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Obama Hits a Bailout Iceberg

By Dan Froomkin
12:39 PM ET, 03/18/2009


Does Obama have a Geithner problem? (Chip Somodevilla/Bloomberg News)

The public furor over the outrageous bonuses granted to AIG executives isn't exactly misdirected. It's just that the bonuses are really only a minor symptom of a major problem that President Obama has yet to sufficiently address.

As part of its massive financial bailout program, the federal government has spent $180 billion on AIG, and now owns 80 percent of the company. But the company's CEO still decided to pay out $165 million in bonuses -- to some of the very people most responsible for the cataclysm we face today.

Why couldn't the government stop this? Well, it's still not entirely clear just how hard the White House and the Treasury Department really tried. But this wouldn't have been an issue if we had simply taken AIG over outright.

Yes, we need to know more about the White House decision-making process here. But more to the point, President Obama needs to make it clear to the American people -- if he can -- why these banks and insurance companies shouldn't be under the direct control of the taxpayers who have spent so much money bailing them out.

And, yes, we know that Obama's top economic advisers tell him that's not a good idea. But he needs to explain why he believes them. And even more so, he needs to explain -- if he can -- why he thinks the growing number of outside economists who think that short-term nationalization is the only reasonable answer are wrong.

Washington Post opinion columnist Harold Meyerson argues this morning that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is the problem, and that "Geithner's indulgence of bankers' indulgences is fast becoming the Obama administration's Achilles' heel. The AIG debacle is the latest in a series of bewildering Geithner decisions that threaten to undermine the administration's efforts to restart the economy. So long as it's Be Kind to Bankers Week at Treasury -- and we've had eight straight such weeks since the president was inaugurated -- American banking, and the economy it is supposed to serve, will remain paralyzed. The Geithner plan to restart the banks provides huge taxpayer subsidies to hedge funds, investment banks and private equity companies to buy the banks' toxic assets without really having to assume the risk. That's right -- the same Wall Street wizards who got us into this mess, using the same securitization techniques that built mountains of debt within a shadow financial system that remains unregulated, are the saviors whom Geithner has anointed to extricate us -- with our capital, not theirs -- from the mess that they created.

"A more plausible solution would be for the government to assume control of those banks that are insolvent, as it routinely does when banks go under. It could then install new management, wipe out the shareholders, take the devalued assets off the banks' books, restart lending and restore the banks to private control at a modest profit for the taxpayers. There may be reasons that Geithner's plan makes more sense than this one, but if they exist, Geithner has failed to explain them."

It seems to me now would be a good time to review some of the earlier arguments for nationalization.

Let's see. Here's New York Times opinion columnist (and Nobel Prize winning economist) Paul Krugman: "First, some major banks are dangerously close to the edge — in fact, they would have failed already if investors didn't expect the government to rescue them if necessary.

"Second, banks must be rescued. The collapse of Lehman Brothers almost destroyed the world financial system, and we can't risk letting much bigger institutions like Citigroup or Bank of America implode.

"Third, while banks must be rescued, the U.S. government can't afford, fiscally or politically, to bestow huge gifts on bank shareholders....

"How would nationalization take place? All the administration has to do is take its own planned 'stress test' for major banks seriously, and not hide the results when a bank fails the test, making a takeover necessary...

"What we have now isn't private enterprise, it's lemon socialism: banks get the upside but taxpayers bear the risks. And it's perpetuating zombie banks, blocking economic recovery."

Here are Matthew Richardson and Nouriel Roubini writing in a Washington Post opinion piece: "As free-market economists teaching at a business school in the heart of the world's financial capital, we feel downright blasphemous proposing an all-out government takeover of the banking system. But the U.S. financial system has reached such a dangerous tipping point that little choice remains.....

"Nationalization -- call it 'receivership' if that sounds more palatable... is the only option that would permit us to solve the problem of toxic assets in an orderly fashion and finally allow lending to resume. Of course, the economy would still stink, but the death spiral we are in would end."

