Frustration With Obama Builds

Posted March 16, 2011 at 6:08pm

President Barack Obama’s laissez-faire approach to the ongoing spending debate is winning him few friends on Capitol Hill.

Republican and Democratic Members alike are becoming increasingly critical of the president and are demanding the White House immediately step up its role in the standoff over funding the government. And Democrats fear that if Obama doesn’t engage more directly — and soon — they will lose the war of words to the Republicans on the critical issue of federal spending.

Members have used Obama’s upcoming five-day trip to Latin America, which begins Friday, to argue that the administration seems to have other priorities.

Sen. Kay Hagan said she was frustrated that the Senate would have to vote this week on yet another short-term continuing resolution; the North Carolina Democrat said she would be reluctant to support another one, adding that leaders of both parties “need to get to a negotiation on this.”

“We need to be sitting down,” Hagan said. “We need to have leadership from the president, but we also need to focus on the task at hand.”

The House passed a three-week continuing resolution Tuesday to keep the government funded through April 8. The Senate is poised to adopt the measure today. In the meantime, Members have been struggling behind the scenes to negotiate a broader agreement on a long-term spending measure that would fund the government through Sept. 30. The two parties are about $50 billion apart on spending cuts as part of that larger package.

Several House Democrats, including Reps. David Price (N.C.) and John Garamendi (Calif.), used Tuesday’s closed-door Caucus meeting to tell White House Chief of Staff William Daley that the president needs to increase his visibility on the issue. Members have grumbled for several weeks that Obama isn’t involved enough in the debate, but sources said those frustrations are growing.

“They did have an exchange, and several Members did express some frustration and concern about the low-key approach of the president,” one Democratic leadership aide said of Tuesday’s Caucus meeting. “What was expressed is, we’re losing the budget debate and when are you going to lead?”

The aide said House Democrats in particular want Obama to engage more directly because as the minority party they no longer control the conversation.

Sources in the room said Daley listened to lawmakers’ concerns but explained that the White House doesn’t want to appear too shrill and on the attack.

Rep. Norm Dicks, ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, spoke up during the Caucus meeting, saying it was important for the administration to take a leading role in the negotiations.

“It wasn’t confrontational, but we think the president and his staff and the [Office of Management and Budget] people and the White House people have got to be involved in helping reach this final decision,” the Washington state Democrat said. “I hope and pray that we don’t have to do another CR. We’ve got to get this done, so we’re going to do everything we can to cooperate, to facilitate.”

Members in both parties have said the second short-term CR to be completed this week is the final temporary stopgap measure they can stomach.

Price said the president needs to use the bully pulpit to highlight the possible economic effects of proposed GOP spending cuts, while also trumpeting Democratic plans to a invest in critical programs.

“It is just folly to take $60 billion out of the economy at this time,” the North Carolina Democrat said.

Obama hasn’t been completely disengaged: He has tapped his top aides, including Daley, OMB Director Jacob Lew and Vice President Joseph Biden, to work with Hill leaders on a deal. And White House Press Secretary Jay Carney defended his boss’s role in the spending standoff, maintaining that staff-level negotiations are ongoing. Carney also said that Obama will remain engaged in talks despite the fact that he leaves the country Friday.

“Obviously the trip is on and the president will be going to Latin America,” Carney said during a Tuesday briefing. “We watch everything when we travel, just as we watch everything when we’re here in the White House.”

The White House spokesman also knocked the practice of passing a series of short-term spending measures.

“We cannot keep funding the government in two- or three-week increments. It is time for us to come together, find common ground and resolve this issue in a sensible way,” Carney said, noting that Obama has agreed to about half the level of cuts sought by Republicans. “We have already met Republicans halfway, and we are optimistic that Congress can get this done.”

Rep. Robert Andrews, a key ally of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said Obama will be there when it counts.

“I’m sure he’ll be there when the big spending debate is resolved, which is really when it matters,” the New Jersey Democrat said.

Andrews added that Members need to appreciate that Obama wears several hats: “He is the leader of the country, but he’s also the commander in chief and head of state.”

Republicans aren’t buying it.

Sen. Dan Coats (Ind.) led a group of 23 GOP Senators on Wednesday in penning a letter to the White House urging Obama to show “strong leadership to address the financial crisis and entitlement programs.”

Kathleen Hunter and Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.