An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were the only Democrats to address a meeting Tuesday night. The story has been corrected to note that other Democrats also spoke at the meeting.
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House Democrats hit boiling point over perceived lack of White House support
House members complain that the White House routinely shows them disrespect. Until recently, some said, administration aides would wait until the last minute to inform them when a Cabinet official would be traveling to their districts to give a speech or announce a government grant. Lawmakers love these events, which let them take advantage of local press coverage.
House Democrats are far more upset that they have repeatedly voted to support Obama's agenda and then felt they were left to fend for themselves when the legislation was watered down in the Senate. First with the nearly $800 billion stimulus plan and then again with the landmark health-care bill, House members approved far-reaching, controversial early versions that reflected the White House's desires. But the bills stalled in the Senate under Republican filibuster threats and were scaled back. Now these lawmakers are left to defend their earlier votes on the campaign trail.
Some representatives from industrial states are especially angry over their efforts to enact climate change legislation. At the urging of the president and Pelosi, the House narrowly approved a controversial bill in June 2009. But more than a year later, the Senate has yet to take up the issue, leaving lawmakers feeling as if the White House pushed them to take a huge political risk -- and one they now have to explain to the voters -- for nothing.
"My experience is, we always feel neglected. The experience the Republicans had with Bush -- they felt neglected. That's the nature of the relationship between the House and the White House," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) said before Wednesday night's White House huddle. "Tonight's all about coordination, focus, going forward, how we maximize our message."
House leaders have begun to keep close track of Obama's campaign trips. By congressional and White House estimates, Obama has done four events benefiting nine House Democratic candidates, and one event solely for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the political organization that raises money for House candidates. He's headlined a pair of joint fundraisers for the DCCC and other party committees. (Vice President Biden has been the go-to figure for House Democrats, playing the emcee at 29 events benefiting 36 candidates.)
By contrast, Obama has attended headline events for Senate Democratic candidates in 10 states. The broader complaint, from both liberals and moderates, is that a White House led by former members of Congress now seems out of touch with their needs.
"The Democrats have overreached, and that's one reason why there are so many races in play," said Rep. Chet Edwards (Tex.), a centrist facing his toughest election in years. "Rahm Emanuel knows as well as anyone the challenges moderate and conservative Democrats face in their districts. I think there are some, in the administration and in Congress, who don't fully understand the political dynamics."
Obama's recent promotion of comprehensive immigration reform and a South Korea trade deal exacerbated those tensions, pushing issues that do not play well in conservative districts. It also angered liberals who see little hope of passing those issues through the Senate and are tired of watching endangered House colleagues forced into tough votes.
One House Democrat compared their relationship with the White House to the 1970s Life commercials starring "Mikey," the kid whose brothers trick him into eating the cereal. "There's a sense that's the White House's attitude toward us," the lawmaker said. "And now, Mikey ate it and he's choking on it, and there's no appreciation."