The Note, 5/5/2009: Center’s Hold: Noise from left and right, but policy rides in the middle

By Theresa Cook

May 5, 2009 8:13am

By RICK KLEIN If this is the age of Democratic dominance — and if the GOP can grab our attention with brands and re-brands — why does the center matter more than ever? The piled-high Obama agenda depends more than ever on the moderates, that always unwieldy, often unpredictable caucus that’s always forming “gangs” for some reason. On healthcare, on cap-and-trade, on taxes and tax reform, on labor’s top priority — and, nominee-depending, maybe on the Supreme Court vacancy, too — it’s the moderates who are poised to determine some outcomes. (That group includes Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., making this one caucus that’s growing.) Being within a few legal maneuvers of 60 in the Senate means pressure, since Democrats won’t be able to blame Republicans for what they can’t do. And that means it’s time to sort out your Bayhs, Landrieus, Lincolns, and Nelsons (both of them). Tuesday brings some foreign policy: Vice President Joe Biden starts his morning at AIPAC, and President Obama meets with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the White House. Plus, the administration turns its focus to Afghanistan and Pakistan policy with Wednesday meetings. A different presidential meeting tells you what you need to know about domestic affairs: members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee visit the White House Tuesday morning, with the major energy and environmental initiatives limping along. “Moderate Democrats could hold the key to the fate of President Barack Obama’s agenda this year,” McClatchy’s David Lightman writes. “They have the numbers to be decisive in the House of Representatives — the 51-member Blue Dog Coalition could doom an initiative if it sticks together, since Democrats control 256 seats, it takes 218 votes to win, and no Republicans have voted for major Democratic budget bills this year.”  Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.: “They’re all afraid of us. Fear of us is its own motivator.” Those centrists look so enticing that the other side wants some, too: “More Lincoln Chafees and Olympia Snowes aren’t the answer,” Ross Douthat writes in his New York Times column. “What’s required instead is a better sort of centrist. . . . And so in place of hacks and deal-makers, the Republican Party needs its own version of the neoliberals and New Democrats — reform-minded politicians like Gary Hart and Bill Clinton, who helped the Democratic Party recover from the Reagan era, instead of just surviving it.”  Looking for bonus points: “Republicans are the ones getting hammered in public opinion for the lack of bipartisanship in the era of Obama. Americans are twice as likely to say Republicans, rather than Mr. Obama, are to blame for being too stubborn in dealing with the other side,” Gerald Seib writes in his Wall Street Journal column.  A bow to the center: “In an effort to defuse the most explosive issue in the debate over comprehensive health care legislation, a top Senate Democrat has proposed that any new government-run insurance program comply with all the rules and standards that apply to private insurance,” The New York Times’ Robert Pear reports, writing up the proposal from Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “Democrats in Congress hope to shift the debate from the question of whether to create a public health insurance plan to the question of how it would work. In so doing, they look for the support of influential moderates. But in the last few days, three moderate senators — Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska; Olympia J. Snowe, Republican of Maine; and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who switched parties to become a Democrat — have expressed reservations about a public plan.” “Obama, who wants bipartisan backing for such a major undertaking, seems to be at least weighing the possibility of trading away the public option in exchange for GOP support,” The Boston Globe’s Peter Canellos writes. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius visits the Centers for Disease control in Atlanta Tuesday, and addresses the Council on Foundations with a rallying cry. “We are also counting on you to communicate the urgency of fixing the health system for the millions of Americans you touch every day,” she plans to tell the council, according to excerpts provided to The Note. “I know it’s tempting for some to reduce every legislative discussion in Washington to a simple political fight. It is easy to stand aside and stay above the fray. But this is it: the once-in-a-lifetime chance to break the gridlock that has hurt so many Americans.” “This is not political and it is not optional. Inaction threatens our health and our economic security,” Sebelius will say. More give that’s outstripping the take: “U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, who sponsored legislation to make it easier for workers to join unions, said the proposal’s main provision may have to be dropped so that the rest of the measure can pass,” Bloomberg’s Holly Rosenkrantz reports. The quote that’s reverberating through press operations on both sides: “It probably won’t be card-check because too many people are opposed to it now,” said Harkin, D-Iowa. Not that the pressure’s gone. Labor is serving notice that its support is up for grabs in Pennsylvania: “If Arlen Specter — he stood with them in the past — if he continues to stand with them, they’ll support him. If he doesn’t, they won’t support him,” AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka said Monday on’s “Top Line.” “There’s no way they’re ever going to be supporting someone who is seen as thwarting this opportunity,” SEIU President Andy Stern told ABC Monday night. On taxes — not the reception he was hoping for. “President Barack Obama’s plan to end tax breaks for U.S.