Here's former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich writing for Talking Points Memo: "The real scandal of AIG isn't just that American taxpayers have so far committed $170 billion to the giant insurer because it is thought to be too big to fail -- the most money ever funneled to a single company by a government since the dawn of capitalism -- nor even that AIG's notoriously failing executives, at the very unit responsible for the catastrophic credit-default swaps at the very center of the debacle, are planning to give themselves over $100 million in bonuses. The scandal is that even at this late date, even in a new administration dedicated to doing it all differently, Americans still have so little say over what is happening with our money....

"To whom should they be accountable? As long as taxpayers effectively own a large portion of them, they should be accountable to the government.

"But if our very own Secretary of the Treasury doesn't even learn of the bonuses until months after AIG has decided to pay them, and cannot make stick his decision that they should not be paid, AIG is not even accountable to the government. That means AIG's executives -- using $170 billion of our money, so far -- are accountable to no one."

And for good measure, here's that radical former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, talking to the Financial Times a month ago: "It may be necessary to temporarily nationalise some banks in order to facilitate a swift and orderly restructuring.... I understand that once in a hundred years this is what you do."

Why are you so sure all these people are wrong, Mr. President?

Obama addressed the nationalization issue briefly in a Feb. 10 interview with ABC's Terry Moran.

"Well, you know, it's interesting," he said "There are two countries who have gone through some big financial crises over the last decade or two. One was Japan, which never really acknowledged the scale and magnitude of the problems in their banking system and that resulted in what's called 'The Lost Decade.' They kept on trying to paper over the problems. The markets sort of stayed up because the Japanese government kept on pumping money in. But, eventually, nothing happened and they didn't see any growth whatsoever.

"Sweden, on the other hand, had a problem like this. They took over the banks, nationalized them, got rid of the bad assets, resold the banks and, a couple years later, they were going again. So you'd think looking at it, Sweden looks like a good model. Here's the problem; Sweden had like five banks. [He laughs.] We've got thousands of banks. You know, the scale of the U.S. economy and the capital markets are so vast and the problems in terms of managing and overseeing anything of that scale, I think, would -- our assessment was that it wouldn't make sense. And we also have different traditions in this country."

But as Krugman responded in his blog: "Yes, we have thousands of banks — but the problems are concentrated in a handful of big players. In fact, the Geithner plan, such as it is, already acknowledges this: the 'stress test' is to be applied only to banks with assets over $100 billion, of which there are supposed to be around 14.

"And the argument that our culture won't stand for nationalization — well, our culture isn't too friendly towards bank bailouts of any kind. Yet those bailouts are necessary; and even in America they may be more palatable if taxpayers at least get to throw the bums out."

Meanwhile, for good measure, the AIG scandal is making Geithner's preferred alternative to nationalization even more problematic. David Cho and Binyamin Appelbaum write in The Washington Post: "The firestorm over bonuses paid by insurance giant American International Group has triggered alarm at other financial firms, threatening federal efforts to draw private investors into economic recovery programs.

"It is a critical juncture for the Obama administration. Officials at the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department are increasingly worried that the controversy could discourage investors from joining a new government effort to revive consumer lending as well as a separate plan that relies on private money to buy toxic assets from banks, sources familiar with the matter said. Treasury officials planned to outline that second program as early as this week."

So. What about what the White House knew and when?

Shailagh Murray, Paul Kane and Michael D. Shear write in The Washington Post: "Senior White House officials said last night that President Obama did not learn that bonuses worth $165 million were to be paid to executives of American International Group until Thursday, one day before they were issued and two days after his Treasury secretary was informed that the payments were going forward."

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes for the Associated Press: "So far, the administration has been unable to match its actions to Obama's tough rhetoric on executive compensation....

