Democrats demand Obama’s budget help

Frustrated Senate Democrats gave senior White House advisers an earful Thursday afternoon during a private meeting, telling them that President Obama needs to get more involved in the budget battle, according to Democratic sources.

Obama dispatched his budget director, Jack Lew, and National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling to soothe the restive Democrats.

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“I don’t think they’re enjoying coming up here that much during budget season,” said a Senate Democratic source, who said lawmakers delivered the message “loud and clear.”

“The message to the White House is we need to ramp this up, we need to get going,” said the source, who requested anonymity.

Several Democratic senators confirmed that they and their colleagues told Lew and Sperling on Thursday that Obama needed to take a more active public role.

A White House official declined to comment on the criticism. 

“We’ve committed not to talk publicly about private conversations with the Democratic Caucus,” said the official.

Democratic officials on Capitol Hill say they are uncertain about what the president’s endgame plan is for the budget standoff.

They added that it’s difficult to vote against short-term resolutions that cut $4 billion here or $2 billion there over the span of a few weeks.  The projected federal deficit for this year is $1.6 trillion.

Some congressional Democrats are losing patience with the president, saying they want to move on to other priorities, such as their jobs agenda.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Conference, pointed out that the Democratic leadership speaks regularly with the president.

The four members of the leadership team met with Obama at the White House on Wednesday. But some rank-and-file Democrats in the chamber are exasperated at the Obama administration.

One Senate Democrat noted that Obama visited the Democratic Caucus more than once during the debate over healthcare reform, and also sent former President Clinton to the Senate to make the case for the controversial bill.

“He’s not greasing it like he did during healthcare,” said the source.

A Democratic aide said there was an “uproar” on Tuesday during the weekly Democratic lunch meeting, when lawmakers complained about the lack of the president’s public involvement in the debate over spending cuts.

“He’s not using the bully pulpit,” said the aide. “He’s waiting until the last hour to come in.”

The aide compared Obama’s strategy in the spending debate to the approach he used late last year during the fight over extending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts.

Obama tapped Vice President Joe Biden, Lew and White House chief of staff William Daley last week to conduct spending talks with congressional Republican leaders.

But Biden this week, soon after he offered a proposal to immediately cut $6.5 billion from the budget over the next six-and-a half months, left the country for an extended trip to Finland, Russia and Moldova.

Senate Democrats were further chagrined to discover that Obama plans to take a multi-day trip to South America, scheduled to depart right after the stop-gap measure funding the government runs out, which is March 18. Obama and his wife Michelle are scheduled to travel in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador March 19-23.

White House officials scheduled the trip weeks ago, and didn’t think it would pose a problem since Congress is scheduled to take a recess from March 19 though March 27.

Biden has stayed involved in spending talks with GOP leaders despite traveling overseas. He spoke to House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) by telephone from Russia on Wednesday.

A Biden aide said the vice president would “continue to stay in close contact with congressional leaders on budget negotiations throughout the week.”

A growing number of Democrats believe they should counter House GOP proposals to cut non-security discretionary spending with a plan to raise tax revenues.

The Democratic tax ideas include eliminating tax breaks for oil companies and for companies that move manufacturing facilities out of the country. They are also circulating a proposal to impose a surtax on millionaires.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said these proposals can gain traction in Congress only if Obama gets more involved.

“He’s played a role but it’s been behind the scenes. I’d like to see him more visible,” Levin said.

Democratic leaders saw a wave of defections in the spending fight Wednesday, when 10 Democrats and one allied Independent voted against a leadership plan to cut $6.2 billion from the federal budget over the rest of fiscal year 2011.

Leaders on Thursday downplayed the defections, and stressed the failure of a House GOP proposal (H.R. 1) to cut an additional $57 billion from the 2011 budget. Not one Senate Democrat backed that measure on Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made it clear that both sides would need to compromise, saying on the floor: “We accept the lessons of [Thursday’s] vote.”

Schumer said the lesson is that “H.R. 1 can’t pass, and if you insist on H.R. 1 we’re going to be gridlocked, so give us some alternatives,” making reference to the House-passed package of cuts.

Schumer accused Republicans of intransigence, and said Boehner must come forward with a new proposal for fiscal 2011 spending levels to avert a government shutdown.

However, some Democratic senators would like to take a more proactive approach instead of reacting to the House GOP’s bills. 

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who voted against the Democratic spending alternative, said Democrats should “come up with a clearer picture of what the CR and what the future spending should look like instead of simply reacting to the Republican side.”

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