Stimulus fight augurs tough road for other Obama priorities

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 12, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama won the first big test of his presidency late Friday night, but the way he won suggests that he faces challenges going forward as he fights to solve the nation¬ís banking crisis, expand health care and achieve the rest of his agenda.

His path to victory on the $787 billion plan to stimulate the economy raises questions about how much clout the Obama White House has in Congress and how the new president uses it.

Obama won approval of the stimulus plan with no margin for error, getting the minimum 60 votes he needed in the Senate despite his popularity and the sense of urgency that opened the doors for quick action by a slow-moving legislative branch.

The slender margin, punctuated by tensions up to the last minute between the liberal Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives and the three moderate Republicans who hold the key to the Senate, mean that Obama likely will be tested repeatedly as he seeks approval for proposals such as bank rescues and health care, which could be even more difficult to sell.

His emerging leadership style suggests that Obama is taking a middle ground — somewhere between Ronald Reagan, who set broad goals and left the details to his aides and Congress, and Bill Clinton, who immersed himself in details and dealmaking, sometimes to great effect and sometimes to great failure.

"He's in the middle between the two of them," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist and a scholar of the presidency at the University of Texas at Austin. "He isn't in one camp or the other."

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a former congressman from Illinois, said Thursday in an interview with a small group of reporters that Obama set his strategy back on Dec. 12. While conceding that the White House learned some lessons along the way, Emanuel said that Obama's blend of broad goals first and a detailed, hands-on role in the final days paid off.

"This is close to 90 percent of what we were thinking about," Emanuel said.

From the start, Obama signaled that he'd draw the broad brushstrokes of what he wanted to create jobs — spending on roads and bridges, schools and energy conservation, computerized health records, tax cuts for business that create new jobs and for people to reduce the payroll tax.

Yet by leaving it to House Democrats to write the first proposal, Obama ceded power over the process to them. That caused Obama to lose the initial public relations battle, as Republicans bore in on Democratic proposals such as money for family planning and sod for Washington's National Mall.

Emanuel conceded that the White House lost four days of the clash, but said it was because Obama focused too much on bipartisanship at the expense of talking up the benefits of the still-emerging proposal.

Still, members of Congress grumbled that Obama wasn't involved enough. Why, lawmakers said, didn't he send his own bill up to Congress and let members work from that? Why didn't he get involved in the bargaining?

Members also complained that Obama wasn't tough enough when he did engage members, particularly in his Jan. 27 meetings with Republicans. He and the GOP leaders emerged from those sessions praising one another, but Republicans quickly complained that Obama didn't press congressional Democrats to compromise.

When the House of Representatives voted the next day, not a single Republican voted for the package.

While House Republicans saw their unified "no" vote as a bargaining message, Obama and the Democrats saw it as a slap in the face.

By the time the president spoke to House Democrats on Feb. 5 at a meeting in Williamsburg, Va., he'd shifted from inviting bipartisan support — albeit without significant concessions — to ripping Republicans as obstructionists.

The partisan lines were drawn.

As the fight shifted to the Senate, Obama and his lieutenants grew more active.

A key move came on Feb. 6, when the Senate was deadlocked, short of the 60 votes needed under Senate rules. Democrats controlled 58 seats and needed at least two GOP members.

A key stumbling block was the proposal from House Democrats for $20 billion in school construction money and a separate $79 billion fund to help states with education expenses. "School spending should not be part of a federal funding package. I'm not willing to go along with that," said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla.

Emanuel and White House Budget Director Peter Orszag met with a group of moderate senators that included Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

The White House got just enough concessions from the two Republicans and Nelson to move forward: Emanuel quickly took the plan to a closed-door Democratic caucus.

Emanuel knew that he had little time to get the House and Senate to resolve their differences and produce a final version for Obama to sign by Presidents Day. So within hours of the Senate bill's passage Tuesday, he and Orszag began cutting deals.

"After the Senate passed their bill, we at the White House began working on a very detailed compromise," Emanuel said. Coming in late with a specific blueprint "would make this the president's plan," said Emanuel, a veteran of the Clinton White House.

With the goal of keeping the price tag down and the moderate Republicans on board, the White House offered to cut its own proposal for a $500 per person tax credit to $400. By outing "some skin in the game," Emanuel said, the White House loosened up the talks.

The school fund, which the White House had been promoting for days as a top priority, was increased slightly to $54 billion, but still well below what House Democrats wanted. The separate pot of money for school construction was gone.

Within 24 hours of Senate passage, the deal was complete, but it left some sour legacies.

Obama may have annoyed members of his own party. When the congressional negotiating committee sat down to ink a final agreement Wednesday, Senate leaders sat around the table. The three chairs for House Democrats were empty.

Everyone waited half an hour, then left — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was annoyed at the school cuts. White House officials as well as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., tried to calm her, and two hours later, the committee regrouped and finished its business.

However, with a national television audience and dozens of reporters looking on, the scene had the air of chaos, as the White House couldn't control Congress' most powerful player.

"On balance, there is some evidence of rookie type mistakes," Buchanan said of Obama. "On the other hand, this really uncharted territory . . . . Getting $800 billion past Congress in his first month, his record is looking pretty impressive."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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