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Obama Senses Momentum

President Barack Obama on Wednesday pivoted off his maiden address to Congress with a fast foray into action, taking steps to galvanize lawmakers and set his ambitious plans into motion.

The president summoned Congressional Democratic leaders to a White House meeting to mull strategy for the year and held a separate meeting with leaders of the House and Senate financial panels to urge comprehensive regulatory reform of the financial system.

During the session with Democratic leaders, there was disagreement over earmarks. According to a knowledgeable source, Obama pressed the lawmakers to keep earmarks out of spending bills but was resisted. Democratic leaders defended the practice, insisting that it was Members’ constitutional right to insert them on behalf of constituents’ projects that they deemed worthy, that Congress had markedly reduced the practice and that earmarks represented 1 percent of spending.

They argued that there was little difference between them putting earmarks in the bill and the “faceless bureaucrats” who insert them during the writing of the budget.

Obama said that he personally had nothing against earmarks and that he had inserted them himself as an Illinois Senator, but that in the current climate, they could be caricatured by opponents.

A White House official said Obama believes strongly in earmark reform as a matter of policy and changing the ways of Washington, D.C.

“He believes earmark reform should be a high priority because eliminating earmarks will yield a better policy, a better process — and it’s good politics because it demonstrates a commitment to changing politics as usual,” the official said.

According to sources, the group also agreed to a timeline on energy, seeking an initial bill by Memorial Day and approval of a cap-and-trade program by the end of the year. They also agreed that health care reform should be completed this year.

Obama on Wednesday also announced his latest pick for Commerce secretary — former Washington Gov. Gary Locke — saying he wants him to get right to work on promoting U.S. business interests.

Today, the president unveils his budget blueprint and its detailed descriptions of how he will pay for his initiatives. And next week the president will seek to jump-start his health care overhaul effort, which he wants to move along with other critical must-do pieces like the budget, the banking bill and possibly more funding requests for the ailing economy.

“The [health care] process starts formally next week here,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, pointing to “discussions that have already been ongoing on Capitol Hill involving many players that will ultimately take part in a White House health care summit.”

Former President George W. Bush usually jetted out of D.C. immediately after his State of the Union speeches to begin selling his approach to the country. Obama is getting right to work, though he reportedly plans to travel to North Carolina on Friday.

Huddling with Democratic leaders led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Obama stressed a need for expeditious movement and the type of cooperation and communication between the White House and Democrats that led to passage of several bills in the opening weeks of his administration, according to a White House official.

Among the major items discussed were the budget and health care, though the group did not dig into details of the issues.

Seeking to run up some more accomplishments, quick legislative action was planned on national service, public lands, D.C. voting rights, stem cells and reform of financial regulations, sources said.

The White House official said Obama emphasized in his meeting with Democrats that people “look to Washington, D.C., to get things moving with dispatch” and that “the administration, Congress and the American people benefit when things are working and when they’re working together.”

Obama used the meeting of the Republican and Democratic members of the financial panels to press them to work together on a plan.

But at the meeting, Obama was short on specifics, instead outlining goals broad enough that everyone in the room could agree on them, according to officials who were present. The details will come later.

“I’ve asked my economic team to develop recommendations for regulatory reform and then to collaborate with these Members of Congress and others from both sides of the aisle so they can start crafting legislation in the coming weeks and months,” Obama said in remarks after the meeting.

Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said he hoped to move expeditiously on a reform program but stressed his panel would take as much time as needed to get it right. He said his panel will begin meeting twice a week to work on a plan. Ranking member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) indicated he is optimistic that bipartisan cooperation is achievable.

In remarks to reporters, Reid said he hoped to get major health care and energy legislation done this year. But he was noncommittal on whether he would succeed.

“By the end of this year, I want to do something significant dealing with health care,” he said.

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