Senators grill Obama on Keystone, NSA surveillance programs

President Obama defended his policies on the Keystone XL pipeline and the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs at a “lively” meeting with Senate Democrats Wednesday morning. 

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who is facing a tough reelection in 2014, pressed Obama on approval for the Keystone XL pipeline.

ADVERTISEMENT
“It was a lively debate,” said one senator who attended the meeting.

Obama sought to unify the caucus around his economic policies. His aides passed out a fact card highlighting the White House’s “A Better Bargain for the Middle Class.”

The fact card listed the president’s goals for job creation, education, home ownership, secure retirement and affordable healthcare.

It noted that businesses have created 7.2 million jobs in 40 months and that housing foreclosures have dropped to the lowest level since 2006.

But Democratic senators turned the meeting to their pet concerns. Landrieu grilled Obama about his administration’s reluctance to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which has bipartisan support in the Senate.

Obama remained noncommittal on the controversial pipeline and played down projections that it could have a dramatic effect on the economy.

“He was very careful about not telegraphing his decision,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “But he showed a healthy skepticism about the exaggerated economic arguments supporting it.

“That was good. He’s obviously cutting through some of the clutter and nonsense that surrounds this,” he added.

Obama also told senators who have raised concerns about NSA programs that he’s willing to meet with them to discuss potential reforms.

“He said he’s willing to get together with members who are concerned about it and try to talk about a potential way forward,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

The president also laid out his strategy for the fall debate over funding government and raising the debt limit.

“There were some bottom lines that he said,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking member of the Democratic leadership. “He’s not going to accept sequestration restoration for the military any greater than in domestic. He’s not going to negotiate on the debt ceiling.”

Obama also told senators that he would emphasize the need to fund transportation projects, scientific research, and education in the expected battle over government funding for fiscal year 2014.

He declined, however, to shed any light on his shortlist to replace Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve chairman.

“The president mentioned that he’s talked to a number of candidates, but he didn’t mention any specific names,” Murphy said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the Democratic caucus will support whomever Obama selects.

“That decision’s up to the president,” he said.