- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2014

Even as President Obama is praising congressional Democrats for their unity on raising the nation’s debt ceiling, he is encountering the election-year limits of party discipline on a wide range of his other priorities.

On trade, energy and, to a lesser extent, health care, the president is grappling with Democrats who are going their own way. Some lawmakers don’t want to be seen with him in public as the November elections near, although Mr. Obama is embarking this month on a round of fundraisers to benefit Democratic candidates.

The divisions surfaced behind closed doors Friday when Mr. Obama visited House Democrats at their annual retreat in Cambridge, Md., for a party pep talk. What Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden encountered instead was entrenched opposition to the administration’s pursuit of a huge free-trade agreement with 12 Pacific Rim nations.

Mr. Biden was talking privately to lawmakers about the importance of Mr. Obama’s “pivot” to Asia when he addressed the subject of giving the president fast-track authority to negotiate a pending deal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Democratic lawmakers are adamantly opposed to trade promotion authority after taking a cue from labor allies who fear a loss of union jobs.

Mr. Biden turned to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and reportedly said of fast-track authority, “Nancy, I know it’s not coming up now.”

Mrs. Pelosi told a steelworkers rally last week that trade promotion authority is out of the question.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, also has stated publicly his opposition to fast-track trade authority.

When he was a senator in 2002, Mr. Biden voted against giving President Bush fast-track trade authority.

The vice president’s office said later that Mr. Biden “made a clear case for the administration’s trade priorities, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, which he stated are very much in the economic and strategic interest of the U.S.”

The topic is the latest example of the limits facing an increasingly unpopular president as he tries to promote his agenda with the help of lawmakers who are concerned about their own political prospects.

While Democrats have held together on other big issues, “that doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be some situations where certain Democrats are going to go out of their way to distance themselves from the White House,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley.

“On fast track, if the president wants to push for it, he’s going to have to fight for it because there’s a lot of folks in the House and Senate with pretty serious concerns,” he said.

In his public remarks to Democrats on Friday, Mr. Obama never raised the topic of trade. Republicans noticed the omission and questioned the president’s commitment to creating jobs.

“You have to wonder how serious he is about these jobs since he didn’t even mention it at all when he spoke to House Democrats,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said in a statement. “Congressional Democrats are the biggest hurdle to growing these job opportunities and [Mr. Obama] didn’t even raise the issue with them? The jobs they seem to care most about are Democrats’ in Congress — not families across the country eager to join the ranks of the employed.”

While Democrats have some major rifts with the administration, Republicans appear to be even more fractured. After Mr. McConnell and Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, broke with most of their party to help Democrats raise the nation’s debt limit last week, tea party leaders blasted top Republicans.

“Quite frankly, we just tune them out,” said Amy Kremer, head of Tea Party Express. “They have no spine, and they will not fight for anything.”

Sen. John McCain said Sunday that GOP leaders made a difficult choice on the debt ceiling to get beyond the divisive issue and allow Republicans to focus on problems where they can connect better with voters. The Arizona Republican voted against raising the borrowing limit.

“There [were] enough of us that we moved forward and put this issue behind us and now [will] focus on Obamacare, on the economy, on many other issues which we think are winning issues,” Mr. McCain said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Noting the divisions, Mr. Biden said, “There isn’t a Republican Party.

“I wish there was a Republican Party,” he told House Democrats. “I wish there was one person you could sit across the table from, make a deal, make a compromise and know when you got up from that table, it was done. So instead of focusing on the few things that we do have problems with, focus on all that we have going for us going into this election.”

As the president tries to hold his party together, he is raising funds for Democrats in House and Senate races. Party officials said Mr. Obama has committed to at least 18 more fundraisers this year, beginning this month in Washington. Mr. Biden and first lady Michelle Obama also have scheduled more fundraisers.

The president said he is counting on Democratic unity to accomplish “big things” such as approving an increase in the federal minimum wage and comprehensive immigration reform, which is stalled in the House. He said the administration’s ability to get an increase in the debt ceiling without granting Republicans any spending restrictions was one example of how “when you guys are unified, you guys stick together, this country is better off.”

“And I could not be more thankful and more appreciative and prouder of what you’re doing,” Mr. Obama told the House Democrats. “This caucus has shown time and time again under the most difficult circumstances the kind of courage and unity and discipline that has made me very, very proud.”

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