Eyeing midterms, Democrats to push Republicans to go on record against key bills

(Susan Walsh/associated Press)
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By Scott Wilson
Saturday, February 13, 2010

President Obama has reached out to Republicans in recent weeks, acknowledging that he needs bipartisan support to effectively govern the country. But the White House and congressional Democrats are also hedging their bets with a plan to make a campaign issue of what they say is Republican intransigence.

The emerging strategy seeks to take advantage of the partisan stalemate in Congress over Obama's nominees and major policy initiatives, and to turn the page on a year when the White House failed to secure passage of complicated health-care and energy legislation.

The idea is to make Republicans either vote for a series of more modest bills identified as popular with the public or explain to constituents this fall why they opposed them.

The decision by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to offer a pared-down jobs-creation bill and dare the GOP to oppose it is the most visible sign of the plan so far. White House officials and congressional staff members say it will be followed in coming weeks by a House vote to lift the antitrust exemption for insurance companies, measures to assist small businesses and extend unemployment benefits, and a proposal to levy fees on Wall Street banks that received bailout money.

One senior White House official called the strategy an attempt "to force progress," at a time when polls show that the public wants bipartisan cooperation.

"If they support the measures, great," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy. "But if not, the votes will show their hypocrisy and obstruction, which will demonstrate something in itself."

But the strategy carries risks for Obama and congressional Democrats, who saw their filibuster-proof majority disappear last month with the election of Massachusetts Republican Scott P. Brown to the Senate.

Some of the measures the White House plans to push this year are not popular with all congressional Democrats, including the proposal to impose fees on large banks that accepted federal bailout money. And Democrats have also used some of the same arcane delaying tactics that they now criticize Republicans for employing, including Obama himself when he served in the Senate.

"If your public position is bipartisanship and your legislative stance is division, I don't think that works politically," said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Working with Democratic congressional leaders, a White House senior staff heavy with Hill veterans has helped design a legislative strategy to regain the political initiative early in the election season. Obama made bipartisanship a key element of his State of the Union address, and since then he has appeared at a Republican policy forum and invited GOP leaders to meet with him to discuss the economy and health care. He has paired the overtures with more explicit criticism of Republican lawmakers for what he has called politically motivated opposition.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll this week showed that a clear majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the way the federal government is functioning during economic uncertainty and an enduring threat of terrorism. Most Americans place the onus on Republicans, with nearly six in 10 saying the GOP is not doing enough on important issues to compromise with Obama. He remains more personally popular than Congress even though Republicans have gained significant ground as the party perceived to be better able to manage major issues.

Senior administration officials say Republicans are responding to Obama's public pressure. At a Tuesday news conference, Obama singled out Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) -- without naming the senator -- for holding up dozens of executive-branch nominations to secure funding for two projects in his state. Obama threatened to fill some jobs with recess appointments while the Senate is adjourned for a week for the Presidents' Day holiday.

Shelby had lifted most of those holds by then, and on Thursday night the Senate approved 27 Obama nominees. In a statement, Obama noted sharply that dozens of nominees remain unconfirmed, although he backed off his threat to use recess appointments.

Earlier that day, two key Republican senators, Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), agreed to help pass financial regulatory reform legislation and a jobs bill, respectively. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that the senators were "responding to both the political pressure of the president" and "to the political pressure from the American people."

Republican cooperation on the revised jobs bill is uncertain, even though it continues to include hiring incentives sponsored by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). In proposing the new bill, Reid told reporters, "Republicans have to make a choice. I don't know in logic what they could say to oppose this."

Grassley's office issued a statement saying that Reid's move "sends a message that he wants to go partisan and blame Republicans."

The statement also said: "The majority leader pulled the rug out from work to build broad-based support for tax relief and other efforts to help the private sector recover from the economic crisis."

Reid heard complaints from the left wing of his caucus that Republican-favored tax breaks in the previous jobs bill overly benefited big-business interests. While he received Grassley's support, Reid never got McConnell's guarantee that the bill would be allowed to come to a floor vote. Reid cut $70 billion from the $85 billion bill, including an extension of unemployment benefits favored by Democrats.

"The Republicans will be asked to drop their criticism, which is out there today, and support the bill when the Senate comes back," said Jim Manley, Reid's spokesman. "Otherwise, they will seal their role as the party of no."

Forcing Republicans to cast votes on popular legislation resembles the approach adopted by then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2006 midterm election season.

Emanuel, now Obama's chief of staff, pushed for votes on several bills, including a measure to expand children's state health insurance, to establish a Republican voting record to campaign against that year. The Democrats captured the House by winning 30 seats, and Emanuel's tactics were credited in part for the success.

Reid and Emanuel speak daily, according to a senior Senate Democratic leadership aide, who noted that there is "close coordination" between the White House and congressional Democrats on strategy for the year ahead.

"We're not looking for gimmicky issues that can make for good 30-second ads," the senior Obama administration official said. "We're not going to force symbolic votes that take 30 hours of debate on someone who is not going to be approved at the expense of a jobs bill."

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