Pelosi plays down tensions between White House, Democratic lawmakers

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2010; 12:46 PM

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday sought to play down reports of tension between Democratic lawmakers and the White House, saying that President Obama and his team have been "cooperative" with their reelection efforts and would be even more so in the future.

House Democrats have lashed out in recent days at the White House, venting long-suppressed anger over what they see as Obama's lukewarm efforts to help them win reelection. They have accused administration officials of undermining the party's chances of retaining the House majority in November's midterm elections.

At her weekly news briefing Thursday, less than 48 hours after she and other House Democrats criticized Obama's political operation at a private caucus meeting, she said she and her fellow leaders visited the White House on Wednesday to smooth over the tension and discuss the legislative agenda.

"We had a very positive meeting with the president yesterday," Pelosi said. "Our major focus was on jobs. . . . There is absolutely no reason to think that the White House has been anything but cooperative with us in terms of our political efforts to retain control of Congress."

The current flare-up was sparked by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs's public comments over the weekend that the House majority was in doubt and that it would take "strong campaigns by Democrats" to avert dramatic losses.

Pelosi said Thursday that "whatever comment may have been made has nothing to do with what the president is doing and what the president is saying himself."

As for whether Obama will be spending more time on the campaign trail helping House Democrats, Pelosi said he would do "more than he has, certainly," but not as a result of this week's dispute.

"Nothing is different because of any comment that was made," she said.

Many Democratic House members believe that they have dutifully gone along with the White House on politically risky issues -- including the stimulus plan, the health-care overhaul and climate change -- without seeing much, if anything, in return. Many of them are angry that Obama has actively campaigned for Democratic Senate candidates but has done fewer events for House members.

The boiling point came Tuesday night during a closed meeting of House Democrats in the Capitol. Pelosi excoriated Gibbs's public comments over the weekend that the House majority was in doubt and that it would take "strong campaigns by Democrats" to avert dramatic losses.

"What the hell do they think we've been doing the last 12 months? We're the ones who have been taking the tough votes," Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (N.J.) said in an interview Wednesday.

Attempting to quell the uprising, Obama met privately with House Democratic leaders Wednesday evening to reassure them of his support. Aides said the meeting went well and focused on the agenda in the run-up to the elections.

Before the meeting, Gibbs sought to play down the tensions, describing his relationship with Pelosi as "cordial." He stood by his earlier remarks that the House could flip to the Republicans but again expressed confidence that Democrats would retain control. Another Democratic official, familiar with White House strategy, said that there is a "misperception" among House Democrats that Obama, a former senator, favors his old chamber over the House. The official placed the blame largely on polling data that continue to show the president and Congress in poor shape.

Though politically provocative, Gibbs's comments -- first on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday and again at his regular briefing Monday -- were largely seen as accurate in Washington. Analysts estimate that about 60 Democratic House seats are in jeopardy; Republicans need a net gain of 39 to claim the majority. But the press secretary's public airing of the dire situation reinforced the feeling among House Democrats that Obama's priority is building a firewall around the Senate majority.

"What they wanted to do is separate themselves from us," Pascrell said Wednesday. He accused the White House of wanting to preemptively pin the blame on lawmakers running poor campaigns should Democrats lose the majority and not on Obama's own sagging approval ratings.

At the Tuesday night meeting with Pelosi, lawmakers groused that the White House was taking them for granted. Pascrell was especially vocal and punctuated his complaints by reading Gibbs's comments word for word in front of the caucus. After he spoke, Pelosi interjected. "I disagree on one point -- I think you were too kind to Mr. Gibbs," she said, according to Democrats familiar with her comments. Publicly, the speaker and other members of the leadership have distanced themselves from Pascrell's view that Gibbs's remarks were part of a White House plan.

Pascrell and Pelosi were the most vocal in their direct, blunt criticism of the White House. But interviews with more than 10 lawmakers and senior aides, from liberal and conservative districts, made it clear that scores of House Democrats at the gathering shared Pascrell's and Pelosi's dissatisfaction. Most of those interviewed did not want to be quoted by name criticizing the president.

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."

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