"While administration officials insisted Tuesday that neither Obama nor Geithner learned of the impending bonus payments until last week, the problem wasn't new. AIG's plans to pay hundreds of millions of dollars were publicized last fall, when Congress started asking questions about expensive junkets the company had sponsored. A November SEC filing by the company details more than $469 million in 'retention payments' to keep prized employees.....

"Around the same time, Congress and Obama's team were passing up an opportunity to put in place strict laws to revoke bonuses from recipients of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout."

Davis also adds one key element to the timeline: "Unprompted, officials leaked news of the bonuses to select reporters late Saturday afternoon, highlighting what Geithner had done to try to restrain the payments. The story quickly became fodder for the Sunday news talk shows."

Should the White House have let those checks go out in the first place? More and more experts say no.

New York Times business columnist David Leonhardt this morning suggests ideas for "how to change the rules on corporate pay to reduce the odds of future crises. Throughout this crisis, policy makers, starting with President George Bush and Ben Bernanke and now including President Obama, have been a bit too deferential to Wall Street. That deference has fed populist anger, which threatens the political viability of the necessary continuing bailout of the credit markets."

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column: "The president needs to brush back the arrogant, greedy creeps who kneecapped capitalism, rather than cosseting Wall Street for fear of looking like an avatar of socialism."

California, Here Obama Comes

By Dan Froomkin
12:25 PM ET, 03/18/2009

President Obama kicks off his Southern California trip later today with a town hall meeting in Orange County -- kind of a gutsy move, considering that the county is widely considered one of the nation's great bastions of conservatism.

Dena Bunis and Martin Wiskol write in the Orange County Register: "What better place to demonstrate that President Barack Obama will go anywhere and before any kind of audience to sell his fix for the economy than Orange County?

"White House officials won't say how they decided to include a town hall in Costa Mesa in the leader of the free world's first trip to California as president. Or even why the Golden State made his first 100 days list....

"Some local politicians and people who have worked to bring the president here have their theories about why O.C. made the cut.

"'I think this is an ideal place if you want to reach out to people and have an open forum where you potentially are going to have a hostile audience,'' said Orange County Democratic Party Chairman Frank Barbaro....

"'If he went to Los Angeles or San Francisco, it would be seen as preaching to the choir,' said Wylie Aitken, chairman of the Democratic Foundation of Orange County. 'My sense of it is that it will play very well to the national audience. I think this shows how strong a grasp he has on what it takes to be a great communicator.'

"Republican Michael Schroeder, a former GOP state chairman, agrees that by coming to Orange County Obama is saying "I can go anywhere."'"

Then again, Obama's visit could say more about Orange County than about him. Carla Marinucci writes in the San Franciso Chronicle: "President Obama's decision to kick off his first official visit to California with a town hall meeting in Orange County says it all: Change really has come to the hard-core Republican stronghold."

Indeed, as Jonathan Darman wrote recently in Newsweek: "In November, a place that fancies itself 'the reddest county in America' gave the Democratic nominee for president nearly 48 percent of the vote."

Also consider that the largest concentration of sub-prime lenders was headquartered in Orange County when the meltdown began, and that the county has been devastated by the foreclosure crisis.

Judging from the long and enthusiastic lines to get tickets on Tuesday, it's unlikely too many sharp critics will be in the audience today.

Jennifer Muir and Niyaz Pirani write for the Orange County Register: "White House officials started handing out tickets to the town hall meeting at 10 a.m. this morning, as thousands of people waited in a line that snaked around the fairgrounds parking lot for a chance to attend the town hall meeting.

"The scene was like the outside of a rock concert, onlookers said.

"Five minutes before the gate into the Orange County fairgrounds ticket booth opened, the front of the line spontaneously erupted into a wave."

