WASHINGTON — A feisty but occasionally frustrated President 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.
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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 today, 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.
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.
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.