Obama’s meetings with Congress’ Democrats reflect worries of Senate incumbents

02/14/2014 2:59 PM

02/17/2014 3:58 AM

Democrats seem to be two different parties these days. Most House of Representatives Democrats love President Barack Obama and are eager to run on his record. Senate Democrats? Some yes, some no.

On Friday, Obama wrapped up a series of February meetings with congressional Democrats, sessions aimed at finding common ground on a host of contentious issues and plotting strategy for the November elections.

The president, speaking to House Democrats as they ended their three-day retreat at a Maryland Eastern Shore resort, offered a nine-minute pep talk that avoided any mention of contentious issues, notably trade. Obama wants legislation that would make it easier for the administration to get trade agreements. But doing so would dilute Congress’ say, so Democratic leaders are largely opposed.

Obama did not discuss trade. Instead, he said, “There are some big things that we have to do that I cannot do through executive action.” Among those, he listed an increase in the minimum wage and immigration.

He got warm applause. The House of Representatives’ 200 Democrats are largely pleased with the administration. Most are running in carefully drawn congressional districts where Obama remains popular.

“This is a very ideologically cohesive caucus,” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at Washington’s Brookings Institution. “They represent blue places.”

Senate Democrats often do not. Democratic-held seats in states that Republican Mitt Romney carried in 2012 – West Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, South Dakota, Alaska, Louisiana and Montana – are all seen as potential Republican wins. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to control the Senate next year.

Obama met with Senate Democrats last week at their Washington retreat and also spoke separately with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and party strategists. “My Democratic senators are a part of the team with President Obama,” Reid said afterward.

Maybe not. Obama’s support for gun control and his health care program are highly unpopular in several swing states, despite assurances Friday from Vice President Joe Biden that “on every major issue people agree with the Democratic Party.”

A lot of Democrats would disagree. “I don’t care to have him campaign for me,” Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, where Obama’s Gallup approval rating last year averaged 33.5 percent, told CNN . “I’d rather him come up to see where his policies aren’t working.”

Swing-state senators’ reluctance to embrace Obama is widespread. After Obama gave his State of the Union address Jan. 28, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said he was “disappointed” because “he was heavy on rhetoric, but light on specifics about how we can move our country forward.”

Pryor, whose state in 2013 gave Obama a 34.9 percent Gallup approval rating, offered his own specifics, disagreeing with Obama on gun control and farm policy.

“I had hoped he would strike a more bipartisan tone because, if recent history shows anything, red vs. blue is dead-end politics,” Pryor said.

Other vulnerable senators have also been critical. After the speech, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said she was “disappointed, as are many of my colleagues, that the administration still has not acted” on the Keystone pipeline.

Turn to the House and the storyline changes. Most of the incumbents survived 2010 and 2012, when Republicans first won and then maintained their House majorities.

They also boast of their ability to stick together and, arguably, get things done. Virtually all the major budget and debt legislation of recent years wound up passing after Republicans split but Democrats stayed largely unified.

Those votes, House Democrats contend, allowed Obama to be successful. The two-year budget deal sealed in December passed because 163 Democrats joined 169 Republicans to vote yes. The agriculture policy bill passed as 89 Democrats and 162 Republicans agreed. This week, legislation suspending any debt limit until March 2015 won with 28 Republican votes, but 193 Democrats.

That measure did exactly what Obama wanted: It settled the debt limit fight and attached no conditions.

“The fact that we were able to pass a clean debt limit is just one example of why when you guys are unified, you guys stick together, this country is better off,” Obama told House Democrats.

Hardcore liberals do continue to grumble. They want bolder action on a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and a more progressive tax system. They remain unhappy that the budget deals didn’t do enough to erase the impact of automatic spending cuts, or the sequester, on domestic programs.

“We do have to be bolder, but abandoning the president is out of the question,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

A longer-term challenge remains. The more Obama and Democrats appear to be in lockstep, the harder it is to sell Democrats in the swing states. And if the party is to regain a House majority, it’s going to have to win those seats.

“Democrats in the South know they have to steer clear of the national Democratic Party,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a pollster at Southern Media and Opinion Research, a Baton Rouge., La.-based political consulting firm.

Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, counters that it’s Republicans who should be worried. “No one is less popular right now than congressional Republicans,” he said.

A Marist-McClatchy Poll this month found congressional Republicans with a 22 percent approval rating. Democrats registered 33 percent.

That hardly suggests Democrats are about to broaden their appeal. “The party has a long-term challenge,” said Brookings’ Binder.

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