The Register also asked folks in line what they'd ask Obama.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board notes Obama's planned stop in Burbank to appear on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno": "This has set tongues wagging in the capital not only because it's the first time a sitting president has done such a thing -- although late-night TV appearances are common for presidential candidates, Obama's predecessors have considered them beneath the dignity of the office once they were elected -- but because it's combined with a snub of the Beltway media elite. Even as he bypasses the press to take his message straight to Leno's 5 million viewers, Obama is ditching Washington's movers and shakers by skipping the Gridiron Club's annual dinner on Saturday. He's the first president to do so since Grover Cleveland."

Torture Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:20 PM ET, 03/18/2009

By all rights, journalist Mark Danner's recent exposé -- based on a confidential report from the International Red Cross that definitively classified the CIA's treatment of terror suspects as torture -- should have spurred government officials into action. At the very least, it should have permanently changed the public discourse.

But so far, not so much.

Peter Finn writes in The Washington Post: "The ACLU called on Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. yesterday to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate allegations of torture at CIA secret prisons, following the leak last weekend of a secret report by the International Committee of the Red Cross....

"Although Holder described waterboarding as torture during his confirmation hearings, the Obama administration has shown little willingness to support an investigation of interrogation techniques undertaken while George W. Bush was president....

"'Allegations of crimes is not a discretionary matter,' said Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the ACLU. Romero argued that Holder must act to meet the obligations of his office.

"The civil liberties groups also said time is running out for any criminal investigation into the interrogation of the first major terrorism suspect captured after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, a Saudi-born Palestinian better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Zubaida."

Legal blogger Brian Tamanaha writes: "Those who suggest that such an investigation would be political have matters exactly upside-down: given the ample credible evidence that the law has been violated, it would be political to decide to not conduct a criminal investigation."

And Matt Corley reports for Thinkprogress.org on Danner's appearance on C-Span yesterday, in which Danner "took the press to task for engaging in a 'semantic debate' over whether the U.S. committed torture under the Bush administration.

"'One can continue to talk about torture is in the eye of the beholder, etc etc, but frankly, nobody of any legal reputation believes that,' said Danner. Later in the interview, he added that he was 'frustrated by the practices of the press' that are 'interfering with a clear debate'."

Said Danner: "We're debilitated in that by some degree by the practices of the American press, frankly, which is that as long as the president or people in power continue to cling to a definition that they assert is the truth — as President Bush did when it came to torture, he said repeatedly the United States does not torture — the press feels obliged to report that and consider the matter as a question of debate."

Bush Takes a Higher Road

By Dan Froomkin
12:05 PM ET, 03/18/2009

In his first speech as a former president, George W. Bush yesterday told a paying audience in Canada that he would not criticize President Obama -- a stark contrast with the actions of his former vice president. He also offered some evidence that his memoirs will suffer from historical revisionism.

Mike Allen writes for Politico: "Getting two standing ovations at his first speech since leaving office, former President George W. Bush said that if President Obama wants help, 'he can pick up the phone and call.' Otherwise, Bush said: 'He deserves my silence.'

"'There's plenty of critics in the arena,' Bush told a crowd in Calgary, Canada. 'I think it's time for the ex-president to tap dance off the stage and let the current president have a go at solving the world's problems. If he wants my help and I agree with him, I'll give it.'

"This stands in sharp contrast with former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has twice hammered Obama in media interviews."

Rob Gillies writes for the Associated Press: "Former Vice President Dick Cheney has said that Obama's decisions threatened America's safety. Conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh has said he hoped Obama would fail.

"'I love my country a lot more than I love politics,' Bush said. 'I think it is essential that he be helped in office.'

"Bush also said he plans to write a book that will ask people to consider what they would do if they had to protect the United States as president. 'It's going to be (about) the 12 toughest decisions I had to make,' he said.

"'I want people to understand what it was like to sit in the Oval Office and have them come in and say we have captured Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, the alleged killer of a guy named Danny Pearl because he was simply Jewish, and we think we have information on further attacks on the United States,' Bush said."

But this was blatant revisionism on Bush's part, clearly intended to make his decision to sanction torture seem acceptable.

