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Obama may have trouble keeping Democrats on his track

Many have qualms about his plans for spending and taxes -- and about his push to change so much so quickly.

March 08, 2009|Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — President Obama is facing misgivings about his policy agenda from inside his own party, with prominent Democrats objecting to parts of his taxation and spending plans and questioning the White House push to do so much so fast.

Obama's strategy is to advance on all fronts. Buoyed by favorable poll numbers, he is moving to jolt the economy with a massive stimulus package, revamp the healthcare system and push the nation toward renewable energy sources.

The president scored a major victory with the passage of his $787-billion stimulus package. But holding together a Democratic coalition to pass the rest of his program may prove difficult.

Obama's party is peppered with legislators from conservative districts who are wary of a budget proposal that includes tax increases and deficit spending, even if tax cuts are also part of the plan. Already, Republicans have targeted some Democrats with advertisements pressuring them to reject Obama's plans.

Complicating matters, Obama is asking the political system in Washington to absorb a slew of legislation and policy shifts rivaling what President Franklin D. Roosevelt put forward 76 years ago. Going all in, in poker terms, puts a strain on a legislative system accustomed to a more incremental approach.

"The hardest part of this is Congress' digestive tract, which is rather challenged. We're not used to this," said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice).

Fissures among Democratic lawmakers have already emerged. Rep. Eric Massa is a Democrat in a rural New York district where dairy farms and wineries have a major presence. The budget blueprint that Obama released last month would phase out subsidies to farmers whose sales exceed $500,000 a year.

Massa said the cutoff would apply to "every single farm" in his district.

"We're going to have a hard time passing this budget as it is," even without ending the payments, he added.

"Frankly, I'm not about to abandon America's farms in favor of America's boardrooms. I won't be part of that plan," he said.

Rep. Harry Mitchell is a Democrat who represents a predominantly Republican district in suburban Phoenix. Mitchell said he could not support provisions in Obama's budget that would raise the capital gains tax for couples earning more than $250,000 and halt the repeal of the estate tax in 2010.

Mitchell said that if the White House wouldn't relent, he would need to think carefully about whether to vote for the president's budget.

Describing his constituents, Mitchell said: "They're very cautious about taxes, and they're fiscally conservative."

Harman worries about the growing national debt. Obama's budget projects a $1.75-trillion deficit for 2009.

"My concern is that my three grandchildren under 3 years old are paying for this, and I don't like that," she said.

Republican operatives hope to encourage defections from Obama's Democratic coalition, zeroing in on potentially vulnerable Democrats from more conservative districts. Last month, they aired radio ads targeting 30 Democrats who voted for Obama's stimulus plan, including Massa.

They went a step further with freshman Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello, who represents a Virginia district that voted for Republican John McCain in the presidential election. In winning the seat in November, Perriello ousted an incumbent Republican, Virgil H. Goode Jr.

The National Republican Congressional Committee took out a TV ad about the stimulus, showing Perriello's phone number and urging people to tell him to "quit wasting our money."

A spokeswoman for Perriello, Jessica Barba, dismissed the ad as "the same old partisan hackery." She added that Perriello is supportive of the president's budget priorities.

Part of Obama's job in maintaining his coalition is to accommodate the liberal and conservative wings, without sacrificing his larger goals. It's a balancing act that, at any given time, may leave either side disillusioned.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) praised the White House agriculture policy that Massa derided. But Frank said he was not as pleased with Obama's plans on the Iraq war.

Pieces of the president's agenda "won't play in the liberal parts," Frank said. "He might be staying longer in Iraq than I would want."

With polls showing deep support for Obama, the president has given every sign that he won't defer the major parts of his agenda.

It is unclear whether Congress can accommodate the workload.

Howard Paster once headed the congressional relations office of President Clinton. "Legislation is in most cases incremental," Paster said.

Obama, he said, "has the burden of demonstrating why incremental isn't right here, because that's the natural course of events."

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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