Democratic Congress Shows Signs It Will Not Bow to Obama

By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 11, 2009

Even before taking office, President-elect Barack Obama has endured a baptism by friendly fire.

Last week, an expanded and emboldened group of congressional Democrats greeted his tax proposals with disdain, dragged him into a political squabble over his Senate successor and chafed at key appointments to his administration. Obama called for bold action on a stimulus plan to rescue the sagging economy and saw his party's leaders respond by pushing the deadline for the package from Inauguration Day to mid-February.

The reception from the new Congress does not appear to have jeopardized any of the key items on Obama's agenda. The stimulus package that has begun to take shape is expected to include many of the president-elect's priorities. The man picked by indicted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) to succeed him, Roland W. Burris, will probably fade into obscurity, either back home in Illinois or as a Senate backbencher. Leon E. Panetta appears headed for confirmation as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, his smooth passage all but assured by the incoming Senate intelligence committee chairman, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), an initial critic of the selection who later reversed course.

But the message sent by committee chairmen and Democratic leaders was clear: Although Obama takes office Jan. 20 with the high hopes of a troubled nation, it is Congress that will serve as the gateway to a successful presidency. Show a little deference, humility and flexibility, veteran members observed, and early stumbles may be forgotten.

"All of us have been instructed that when it comes to Congress, to listen and not just talk," Lawrence H. Summers, who will be Obama's top White House economic adviser, told House Democrats on Friday morning, according to numerous participants.

Underscoring Obama's commitment to smooth relationships up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, House Democrats said Friday that they would host the newly inaugurated president at their early-February retreat in Williamsburg, around the time the chamber is expected to vote on a stimulus plan. Part wonkish policy session, part social getaway, such retreats have typically served as bonding sessions for lawmakers attempting to unite around a new legislative agenda.

In his eight years in power, President Bush occasionally attended the annual GOP retreat and attended a Democratic retreat once. Obama will not be attending the House GOP retreat held a week before the Democrats' gathering, but discussions are underway about the new president addressing the House Republican Conference sometime early this year.

Democrats described two forces as contributing to the less-than-full embrace of Obama out of the gates: a weariness of being taken for granted for eight years by the outgoing Bush administration; and more recently, a sense that the $700 billion bailout for struggling financial institutions known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program was rushed through last fall in two weeks, a de facto abdication of Congress's responsibility.

Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.), the No. 4 Democratic leader, said party members shared a "unanimity in pulling together" for the Obama agenda but were anxious to see early indications that Obama would break the "my way or the highway" model that wore down Congress over the Bush years, culminating in the TARP vote. "Don't ignore us," Larson warned.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) dismissed a reporter's suggestion that Democrats would go easy on oversight of the administration, as Republicans were accused of doing while Bush was in office. To make his point, Hoyer help up a copy of the congressional newspaper the Hill, its headline blaring "I Don't Work for Obama," a reference to a comment by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

"The Democrats are going to be Democrats," Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the party's third-ranking House leader, said Friday as he left the Summers meeting, by numerous accounts a session that involved spirited give and take. "We're creative thinkers," Clyburn said. "We don't believe in groupthink."

The incoming administration acknowledged it stumbled in the past week. Last Sunday, it circulated a list of five tax breaks that it wanted to include in the stimulus bill, totaling about 40 percent of the overall $775 billion package.

The list included several provisions that are popular with Republicans, along with a $3,000 tax credit to employers for each new hire that Obama pitched on the campaign trail. The credit gained no significant support on Capitol Hill and was roundly dismissed by members of the tax-writing Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees.

"No one wants to slow this train down or hold up the process," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), a member of the Finance Committee and the Democratic leadership. "We all recognize the need to move quickly and efficiently to get this done. There will be no poison pills or contentious measures." But he added: "There will be an opportunity to add worthy measures to the bill," such as the college tuition tax credit he is pushing.

"The president-elect has said he knows there will be modifications, and what he receives on his desk by February 13th will be different in some ways than what he proposed to us this week," Schumer said.

The Feinstein snub of Panetta appeared at first blush to have the potential to become a full-blown crisis. After initial reports Monday afternoon that Panetta would get the nod to lead the agency, Feinstein raised the prospect of opposing his nomination, saying he lacks experience in the intelligence field.

When outgoing Senate intelligence committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) echoed Feinstein's sentiment, the dispute threatened to escalate into a bitter internecine conflict. The two lawmakers were angered that they had not been briefed in advance on the nomination, a rare misstep for the Obama team, which widely shopped its picks for other key jobs, resulting in relatively few surprises.

By Wednesday, Feinstein had spoken to Panetta, and her concerns were assuaged. "I believe all systems are go," she told reporters. "I'm going to vote for him."

Republicans have watched the stumbles with amusement from the sidelines, particularly enjoying seeing Obama and Senate leaders drawn into the effort to block the appointment of Burris to his seat, then encouraging his being seated and now left in confusion.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) also pointed to the withdrawn nomination of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to be commerce secretary as an example of a self-inflicted wound.

But Roberts said it was "too early to tell" whether recent slips were a sign of internal Democratic warfare that could torment Obama for the rest of his term or if they represented a bump in the road for an inexperienced team seeking to make a big impression quickly. He suggested that the episodes should deflate some of the heightened expectations about Obama as he takes office.

"You're bound to make mistakes," Roberts said. "It might bring them back to Earth a little."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company