There's never been evidence corroborating Mohammed's involvement in Pearl's murder -- other than Mohammed's confession, which came after, not before, he was tortured.

As Lawrence Wright wrote in the New Yorker last year: "Among the things that Mohammed confessed to [after being waterboarded] was the murder of Daniel Pearl. And yet few people involved in the investigation of Pearl's death believe that Mohammed had anything to do with the crime; another man, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, was convicted of killing Pearl."

In fact, Peter Bergen wrote in the Washington Monthly that Mohammed's claim of killing Pearl is the single best illustration of the unreliability of confessions gained by torture: "According to a Western official who was deeply involved in the Pearl investigation, there is simply no evidence that KSM killed him."

Dawn Walton writes for Canada's Globe and Mail that Bush "fittingly chose the comfy embrace of conservative Calgary yesterday, a city built on the same beef and oil foundation as his native Texas, for his first public address since leaving the White House."

Bush "got in the neighbourhood of $200,000 to speak in Calgary, although organizers demurred when pressed for details about their coup."

How respectful should previous occupants of the White House be of the current ones? And how respectful should the current ones be of the previous ones? Bush has now made his position clear. So has Cheney. In response to Cheney's charges, Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs responded on Monday by saying: "I guess Rush Limbaugh was busy, so they trotted out the next most popular member of the Republican cabal."

Some observers were shocked that Cheney was criticizing Obama -- especially so soon. (He actually waited all of 15 days before his first salvo.) Others -- including some prominent White House correspondents and former Bush adviser Karl Rove -- were shocked that Gibbs sounded so disrespectful. (Rove said Gibbs was talking like "a wise-cracking junior high smart mouth.")

For a long time, it was traditional for former presidents to show some deference to their successors -- although Jimmy Carter sort of rewrote those rules during the Bush years. So, should the office command any respect? How much? And who should apologize to who?

Come share your views in my White House Watchers discussion group.

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
11:38 AM ET, 03/18/2009

Krissah Thompson writes in The Washington Post: "The 'Obama women' -- as African American women who've taken big jobs in his administration have been nicknamed -- mark another step in the long journey of black women from outsiders to gatekeepers in political Washington. They have quietly entered their jobs with little attention paid to the fact that they are the largest contingent of high-ranking black women to work for a president."

Nia-Malikia Henderson and Carrie Budoff Brown write for Politico: "It was a year ago today that Barack Obama, then a candidate for president fearing a divisive racial backlash over his pastor, took to the stage in Philadelphia and said it was time to have a new conversation about race....But in the year since that speech – through campaign and convention, election and inauguration – Barack Obama hasn’t taken part in the discussion of race in America in any sustained way, the way he did that day in Philadelphia to get out of a campaign jam."

Peter Wallsten and David G. Savage write in the Los Angeles Times: "Obama's success has emerged as a central argument from conservatives who say his victory proves that some of the nation's most protective civil rights laws can be erased from the books. Conservative legal foundations and the Republican governor of Georgia, challenging key parts of the Voting Rights Act, filed briefs in the Supreme Court this month pointing to racial progress and a high black turnout in the fall election."

Al Kamen announces the launch of "Head Count, The Washington Post's interactive database to help you keep a sharp eye on the people President Obama is appointing to the nearly 500 top positions in the federal government that require Senate confirmation. The new feature will not only tell you who they are but also help you count all the demographic beans -- age, sex, ethnicity, education (elite schools or not), home states and so on."

Ann Scott Tyson writes in The Washington Post: "An Obama administration proposal to bill veterans' private insurance companies for treatment of combat-related injuries has prompted veterans groups to condemn the plan as unethical and powerful lawmakers on Capitol Hill to promise their opposition. Nevertheless, the White House confirmed yesterday that the idea remains under consideration, and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and leaders of veterans groups are scheduled to meet tomorrow to discuss it further."

