Ideological Diversity Among Democrats Means No Free Pass for Obama

By Shailagh Murray and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

After a series of early and relatively easy victories on Capitol Hill, the White House appears certain to face a more difficult road when Congress returns to work next week.

Not content to task lawmakers with passing an ambitious agenda of record new spending, sweeping health-care reform and other major initiatives, President Obama yesterday nudged the Senate to move ahead with its version of a landmark energy bill the House passed on Friday. In recent weeks, he has also revived the idea of pursuing broad changes in immigration law.

Obama and his aides have proved adept at navigating the politics and eccentricities of the legislative branch. But as lawmakers attempt to navigate much trickier and more contentious issues in the second half of the year, the narrow margin of Friday's energy vote served as a warning: The higher the stakes, the tougher the challenge in finding consensus within what has become a diverse Democratic majority.

The legislation represented the first big test for one of Obama's biggest and most controversial domestic priorities, stemming climate change. Democrats who voted against the bill came from all over the map, from coal country to Midwestern factory towns to rural swaths of the Great Plains. Each of the regions helped swell the party's ranks in the 2006 and 2008 elections, and Democrats think they represent the linchpin to an enduring congressional majority.

But an energy bill that to a California Democrat represents a historic first step in slowing climate change appears to a Rust Belt colleague to be a redux of the 1993 energy-consumption tax that the House approved by a nearly identical 219 to 213 vote -- only to be brushed off by the Senate and resurrected by Republican candidates on the 1994 campaign trail.

"It's like you have a big umbrella and you're trying to fit 10 people under it, but if you move it in one direction, you're going to leave some people out," said Rep. Dan Maffei, a member of the class of '08 and the first Democrat to represent his Upstate New York district in nearly 30 years.

The energy bill will face an even stiffer challenge in the Senate, where the Democratic caucus is an array of conservatives, liberals, and just about everything in between, and these lawmakers are making very different calculations about the big items on Obama's legislative wish list.

At its core, Obama's domestic agenda is a liberal wish list of health care for all, tough new environmental regulations and government solutions to crises ranging from failing schools to faltering auto companies. But as the party's ranks expanded in 2006 and 2008, its center of gravity shifted to the middle. And the key to a durable majority, White House officials and party leaders agree, is adapting old policy goals to new political realities.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), a member of the Democratic leadership, said the party is coalescing as an amalgam of "activist centrists" who think government has a role in solving problems but are more pragmatic than ideological. "I think that's where the president is, and that's where we are," he said. "When you win red states, strange things happen."

The battle for energy votes isn't the only sign that despite Democrats' margins in the House and Senate, unity isn't a foregone conclusion. In recent weeks, lawmakers have ignored a veto threat to save a stealth fighter jet, rejected Obama's request to delay action on a costly highway bill and balked at the administration's request for funding to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Hoping to succeed where other presidents have struggled in implementing their agenda, the Obama White House has attempted to work Capitol Hill with a blend of agenda-setting and deference. Obama outlines ambitious objectives, then leaves lawmakers largely in charge of their final shape.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) enlisted two senior committee members to help assemble the House energy bill: liberal Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and conservative Rep. Rick Boucher, from coal-producing southwestern Virginia. The authors' bottom line was a cap that would gradually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, ultimately achieving 80 percent reductions from 1990 levels by 2050. Everything else was negotiable. When Obama entered the fray on May 5, summoning all 36 committee Democrats to the White House, he didn't make a single demand. Rather, participants say, he pointed to a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and said, "He had a chance to affect history. You, too, have a chance to affect history."

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