After Obama speech, Democrats confused about path ahead

The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza discuss President Obama's State of the Union speech and the Republican response by Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell.
By Paul Kane and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010

A day after President Obama called on them to renew efforts to pass his ambitious agenda, congressional Democrats remained in disarray Thursday about how to move forward, with at least some pointing at the White House as the cause of the legislative standstill gripping Capitol Hill.

Democrats left town early Thursday weighing their next steps on everything from the stalled health-care bill to competing job-creation packages. Before they departed, some criticized Obama for casting blame on the Senate, where moderates felt singled out for ridicule. Others sought to shift the burden to the GOP, latching on to Obama's call for Republicans to share responsibility for governing after a devastating special-election loss left Democrats a vote shy of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Still others said the president's calls for bipartisanship were wishful thinking and suggested that daring Republicans to block their ambitious agenda would set up a "liberating" contrast for November's midterm elections.

"We also have the responsibility, if we can't find that common ground, to stand our ground on principles," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), rejecting bipartisanship as a goal unto itself. "If we can't find a bipartisan way to do it, we are not going to say, 'Well, if it is not bipartisan, we are not going to do it.' We are going to do what we believe."

The first order of business continues to be the far-reaching health-care bill that Obama once considered the cornerstone of his domestic agenda but that took a back seat to the economy in his State of the Union address Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said he felt "a little bit" more confident about the health-care bill's prospects after Obama sought to rally the 48 million Americans who watched the speech.

"I think he did a good job of laying out the problem," Reid said.

Reid and Pelosi said they remain stalled on the most likely option for moving ahead on health-care reform. That would require the Senate to pass a bill, through a parliamentary move requiring a simple majority, resolving issues in its version of the legislation that have prompted objections from House Democrats. That would allow the House to then approve the Senate's measure, thus avoiding another vote on the entire bill in the Senate, where it would almost certainly face a successful 41-vote filibuster by Republicans.

Pelosi, reiterating her opposition to simply passing the Senate legislation, said it is only "75 percent the same" as the House bill and mocked Obama for suggesting that the two measures are 90 percent similar.

Democratic criticism

Moderates said the president did not meet their hopes that he would adjust his legislative strategy to consider the Senate's limitations, including the need for Republican votes on most major bills. "I thought he was pointing the finger at the Senate a lot," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). "I do not think it was fair."

Landrieu echoed the concern of several Democrats who said Obama still has not stated his preference on how to proceed on health-care reform. "I think the president should have been more clear," she said. "I'm hoping in the next week or two, he will be. Mailing in general suggestions, sending them over the transom, is not necessarily going to work."

Other Democrats said they wish Obama had been a more direct part of the legislative process.

"Right now, the president needs to become totally involved in domestic policy," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.). "Rather than call for a bill [to be approved], send a bill [himself]."

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said the mistake was not keeping the emphasis on ways to fix the economy and create jobs throughout 2009. "I think that the recession has proven to be much longer and deeper than he thought it would be," Bingaman said. "Hindsight being 20/20, we should have kept more focus on that. . . . There have been so many issues and events that have intervened, it's been hard to keep a focus on the economy."

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