Monday, August 3, 2009

Democrats Show Strain of Heated Battles


WASHINGTON -- A bruising session marked by politically volatile legislation strained relations between congressional Democrats and the White House and spawned cracks in the party's coalition.

Since Mr. Obama's inauguration, Congress has enacted a stream of significant legislation. The gamut runs from an economic-stimulus package, children's health care, pay parity for women, tobacco regulation, consumer credit-card protections, public service and land conservation, in addition to key budget bills.

But on some marquee issues, White House officials and Democratic congressional leaders concede the schedule has slipped -- while noting that nothing major has failed. In addition, some Democrats say their colleagues misunderstand the White House role, which is to shape public discourse and resolve party disputes, not dictate policy specifics.

Many of the Democrats' internal disputes stem from growing friction between the party's conservative and liberal wings. Several years ago, then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D., Ill.), in an all-out push to retake Congress, aggressively recruited conservative Democratic candidates.

Now Mr. Emanuel, as White House chief of staff, finds the very lawmakers he courted slowing the more-progressive president's agenda. Some liberals complain Mr. Obama is overly protective of those newly elected Democrats and too willing to cut deals.

"The chickens are coming home to roost," said Rep. Maxine Waters, an outspoken liberal Democrat from California.

Conservatives Democrats have their own complaints. Mr. Obama and his top aides have worked diligently to show they are heeding conservatives' concerns about a health-care overhaul's costs. But the president's political operatives -- at the Democratic National Committee and the grassroots group Organizing for America -- haven't been so solicitous.

Television ads running in some moderates' districts urging support for Mr. Obama's health initiative left them feeling bullied and betrayed. "Those ads really created problems," one House leadership aide said.

Other Democrats complain that by not providing enough clarity on where the health-care overhaul is headed, the White House has left them exposed politically as they face constituents' scrutiny -- and rivals' attacks -- during the August recess.

"Specificity is what is needed," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein. "What's most helpful now is: 'This will reduce costs, and here is precisely how.' " Asked if the White House had provided this specificity, the California Democrat said, "No."

Republicans are seizing on the tensions to bolster their criticism of the Democratic agenda. "Many within the president's own party are now standing up and telling the administration to slow down and reassess," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said this week.

Similar unhappiness surrounds the president's energy initiative, which was meant to reduce carbon emissions in the hope of slowing global warming. Mr. Obama chose not to spend political capital stumping for the House measure, while Republicans have been savaging moderate Democrats for supporting what they call a "cap-and-tax" bill.

Some argue that Mr. Obama's relations with his party are good, by historical standards. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton alienated fellow Democrats almost immediately with their perceived disdain for Congress.

Mr. Obama, a former U.S. senator, has been solicitous of lawmakers and put Capitol Hill veterans in key positions, from Mr. Emanuel to Budget Director Peter Orszag, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office.

When Mr. Obama took office in January, Democratic leaders set high expectations that they would accomplish almost as much as the New Deal Democrats of the 1930s.

Then, in May, Mr. Obama demanded that Congress provide money to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but declined to specify what would happen to its inmates. Afraid of being accused of releasing terrorists into their districts, Democrats rebelled and refused to allocate the funds.

One unexpected problem was a breakdown in the White House's legislative game plan. The Senate was supposed to move before the House on health care, officials say, giving skittish House members assurance before they moved forward on the difficult issue.

Instead, the House kept its end of the bargain, pushing through a climate bill only to find the Senate stuck on health care and doing nothing on energy.

On health care, "I just think that they are giving out a very poor message," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a liberal Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats. "At the end of the day, if they think everyone will be so excited because they passed something, I think that is wrong both from a public-policy and a political perspective."

Minnesota Rep. James Oberstar and other Democrats, meanwhile, have sharply criticized an administration move to postpone a roughly $500 billion transportation bill.

Looking ahead to the fall session, dissatisfaction is growing as campaign promises give way to the nitty-gritty of legislating. "Our fear, or concern, is that the legislative branch not become a cheerleader for the executive branch," said Democratic Rep. John Tanner of Tennessee.

Write to Naftali Bendavid at and Jonathan Weisman at

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