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Ideological Diversity Among Democrats Means No Free Pass for Obama
The House bill rejects Obama's proposal to auction 100 percent of emissions allowances, and instead calls for distributing 85 percent of allowances free of charge. The concession effectively defers the additional costs that polluters would incur, but the bill wouldn't have passed the chamber without it.
"We were given broad encouragement to report a bill in a timely manner," Boucher said. But Obama "made it clear he was expecting us to work out the details."
At the same time, Obama and a team of top White House officials -- many of them Hill veterans -- have been extraordinarily attentive to individual lawmakers, showering them with invitations and responding quickly to requests, concerns and criticisms.
"There has been a very, very high level of contact and dialogue. They've covered the ground," said Steve Richetti, who ran the congressional liaison office in the Clinton White House. And he noted the deference paid to the legislative branch, adding that, on health care and climate change, "they have tried to allow the process to work without intervening beyond what would be acceptable on the Hill."
Maintaining a sense of common interest across the party is a paramount goal. Early on, administration officials and Democratic leaders agreed they would steer clear of controversial social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. And to the discontent of many liberal Democrats, Congress intends to remain generally silent on those fronts.
"They know the consequences of '94. It looms," White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said of the legislative debacles in President Bill Clinton's early tenure that produced the 1994 Republican landslide. "That division led to failure. . . . Our chances for success only come about by unity. That, as a culture up there, has been enforced by enough people that enough members believe."
For the White House, the trick is to keep a firm grip without appearing overly meddlesome.
Along with House and Senate leaders, Emanuel and his team are sharply focused on new lawmakers most likely to become Republican targets. Rep. Jason Altmire, elected in 2006, was invited to a breakfast in March with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki to discuss issues related to the large population of veterans in Altmire's western Pennsylvania district. Altmire's office and the VA now communicate regularly. Maffei was given a leading role in pressing two popular bills, to curb credit card practices deemed harmful to consumers and to protect auto dealers.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), a member of the class of '06, said he has had extensive discussions with top administration officials on financial regulatory reform, another Obama priority. When he expressed to a White House official his interest in talking with Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan about a piece of legislation, he got a call the next day setting the meeting for three days later. He has met with three other Cabinet officials to discuss bills.
"We're supposed to legislate. They're supposed to execute," he said of the relationship between Congress and the White House. "When you give people a chance to participate, you get people moving in the same direction."
At least some Republicans are also a focus of the outreach effort. Democrats are seeking support on health-care reform from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee. But GOP leaders complain that the phone calls and White House invitations have slacked off -- perhaps because Obama's early efforts to woo Republicans yielded few votes.
"I think that in the beginning they seemed a lot more willing to go in and engage with us," said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
So far, the major votes have broken along party lines, forcing Obama to rely almost entirely on his own diverse body of Democrats. Pressure built on them as last week's final energy vote drew near. Even Boucher was targeted when House Republicans circulated a letter from MeadWestvaco, a major employer in western Virginia, warning that 1,500 packaging jobs in Covington, Va., could be at risk.
Boucher, a 14-term incumbent, was unwavering, but others were unmoved. Altmire had bad news for Emanuel when his 2006 campaign mentor called Wednesday about the impending vote.
"I'm a firm no," Altmire replied. "I wouldn't waste any more time talking to me."