WASHINGTON — A feisty but occasionally frustrated President Barack Obama tried Wednesday to calm nervous Senate Democrats about their political futures and prospects for passing major legislation, as he urged them to keep pushing hard for solutions to the nation's most vexing problems.
"The American people are out of patience with business as usual," he told a Senate Democrats' issues conference. "They're fed up with a Washington that has become so absorbed with who's up and who's down that we've lost sight of how they're doing.
"They want us to start worrying less about keeping our jobs and more about helping them keep their jobs."
Obama's 75-minute meeting was a combination pep talk and down-to-earth question-and-answer session with worried lawmakers. Congress so far this year has been far less eager to move forward to finish large 2009 initiatives such as health care overhaul and climate change legislation, preferring smaller, more careful steps.
The House of Representatives plans a vote next week to strip health insurers of their partial exemption from federal antitrust laws, a small piece of the health bill now stalled in Congress. Senate Democrats are expected shortly to take up Obama's job creation package as a series of smaller bills rather than the kind of comprehensive stimulus package it passed last year.
Obama wants the Democrats' big legislative ambitions to stay in the forefront. First, though, he had to try to defuse tension over last month's special election in Massachusetts for the seat long held by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. The winner, Republican Scott Brown, will be sworn in Thursday, reducing the Democrats' majority by one. Democrats will still control 59 seats, but 60 votes are needed to cut off debate in the 100-member Senate.
The loss of one Senate Democratic vote should not be so jarring, Obama said. "All that's changed in the last few weeks is our party has gone from having the largest Senate majority in a generation to the second-largest Senate majority in a generation," he said.
Still, the Democrats' unease was palpable. Thirty-seven Senate seats are at stake in November, including 18 now held by Democrats.
Seven of the eight questions posed to Obama came from senators up for re-election this year, and they had a similar theme: "This place looks broken to the American people," as Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., put it.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., perhaps the most vulnerable Senate Democrat, stressed the same concern. "People out there watching us, they see us as nothing more than Democrats and Republicans up here fighting, fighting only to win a few political points, not to get the problem solved," she said.
Obama said he understood: "The point I'm making, and Blanche is exactly right — we've got to be non-ideological about our approach to these things."
Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., who also faces a tough re-election fight, twice wanted to press the point further, stressing that Democrats need to appeal to moderate Republicans, conservative Democrats and independents to win elections.
"So my question to you, Mr. President, is, speaking to independents, conservative Democrats, moderate Republicans — people who know we have to do this — why should the Democratic Party be trusted?" Bayh asked.
Remind constituents, Obama said, that the last time the budget was balanced, for four years beginning in fiscal 1998, Bill Clinton was president.
The president's appearance illustrated both the promise and problems that he and Democrats face in the months ahead. The president had a similar question and answer session with House Republicans last week, and plans to meet Tuesday with congressional leaders from both parties.
Obama voiced some partisan exasperation on Wednesday.
Why, he asked, do Republicans insist on delaying judicial confirmations? For that matter, he added, why do they slow down the confirmations of a lot of other people?
He cited the delay confirming Martha Johnson as head of the General Services Administration. "Nobody can tell me that there's anything particularly wrong with her," he said. She's one of several appointees whose confirmation is being held up, usually because one or more Republican senators have philosophical disagreements with them.
"Let's have a fight about real stuff," Obama urged. "Don't hold this woman hostage."
The president's overarching message to the senators was that they should talk policy, not politics, to their constituents, not only because good policy ultimately leads to successful politics, but also because people too often don't understand complex issues such as health care or the debt.
Ask a constituent where the budget should be cut, he said, and they'll probably mention foreign aid, a tiny part of the budget. Next, they might cite earmarks — local projects inserted by lawmakers into spending bills — which also are but a fraction of the overall budget.
The only effective solution requires looking at the big-ticket programs — and that's going to take time and patience.
"If anybody is looking for a lesson from Massachusetts," he said, recalling the Senate upset, "I promise you the answer is not to do nothing."
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