White House Cheat Sheet: Obama vs. Congress
Even as President Obama continues his whirlwind tour of Europe today with stops in France and Germany, Congress wraps up business and heads off for its first extended break since convening in early January.
The first six weeks of the 111th Congress have been dominated by the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate pushing through Obama's agenda -- from the $787 billion economic stimulus plan last month to the budget blueprint approved by the House and Senate last night.
Republicans have played their role as the loyal opposition, unanimously opposing the economic stimulus package on the House side but watching three GOP Senators defect to secure passage. The budget has been a rockier road as House Republicans faltered somewhat in the rollout of their alternative budget proposal last week.
So, what have we learned about Obama's attitude toward Congress -- and its efficacy -- in these first months? The Fix spoke with a variety of staffers -- Democrats and Republicans, aides in the House and Senate -- looking for answers to that question.
Here's what we found out:
• Style Points: Even Republicans who disagree with Obama on every policy matter applaud his outreach efforts as genuine. Early in the fight for the economic stimulus plan Obama courted Republicans through a variety of means -- from appearing at their conference meeting to inviting many of them to the White House for cocktails. At issue for Republicans is that while Obama and his senior aides are accessible, many GOP members don't believe their ideas are fully heard. "Republican Senators appreciate hearing from him, but what they would appreciate more is some indication that their concerns and ideas were actually heard," said one senior Republican leadership aide. Still, in a body as based on collegiality as Congress, Obama has made strides.
• Attention Has Been Paid: Unlike President Bush, who largely sought to empower the executive branch at the expense of the (Republican-controlled) Congress, Obama has been attentive to its needs -- particularly those of Democrats. "In reaction to the previous regime ... his team's touch comes across as lighter and more expansive with a wider array of members than the Congress has seen in the past several years," said Eric Ueland, a former chief of staff to then Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). The explanation? Obama, despite his outsider profile as a candidate, spent four years in the Senate before being elected to the White House and his chief of staff -- Rahm Emanuel -- is a former member of Congress who was on the fast track to becoming speaker before accepting his current post. Aside from Emanuel, Obama's senior staff has a heavy dose of Hill experience -- particularly deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, Sen. Max Baucus's (D-Mont.) longtime consigliere, and Pete Rouse, former Sen. Tom Daschle's (D-S.D.) right hand man. One senior Democratic House aide cautioned, however, that Obama risked "overexposure" with his frequent contact with the Hill. "He's gotta be careful not to take the shine off of the presidency," said the source. "If members get too much attention, than taking his call might not be as impactful."
• We're All in This Together: During a meeting with House Democrats on Monday night, Obama told the members: "If you think you can run away from us [meaning himself and House Democratic leaders], I'm sorry, that's not the way it works. We are all in this together." (The quote is a paraphrase from a source in the room.) Obama's emphasis on team -- that Democrats are only as strong as their weakest link -- is an interesting strategy aimed at trying to keep his party cohesive on the major ticket items of his agenda. It's also a recognition of the political reality that as Obama goes so go Democrats in 2010. One needs only to look back at people like former Rep. Chris Shays (Conn.) who regularly voted against President Bush but ultimately couldn't escape being labeled as a rubber stamp for an unpopular agenda. (Shays was defeated for reelection in 2008.) Will it work? On the budget proposal, just 20 House Democrats voted "no" -- the vast majority of which sit in districts carried by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) last fall.
What to Watch For:
Friday Day Lights: When the lights go up tonight, you'll want to have read these stories.
1. President Obama calls the G20 summit a "turning point" in the global economic recovery, and then poses for the greatest picture of all time.
2. The Dow rises again.
3. Pay-Rod: Indicted.
4. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) plans an attack on former Rep. Pat Toomey's (R) past support for deregulation of the financial industry.
5. "Friday Night Lights" -- the best show on television -- has been renewed for two more seasons. Slate's David Plotz and Mrs. Fix rejoice!
