WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is urging congressional Democrats to drop a proposal to spend money on family planning from the proposed $825 billion package to stimulate the economy, a symbolic gesture that could help him make inroads into Republican ranks.
Obama stood fast with Democrats on Tuesday on the vast majority of their proposal as it heads to the House of Representatives for a vote Wednesday. However, he signaled that the House vote is just the opening salvo of what will be a weeks-long negotiation and that he's open to more concessions.
With the move to drop the controversial family-planning money from the stimulus package — as well as cordial lunch meetings at the Capitol with Republicans — Obama started selling himself to the opposition party as a good cop to the bad cop of congressional Democratic leaders such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
"The key right now is to make sure that we keep politics to a minimum," Obama said as he traveled between his Capitol meetings. "There are some legitimate philosophical differences with parts of my plan that the Republicans have, and I respect that. . . . I don't expect 100 percent agreement from my Republican colleagues, but I do hope that we can all put politics aside and do the American people's business right now."
Republicans were pleased with the outreach from the Democratic president, comparing it favorably with what they say is the cold shoulder they've received from Democrats who are running Congress.
"We are grateful," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind. "House Democrats have completely ignored President Obama's call for bipartisan compromise."
House Democrats plan to pass their $825 billion proposal as early as Wednesday, perhaps without making any Obama-urged concessions to the Republicans. Changes still could be made in the Senate, however, and in negotiations between the House and Senate, a point Obama pressed.
"He wants to keep the dialogue open with the GOP," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. "Pelosi is a hardened partisan. Obama is trying to separate his persona from hers."
In a separate opening, Obama personally urged House Democrats on Monday evening to drop the family planning proposal.
"While he believed that the policy of increased funding for family planning was the right one . . . he didn't believe that this bill was the vehicle to make that happen," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.
Indeed, the Democratic proposal had become a symbol of complaints about spending in the plan.
"How can you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives? How does that stimulate the economy?" an incredulous Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, his party's leader in the House, asked after a meeting Friday with Obama at the White House.
Boehner was pointing to a proposal in the bill to expand Medicaid family-planning services. Republicans said the proposal would make taxpayer-financed family-planning services, including contraceptives, available to those who don't qualify for the help now under Medicaid.
Pelosi appeared to sidestep the question when she was pressed over the weekend to explain how family-planning money would boost the economy or create jobs.
"Well, the family-planning services reduce cost. They reduce cost," she said on ABC.
Appearing on MSNBC on Tuesday, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., a top Pelosi ally, said that it would be fine for the Senate to drop the family planning proposal, but suggested that House Democrats could ignore the Republican complaint.
"The point is that in the House, the size of the majority and the unwillingness of the House Republicans really to be for anything, frankly, at this point, it shouldn't give them an amount of weight," he said.
Feeding the notion that Obama is maneuvering between the left and right, some liberal bloggers complained Tuesday about jettisoning the family planning proposal.
"Is the Obama administration caving to the right on the family planning provision in stimulus bill?" asked the headline on the liberal blog Thinkprogress.org.
The liberal blog Dailykos.com called it a wasted attempt at bipartisanship, arguing that Republicans never will support the overall proposal anyway.
Said influential liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas Zuniga:
"If Republicans won't play, why should Democrats water down the stimulus to the point of ineffectiveness and cave to ridiculous ideological demands like the family planning stuff when they won't get their cherished `bipartisanship' anyway?"
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