide fumed about the inclusion of $23 billion for teachers — not because Democrats don't support the additional funding, but because Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) pushed to attach that provision to the supplemental when it was being debated weeks ago, and the White House offered up no support.
"I'm not sure why the hell they didn't push for this on the supplemental instead of leaving us hanging and then dumping a bullshit letter on a Saturday night. ... There are Democrats who are going to be pissed," vented the aide.
Harkin, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, was dissuaded from putting money into the supplemental because the White House said there wouldn't be support for it, the aide said. So Senate Democratic leaders "talked Harkin out of doing it."
The aide speculated that Obama's sudden push to help teachers may be about "making nice with the unions" after Sen. Blanche Lincoln's (D-Ark.) primary win last week. Organized labor spent $10 million to try to help Lt. Gov. Bill Halter topple Lincoln, who had Obama's backing. Lincoln's victory sparked sniping between the White House and labor leaders about their decision to throw that kind of money to try to take out an administration-backed candidate.
Harkin said in a statement Monday that he welcomed Obama's push to prevent as many as 100,000 teachers from being laid off this fall regardless of what piece of legislation that funding is tied to.
"Obama recognizes the urgency of this emergency situation and I welcome his support as we advocate for this much-needed funding on any relevant piece of legislation moving in Congress," Harkin said.
Still, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on Sunday that lawmakers are facing "spending fatigue" and may not be inclined to pass Obama's new aid package without offsets. Hoyer said he asked the White House to try to find money for the package by tapping into unused funds from last year's $800 billion stimulus bill.
"There are clearly funds in there that have not been expended," Hoyer said on ABC's "This Week," adding that he will push to see "whether or not there are some available for this more immediate priority."
Another senior Democratic aide said the problem is less about Obama springing a $50 billion emergency spending proposal on Congress at a time when people are calling for fiscal discipline and more about the lack of a strategy for clearing such a measure through Congress. But the aide credited the administration for being "reasonably consistent" about communicating that more needs to be done to stimulate the economy in the short term while containing debt in the long term.
"Obama's letter does in fact lay out the same short-term/long-term logic, which is absolutely the right policy," the senior aide said. But what has "clearly been lost in the messaging war" is the need to stay focused on this two-pronged approach to restoring the economy.
"I think Hill people are right to ask why there was such a show last week with [White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag] asking each department to find 5 percent to cut next year, but then on Saturday, writing the leaders to spend more on teachers and [state Medicaid assistance] right now," the aide said.