After Obama speech, Democrats confused about path ahead

By Paul Kane and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010; A01

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."

GOP leaders showed little interest in the constructive collaboration that Obama called for in his speech, criticizing most of his policy proposals, including his job-creation agenda, because it would rely on rerouting money from the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program. "Everybody's for jobs, but I'm not for maxing out the credit cards using TARP funds," said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.). "I think there's a right way and a wrong way to do it, and that's not the right way."

Discord on jobs bill

Widespread disagreement remains among Democrats on what the jobs bill should include when they return it to the forefront. Pelosi pushed through a $154 billion stimulus plan in December, filled with an expansion of unemployment and health-care benefits as well as new infrastructure spending. Senate Democrats have been met with resistance from moderates who objected to such a high cost.

The initial offering from Senate Democrats is expected to include tax credits for job creation by small businesses, followed by a broader effort in the spring. Reid has delayed announcing the first proposals so he can incorporate several of the ones Obama offered, including shaving $30 billion from TARP and sending it to community banks to boost lending to small businesses.

Obama will prod Democrats on the issue Friday, when he plans to announce a $33 billion package of tax breaks aimed at encouraging businesses to hire new workers and give their employees raises.

Several Democrats said Republican Scott Brown's Senate victory in Massachusetts takes the burden off them to deliver every vote for critical legislation, giving them an opportunity to frame Republicans in an unfavorable light on key issues. One senior Senate Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk about internal caucus discussions, said his party did not hold Republicans accountable last year when they tried to filibuster funding for Veterans Affairs hospitals and the Pentagon's budget.

Some Republicans said they shared Obama's frustration that Congress had become so polarized that urgent problems are festering. Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) said one test would come with the financial regulatory overhaul bill taking shape in the Senate banking committee. "We have a great chance of passing a bipartisan bill if the destructive forces that exist here in Washington don't overtake the process," he said.

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