Centrists threaten Obama's agenda

Half a dozen members of the Senate Democratic Conference pose the biggest threat to President Obama’s agenda, giving Senate Republicans a fighting chance to block the administration’s major expansions of government.

GOP leaders have begun reaching out to these centrists, hoping they will buck their party on Obama’s two biggest initiatives: healthcare reform and climate change legislation.

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Now that Democrats control 60 votes, Republicans must peel off a few members of the majority to stage a filibuster.

Leading the pack of potential defectors are Sen. Ben Nelson, a pro-business Democrat from Nebraska; Sen. Joe Lieberman, a self-described Independent Democrat from Connecticut; and Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who represents a conservative state.

All three have expressed concerns about the core element in Obama’s healthcare proposal: a government-run insurance program that would compete with the private sector. The three also worked together this year to successfully cut more than $100 billion from Obama’s economic stimulus package.

The other Democrats who are expected to voice the most serious objections to either or both of the administrations top priorities are: Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.).

“The Democratic Conference has 60 votes, if they’re all here, and if they are straight party-line that means that Republicans cannot stop legislation,” said Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.).

“[But] it is not all that common to have total party-line votes. If a couple of Democrats don’t vote with their party, then it doesn’t matter that they have 60 votes.”

Lieberman, who opposed Obama in the general election and then needed Obama’s support to hang onto his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has indicated he may vote against Obama’s healthcare reform initiative.

“If we create a public option, the public is going to end up paying for it,” Lieberman told a home-state newspaper last week. “That’s a cost we can’t take on.”

Marshall Wittmann, Lieberman’s communications director, said his boss favors significant healthcare reform even though he does not agree with Obama on the public option.

“Although Sen. Lieberman does not support a public option, he strongly supports healthcare reform that expands access, lowers costs and increases quality of care,” said Wittmann.

Nelson initially suggested that he would oppose the public option. Now he says he will withhold judgment but warns against any proposal that would undermine private insurance plans.

“If a public plan is drafted with the intent to substantially undermine the existing health insurance that 200 million Americans have, he would have a very tough time of supporting it,” said Nelson spokesman Jake Thompson.

On Obama’s other major initiative, combating global warming by implementing a cap-and-trade program to limit carbon emissions, Nelson minces no words: He’s against it.

Landrieu has angered liberal activists by seeming to go out of her way to express opposition to the public option, while other centrist Democrats have stayed quiet on the issue. Lobbyists for environmental groups that favor Obama’s cap-and-trade proposal expect opposition from Landrieu, who has a long history of looking out for the oil and gas industries in Louisiana.

Bayh, Lincoln and Pryor have stayed largely quiet on the most controversial questions in the healthcare reform debate.

But Democrats and activists such as Richard Kirsch, the campaign manager of Healthcare for America Now, view them warily.

“The public option is the easiest thing to focus on, but another major question is how much to spend,” said Kirsch. “Bayh has been very quiet [on the public option], but he had questions on the budget and the stimulus.”

Indeed, Bayh surprised Democratic leaders earlier this year by coming out against a $410 billion omnibus spending bill, stalling the measure on the Senate floor. He also voted against the budget.

Lincoln teamed up with Senate Republicans during debate over the budget resolution to pass an amendment raising the exemption and lowering the rate for the estate tax. Both Pryor and Lincoln have expressed concern with the Employee Free Choice Act, a major priority of labor unions backed by most Democrats.

On climate change and energy legislation, Bayh, Lincoln and Pryor are seen as a collective headache for Democratic leaders.

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Anna Aurilio, a lobbyist for Environment America, a liberal group, ranked Nelson, Landrieu, Bayh, Lincoln and Pryor as the toughest Democrats to persuade to join Democratic leaders on environmental votes.

She said that Nelson and Landrieu would present the biggest challenge on climate change legislation — Nelson and Landrieu say the proposal would raise electricity rates and affect jobs in their states.

Aurilio noted that Bayh voted against a renewable electricity standard during an Energy and Natural Resources Committee markup.

Lieberman, Nelson and other centrist Democrats give Republican leaders hope they can stop healthcare and climate proposals favored by Obama and most Democrats, even though they control only 40 seats, not enough to sustain a filibuster.

A senior GOP aide said that Senate Republicans would introduce alternative healthcare and energy proposals and will attempt to persuade, or pressure, centrist Democrats to support them.

“The absolute reality is that you’ll have Democratic senators uncomfortable being tied to the Democratic leadership position, especially on healthcare, energy and spending, [which] is where you’ll see most discomfort,” said the aide.

Another GOP aide said that Republican leaders will unveil a broad healthcare reform package later this summer and centrist Democrats will be asked to support it.

“You’ll see a comprehensive proposal from the GOP side and we would be happy to see any Democrats join onto a bipartisan alternative,” said the aide.

Republicans have made special overtures to Lieberman. Kyl has teamed up with Lieberman on various national security issues and Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) hosts a weekly bipartisan breakfast with Lieberman.

Ron Bonjean, who formerly served as chief of staff under Kyl, said: “Creating bipartisan coalitions on key issues is important to prevent Democrat legislative victories.

“Getting Democratic moderates is extremely important,” he added.



J. Taylor Rushing contributed to this article.