Left presses Obama to take a firmer stand on heated labor battles

Liberals on Capitol Hill are upping the pressure on President Obama to amplify his support for public workers in Wisconsin and beyond.

Although Obama sided with Wisconsin's public employees in their protest against a GOP plan to dissolve collective bargaining rights, a growing number of Democrats say he shouldn't stop there. Some want him to visit Madison as a show of solidarity with the protesters.

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"He's made some statements, he should get credit for that," Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), co-chairman of the House Progressive Caucus told MSNBC Wednesday. "[But] we'd like to hear him make some more statements. I think President Obama should come to Wisconsin and stand with the workers."

Perhaps encouraged by such comments, other members of the Progressive Caucus are also prodding the president to use the bully pulpit more forcefully amid the labor battle.

"I appreciate the fact that President Obama came out in support of workers in Wisconsin," Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) said in an email, "but I would like to see him do more to stand by the public employees and what they're fighting for."

Another member of the Progressive Caucus, Rep. Judy Chu, agreed. The California Democrat urged Obama to take "as strong a stance" as possible to protect workers' rights nationwide.

"Collective bargaining helped create the middle class in this country by raising worker wages, increasing benefits and promoting work-life balance through the 5 day and 40 hour work week," Chu said in an email. "I hope President Obama will be as visible as possible on this issue."

The White House has so far resisted the Democrats' calls for Obama to intensify his involvement in the labor dispute. Asked Thursday if the president would join the protesters in Madison, White House spokesman Jay Carney punted.

"He spoke to the situation in Wisconsin and his views on it last week," Carney said, "and I'll leave it at that."

Citing a budget crisis, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has proposed changes to the state's pension and healthcare systems that would hike costs for government employees. Walker also wants to revoke the collective bargaining powers of most unionized state workers.

Similar proposals have emerged in other states, including Indiana and Ohio, where Republican governors say they simply can't afford to sustain worker benefits at current levels.

"We've got to make a commitment to the future and ensure that my kids and kids all across the state aren't saddled with this burden for years down the road," Walker told Fox News this week.

The proposals have spurred a backlash from state workers, who have protested in the streets of Madison for almost two weeks. Labor advocates and liberal pundits have joined the fight, charging that the Republicans are more interested in busting up unions – which tend to support Democrats – than balancing budgets.

"What’s happening in Wisconsin is … a power grab — an attempt to exploit the fiscal crisis to destroy the last major counterweight to the political power of corporations and the wealthy," New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote Friday.

Obama last week acknowledged the fiscal troubles facing states, but he warned against balancing budgets on the shoulders of public-sector workers.

"They make a lot of sacrifices and make a big contribution," Obama told a Milwaukee TV station. "It's important not to vilify them or to suggest that somehow all these budget problems are due to public employees."

Walker's proposal, Obama charged, is "an assault on unions."

Some liberal Democrats said this week that, considering the upheaval in the Middle East and the looming budget battle in Washington, Obama's statements in support of union rights are ample.

"As the President deals with the looming threat of a government shutdown all the while staying on top of dynamic change occurring throughout the world, it's understandable that he may not be able to travel to Wisconsin himself," Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), a member of Progressive Caucus, said in an email.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) feels differently. The Progressive Caucus co-chairman said this week that Obama's words "are important," but "there is more to do."

"There's a bully pulpit there that the president has and I think it needs to be used – it needs to be used to rally national support," Grijalva said on a press call Wednesday sponsored by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

"I don't think you can turn the cheek on this one," he said. "This is one where you have to be very firm."