House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s increasingly public disagreements with President Barack Obama are a reflection of something deeper: the seething resentment some Democrats feel over what they see as cavalier treatment from a wounded White House.
For months, the California lawmaker has been pushing Obama hard in private while praising him in public. But now she’s being more open in her criticism, in part because she feels the White House was wrong — in the wake of the Democrats’ loss in Massachusetts — to push the Senate health care bill on the House when she knew there was no way it would pass.
Earlier this month, Pelosi criticized the president’s State of the Union call to exempt defense spending from a budget freeze. And in a White House meeting with leaders of both parties this week, she questioned the effectiveness of his plan to give small businesses tax breaks to hire workers.
“What you’re seeing now in public has been building in private,” said a top House Democratic official. “House members did their work — they did everything the president asked of them. And it gets stuck in the Senate. Or the Senate screws it up.”
Though Pelosi and other House Democrats have made it clear that they’re angry with the Senate, they’re also frustrated with the president, upset that he hasn’t come to terms with the problems of getting legislation through the upper chamber — or done enough to overcome them.
“He wants a jobs bill, we get a jobs bill,” the official said. “He wanted health care, we got health care. Then the answer is, ‘You just need to twist enough arms to pass the Senate bill.’ You can twist arms if you’ve got a handful of them to twist. You can’t twist over 100 arms. There needs to be some reality check there.”
“Both ends of the Capitol — the House and the Senate — are starting to wonder if they’re on their own,” the official continued. “You have a lot of frustration there. And the White House’s reaction to all of that seems to be, ‘Run against Congress’ — which, as you can imagine, doesn’t go over very well with House members. The White House reaction seems to be, ‘Position ourselves against Congress.’”
Brendan Daly, Pelosi’s communications director, said a few tactical differences between the speaker and the White House have been overblown.
“There may be slight differences here and there, but the speaker is very supportive of the president and what he’s trying to accomplish — his agenda is our agenda,” Daly said. “And I think the White House is appreciative of her efforts because she’s been able to get his agenda through the House. There is shared frustration with the Senate — that because of Republicans’ overuse of the 60-vote rule, some things haven’t gotten through the Senate.”
White House senior adviser David Axelrod said interbranch squabbling is to be expected — even when Congress and the White House are controlled by the same party.
“You’re feeling the effect of the worst recession since the Great Depression — it’s a bad political environment, and it’s particularly bad for the incumbent party,” Axelrod said. “That is axiomatic — that’s predictable. And it’s also predictable that there’s a lot of discomfort and a lot of disquiet in this town under those circumstances.”
Teams often have nasty locker rooms when they’re behind at halftime, and it would be easy to chalk up all the unhappiness to frayed nerves after Democrats failed to deliver on their big promises in 2009. But White House and Capitol Hill sources say there are much bigger issues at play here: confusion and political differences.
Neither Pelosi nor the White House knows whether Democrats can muster the 218 votes they need to pass health care or any other controversial measure through the House, despite their 77-vote majority. The loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat still has Democratic moderates in a state of shock and very reluctant to do anything that will turn off independent voters.
And the speaker is in an all-out war to save her majority. The political environment has deteriorated so much, so quickly that she now realizes Republicans could win back the House. Just two or three months ago, that was not considered a real possibility.
Pelosi’s focus is on keeping her majority — and her job. She wants to protect vulnerable members, but she also wants to accomplish some big things as speaker. This is a big reason she wants to pass health care reform and focus more on spending money on infrastructure than on cutting taxes for small businesses.
Obama obviously wants to keep control of the House and the Senate, but it would be foolish for him to take his eye off 2012 — or his public image. This is a big reason the president is putting so much focus on reaching out to Republicans and making a public show of his bipartisan efforts.
One Democratic official went further, saying some Democratic House members actually believe that the White House “wouldn’t mind having a foil, and that foil is a Republican [House] majority — that would serve their political purposes going into 2012.”
These House Democrats say privately that veterans of Bill Clinton’s administration working in Obama’s White House may think having a Republican majority in Congress will help Obama win reelection, as it did Clinton in 1996. House Democrats know that Obama will do whatever it takes to win reelection, whether or not it helps members keep their seats this year.
Axelrod said it’s “natural for people to spin those kinds of theories, but they’re not based in reality. The president is going to be very active in trying to help those who have helped us move the country forward, and there shouldn’t be any doubt about that.”
Axelrod has worked personally to cultivate Pelosi. He was the headliner at an “issues conference” she hosted in August for her most loyal supporters — a sign of the importance he placed on the administration’s relationship with the speaker.
Axelrod said it is Pelosi’s prerogative to express differences but that relations are very good between the speaker and the White House. “She is a leader, and a strong leader, and she has her own constituencies both in the Congress and in her own district,” he said. “She’s been incredibly supportive and shown great leadership — not just partisan leadership but leadership for the good of the country. So I have no qualms with the speaker. We’re grateful for her.”
But Pelosi’s bluntness has occasionally grated on some in the White House.
“She is very clear and very realistic about what is possible in the House — whether it’s health care or climate change or the jobs bill, or any of the issues that have come up,” a House Democratic aide said. “She’s always very clear about where members are and what it will take to pass something. And it’s not something that is always a welcomed message.”
Her staff, her members and a lot of the Democratic leaders are still genuinely angry about all the heavy lifting they did last year — on health care, jobs and cap and trade — while, in their eyes, the White House played favorites with the Senate.
At the beginning of Obama’s presidency, he agreed to make cuts from the stimulus package in order to attract a few Senate Republicans, even though it made the measure less attractive to many key House members. And the House feels snubbed by the White House on health care talks because Democrats in the lower chamber were basically ignored while the administration courted a few Senate Republicans. The House-passed cap-and-trade bill has been all but abandoned in the Senate, and House members feel the Senate and the White House have ignored the jobs bill the House passed in December.
Another sore spot for House Democrats is fundraising. Pelosi has personally asked White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to attend events benefiting the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which Emanuel chaired during the Democrats’ victorious 2006 campaign. But Emanuel has declined to do so, to Pelosi’s frustration, several Democratic insiders said.
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