Obama may have worn out his welcome on Capitol Hill
The president’s threat to veto a war funding bill is an ‘unwelcome message’ to House Democrats! The moment has been long in coming, but it may finally have arrived.
For the last year and a half, on issues including healthcare, financial regulation and climate change, Democrats in Congress have bent for President Obama. Liberals swallowed hard to accept compromises that fell short of their long-sought goals, and moderates cast tough votes that now threaten their reelection prospects as voters revolt against government overreach. Then, last week, the president asked them to bend yet again — this time to approve more money for his troop buildup in an Afghanistan war that many Democrats oppose.
Once again, lawmakers went to work. On the eve of the vote last week, Democratic leaders compiled a complicated $82-billion package of war funding, disaster aid and domestic spending that achieved the seemingly impossible — meeting the president’s request while accommodating the needs of its politically diverse members.
Obama responded with a one-word message that sent shudders through his party on the Hill: veto.
In that exchange, the tension between the White House and the president’s Democratic allies spilled over. In recent weeks, the president has expressed growing interest in the remaining items on his legislative agenda, including energy and immigration policy. Both are initiatives whose only hope at passage would require another legislative squeeze from the lawmakers who have already yielded to some of the president’s toughest requests. Yet compromise appears difficult as lawmakers approach the midterm election when they, not the president, must fight for their political lives in a tough electoral climate.
Perhaps no issue illustrates the divide between the president and his party as the troop increase in the Afghanistan war, an escalated military campaign that many Democrats opposed. Because of deepening economic distress at home combined with political and military setbacks in Afghanistan, some Democrats see the war as one without end and one they cannot philosophically or economically support.
“I would rather do a little bit more nation-building here at home,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). The $37 billion approved for the war could pay for proposals to extend jobless benefits for the unemployed.
$82 Billion dollars for Afghanistan nation building but can’t find $33 Billion dollars for our own nations unemployed? No wonder the democrats are turning on Obama!
Pragmatic liberal lawmakers, for their part, wanted to use the emergency spending bill as a way to win approval for recession aid that would be difficult to pass otherwise as voters grow increasingly concerned about the national debt.
Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), the flinty antiwar lawmaker and powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, seized on the administration’s interest in saving 140,000 teachers’ jobs nationwide as a way to tack onto the war bill a legislative accomplishment that hews more closely to his caucus’ agenda. Obey has shepherded one war-spending bill after another through Congress for Bush and Obama. As the administration’s support for the teachers’ aid waned, Obey — in what may be the final war bill before he retires at year’s end — made a passionate stand for the measure. “There is nothing as expensive as ignorance, and ignorance is fed when you have an inadequate number of quality teachers,” Obey argued during the floor debate.
House Democrats were furious at an administration that many see as tone deaf to the political realities facing lawmakers in a November electoral climate that is not expected to be friendly to incumbents.
“The White House needs to be more engaged with the House’s agenda,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, an antiwar Democrat from Tennessee. “The House is where its friends are.”
As Obama turns to these friends in the weeks ahead, he may find it increasingly difficult to persuade them to yield to his remaining legislative priorities.
“I don’t give a rip about the administration,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Atwater), whose Merced-area district in Central California faces one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. “The administration can decide to be with us or not. I’m all about jobs for my district.”
Then again, Obama has had a historically successful legislative run, signing into law the economic stimulus package, healthcare restructuring and, perhaps soon, the Wall Street overhaul, along with a long list of lesser known bills on credit card changes, tobacco regulation and fair pay. So the uneasy mood on Capitol Hill may not matter.
“It is the end of the road,” said Matthew Bennett, a vice president at Third Way, a think tank in Washington. “But they’re at the end of the list.”