Biden in the Budget Fight: A strange set of circumstances led to Vice President Biden sticking around the Senate all last night for the sounds-like-more-fun-than-it-is vote-a-rama on the budget. With the Minnesota seat still vacant and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) still battling brain cancer and not voting, there were 98 Senators in attendance -- bringing up the possibility that there could be a tie on any of the many budget amendments. (It takes only simple majority to accept or reject the amendments.) And so, Biden who as vice president is tasked with breaking ties in the Senate spent the evening with his old colleagues -- just in case. (Hat tip: the omniscient Paul Kane who covers Congress for the Post.)
Census Fight Brewing: The nomination of Robert Groves, the director of the survey research center at the University of Michigan, to be the next head of the Census Bureau could well spark a partisan fight in Congress. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) immediately released a statement saying that the Groves pick makes "clear that he intends to employ the political manipulation of census data for partisan gain." At issue is Groves's support for something called statistical sampling which seeks to use mathematical modeling to approximate the number of people missed by the door to door count. Many Republicans oppose sampling -- citing the need to count every vote without the use of any sort of formulas or calculations. Although Groves immediately came under attack from some GOP circles, the survey research world jumped to his defense. Mark Blumenthal, a Democratic pollster who runs the pollster.com site, wrote "For those tempted to label Groves as the pawn of partisans in the White House or the Democratic party, I have a warning: The notion of Bob Groves yielding to partisanship is laughable."
Timing is Everything: On the same day that an independent poll showed him ahead of Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd (D) by 16 points, former Rep. Rob Simmons (R) formally announced his candidacy via video. "Senator Dodd has lost touch with the people of Connecticut," says Simmons in the video, noting that Dodd has "presided over the collapse" of the financial and housing markets before bashing the incumbent over his ties to Countrywide. "This isn't public service, it's self service," says Simmons. This race is going to be very nasty.
Alaska Republicans Call for Redo: Less than 24 hours after the Justice Department dropped its case against former Sen. Ted Stevens (R), the Alaska Republican Party called on Sen. Mark Begich (D) to resign and for a special election to be held. "The only reason Mark Begich won the election in November is because a few thousand Alaskans thought that Senator Ted Stevens was guilty of seven felonies," read the release from the state party. "A special election will allow Alaskans to have a real, non-biased, credible process where the most qualified person could win, without the manipulation of the Department of Justice." Interesting idea. Chances of it happening? Zero percent.
Click It!: Ever wonder what the heck happened with polling in the run-up to the New Hampshire Democratic primary? The American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) -- the coolest nerds we know -- have released a 123-page research document that provides exhaustive answers to any and all of your questions. The basic conclusion? Because of a small level of undecided voters in every poll, the estimates for each individual candidate were generally lower than the proportion of votes they received," reads the document. "And these underestimates tended to be greater for the first place
finisher than the second place finisher." Translation? Undecideds broke heavily to then Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Mack Out: Florida Rep. Connie Mack IV, once considered a near-certain candidate for the open Senate seat in the Sunshine State, removed himself from the race Thursday in a letter to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist(R). Mack notes that public reports suggest Crist is considering a run for Senate and that rather than potentially run against the governor, he is seeking reelection to his House seat and endorsing Crist. "As you contemplate your own political future, I will be your strongest supporter and champion -- regardless of whether you seek re-election or election to the Senate," wrote Mack. Mack's decision to step aside will ramp up speculation, which is already considerably ramped, that Crist is running to the Senate -- a race that, if he pursues, he would be heavily favored to win. Crist has essentially frozen the Republican field although former state House Speaker Marco Rubio has formed an exploratory committee.
Say What?: "Let the air out of their tires and do not let them out of their driveway on Election Day." -- Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) offers "advice" to Virginia Republicans on keeping opponents away from the polls during an appearance for gubernatorial nominee Bob McDonnell.
April 3, 2009; 5:55 AM ET
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