As Obama Seeks Republican Votes, Worry on His Left

Liberal groups fear they have plenty to lose in compromising with Republicans.

Feb. 3, 2009 -- President Obama's courtship of the right is beginning to worry some friends on the left.

As the Obama administration seeks ways to streamline his stimulus plan to appeal to Republican lawmakers, the president risks alienating key allies in his liberal base.

A range of interest groups are aggressively making the case that favored projects and programs deserve funding as part of the stimulus plan, even while the president and his aides scour the package for items they can eliminate.

With public scrutiny growing on a handful of areas that congressional Democrats are seeking to fund, groups are increasingly concerned that the $800 billion-plus stimulus package represents what might be the last best chance to see their priorities addressed.

"In my judgment, [the push for funding] is as important as an election campaign," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Her group is bringing teachers from around the country to Washington Wednesday for a national lobbying day, to highlight the importance of maintaining $159 billion in education aid in the latest version of the stimulus plan.

"The economy and educational opportunities are completely and totally intertwined, both in the long-term and the short-term," Weingarten said. "It's absolutely critical to do it now. This is what leadership is about."

Obama aides are engaged in intense negotiations with members of both parties, in an attempt to build broad, bipartisan support for the stimulus. Those efforts took on added urgency after the package was unanimously opposed by GOP House members last week, although they lacked enough votes to stop it.

Obama has indicated he's looking to eliminate extra funding for programs that don't relate directly to the goal of stimulating the economy.

"We're going to be trimming up ... [removing] things that are not relevant to putting people back to work right now," Obama told NBC Sunday.

But the efforts to attract Republicans could put further strain on the president's sometimes tenuous relationship with liberal interest groups, who are worried that the push to tighten the bill will come at the expense of their priorities.

Obama's Core Support at Risk

"It's a big tension," said Julian Zelizer, a political science professor at Princeton University. "The more he moves to the center, and to the right, the more he risks losing some of his core supporters, who have limited tolerance for these kinds of compromises."

Senate Democrats Monday agreed to remove $75 million in anti-smoking funds from the stimulus bill, bowing to critics who argued that such funding had no direct relationship to job creation.

That was despite the entreaties of public health groups, who cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics estimating that it would save 1,500 jobs in states that are trimming anti-smoking programs, plus save about $1 billion in long-term health care costs by convincing more people to quit smoking.

"There are ways of creating jobs that aren't just building roads and bridges," said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, who expressed disappointment with the decision. "This fits President Obama's criteria for what should be in the stimulus bill perfectly."

Obama last week intervened in the House legislation to remove two other items that had come under fire from Republicans: $200 million that was to be set aside to refurbish the National Mall, and a Medicaid expansion that would have allowed all states to expand family-planning services, including contraception, for low-income women.

Anger Among Women's Groups

The latter decision was met with anger from a range of women's rights groups.

"Family planners are devastated that President Obama and Congress have decided to take funding for critical family planning services out of the stimulus," said Mary Jane Gallagher, president of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. "Their willingness to abandon the millions of families across the country who are in need is devastating."

She was not alone. "Tell Congress and President Obama that the Economic Recovery package may be 'shovel-ready' but poor women got the axe," the National Organization for Women wrote in an e-mail message to members.

'Non-Fact-Based Attack'

Some Democrats and liberal groups have complained that too much of the package is going toward tax cuts; if anything, further changes agreed to by Obama are likely to tip the balance in favor of even more tax cuts, at the expense of spending programs.

Although Obama aides have said they'd only support spending in the stimulus that's "temporary," "targeted" and "timely," the measures crafted on Capitol Hill became magnets for a range of favored programs, many of which have little obvious impact on putting people to work.

Groups with a stake in a piece of the stimulus bill are now making the case to lawmakers that their favored programs are directly related to stimulating the economy, even if they're easy to mock.

Arts Groups Disappointed

With GOP leaders citing $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts as an example of wasteful spending in the stimulus, local arts groups are contacting Obama administration aides and congressional offices to demonstrate what that money means for museums, orchestras, theater companies and dance troupes scattered around the nation.

"This industry is under the same kind of pressures that many others in America are today," said Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts. "I'm very concerned because the arts are a convenient whipping boy for this kind of non-fact-based attack. It makes a great sound bite for a conservative."

Lynch said more than 14,000 jobs will be preserved if the National Endowment for the Arts is given the $50 million to funnel to local groups.

"There's a lot of hope with the Obama administration," he said. "He was so articulate about the arts and about arts education in his campaign. There is hope that he understands, and his administration will understand. The hope is that they can hold the line despite the attacks."

Education-funding advocates are scrambling to protect the money for students and schools, including items such as nearly $15 billion for Pell grants, which some Democrats have said doesn't belong in the stimulus.

'People Got It About Wall Street'

That money is critical for students who are deciding whether to continue their educations, a particular concern these days, given the tight job market, said Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers.

"We need a bold stimulus," she said. "People got it about Wall Street and stabilizing the credit markets; why don't they get it about stabilizing our schools?"