Paging Barack Obama... Will Mr. Obama Pick Up the Courtesy Phone

News flash: Congress is an institution with deep and serious rifts. It’s a challenge to build a majority in support of anything, which is partly the reason it has such a bad reputation. In the Senate, it generally takes 60 votes to pass any meaningful legislation. For this reason, a President who cares about his agenda will involve himself closely in negotiations.

Barack Obama on the other hand, has kept his distance — at least when it comes to the single defining legislation of his presidency. Members of Congress complained in December and January that he had not given them his draft stimulus legislation and in fact, he never did. Rather, he set guidelines and allowed Congress to fill in the blanks. Given license to do what they want, they put together a legislative mess that was pork-laden and short on tax cuts. And they’re surprised to see that they’re having a hard time putting together a majority to pass it:

Deliberations over the economic stimulus package working its way through the Senate have morphed into a fight between House and Senate Democratic leaders vying for control over the final product, according to senior Democrats close to the process.

“Now this is a House and Senate fight and the White House has to step in,” a senior Democratic source said…

Pelosi’s office called the White House during the leadership meeting to get President Obama’s chief economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, and OMB Director Orszag and OMB Deputy Director Rob Nabors to come to Capitol Hill Tuesday night to discuss the matter, and the three obliged…

In an effort to win more Republican support Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, plan to offer an amendment to cut tens of billions from the stimulus that critics say would not quickly boost the economy.

Nelson hopes to bring the proposal to the floor soon but said he did not want to rush the amendment. “If we rush it through, we can lose it,” Nelson said.

Collins said that she wants “a bill that is bipartisan, effective and targeted. The goal is to finish the bill this week.”

Some Democrats were uncomfortable about the spending levels in the package. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said “there is some spending that needs to be taken out. I think everybody around here is pretty focused on trying to do the right thing in terms of what this bill represents…”

Senior Republicans said they will offer amendments aimed at cutting government-backed fixed-rate mortgages to 4 percent and to offer a $15,000 credit to homebuyers. “We need to fix housing first and then put more money in the hands of the American taxpayer,” McConnell said.

However, Reid and Durbin said the GOP proposal to cut fixed rate mortgages to 4 percent would be too expensive, costing at least $300 billion. But they signaled willingness to compromise with Republicans on housing amendments and on a spending cut.

My bet is that it is impossible to pull together the extremes to pass a bill that gets significant Republican support while not losing the ‘progressives.’ There are simply too many people pulling in too many directions: liberals who want more spending and oppose tax cuts, conservatives who want less spending and more tax cuts, moderates who want more infrastructure spending and less pork… there’s no way to accomplish what Barack Obama claims to want. And that’s even more true now that it becomes plain that Obama would rather talk about bipartisanship than press Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to deliver on it.

This is a mess because Obama has ceded control to Congressional Democratic leaders, and it will not be solved until he reins them in. Regardless of whether he does so or not, this spending bill will wind up being a bigger embarrassment than the nominations of Daschle, Killefer, Richardson, and Geithner.