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CAMPAIGN '08: Capitol Hill

Congress rallies around Obama

Because Democrats run the show, they can help push the agenda of the party's probable presidential nominee.

June 11, 2008|Michael Finnegan and Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — First up was Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker. John McCain, she said, promises four more years of job losses, soaring gas prices, home foreclosures, budget deficits, tax cuts for the rich and "war without end" in Iraq.

Next up was Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. He called McCain a "flawed" candidate for president. "His temperament is wrong," Reid said. "He's wrong on the war. He's wrong on the economy."

With that, the Democrats who run Congress left no doubt Tuesday that they would marshal their power over the House and Senate to torment McCain and promote their party's probable White House nominee, Barack Obama.

For Obama, a senator from Illinois, support from congressional leaders could prove an important asset. They can help him drive his campaign agenda, as they did Tuesday with a Senate vote on a measure, blocked by Republicans, to impose a windfall profits tax on oil companies. Obama supports such a tax; McCain does not.

But, as Republicans are quick to point out, Obama must keep in mind the public's poor opinion of Congress. Whereas voters may see him as "fresh, new and different," said GOP strategist Don Sipple, they view congressional leaders as "stale, old and inept."

"He's going to have to show he can work with them and achieve results, but be under no illusion that these people are at all popular," Sipple said.

For McCain, a senator from Arizona, Congress poses other challenges. Although three out of four voters rate Congress unfavorably, polls show, they still prefer Democrats over Republicans by double digits.

Because of that, McCain has little to gain from a close alliance with his party's congressional leaders or an association with President Bush, one of the most unpopular presidents in modern times. He is trying to keep a safe distance from both.

"Where there are opportunities where McCain aligns with Republican leaders in Congress, they are being very helpful on messaging," McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said. "But McCain has a record of taking positions that are contrary to his caucus." He cited the candidate's efforts to fight global warming.

McCain has often rankled GOP leaders; he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky clashed for years over campaign finance reform. But McCain has proved more popular than his party this year, making him an asset for Republicans in tight races. And McCain needs congressional allies to help mitigate the damage that Reid of Nevada and Pelosi of San Francisco will try to inflict on him.

"You don't want your opponents in Congress to use the floor of the Senate to tie you up in knots, put you on defense and cause you to get off message," said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who managed Bob Dole's unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1996.

As for Obama, he enjoys close ties to Senate leaders. Some of his key campaign staff, including communications director Robert Gibbs, worked for years on Capitol Hill. And Obama's strongest ally in Congress is Richard J. Durbin, Illinois' senior senator and the No. 2 Democrat in the caucus. Durbin has strategized with Obama's campaign and provided an office off the Senate chamber for key meetings.

On Tuesday, Durbin joined Reid, Pelosi and 15 other senior Democrats at the party's Washington headquarters to pledge support for Obama. A banner at the front door declared that McCain was seeking a "3rd Bush Term."

Much like their Republican predecessors, congressional Democrats have been using votes as a political weapon. For months, Reid and Pelosi pushed legislation to force a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq to pressure Republican lawmakers ahead of the 2008 elections.

Last month, Democrats spotlighted McCain's opposition to a measure that offered college aid to veterans, castigating him as an ally of Bush, who also was against the plan.

Now Reid and Pelosi are planning a debate on expanding unemployment insurance, which they believe they can use to portray McCain as out of touch with workers who are losing jobs. They also want to use the farm bill, which McCain and many others oppose as a pork-filled giveaway to agriculture, to argue that he opposes aid to Americans struggling with the rising cost of food.

On Tuesday, the Democrats' focus was gas prices, and they used the windfall profits vote to highlight the Republican Party's decision to side with the oil industry against the tax proposal. For Republicans, McConnell took the lead in arguing that Obama and other Democrats were pushing a tax hike that would lead to higher gasoline prices.

But Democrats control the flow of legislation on Capitol Hill, and in that way they set the agenda Tuesday, even if Republicans -- as Reid noted at the Democratic National Committee headquarters -- mustered the votes to stop the windfall profits measure.

"Today in this surreal world that John McCain has signed onto, led by Republicans in the Senate, we were unable to vote on doing something about gas prices," Reid said.

michael.finnegan@ latimes.com

noam.levey@latimes.com

Finnegan reported from Los Angeles and Levey from Washington.

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