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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.'"

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