The Rose Garden: Tensions Emerging Between Obama, Hill Allies

Posted May 1, 2009 at 6:45pm

Areas of tension are opening up between President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats on a variety of fronts as Democratic factions, coveting the chance to realize long-held dreams, want to make sure Obama does it right.

[IMGCAP(1)]Perhaps the best predictor of conflict down the road is the simple fact that in recent weeks each of the main Democratic caucuses has met at the White House with the president — and each has walked out feeling satisfied and optimistic, despite competing agendas.

Many of the worries are bubbling up on the left, where Members are concerned Obama will move too far to the right with an eye on his expected re-election bid or as a way to sop up a few Republican votes so he can govern with the veneer of bipartisanship.

There is also concern that Obama might try to clear the deck of contentious issues Democrats want to push in order to focus Congress and the public on his top priority for the year: passing health care reform.

But with Obama embarked on an aggressive agenda that will cost some money, potential problems also lurk with fiscal conservatives.

In a telephone conference call with members of the moderate-to-conservative Blue Dog Coalition on April 24, Obama gave what the lawmakers understood to be a commitment to support statutory pay-as-you-go budgeting rules requiring new spending or tax cuts to be offset — and to help persuade the Senate to get on board with the idea.

While Obama’s support for PAYGO has gone a long way toward building goodwill with the Blue Dogs, there remains concern in the group about his support for a carbon emissions cap-and-trade program. Many of the coal-fired plants that might be most affected by proposed legislation are in Blue Dog districts. Some Blue Dogs also object to requirements for greater use of renewables like wind and solar energy. One reason is that many Blue Dogs hail from the South where it’s not that windy, according to an aide to a top member of that group.

Obama may also run into trouble with the Blue Dogs if his health care bill starts to ring up too many costs.

While many Blue Dogs like Obama’s commitment to reducing earmarks, the president has already tangled at the White House with the Democratic leadership, who believe Members have a right to them. Many Democrats are also ready with objections if they don’t like a package of fiscal 2009 omnibus bill rescissions that Obama is expected to send to Capitol Hill any day, according to a Democratic leadership aide.

While Blue Dogs believe Obama is in their corner on spending, progressives are confident that he shares their commitment to a strong public health plan, which will not come cheaply.

The key concern among Progressive Caucus members is Obama’s Afghanistan policy. The House liberals were shocked that so much of the wartime supplemental spending bill recently unveiled by Obama was devoted to military spending instead of outlays for peaceful rebuilding in the country.

“They looked at it and thought it was something that could have been expected of Bush,— said an aide to one member of the progressive group. The spending allotments did not appear to match Obama’s rhetoric on the issue. Obama has assured liberal Members that, going forward, the emphasis will increasingly be on non-military aid.

Another possible point of contention is on Iraq, where recent violence has led to speculation Obama may have to slow up the wind-down of the U.S. combat role.

The progressives also expect Obama to support some type of inquiry into the prisoner interrogation policies developed and implemented under former President George W. Bush. After some equivocation, Obama seemed last month to be firming up his opposition to a “truth commission— backed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and many other Democrats. And he left a decision on whether to prosecute former Bush officials to Attorney General Eric Holder.

“If there’s nothing, people will be upset,— the aide to the progressive lawmaker said.

Obama will also have to meet the expectations of his union backers who, as soon as Al Franken is seated as the Senator from Minnesota — assuming he is — will demand the president pick a fight with business and try to move “card check— legislation.

One area of possible conflict that Obama appears to have skirted is on the subject of abortion.

Though he had once pledged that signing the Freedom of Choice Act — which would bar most federal, state and local restrictions on abortion — would be “the first thing that I’d do— as president, Obama, during last week’s White House press conference, said the act is not his “highest legislative priority.—

Obama appears to have calculated correctly that he could get away with it.

NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan said Obama’s comments had not created any tension between her group and the White House, arguing the legislation does not have any chance of passing anyway, even with Democratic control of Congress. She noted that Obama during the press conference had expressed his strong support for abortion rights, and she noted that Obama is a confirmed believer in a constitutional right to privacy.

In any case, she said, the main game now is the Supreme Court and the selection of a replacement for Justice David Souter. Whatever Obama says about the Freedom of Choice Act, abortion-rights backers are confident they have in him a president determined to uphold Roe v. Wade.