Obama plan splits Dems

As President Obama holds forth on the West Coast, selling his budget in town halls, on Jay Leno’s couch and in campaign-style e-mails asking supporters to canvass door-to-door, Democrats in the House and Senate are also preparing to do battle over Obama’s ambitious agenda — not with Republicans, but with their own president.

The AIG sideshow, which has created a bipartisan bumper crop of new bills aiming to tax all the bonus money that isn’t returned, is overshadowing the disagreement over Obama’s budget plans within his own ranks that will take the spotlight in the coming days.

A brand-new group of 15 centrist Democrats in the Senate, along with the more than 50 conservative Blue Dogs in the House, are at work drafting changes to the massive spending blueprint the Congress plans to pass during the first week of April. In addition to objecting to substance, like the spending totals, many members of the Senate group also have concerns about process. They oppose the use of the budget reconciliation process for healthcare and energy reform goals Obama has included in his budget, a tactic the administration is considering. Passing large reforms under reconciliation — originally designed for deficit reduction, not sweeping new programs — would only require a majority vote instead of the filibuster-proof margin of 60 in the Senate. Such a move would infuriate the minority, and present a political challenge for Obama, who campaigned against the old Washington ways of partisan games and promised to reach across the aisle.

This week the Blue Dogs will present House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) with their principles for the budget, including statutory pay-go rules and requirements that domestic discretionary spending rise only with inflation. Like their Senate counterparts, they discourage the use of reconciliation on a cap-and-trade mandate.

On the stimulus vote, the party managed to keep many of these same Democrats, but that was before the omnibus appropriations bill that added 8 percent to annual federal spending, and before the budget plan that calls for a carbon tax that would hit all consumers, new taxes for the wealthy, reductions in mortgage interest deductions and unprecedented deficit totals.

This time Obama will need every Democrat on board — and, should he decide against using reconciliation, some Republicans as well. To get there, he is appealing to the public to lobby lawmakers in Washington. Obama is taking his act on the road, and tapping into his campaign e-mail list through a new group called Organizing for America. Another umbrella of interest groups, called Unity ’09, has joined the effort, including MoveOn.org, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Council of La Raza and Planned Parenthood. The Democratic National Committee is busy marketing the GOP as the “Party of No,” with a clock ticking away on the Republicans’ failure to produce an alternative budget.

Obama aides admitted this week the public-relations launch is largely designed to keep worried Democrats on board — that by painting the GOP as nakedly political, it will be harder for Democrats to vote with them.

How many millions will the Democratic Party and its interest-group allies spend to influence centrist and conservative Democrats? It would save money, time and cynicism to start talking to them now. They are right down the road, they have to be dealt with sooner or later, and long before 2012, they are the only votes that matter.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.