Liberals Cool Their Heels on Priorities

Posted January 14, 2009 at 6:18pm

Despite modest carping at President-elect Barack Obama for his shifts to the center in recent weeks, many liberal Democrats are cutting him slack for now as he puts some of their favorite issues on the back burner to deal with a recession.

“I think we need to give him a little time and people should restrain any criticism right now,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said. “Everyone needs to take a deep breath and give the president-elect the benefit of the doubt. People need to be a little patient.”

McGovern is a liberal who, like Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), would prefer to roll back tax hikes for the wealthy as soon as possible, but said Obama’s immediate attention has to be on stimulating the economy.

“Right now we’re focused on the stimulus bill, but that’s not all we’re going to be doing,” he said. “I think ultimately he’s going to do the right thing.”

At least the liberal lawmakers hope he does, given that they have been waiting for two years for the Bush administration to exit to have a shot at enacting their top legislative priorities.

But while liberals have a laundry list of items they want to see enacted this year — from health care to global warming — some Senate Democrats are looking to scale back their wish lists because they have committed to spending at least $800 billion to shore up the economy.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) said his party needs to be open to changing its agenda to fit the country’s circumstances.

“I think the watch word of the moment is that you’re going to have to have flexibility,” he said.

One senior Senate Democratic aide said conversations have begun “in earnest” on what other priorities have to be scuttled in the near term with the economy in the doldrums.

For example, “health care is going to end up being a little bit harder,” the aide said, adding, “People understand that where we are in this economy … it’s not a good time” for bold, expensive proposals.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said he has already warned constituents back home that the federal coffers may not be as open as they once were for community projects.

Leahy said he tells people, “If we don’t do the things to pull this economy out, forget whatever your special project is … it’s not going to happen.”

Congressional Democrats’ patience is not infinite, however, and many already are agitating for spending increases and tax hikes on the rich.

“In order to have a real recovery package and in order to have the funds for it we’re going to have to roll back some of those tax cuts for the wealthy,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), a leader of the Progressive Caucus.

And Woolsey questioned why there should be such a large focus on tax cuts in the stimulus package instead of on spending for key programs.

“That might be a way of getting Republicans to vote for this, but I don’t think they’re going to vote for it anyway, so why are we tacking to them?” she said. “They didn’t win the election. We did.”

But even with that sentiment, liberals seem to be wiling to exercise some patience — at least for a little while.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said Democrats “are prepared to give him some time to have a honeymoon, but not a long honeymoon. There are just so many problems, and we are very mindful that the American people are suffering. This election ushered in great expectations and we have to produce.”

Lewis said issues like continuing tax cuts for the wealthy are a concern for the struggling “average Joe” who feels like he didn’t get anything from the $700 billion financial sector bailout or from other tax cuts.

“They feel it all went to Wall Street,” he said. “They feel they were had.”

The issue of rolling back the tax cuts for the wealthy, a staple of Congressional Democratic rhetoric, has perhaps been the most obvious break between the Obama camp and liberals, including Pelosi.

“What I will say for myself and I know I speak for many Democrats on this score, the biggest contributor to our huge deficit that we have now are the tax cuts of the Bush administration for the wealthiest people in America,” Pelosi said on National Public Radio this week.

“We campaigned in 2004, 2006 and 2008, House Democrats, on the idea that these tax cuts were not helping our economy, and they must go.”

But Senate Democrats and even some House Democrats, including Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), don’t see the same urgency. “Those can wait,” Frank said.

Still many Democrats said they would like to revisit some of their wish list next year.

“You’ve got to calibrate it as it goes along and see whether the economy goes in the right direction and then you make judgments,” Menendez said. “But one would presume that it will take a good year or more to get to where we want to be on the economy.”

Menendez and other Senators said it’s more practical right now to just let the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire at the end of 2010, rather than moving to do it now when Congress is poised to spend more than $1 trillion on both an economic recovery package and an omnibus appropriations bill.

Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) noted that many longer-term tax and spending decisions would have to be made sooner rather than later, given they will be discussed as part of a budget resolution that will come up in March or April. Obama will likely send up his proposed budget in early February.

“I know that the president-elect and his people are beginning to look at that by talking to [Senate Budget Chairman] Kent Conrad [D-N.D.] and the Budget Committee, but I don’t think anything has been decided on that,” Schumer said.

But Senate Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.) said Democrats will still push for many of the things that the party and Obama promised during the 2008 election.

“We’re going to be able to do things,” she said. “I don’t think anybody in the country expects everything to be done in the first three months, in the first year, or even the first two years. What they elected was a president who was going to change the direction we’re going to go and help get this country working again.”