-based multinational companies drew a skeptical response from fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill, indicating that his plan may face obstacles on its path through Congress,” Bloomberg’s Ryan J. Donmoyer reports. Some business leaders denounced “the initiative as a ‘foolish’ program that would do more harm than good,” ABC’s Matthew Jaffe writes. “Critics argue the president’s effort to raise taxes on the overseas profits of U.S. companies could damage U.S. multinational corporations.” “The Obama proposals oversimplify the challenge, both technically and politically,” reads The New York Times editorial. “But even if the proposal doesn’t advance rapidly, policy makers said a broader corporate-tax overhaul is becoming increasingly likely over the next two years,” John D. McKinnon writes in The Wall Street Journal. The war supplemental doesn’t look like the White House wanted it to, with no funds to close Gitmo: “House Democrats unveiled a $94.2 billion wartime spending bill Monday that adds $9.3 billion to White House requests but also reflects serious doubts about the long-term viability of U.S. commitments to Afghanistan and its neighbor Pakistan,” Politico’s David Rogers writes.  “President Barack Obama’s plans for closing the Guantanamo detention center are challenged as well, with Democrats opting to strip out all of the $80 million in new funds sought by the Pentagon and Justice Department to begin the relocation of prisoners. After last week’s celebration of Obama’s first 100 days, the bill shows how the president could face greater challenges when it comes to the grittier business of implementing his policies.” “Top House Democrats raised tensions with the White House on a key foreign policy goal, rebuffing a request for funding to begin closing the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,” The Wall Street Journal’s Greg Hitt writes. “Unveiling the House version of war spending bill, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D., Wisc.) didn’t include the funds, complaining that the administration has not yet developed a clear plan to wind down operations at Guantanamo and relocate the detainees, either abroad or in the U.S.” “House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) signaled he might not be so generous in funding the Afghanistan war next year unless significant progress is made — progress that could be difficult to achieve,” The Hill’s Jared Allen and Roxana Tiron report. Looking ahead to Wednesday’s meetings: “As Obama prepares to meet with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai this week in Washington, Pakistanis from different walks of life say they’d give the U.S. leader an earful if they, rather than their president, had a seat at the White House table,” Mark Magnier writes in the Chicago Tribune. “One of their biggest complaints: the deadly drones, the hugely unpopular unmanned aircraft that are involved in spying and firing on suspected ‘high value’ militants on Pakistani soil.” Stressing over stress tests: “The U.S. is expected to direct about 10 of the 19 banks undergoing government stress tests to boost their capital, according to several people familiar with the matter, a move that officials hope will quell fears about the solvency of the financial sector,” The Wall Street Journal’s Damian Paletta and Deborah Solomon write. “The exact number of banks affected remains under discussion. It could include Wells Fargo & Co., Bank of America, Citigroup Inc. and several regional banks. At one point, officials believed as many as 14 banks would need to raise more funds to create a stronger buffer against future losses, these people said, but that number has fallen in recent days.” Grading the tests: “The results of the much-anticipated bank stress tests are finally set to be released on Thursday — after the markets close. But we can already give the Obama economic team a grade for the way the tests have been handled: F,” Arianna Huffington writes, at Huffington Post. “For starters, why the holdup in releasing the results? It’s been ten days since the Treasury Department and the Fed let the banks in on the preliminary results of the tests. So how come the public — you know, the ones who keep bailing out the banks — are still, ten days later, in the dark?” How can you not like this guy? “I don’t think they picked me because they thought I’d be that great a transportation person,” Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood tells The New York Times’ Mark Leibovich. “They picked me because of the bipartisan thing . . . and the Congressional thing, and the friendship thing.” SCOTUS timeline: “I’d be surprised if it went beyond this week,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, tells Politico’s Manu Raju and Jonathan Martin. “I would think by the end of this week or over the weekend, he’ll nominate somebody. I’m sure they’ve discussed this internally, back and forth for months now.” (Get ready for a surprise, senator.) More from Hatch: “Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said President Barack Obama told him he won’t nominate a ‘radical or an extremist’ to replace retiring Justice David Souter on the U.S. Supreme Court,” Bloomberg’s James Rowley and Brian Faler report. We’re about to see a lot more of Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.: “Senate Republicans yesterday took the first steps in preparing to challenge President Obama’s eventual nominee for the Supreme Court, selecting as their point man for confirmation hearings a backbench Alabama conservative whose own 1986 nomination to the federal courts turned into a racially tinged firestorm,” The Washington Post’s Paul Kane writes. New in Virginia Tuesday — the Democratic Governors Association looks beyond the primary with a $500,000, week-long TV buy. “If Bob McDonnell won’t stand up for Virginia’s unemployed,” the ad says, “do you think he’d stand up for you?” The ad is the product of Common Sense Virginia — a DGA-funded 527.  Murtha madness: “Last year, Murtech received $4 million in Pentagon work, all of it without competition, for a variety of warehousing and engineering services,” The Washington Post’s Carol D. Leonnig and Alice Crites report. “With its long corridor of sparsely occupied offices and an unmanned reception area, Murtech’s most striking feature is its owner — Robert C. Murtha Jr., 49. He is the nephew of  Rep. John P. Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who has significant sway over the Defense Department’s spending as chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.” The Kicker: “We’re not doing this anymore.” — House Minority Leader John Boehner, declaring the end of impromptu hallway interviews. “This is like getting interview lessons from Sarah Palin.” — David Plouffe, in a debate with Karl Rove. Don’t miss “Top Line,”’s daily political Webcast, hosted by Rick Klein and David Chalian, at noon ET. Follow The Note on Twitter: For up-to-the-minute political updates check out The Note’s blog . . . all day every day:

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