Obama’s plan to save the Senate
By: Manu Raju and Carrie Budoff Brown
January 15, 2014 05:01 AM EST
President Barack Obama has a plan to save the Senate’s tenuous Democratic majority: Sell a populist message, try to make Obamacare work better and raise lots of cash.
And unlike previous years when Senate Democrats were mostly left to fight on their own, the White House is wasting no time coordinating its political and policy agenda with congressional leaders and vulnerable lawmakers.
The 55-member Senate Democratic Caucus will meet with Obama on Wednesday at the White House, the first such session since October.
White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer and legislative director Katie Beirne Fallon have already briefed Senate leadership aides on the outlines of proposals Obama is considering for the Jan. 28 State of the Union address, and they’re expected to do the same with House Democratic leadership aides.
A Republican-controlled Senate and House would be a nightmare for the president, likely reducing him to full lame-duck status as the GOP works to block what’s left of his agenda, including a minimum wage hike and climate change, as official Washington looks ahead to 2016.
At a low point in the Obamacare rollout in November, at-risk Democrats visited the White House and made clear that the final two years of Obama’s presidency would be a disaster if he were to lose the Senate this fall, according to attendees. Obama made clear he shared their fears about the challenges to his agenda and his nominees if Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) rises to majority leader, and he vowed to do whatever he could to keep control of the Senate, said sources familiar with the meeting.
“Particularly at a time when Washington is so polarized, if we do not have at minimum a Democratic Senate, it is very hard to see how we can make some of the advances that we need to make on work that is still undone,” Obama said at a Philadelphia fundraiser that month. “And I’ve got three years left in this office.”
The electoral map this year favors the GOP, which has to win a net of six seats to take back the majority, including in red states like Montana, West Virginia, South Dakota, Louisiana, Arkansas and North Carolina.
Democrats hope messy GOP primaries in North Carolina and Georgia and McConnell’s own difficult reelection will imperil the Republican drive to the majority. But the president’s sagging popularity will burden Senate Democrats, particularly in red states, something the White House and top Democrats will have to grapple with as they try to use the bully pulpit against the GOP. Republicans, meanwhile, are making clear their November strategy will be all about the president.
The election-year agenda under discussion is a mix of initiatives designed to energize the Democratic base of women, students and blue-collar workers, and to attract independent voters. The aim is to highlight differences with the GOP and provide fodder for Democrats along the campaign trail — even though those measures stand little chance of winning approval in Congress.
In private meetings across Capitol Hill, senior administration aides are talking about reviving proposals from the president’s American Jobs Act, which was used by Democrats repeatedly in the run-up to the 2012 elections. Specifically, they plan to push manufacturing issues, college affordability measures, such as the refinancing of student loans, and a host of women’s issues, including proposals they dub as “paycheck fairness” and more liberal workplace-leave policies.
The White House engagement so far ahead of the State of the Union is unusual. Lawmakers usually aren’t looped in on the discussions until days before the president delivers the speech.
“The agenda that the president will present in the State of the Union will be the focus of a sustained effort over the course of the year, and we’re hopeful that those on Capitol Hill who share these priorities will be similarly committed,” said Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman. “I anticipate they will be.”
Still, the single most important thing that Obama will do is raise money for the Democratic party committees, White House officials said.
He’s previously shown faint interest in congressional or gubernatorial politics. In 2012, the president was running for reelection and didn’t raise money for House and Senate Democrats. In 2010, as Democrats struggled with the backlash to Obamacare, the paramount concern was saving the House — which didn’t happen.
But last year, Obama hosted 27 fundraisers to benefit the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The White House is still working on a slate of events to benefit the party committees this year, but one senior administration official said the president would be very helpful.
First lady Michelle Obama is scheduled to host a fundraiser for the DCCC in San Francisco on Jan. 31.
“He’s committed to helping us,” New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the upper chamber’s No. 3 Democrat, said in an interview. “And he has been trying to help us in a whole lot of ways, [including] fundraising and helping our candidates getting involved in every way we ask.”
The president’s campaign committee, Obama for America, has rented out email lists to the DSCC, but federal records show it charged the Senate Democratic campaign committee $125,000 to email Obama supporters on the list.
Of course, Obama can be a liability for Democrats, as well. He is deeply unpopular in red states, where Democratic senators are eager to keep their distance. North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, for instance, will be nowhere near Obama when the president travels to Raleigh on Wednesday to give a speech on the economy.
The bungled Obamacare rollout not only damaged Obama’s credibility but also endangered senators like Mark Udall of Colorado, a state that has trended Democratic. His approval ratings tanked between last summer and November, and he has been swept onto the lists of vulnerable incumbents.
“Fix it, but don’t nix it,” Udall said of Obamacare, when asked how the White House could help his reelection bid.
Obama has called back Phil Schiliro, a former legislative director, to focus solely on smoothing the Affordable Care Act implementation. And Katie Beirne Fallon, a former senior aide to Schumer and confidante to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who started last week as the legislative director, is part of the White House’s so-called early warning system to identify Obamacare problems before they become full-blown political crises.
“I think what they’ve done in sending Katie Beirne up here has been one of the best moves they’ve ever made,” Reid said in an interview.
The hope is that vulnerable Democrats can directly raise any concerns with the implementation of the law, and the White House would fix it and give credit to those Democrats. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius released a letter she sent last month to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), another targeted incumbent, crediting him with persuading the administration to temporarily exempt some consumers from the individual mandate.
White House officials acknowledge the limitations of the president and expect Democrats to run on the themes and issues that best suit their state. But, the officials said, the Democratic base and independent voters will be attracted by the populist economic agenda, even if they live in heavily Republican states such as Kentucky or West Virginia.
A range of issues could distract from the party’s focus to stay united. The White House is pushing for a trade promotion bill, authored by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), but Senate Democratic leaders have privately scoffed at that measure. Plus there’s probably going to be another divisive fight on the Senate floor as soon as next month on the handling of military sexual assault cases. And there’s a growing push to bring an Iran sanctions bill to the floor, despite the White House’s staunch opposition.
Other Democrats aren’t waiting for the party’s agenda to come together.
Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, one of the most vulnerable Democrats, noted he would be focusing heavily on promoting the oil and gas industry in his red state, and he wants to make the case that he’s been at war with the White House and Senate Democrats in defending that industry.
“National Democrats often try to pay for something with oil and gas taxes,” Begich said. “And I have to explain that ain’t happening: That ain’t happening over my dead body.”
An all-Republican Congress would give Obama fits in his final two years and would attempt to damage Democrats’ chances at keeping the White House in 2016.
“It would mean he would have to deal with Congress,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of a Republican-controlled Senate. “Certainly we would have additional oversight and investigations, something we don’t have with Democratic chairmen in the Senate now.”
Asked whether the president would be an asset or liability in her election campaign this year, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) launched into a list of areas where she disagrees with Obama.
“I’m for the Keystone pipeline, he’s not. I’m for more domestic energy production. He’s been slow to the starting gate on that. Those are some things, those are some differences,” she said. “The president has already been elected. This year is about those of us running continuing to talk about the positive records we’ve had representing our state. The president is not on the ballot.”