Major Angst for House Majority

With Power Comes Problems

Posted February 7, 2009 at 7:25am

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — House Democrats are finding the spoils of victory can be spoiled indeed. The November elections padded their majority and delivered them back to power with a significant mandate and a partner in the White House. But at their annual retreat, just weeks into the new Democratic order, the strain of governing under heightened expectations at a time of national crisis was beginning to show. Democratic Members and staff were grumbling about the path that the House-passed stimulus measure had taken in the Senate, where a coalition of moderates from both parties worked to strip politically embarrassing spending items that House Democrats approved, several senior Democratic aides said. Others were frustrated that Republicans appeared to be winning the messaging war over the package, having hijacked the debate by focusing on those items. That was a sentiment echoed by President Barack Obama on Thursday night in a campaign-style speech that sought to put the party back on offense by taking sharp aim at GOP critiques. Still, some House Democrats were quietly wondering what took the president so long, since they have spent the past two weeks taking fire over the measure. “Everyone is really unhappy on the messaging,” one senior Democratic aide said. “Members are apparently getting beaten up badly on the package at home and don’t think the president is doing enough to sell it.” David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama, acknowledged to Members in a closed-door briefing Friday afternoon that the White House had not done an adequate sales job over the past two weeks. He said that if the administration could turn back the clock, the president would have provided House Democrats with more cover by publicly delivering the kind of spirited defense of the stimulus that he gave at the retreat, according to a person in the room. Axelrod assured Democrats that Obama would start using his bully pulpit to push the package and presented poll numbers showing that, despite Beltway chatter, lawmakers were on solid ground in supporting it. “When we get this done, you will have a great story to tell,” Axelrod said, according to a source in the room. Vice President Joseph Biden, addressing Democrats earlier in the day, offered an assessment more in line with what several who support the package fear: that their votes could become a political liability. “If it works, as I’m absolutely convinced it will … when we do, I’m sure you’re gonna be nailed in ads, ‘Well they voted on that’ 30-second ads,” he said. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), meanwhile, remained a staunch advocate of the measure that her chamber passed, warning the Senate against scrubbing spending increases for education. And she rejected the notion that Democrats should be seeking more Republican input, saying the GOP proposals “got us where we are in the first place.” “Washington seems consumed in this process argument about bipartisanship while the rest of the country says they need this bill,” Pelosi told reporters Friday afternoon. But concerns over process had been bubbling up within her own Caucus before Democrats even gathered at the Kingsmill Resort & Spa for the three-day conference. A bloc of mostly moderate Democrats from the Blue Dog and New Democrat coalitions were angry that the Speaker had fast-tracked the stimulus bill through the House. The night before Democrats decamped for the retreat, 68 of them signed a letter to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) urging a return to regular order. Pelosi moved swiftly to deflate the issue, welcoming Democrats to the retreat with a pledge to loosen the reins on the legislative process now that the recovery package — whose urgency she suggested necessitated the rush job — is nearing the finish line. As news of Senate progress on the package trickled into the hotel over the course of the conference, so did fresh reminders of the dire state of the economy. A particularly sharp gut-punch: the release of a report that found employers trimmed 598,000 jobs in January, the most in about 35 years, pushing the unemployment rate to 7.6 percent. Whether the darkening economic picture, and the Republican pushback on the stimulus package, will strengthen Democratic resolve for the final push is not yet clear. But as the majority prepares to pivot to the rest of its agenda, there is already evidence that a new intraparty feud is looming. Liberals, eager to leverage consolidated Democratic power into a speedy Iraq withdrawal, could soon be disappointed as powerful Democrats look to give Obama room to set his own timetable.