Obama Needs Former Colleagues To Pass Agenda
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Democrats may be on their way to a 60-seat majority in the Senate, but for President Obama, that doesn't necessarily mean an easy road.
President BARACK OBAMA: I am under no illusions that suddenly, I'm going to have a rubber stamp Senate. I've got Democrats who don't agree with me on everything. And that's how it should be.
MONTAGNE: The president speaking last week after Republican Senator Arlen Specter said he was switching parties to become a Democrat. Joining us now for a look at the Democratic majority in the Senate is NPR News analyst Juan Williams. Good morning.
JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Mr. Obama will need the support of the Democratic majority to advance his agenda, and there's been a lot of talk about Democrats reaching 60 votes in the Senate and then being able to shut off filibusters. How is that shaping up?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think a simple principle fits this political moment for the White House, Renee, and that's don't count your chickens before they're hatched. Remember, Al Franken - who's likely to be the winner from Minnesota -is not here yet, and no one knows how reliable a vote Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania will be the Obama White House.
And then you've got to think about some people who are well known for their independence, people like Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders - Lieberman of Connecticut, Sanders of Vermont. But I think the key point to remember here is that there are a number of Democrats who are moderate, even conservative. And they're going to test the White House political skills on any one piece of legislation.
MONTAGNE: Tell us a little about those Democrats, those moderates and conservatives.
WILLIAMS: Well, I guess the best known, Renee, would be Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who has a pretty conservative voting record, but also Bill Nelson of Florida would fit in that category. What we're talking also about are people, senators, I should say, who come from states that President Obama lost or maybe won by a narrow margin.
So here I'm thinking about Arkansas Senators Mark Pryor, Blanche Lambert Lincoln. Virginia's Jim Webb is another example. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who's been tough on the president about high levels of spending and incurring deficits.
And they you also have people who have regional interests that may vary from the White House - Max Baucus and John Tester of Montana. Robert Byrd of West Virginia would be another example.
MONTAGNE: Well, just - let's talk about Senator Baucus for just a moment. As we just heard, he's not completely on board with the president's tax reform plan. And he, it so happens, heads the Senate committee that handles tax bills.
WILLIAMS: Senator finance, Renee, exactly right. So the bigger issue here down the road is something like a health care proposal, which is something that the Senate and the White House are trying to get done by August. Remember, the White House wants major pieces of legislation to get through this year - not only health care, it's energy. All of this possibly creating splinters because of the political pressure that's going to come from the 2010 midterm elections and beyond. So, when you run into this, you've got so much pressure on the White House to really cater to every single member of the Democratic Caucus.
MONTAGNE: Now how would Senate Democrats who have concerns about the president's agenda let their unhappiness be known? I mean, would it be in negotiations over details of a bill, in committee sessions? How does that work?
WILLIAMS: Keep going. You got it right. I mean, all over the place…
MONTAGNE: (unintelligible), I don't know, you know, over coffee?
(Soundbite of laughter)
WILLIAMS: Yes, seances. But, no, look, they have lots of leverage because they know that without any one of their votes, the Republicans will have, again, the ability to filibuster. So, as you said, negotiations, but also in committee, on the floor. You got people who are going to be writing op-eds in their hometown papers.
There are just so many ways that you can put the president on notice before voting with Republicans.
MONTAGNE: And let's get you worrying about the voters themselves. How many Senate Democrats would have to be thinking about next year's election?
WILLIAMS: Well, you know, there's really only a small handful that are really going to be up in 2010. But the bigger issue will be 2012, when Obama will be on the ballot. And there, again, you're going to have reason for many of those conservative Democrats to want to put a little distance between themselves and Obama, maybe to moderate a bill so they can say here was my influence on the president.
MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much.
WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee. Have a good day.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR News analyst Juan Williams. And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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