Josh Gerstein writes for Politico: "President Obama's White House Counsel’s Office is in settlement negotiations to resolve two lawsuits over millions of official White House e-mails that may have gone missing during President Bush’s tenure....'They reached out to us and sent us a smiley face,' Tom Blanton, the director of the National Security Archive, confirmed Monday in remarks to a conference on government secrecy and transparency at American University....In 2007, two groups, the National Security Archive and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, sued after reports emerged that some White House e-mails were not properly archived."

Chritopher Drew writes in the New York Times: "Congressional auditors estimated that the national missile defense programs could have cost overruns of $2 billion to $3 billion, reinforcing widespread expectations that they will be subject to cuts by the Obama administration."

Matthew Lee writes for the Associated Press: "The Obama administration will endorse a U.N. declaration calling for the worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality that then- President George W. Bush had refused to sign, The Associated Press has learned."

Howard Kurtz blogs for The Washington Post: "President Obama may be lightening things up with a visit to Jay Leno this week, but no one can accuse him of ducking tougher journalistic forums. Obama has agreed to sit down with '60 Minutes' for an interview that will air Sunday. CBS's Steve Kroft will be questioning the president."

According to a pool report from last night's St. Patrick's Day reception at the White House, Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen was just a few words into his remarks -- "We begin by welcoming today a strong friend of the United States" -- when he stopped in surprise as he realized he was reading Obama's speech off the teleprompter. "Why don't these things work for me?" he asked, as the crowd roared. "Thank you for having us. Who said these things were idiot-proof?" Then he got his bearings and proceeded with his intended speech. When that was over, Obama stepped to the microphone and said, to much laughter: "First, I'd like to say thank you to President Obama."

MSNBC anchor David Shuster explained last night that every time his "Hypocrisy Watch" segment features former Bush adviser Karl Rove, he asks Rove to come on and defend himself. "This weekend, I received the following Twitter direct response: 'Re 1600. Wait until the book. You're in there. Signed Karl Rove.' So Karl Rove is writing a book. It sounds like Rove may try and settle some scores with people who followed the CIA leak case or tracked Rove‘s damage to the Bush administration or the country."

Lynn Sweet blogs for the Chicago Sun-Times: "President Obama filled out his NCAA brackets for ESPN. He picked Louisville, North Carolina, Memphis and Pittsburgh."

Obama Getting Tougher With Congress

By Dan Froomkin
10:32 AM ET, 03/18/2009

After two months filled with deference to Congress, President Obama is finally playing a little hardball with the Republicans and right-leaning Democrats who are threatening to attenuate his ambitious budget proposals. He's both calling out his critics and raising the option of using a legislative shortcut that would eliminate the threat of a Senate filibuster.

Helene Cooper and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: "During an appearance on Tuesday at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Mr. Obama took a swipe at Republican critics of his $3.6 trillion budget and its agenda for health care, energy, taxes and economic recovery.

"'If there are members of Congress who object to specific policies and proposals in this budget, then I ask them to be ready and willing to propose constructive, alternative solutions,' Mr. Obama said. '"Just say no" is the right advice to give your teenagers about drugs. It is not an acceptable response to whatever economic policy is proposed by the other party.'

"The strong words were the latest in a push that has come to resemble elements of the two-year-long presidential campaign. Mr. Obama may hold his second prime-time news conference as president, perhaps as early as next week, to talk up the budget."

Walter Alarkon writes in The Hill that Obama's change in rhetorical strategy is his response to "substantial pushback from lawmakers in both parties who sharply attacked key elements in his $3.55 trillion proposal."

And Julie Pace writes this morning for the Associated Press: "In a new Web video, President Barack Obama is asking Americans to help him pass his $3.6 trillion budget."

But Obama's big shot across Congress's bow is this:

Steven Thomma writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "A top White House official threatened Tuesday to use a congressional rule to force some controversial proposals through the Senate by eliminating the Republicans' power to block legislation.

"Peter Orszag, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said the Obama administration would prefer not to use the budget 'reconciliation' process that allows measures to pass the Senate on simple majority votes.

