Another Obama grassroots drive leaves lawmakers unfazed

McClatchy NewspapersApril 1, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Democratic Party volunteers, trying to keep President Barack Obama's campaign spirit alive, blitzed Congress on Wednesday with thousands of pledges from voters urging support for his federal budget bill. The grass-roots drive is a major effort by Obama's team to change the way Washington does business.

Members of Congress barely noticed.

"I've never even heard of this," said Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, a key Democratic moderate.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., saw the drive as just another stab by another group to influence him, hardly an Obama-era phenomenon.

"We get bombarded all the time," the 12-term veteran said. "I haven't seen any big uptick in my e-mails since they knocked on doors. It's not that effective."

They and other lawmakers explained that they already have their own well-honed ways of learning constituent thinking, usually with visits to grocery stores and gas stations or having staffers back home who know local sentiments well.

The House of Representatives plans to vote Thursday on a $3.55 trillion budget for fiscal 2010, and the Senate is expected to vote late Thursday or Friday. Since the two versions are almost certain to differ, negotiators will craft a compromise, with final votes likely later this month.

Once enacted, the budget will guide legislative action on spending and taxes — as well as key issues such as health care, energy policy and education_ for the rest of this year.

Well before volunteers began delivering boxes of pledges to all 535 congressional offices, Democratic congressional leaders predicted easy victory for the budget.

"We expect to pass this," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said earlier this week.

Republicans conceded that they lacked the votes to stop the budget.

"It only takes 51 votes, so we're less relevant on the budget than we are on other issues," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.

The Democratic pledge drive aims to mobilize grass-roots Obama supporters to influence policy. Led by Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, the "Organizing for America" campaign had volunteers making phone calls and knocking on doors across the nation last month, urging support for Obama's budget.

People were asked to sign one-page pledges saying "I support President Obama's bold approach for renewing America's economy" and "I will ask friends, family and neighbors to pledge their support for this plan."

The organizers collected about 642,000 signatures, and 200 people showed up Wednesday morning at Democratic National Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill to distribute them to members of Congress.

Organizing for America director Mitch Stewart watched the swirl around him and declared himself "extremely encouraged."

When he was asked why more lawmakers weren't aware of the door-knocking effort, Stewart explained that "this is the start of a dialogue about critical issues," and stressed that the campaign "is not coordinated with members of Congress."

Two blocks away, at the Capitol, Hoyer looked puzzled when he was asked about the pledge drive, but then said it was "a legitimate effort to energize President Obama's supporters."

When he was asked whether it was making a difference, he said, "I don't know the answer to that. We'll have to see."

The pledge project said that volunteers gave information personally to at least three members of Congress.

One was Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., a freshman House Budget Committee member. The volunteer asked him whether he'd support Obama's budget.

"Absolutely not," Harper said.

The volunteer then asked whether Harper could back the president's carbon emission reduction plan. Harper politely said no, took the package and gave it to an aide.

Grass-roots lobbying is hardly new to the Capitol, and the Tuesday morning to Thursday evening schedule that Congress follows most weeks allows lawmakers to spend four days at home each week.

Rep. Ben Lujan, D-N.M., a freshman lawmaker, said he spent time visiting constituents in their homes, while Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., who represents a working-class slice of Queens, said, "I learn from just being aware of what's happening all around me."

Shuler, who's in his second term representing a western North Carolina district, spent last weekend talking to people at local Wal-Marts, Lowe's and a gun show. He found that people aren't well-versed in Congress' budget deliberations.

"Did I have a true assessment of what the budget was before I got here? No. I'm not sure many members of Congress did either," Shuler said.

DeFazio said that if the Obama grass-roots effort strengthened, "it could matter in toss-up votes, but it's going to be rare when that happens." Democrats are likely to follow Obama on most key issues anyway, he said, and if not, they're probably reflecting strong local interests.

"I think," DeFazio said, Organizing for America "wants to keep the organization going . . . so it's ready for the next election."

ON THE WEB

Organizing for America pledge project

President Obama's 2010 budget outline

House of Representatives Republican 2010 budget

Concord Coalition budget analysis

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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