June 1, 2010

President Barack Obama is facing increased resistance from Democrats as well as Republicans as healthcare reform fades and the midterm elections approach.

Only a few months ago, Obama unified his party to pass healthcare legislation despite staunch GOP opposition.

But with the election five months away, Democrats are standing up to the president, too.

That’s what happened last week. Centrist Democrats in the House teamed up with Republicans to oppose a jobs bill costing nearly $200 billion that Democratic leaders, working with Obama, declared vital for economic recovery.

“We are seeing Congress become more assertive,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “It shows the shifting political landscape facing Obama.

“The deficit is an issue that unites Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “People in both parties worry about the long-term fiscal health of the United States, so you see pushback from people who worry about the debt.”

A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Lawrence Summers, one of Obama’s senior economic advisers, has argued in favor of deficit spending to spur the economy despite the $1.5 trillion national deficit. But a growing number of Democrats are lining up with Republicans to reject that argument.

“I see it as defensive bipartisanship,” said Bruce Cain, director of the University of California Washington center.

Obama kept Senate Democrats unified for the most part during the Wall Street reform debate. They voted repeatedly as a group — except for Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) — to pressure Republicans to begin debate on the measure. And, at the beginning of the April-May work period, Democrats voted as a bloc for a short-term extension of unemployment benefits.

But Democrats have teamed up with Republicans to oppose the administration on a litany of other issues.

Lawmakers from both parties have backed the continuation of a program to build an alternative engine for the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The House cast a strong bipartisan vote on the defense authorization bill to preserve $485 million for the program, despite a threat from the president to veto the entire bill — which includes a repeal of the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — because of the engine provision.

Democrats and Republicans also have jointly pushed a bill to sanction companies that do business with Iran, despite resistance from the administration.

Administration officials have warned that unilateral sanctions won’t be effective and could alienate potential partners in the effort to crack down on Iran, such as Russia and China.

Lawmakers aren’t buying the argument.

“They have not moved as aggressively as I would like them to move,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) of the administration.

He argues the Obama administration has let its diplomatic talks drag on.

Cain, a professor of political science, said the stand for the alternative engine and a stronger national defense and “Iran bashing” would play well in swing districts where Democrats face tough reelections.

“Those are all things that inoculate against the perceived softness of the administration,” he said.

Individual Democratic lawmakers pursued similar legislative strategies in the 1980s and 1990s, when anti-liberal political sentiments swept the country, Cain said.

Israel argues that bipartisan support for Iran sanctions is not a reaction to the president’s shaky public approval.

“I wouldn’t link it to that; I think it’s a reflection of Congress’s deepening concern with Iran,” he said.

There’s little doubt, however, that Congress is becoming more assertive with the administration and that the pushback is becoming more bipartisan.

Leaders from both parties reacted coolly last month when Obama unveiled a proposal to cut federal spending by empowering the administration to submit rescission packages to cut wasteful spending.

Prominent Democratic and Republican lawmakers have joined forces to rebuke the administration on other high-profile issues.

Last month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Kit Bond (Mo.), the panel’s ranking Republican, penned a letter accusing the administration of withholding information requests in the case of Faisal Shahzad, the prime suspect in the Times Square bombing attempt.

The lawmakers alleged the Department of Justice interfered with attempts by the committee to extract information from the intelligence community, a rare public venting of bipartisan anger.

Last week, 21 Senate Democrats voted for a Republican motion urging negotiators working on the final version of Wall Street reform to exempt auto dealers from the jurisdiction of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The administration fought against the effort to attach an amendment to the Senate bill that would have shielded auto dealers from new rules. The Defense Department argues that service members are especially vulnerable to their predatory practices.

Another issue that united Democrats and Republicans during the Wall Street reform debate was a proposal by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to force the Federal Reserve to submit to audits by the Government Accountability Office.

The administration and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke fought back hard to resist Sanders’s amendment and succeeded in softening it.

Cain said the broad support for the Sanders amendment showed political sentiment for “greater fiscal austerity and greater scrutiny on banks” at a time when Obama has been criticized for being too lenient with big banks.

Robert Borosage, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America’s Future, said the bipartisan opposition to the Obama administration over funding for the Joint Strike Fighter engine, the rescissions proposal and Iran sanctions could be attributed to congressional politics-as-usual.

“Excluding the auto dealers is a classic examples of favoring local donors over common sense,” he said. “I assume the Joint Strike Fighter issue is a self-interested ‘Are their jobs in my district?’ vote.”


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