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Dems’ diverse ideology poses test for Obama

After a series of early and relatively easy victories on Capitol Hill, the White House faces a test with the climate bill, which reveals ideological differences among the majority.
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After a series of early and relatively easy victories on Capitol Hill, the White House appears certain to face a more difficult road when Congress returns to work next week.

Not content to task lawmakers with passing an ambitious agenda of record new spending, sweeping health-care reform and other major initiatives, President Obama yesterday nudged the Senate to move ahead with its version of a landmark energy bill the House passed on Friday. In recent weeks, he has also revived the idea of pursuing broad changes in immigration law.

Obama and his aides have proved adept at navigating the politics and eccentricities of the legislative branch. But as lawmakers attempt to navigate much trickier and more contentious issues in the second half of the year, the narrow margin of Friday's energy vote served as a warning: The higher the stakes, the tougher the challenge in finding consensus within what has become a diverse Democratic majority.

The legislation represented the first big test for one of Obama's biggest and most controversial domestic priorities, stemming climate change. Democrats who voted against the bill came from all over the map, from coal country to Midwestern factory towns to rural swaths of the Great Plains. Each of the regions helped swell the party's ranks in the 2006 and 2008 elections, and Democrats think they represent the linchpin to an enduring congressional majority.

But an energy bill that to a California Democrat represents a historic first step in slowing climate change appears to a Rust Belt colleague to be a redux of the 1993 energy-consumption tax that the House approved by a nearly identical 219 to 213 vote -- only to be brushed off by the Senate and resurrected by Republican candidates on the 1994 campaign trail.

"It's like you have a big umbrella and you're trying to fit 10 people under it, but if you move it in one direction, you're going to leave some people out," said Rep. Dan Maffei, a member of the class of '08 and the first Democrat to represent his Upstate New York district in nearly 30 years.

The energy bill will face an even stiffer challenge in the Senate, where the Democratic caucus is an array of conservatives, liberals, and just about everything in between, and these lawmakers are making very different calculations about the big items on Obama's legislative wish list.

Liberal wish list
At its core, Obama's domestic agenda is a liberal wish list of health care for all, tough new environmental regulations and government solutions to crises ranging from failing schools to faltering auto companies. But as the party's ranks expanded in 2006 and 2008, its center of gravity shifted to the middle. And the key to a durable majority, White House officials and party leaders agree, is adapting old policy goals to new political realities.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), a member of the Democratic leadership, said the party is coalescing as an amalgam of "activist centrists" who think government has a role in solving problems but are more pragmatic than ideological. "I think that's where the president is, and that's where we are," he said. "When you win red states, strange things happen."

The battle for energy votes isn't the only sign that despite Democrats' margins in the House and Senate, unity isn't a foregone conclusion. In recent weeks, lawmakers have ignored a veto threat to save a stealth fighter jet, rejected Obama's request to delay action on a costly highway bill and balked at the administration's request for funding to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Hoping to succeed where other presidents have struggled in implementing their agenda, the Obama White House has attempted to work Capitol Hill with a blend of agenda-setting and deference. Obama outlines ambitious objectives, then leaves lawmakers largely in charge of their final shape.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) enlisted two senior committee members to help assemble the House energy bill: liberal Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and conservative Rep. Rick Boucher, from coal-producing southwestern Virginia. The authors' bottom line was a cap that would gradually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, ultimately achieving 80 percent reductions from 1990 levels by 2050. Everything else was negotiable. When Obama entered the fray on May 5, summoning all 36 committee Democrats to the White House, he didn't make a single demand. Rather, participants say, he pointed to a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and said, "He had a chance to affect history. You, too, have a chance to affect history."

The House bill rejects Obama's proposal to auction 100 percent of emissions allowances, and instead calls for distributing 85 percent of allowances free of charge. The concession effectively defers the additional costs that polluters would incur, but the bill wouldn't have passed the chamber without it.

"We were given broad encouragement to report a bill in a timely manner," Boucher said. But Obama "made it clear he was expecting us to work out the details."

At the same time, Obama and a team of top White House officials -- many of them Hill veterans -- have been extraordinarily attentive to individual lawmakers, showering them with invitations and responding quickly to requests, concerns and criticisms.

"There has been a very, very high level of contact and dialogue. They've covered the ground," said Steve Richetti, who ran the congressional liaison office in the Clinton White House. And he noted the deference paid to the legislative branch, adding that, on health care and climate change, "they have tried to allow the process to work without intervening beyond what would be acceptable on the Hill."

Maintaining a sense of common interest across the party is a paramount goal. Early on, administration officials and Democratic leaders agreed they would steer clear of controversial social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. And to the discontent of many liberal Democrats, Congress intends to remain generally silent on those fronts.

"They know the consequences of '94. It looms," White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said of the legislative debacles in President Bill Clinton's early tenure that produced the 1994 Republican landslide. "That division led to failure. . . . Our chances for success only come about by unity. That, as a culture up there, has been enforced by enough people that enough members believe."

Trying not to appear overly meddlesome
For the White House, the trick is to keep a firm grip without appearing overly meddlesome.

Along with House and Senate leaders, Emanuel and his team are sharply focused on new lawmakers most likely to become Republican targets. Rep. Jason Altmire, elected in 2006, was invited to a breakfast in March with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki to discuss issues related to the large population of veterans in Altmire's western Pennsylvania district. Altmire's office and the VA now communicate regularly. Maffei was given a leading role in pressing two popular bills, to curb credit card practices deemed harmful to consumers and to protect auto dealers.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), a member of the class of '06, said he has had extensive discussions with top administration officials on financial regulatory reform, another Obama priority. When he expressed to a White House official his interest in talking with Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan about a piece of legislation, he got a call the next day setting the meeting for three days later. He has met with three other Cabinet officials to discuss bills.

"We're supposed to legislate. They're supposed to execute," he said of the relationship between Congress and the White House. "When you give people a chance to participate, you get people moving in the same direction."

At least some Republicans are also a focus of the outreach effort. Democrats are seeking support on health-care reform from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee. But GOP leaders complain that the phone calls and White House invitations have slacked off -- perhaps because Obama's early efforts to woo Republicans yielded few votes.

"I think that in the beginning they seemed a lot more willing to go in and engage with us," said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

So far, the major votes have broken along party lines, forcing Obama to rely almost entirely on his own diverse body of Democrats. Pressure built on them as last week's final energy vote drew near. Even Boucher was targeted when House Republicans circulated a letter from MeadWestvaco, a major employer in western Virginia, warning that 1,500 packaging jobs in Covington, Va., could be at risk.

Boucher, a 14-term incumbent, was unwavering, but others were unmoved. Altmire had bad news for Emanuel when his 2006 campaign mentor called Wednesday about the impending vote.

"I'm a firm no," Altmire replied. "I wouldn't waste any more time talking to me."