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Obama's plans to travel overseas as health vote nears draw criticism

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 18, 2010; A04

There are always so many last-minute details to attend to before a trip abroad: Tickets. Packing luggage. Passing major health-care legislation.

Some Democrats in Congress are worrying that President Obama may be making a mistake by traveling overseas next week, just when his year-long push for a health-care overhaul could come up for a final vote in the Senate.

"The timing is ill-advised. We need all hands on deck," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). "If nothing else, the atmospherics it creates by being on the foreign trip when we're doing the heavy lifting on this is wrong. If I were asked, I'd tell him to postpone it."

Few lawmakers were willing to voice such criticism of their president, who will leave Sunday for a five-day excursion to Indonesia, Guam and Australia. The trip has already been delayed by three days so Obama could be in Washington for the House's vote, but the timing for that vote keeps getting pushed back.

As planning for the trip races ahead, one top Democratic aide on Capitol Hill said conversations between the White House and lawmakers about his departure have been tense.

"It's fair to say that when the White House staff broached this with House and Senate leadership staff, they heard very serious concerns about it," said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private strategy talks. "They know damn well that we have concerns."

Those concerns grew more urgent Wednesday as Democrats continued to wait for the Congressional Budget Office to "score" the cost of the health-care legislation, raising fears that a vote may be delayed until Sunday.

As it stands now, the president and many of his top advisers intend to board Air Force One early Sunday morning. And so the question has been bandied about all over Washington in the past several days: Is he really going, especially if the House vote hasn't taken place?

Officially, the answer is yes. Press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that Obama has made the importance of the trip clear to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). Gibbs noted that Vice President Biden and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel will stay in Washington. Senior adviser David Axelrod is planning to travel with the president but could stay behind.

"I think, obviously, the president believes that's enormously important," Gibbs said of the trip.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Timothy M. Kaine said that Obama's departure does not "overly trouble" him. "I'm not worried about the president doing America's work abroad for a few days," he said.

But the decision to leave raises all sorts of "what if?" scenarios.

What if the House passes the health-care bill this weekend and it heads to the Senate, only to run into a procedural buzz saw that requires presidential mediation?

On the other hand, what if the House vote fails, leaving the president's agenda in tatters? Wouldn't Democrats want their best messenger around to respond to the torrent of "I told you so's" that would come from Republicans?

Absolutely, Connolly said.

"He's our spokesperson in chief, framing the issue," he said. "And I don't want him framing the issue from Jakarta."

Mike McCurry, who was a spokesman in the Clinton White House, disagreed. The president, he said, "can celebrate, commiserate, cajole or compel long-distance. Air Force One has a bunch of phones, including the red one. And I rather suspect the press will be there to record any word that needs to get uttered."

Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman who served under George W. Bush, offered a different bit of advice:

"The Democrats would be furious if he left just as they needed him most, and they'd be able to blame him for their losses in November," she said. "That might happen anyway. Of course, if the Democrats realize they don't have the votes, I'd say 'Wheels up, Mr. President,' to get the heck out of Dodge."

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