Obama vs. the liberals: Pass the tea to the left

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, December 17, 2009; A02

Tea parties -- they aren't just for conservatives anymore.

Liberals are turning against President Obama with an energy that until now has been reserved for Fox News viewers who wear tri-corner hats and wave yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in a news conference Wednesday, declares that she won't ask House members to support Obama's Afghanistan troop increase in a January vote. "The president's going to have to make his case," she says, calling it a "vote of conscience."

About the same time, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) holds a news conference to denounce Obama's renomination of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. "When the people voted for change in 2008," he says, "they did not vote to have one of the key architects of the Bush economy be reappointed."

Howard Dean goes on the radio and says of the Senate health-care bill, which Obama is fighting mightily to pass: "The best thing to do right now is kill the Senate bill."

MoveOn.org calls a protest outside the White House to demand that "the president to stand up to Joe Lieberman and fight for the health care reform principles he campaigned on."

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who gained fame by saying Republicans think Americans should "die quickly," holds a news conference to denounce Obama's Afghanistan policy and reads a petition on the House floor asking members to vote against sending more troops.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), in a series of outbursts, criticizes Obama over Afghanistan, health-care reform and the handling of the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Republicans, enjoying their rivals' intraparty squabble, circulated a compendium of quotes from Democrats criticizing one another and the White House: "The insurance lobby is taking over." . . . "A very sad state of affairs." . . . "The Obama administration is sitting on the sidelines." . . . "The White House has been useless." . . . "It's time for the president to get his hands dirty."

As Democrats attacked their own, the original tea party types had to raise their game to compete for attention. Luckily for them, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) had a plan. He went to the Senate floor just before noon Wednesday and asked Democrats to agree to an amendment to the health-care bill that "would certify that every member of the Senate has read the bill and understands it before they vote on the bill."

Understands it? Would there be a quiz? Would the exam be scored by the Congressional Budget Office? When Democrats understandably rejected this idea, Coburn responded with a parliamentary maneuver that stopped all action on the floor until the Senate clerk could read aloud every word of a 767-page amendment offered by Sanders.

"For purposes of section 1101(a)(5)(c)," read the clerk, "individuals described in this subsection are the following individuals . . ."

Sanders, purple in the face, beckoned furiously at Coburn, who smiled, winked and attended to his BlackBerry. "How long will it take?" Sanders asked a member of the floor staff.

She eyed the five-inch-tall printout of the amendment. "I don't know -- eight hours?" she answered.

One hundred thirty-nine pages and nearly three hours later, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) surrendered. He waved Sanders into the cloakroom. A few minutes later, Sanders emerged on the Senate floor and withdrew his amendment calling for government-run health care.

"This is nothing more than an ongoing stalling tactic on the part of the Republicans," Sanders complained of Coburn's stunt.

Sanders's complaint carried some irony, because he delivered it at a news conference he had called to explain why he had put a "hold," or a delay of his own, on Obama's renomination of Bernanke. "I am going to do everything I can to see that he is not reappointed," the senator vowed in front of nine television cameras. "I am requesting President Obama give us a new nominee."

In a case of unlucky timing, Time magazine a few hours earlier had named Bernanke its Person of the Year for his role in rescuing the world economy from collapse. Joining Sanders at the news conference, Robert Borosage of the liberal Campaign for America's Future said the Time award was "like celebrating an arsonist for helping put out the fire they had just put a match to."

After his complaints about Bernanke, Sanders offered his complaints about the health-care legislation: "I am talking to the Democratic leadership, trying my best to salvage some positive things in this bill, so I am not on board yet." The senator, who complained personally to Obama about the health bill on Tuesday, observed: "I've been raising a lot of concerns lately with President Obama."

In that, he certainly isn't alone. Sanders and Borosage released a list of activists joining the call for a delay on Bernanke's confirmation. Among them: Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks.

FreedomWorks? Yup, that's the conservative outfit at the center of the anti-Obama tea party movement. Said Sanders: "There are some very strange bedfellows coming together."

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