After winning most battles during his first 100 days, President Obama has begun to hit hurdles in Congress over the twin pillars of his domestic agenda, taking flak from his party’s left for not going far enough on health care and seeing his greenhouse gas emissions plan stalled by moderate Democrats and regional concerns.
The anger over his health care plan spilled over at a congressional hearing Tuesday when protesters stood and shouted, “Put single payer on the table.”
They were complaining that Mr. Obama’s and Congress’ preferred plans don’t replace the private health insurance system with one run by the government.
Former presidential hopeful and former party Chairman Howard Dean said Monday night that Democrats and Mr. Obama will suffer if they don’t strike more boldly on health care.
“If we can’t deliver a real choice to the American people and real reform, I think we lose seats in the midterm election. I think we’re going to have a hard time getting the president re-elected,” Mr. Dean said on a call with MoveOn.org and Democracy for America members, trying to rally support for public health care. “As long as he sticks with us, and we stick with him, I think we’re ultimately going to win this.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama’s and congressional Democratic leaders’ effort to cap greenhouse gas emissions has run into problems. Lawmakers representing coal-producing districts and Southeastern states, whose industries would have to buy expensive renewable energy credits, have halted progress on a sprawling draft cap-and-trade bill. Committee action on the bill has been delayed indefinitely as Democrats attempt to settle clashes among the rank and file and leadership.
Seeking to boost his agenda, Mr. Obama met at the White House on Tuesday for a pep talk with Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over both energy and health care legislation. Committee Democrats promised that the president they would try to advance a climate change bill before Memorial Day.
“The president said to us, ‘Success breeds success. And let’s move on this bill and then on to health care,’ ” said committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the meeting underscored Mr. Obama’s interest in seeing action on health care and the climate change.
“You’ve heard the president on a number of occasions mention that his three most important priorities are health care, energy independence and education, that those three present an important foundation for creating long-term economic growth,” Mr. Gibbs said.
Using their sizable margins in the House and Senate, Democrats easily pushed through Mr. Obama’s agenda early in his administration, winning passage of his stimulus spending bill, the fiscal 2009 spending bills and an outline of a 2010 budget - all on the strength of Democratic votes.
But with Democrats now splintering, it puts in doubt the twin major planks in Mr. Obama’s domestic agenda that he laid out in his address to Congress in February.
Recent stumbles include House Democrats’ refusal this week to include money in a spending bill to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the Senate’s defeat last week of Mr. Obama’s plan to let bankruptcy judges insist on lower mortgage rates to stave off foreclosure for homeowners.
The Democrats emerged from the White House claiming a small victory on a plan to trade gas-guzzling cars for more fuel-efficient vehicles, but with little detail on how they would find consensus on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. House Democrats have not filled the key details of the House climate plan - how many permits in a “cap and trade” system would be given to companies and how many would be sold, and how much they would cost.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said the committee negotiations for a climate change bill were difficult and slow.
“I don’t want to say at this point in time that there is deadlock,” Mr. Hoyer told reporters on Capitol Hill. “I think there obviously, at this point in time, is very serious discussion and not a consensus. … Whether it is in gridlock or not, I don’t know.”
Mr. Hoyer said he remained confident that the committee could reach a consensus. “I think they can still get there,” he said.
On health care, Mr. Dean and his allies are trying to force Mr. Obama to be more bold in embracing a public health care system. Mr. Dean announced a new Web site, StandWithDrDean.org, and said he disagrees with more conservative Democrats who fear they might be vulnerable to charges of socialized medicine.
“We have a Democratic president, Democratic Senate, Democratic House. There’s no reason to trade it away,” Mr. Dean said.
Mr. Dean, a former Vermont governor and a 2004 presidential candidate, said activists must make it clear to the Democrats who won’t back a public option to the plan “that your vote is going to be connected to how they do on health insurance.”
“The election of Barack Obama has turned over this country to a new generation,” he said. “We’re going to have an all-out fight about this. … We’re not going to go down again.”
Liberals stress that they aren’t advocating that the entire plan be public like the Canadian system. They say Mr. Obama’s plan includes choices - allowing people to keep private health care insurance if they want but subsidizing its cost and expanding health care to include a Medicare-style public option.
MoveOn said the Congressional Progressive Caucus has signed Mr. Dean’s petition calling a public option “non-negotiable.”
Republicans have been largely united in attacking the House climate bill as a tax on working families that would be levied during one of the nation’s worst economic storms.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, attacked House Democrats for granting exemptions to influential energy interests, in his online leadership blog Monday, citing a report in The Washington Times.
Duke Energy and a few other companies would be exempted from having to outfit new coal plants with expensive environmental technology, as first reported in The Times on Monday.
“As our economy weakens, and families and small businesses struggle just to keep up, Democrats in Washington are reportedly resorting to making deals with the energy industry to gain support for their new national energy tax, which would impose new taxes on any American who drives a car, flips on a light switch or buys a product manufactured in the United States,” Mr. Boehner wrote Monday.
cJon Ward, Sean Lengell and S.A. Miller contributed to this report.