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Obama Session With Senate Democrats Gives Vulnerables a Stage

Updated: 1:17 p.m.

Senate Democrats used a nationally televised question-and-answer session with President Barack Obama on Wednesday morning to spotlight seven Members who are facing increasingly tough re-election prospects.

Even as their choice of questioners highlighted the nervousness among Democrats about their ability to retain a robust majority after November, Obama urged Senators to resist their “natural political instinct … to tread lightly, keep your head down and play it safe.”

The session at the Newseum, which came on the heels of a similar back-and-forth between Obama and House Republicans in Baltimore last week, was largely a pep rally for Democrats and a platform for the president to address a friendlier audience than the one he encountered with the GOP last Friday.

After giving brief remarks that included a list of the party’s accomplishments, Obama fielded questions from vulnerable Democratic incumbents such as party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), and appointed Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Michael Bennet (Colo.). Other less vulnerable in-cycle Senators such as Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Patrick Leahy (Vt.) also asked questions. Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.), who may face a tough challenge from former GOP Sen. Dan Coats, also got in a question. Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), who represents a state particularly hard-hit by the economic downturn, was the only Member not up for re-election this year who was given a chance to query the president.

Most Senators took the opportunity to ask Obama about issues important to their states and the economy. Obama’s answers in large part reiterated many of the themes in last week’s State of the Union address, pressing Senators to continue trying to pass health care reform and telling them he wanted to pass many of his job creation proposals “without delay.”

The president’s statement that, “We’ve got to finish the job” on health care received broad applause from the assembled Democratic Conference. Obama used several questions to press for a strong financial regulatory reform bill that would prevent another near-collapse on Wall Street.

Obama also told Senators that they should not shrink from trying to pass major legislation just because of their loss in the Jan. 19 Massachusetts Senate special election, which gave Republicans 41 seats and the ability to filibuster the Democratic agenda.

“If anyone’s searching for an answer from Massachusetts, I promise you the answer is not to do nothing,” Obama said.

Some Members’ questions appeared to be blatant attempts to stake out positions important to their re-election bids.

Calling China’s trade practices “international banditry,” Specter probed for Obama’s willingness to revoke trade agreements with the communist country. Obama said he does not support revoking trade pacts but stressed that he has been trying to get tougher on enforcement of current trade agreements.

With Specter facing a tough primary challenge and, if successful, general re-election campaign, the question seemed intended to shore up his bona fides with organized labor in Pennsylvania. Unions have long expressed dissatisfaction with U.S. trade policy toward China.

The strident tone of Specter’s question caused moderate Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) to quip to the press pool, “So much for softball questions.”

Lincoln, meanwhile, appeared to be trying to distance herself somewhat from the Obama administration, asserting her independence and asking, “Are we wiling as Democrats to push back on our own party and look for that common ground that we need to work with Republicans?” Lincoln, considered one of the Democrats’ most vulnerable this cycle, has come under fire at home for her support of the Senate health care reform bill.

Bayh asked a similarly themed question about whether the party “should be trusted” to solve problems with the country’s rising debts and deficits.

Obama told Bayh that Democrats have a troubled history from the 1960s and 1970s in which they were perceived as the “tax and spend” party, but he reminded Members that the last time the country had a balanced budget was under then Democratic President Bill Clinton.

The entire 59-Member Senate Democratic caucus is spending the day at their annual “Issues Conference,” and many Senators — including Brown and Leahy — brought their spouses to the meeting with the president.

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