"Orszag said he wouldn't rule it out, however. The legislative tactic is being considered to push through Obama's global warming and health care programs, and perhaps his proposals to raise taxes on the wealthy....

"Under normal Senate rules, it requires 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to shut off debate and force a final vote. Democrats currently have 58 Senate votes. Under reconciliation, 51 votes can force anything through.

"There is plenty of historical precedent of using it by both parties, including Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who used it force through big tax cuts.

"'Pretty much every major piece of budget legislation going back to April 1981, April '82, April 1990, April 1993, the 1990 act, the 2001 tax legislation, they were all done through reconciliation. Yet somehow this is being presented as an unusual thing,' Orszag said.

"'The historical norm as opposed to the exception is for a major piece of budget legislation to move through reconciliation.'"

Lori Montgomery writes in The Washington Post about the response: "Republicans are howling about the proposal to expand health coverage and tax greenhouse gas emissions without their input, warning that it could irrevocably damage relations with the new president....

"Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, has argued against reconciliation as well....

"'There are many more problems with using reconciliation than is commonly appreciated,' Conrad said yesterday, after he and House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) met with Obama at the White House. The topic of reconciliation came up 'in passing,' Conrad said, but no decisions were made.

"One big problem, Conrad said, is that reconciliation was conceived as a way to force hard budget choices, such as tax increases or spending cuts, not as a means to advance substantive legislation."

Steven T. Dennis and Emily Pierce write in Roll Call on the opposition from Obama's own party: "A bloc of Senate Democratic moderates is quietly maneuvering to keep open the option of vetoing two of President Barack Obama's most ambitious agenda items this year — climate change and health care reform.

"Eight Democrats who want to water down new climate change legislation have already joined with Republicans and signed a letter opposing any attempt to use fast-track budget rules to prevent filibusters. Many of the same Democrats also oppose using those budget rules to prevent filibusters of health care legislation....

"Democratic moderates have been couching their opposition to reconciliation with terms like 'bipartisanship' and 'regular order,' but when pressed, some Senators acknowledged they want to ensure their voices are heard during upcoming debates on global warming and health care.

"Senators from energy-producing states like West Virginia and Louisiana are worried new carbon taxes could be slammed down their throats. And fiscal conservatives are concerned they could be left out of the room while liberal Democrats push for a series of tax hikes proposed by Obama....

"But other Democrats said they were concerned that Republicans will filibuster anything Obama pushes on energy and climate change, and the recent run of near-total Republican opposition to Democratic priorities doesn't give them cause for hope. They argue that reconciliation — and the simple majority it requires — would ensure Democrats can forward their top agenda items.

"'I think we should protect it,' Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said in support of using reconciliation. 'Because of this contrary attitude that exists [among Republicans], where whatever we want to do, right or wrong, they just oppose the Democrats,' he added."

Despite the tougher tack with Congress, it's worth nothing that Obama is still not taking anything like Bush's "imperial presidency" approach to dealing with the legislative branch. For instance, he's actually asking Congress to write major legislation itself.

And how's that going? Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "Three powerful House committee chairmen have agreed to work together on legislation to overhaul the health care system, starting with the view that most employers should help finance coverage and that the government should offer a public health insurance plan as an alternative to private insurance.

"The unified approach contrasts with the competition and rivalry among committee chairmen that helped sink President Bill Clinton's plan for universal health insurance 15 years ago....

"In a letter to President Obama, the chairmen said, 'Our intention is to bring similar legislation before our committees.'"

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:50 AM ET, 03/18/2009

Tom Toles, Walt Handelsman, Jim Morin, Tony Auth, Mike Keefe, Jeff Danziger, RJ Matson, Rex Babin, Sage Stossel and Mike Luckovich on Obama, AIG, bonuses, and an angry public. Also: Joel Pett on Obama's brackets and John Sherffius on Bush's legacy of torture.

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