Seeking to preserve party unity in an election year, President Barack Obama is trying to tamp down internal Democratic divisions on issues like trade and energy, even as friendly lawmakers show little restraint in publicly breaking with the White House.
The president will hold separate meetings this week with House and Senate Democrats, where he’s likely to face more pushback on the Keystone XL pipeline and health care, particularly from lawmakers who will face voters in November. Obama also met Monday with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has sharply opposed the president’s proposal for letting Congress vote quickly to approve international trade pacts, though officials said the issue did not come up during the meeting.
White House officials have tried to dismiss the intraparty divisions, saying they’re aware of the election-year pressures driving some Democrats to oppose Obama on high-profile issues.
“All of these folks got elected in the first place by being really strong advocates for their states,” said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s longtime adviser. “And sometimes the interests of their individual state may be at odds with the administration, but that’s OK. They have a job to do.”
After a rough last year that sparked questions about the limits of his influence in Washington, Obama could risk the appearance of being a hindrance to his own party each time Democrats push back against him. But the friendly fire might prove to be well worth it for Obama if it helps Democrats hold the Senate.
Keeping control of the chamber was the central focus of the president’s discussion Monday with Reid, who was joined at the White House meeting by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Guy Cecil, the committee’s executive director. A White House official said the meeting had been scheduled before the Nevada lawmaker made his comments on trade.
Obama’s advisers are hoping to offset Democratic disputes on issues like trade and energy with party cohesion on the economic agenda the president outlined in last week’s State of the Union address. The president’s meetings this week with House and Senate Democrats will focus in part on mapping out a legislative strategy for raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 — a proposal the party sees as both a political and policy winner. The White House is planning an aggressive push on the minimum wage in the coming months, including trips by the president to states that are taking action on their own to increase the hourly pay rate.
Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., introduced legislation last week to raise the federal minimum wage in steps to $10.10 hourly over four years. Obama has embraced a Senate Democratic bill gradually boosting the minimum wage to that same level by 2016.
While Democrats are largely united on economic matters, other politically volatile issues keep bubbling to the surface, exposing long-standing divisions that inevitably take on greater importance in an election year.
One day after Obama used his State of the Union to press lawmakers for a speedy vote on two major trade agreements, Reid swatted down the idea, saying “everyone would be well-advised to not push this right now.” And on Friday, Democratic senators like Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina — both facing tough re-election fights — ratcheted up pressure on the president to approve the Keystone XL pipeline after a State Department review raised no significant environmental objections to the project.
Some Democratic lawmakers have also split with the White House in recent months on Iran sanctions and National Security Agency spying. And the failed launch of Obama’s signature health care law spurred deep anxiety among Democrats facing re-election next year, causing some to break with the White House on elements of the legislation, though they still continued to stand by the overall measure.
The divisions have become frequent fodder for Republicans, who have sought to expose any cracks in the relationship between the president and his party. That’s particularly true on the Keystone XL pipeline, which Republicans support, and on trade, where the GOP finds itself in rare alignment with the president.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took on both issues Monday, saying “The president’s own party is now standing in the way of getting anything done.”
White House officials say they’re largely concerned with not getting caught off guard when Democratic lawmakers don’t align with the president. An official said Obama had spoken with Reid previously about his position on trade and was not surprised by the Senate leader’s comments last week.
As he returned to Capitol Hill Monday afternoon, a reporter asked Reid if he was in “the doghouse” because of his comments on trade. Reid simply said, “No.”
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Alan Fram contributed to this report.
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