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Liberals Feeling Slighted

Progressive Caucus Still Waiting for Obama Meeting

Liberal House Democrats are stewing that they have yet to get face time with President Barack Obama, despite his whirlwind charm offensive that has ushered every other major faction of the Caucus into the White House for private meetings.

“Members are either taking it as a slight, or that we’re irrelevant in the planning process,— said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

With 77 members, the liberal bloc is the largest ideological subgroup in a famously fractious Caucus.

But the group’s members have proved to be among the most reliable supporters of mainline Democratic priorities, prompting a view among some party leaders that they require less servicing. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (Calif.), the group’s other co-chairman, warned the White House against drawing that conclusion.

“Maybe they think that they can take us for granted, but they can’t,— she said.

The administration has yet to schedule a get-together with the group, though White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Obama looks forward to meeting with them “soon.—

Obama has already notched sit-downs with the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus — sessions that participants hailed as opportunities to outline their priorities face-to-face with the commander in chief and receive some commitments in return. During the CHC meeting, for example, Obama promised to hold an immigration forum, while with the New Democrats, he proclaimed, “I am a New Democrat.—

Obama has made several trips to Capitol Hill — an unusual show of deference to Congress, considering most presidents have been happy to make use of home-field advantage by hosting lawmakers at the White House. He was on the Hill in late January to pitch the economic stimulus package to House Republicans, though they ended up voting en bloc against it. And on Wednesday he returned to sell his budget to Senate Democrats, a performance he plans to repeat for House Democrats on Monday.

“The fact that Obama has spent time courting House Republicans, the most legislatively irrelevant group on the Hill, and still hasn’t met with Progressives, the center core of his party — it’s incredible,— said David Sirota, a liberal columnist and former aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who founded the Progressive Caucus in the early 1990s when he served in the House.

Some liberal lawmakers said they are not offended that the group is still waiting for an audience with Obama, pointing to open lines of communication with top White House staff, most notably Chief of Staff and former Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.).

“I think he will meet with us at some point, but I understand he’s got a lot on his agenda, and it’s not like he’s not listening to what we have to say, because we’re either talking to his staff or we’re sending him letters or we’re giving speeches on the floor,— Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said. “I think he’s getting the message.—

Others pointed to a slew of moves the president has made in his opening months to address top liberal priorities: a stimulus package that heavily funded the group’s wish list of social spending programs, the repeal of the ban on federal funding of stem-cell research, rolling back Bush-era environmental policies, the expansion of children’s health insurance and a timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq, among others.

And Progressive Caucus members are bolstered by the support of senior House Democrats — Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) was a member and her top deputies remain in their ranks, as do Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (Mass.), Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (N.Y.) and Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (Calif.).

But as policymakers wade into a heated budget debate and prepare to tackle the rest of Obama’s ambitious agenda, Progressive Caucus leaders said they need some attention from the president soon.

“These things are moving, and you have other caucuses wanting to cut domestic spending in order to deal with deficit issues,— Grijalva said. “We need to get our position out.—

The group is preparing to unveil its budget alternative, which, among other things, would cut defense spending by a quarter and redirect the money to fund social programs that Grijalva said “have been starved for the last 10 years.—

The proposal takes a dramatically different approach than that advocated by moderate Democrats, who have called for less spending and more deficit reduction.

But moderates have commanded attention by proving they will bring down measures that don’t accommodate their views —a tack Progressives, despite their numbers, have had a harder time pulling off.

“They’re generally not as organized and effective as some of the other caucuses,— one senior Democratic aide said. “You need to make sure you’re organized and effective, and then you have a place to complain.—

Added Sirota, “The Progressive Caucus won’t get the respect they deserve unless they show they’re willing to play hardball.—

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), another top member of the group, said liberals shouldn’t need to create a problem to get time with Obama. “You don’t have a meeting just because there’s a problem,— he said, adding the huddle should be “moved up on the agenda.—

There is one flashpoint looming that could help refocus White House attention on the caucus: Obama’s plan to send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. The Progressive Caucus has not yet taken an official position on the proposal and is waiting to hear more details, a source close to the group said.

But Woolsey and a handful of other mostly liberal Democrats sent Obama a letter earlier this month urging him to reconsider. The caucus on Wednesday kicked off a six-part series of forums to highlight options for dealing with the conflict.

When the group gets its White House meeting, Woolsey said, their message will be “that we are good soldiers but we’re not just go-along-to-get-along people, otherwise we would not be progressives. We’re a big caucus, and we will be heard.—

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