Who's In Charge Here?

In the debate over the ‘stimulus,’ Barack Obama’s biggest problem is that he has not wanted to take the lead on the legislation. For weeks Congressional Democrats complained that his reluctance to set out his recommended legislation was slowing the process. When all was said and done, he never did reveal ‘his’ bill; he simply communicated his priorities to Congress and let them carry the water. Early on in the process the bill clearly deviated from the guideposts he set out — exceeding his recommended spending level and neglecting tax cuts. All along, he has kept his distance while Congress worked out the messy details. Now it seems Congressional leaders may no longer be listening to him.

According to the trade publication Congress Daily, Barack Obama has told Senate Democrats they need to cut the overall spending level in the package to win Republican votes:

Citing urgent economic conditions, President Obama and key advisers Wednesday pressed Senate Democrats to allow spending cuts to the economic stimulus bill to win Republican backing, senators said.

“He talked about taking out some of the stuff that doesn’t really help the economy … taking out some of the fat, putting in a little more muscle,” Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said after Obama’s closed-door meeting with Senate Democrats at the Newseum.

Obama identified some of the measure’s health and education provisions as areas in which the Democrats could meet Republican demands for reductions, Landrieu said. Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad said Obama emphasized the urgency of passing a bill soon and told lawmakers that the American people expect “problem-solving.” Obama “is open to changes that strengthen Republican support,” Conrad said.

But is anyone in the Senate listening? If Obama and his aides were ‘pressing’ Democrats to support some spending cuts, there’s no evidence of it so far on the Senate floor. Yesterday David Vitter (R-LA) proposed an amendment to cut $47 billion in wasteful spending. Democratic Senator were united in their opposition. John McCain proposed an amendment to implement some spending cuts after two consecutive quarters of two percent growth. That got four Democratic votes. Even Tom Coburn’s amendment to cut tax breaks for Hollywood got just 14 Democratic votes.

There is an expectation that the negotiations between Senators Nelson and Collins may produce a bipartisan package of cuts that would reduce the overall size of the bill by several hundred billion. But if just a handful of Democrats support a even a tiny cut targeted at Hollywood, how will Obama produce the votes to cut the overall package by one-third?

It’s clear that Obama needs to engage to prevent his presidency from starting with a colossal embarrassment, but it’s no longer clear that his engaging is enough. Those same armies of activists that Obama tapped to win the White House are against him on this — pushing for more spending rather than less. It may already be too late for him to recover.

Note: Jim Geraghty has other evidence of how Obama is seemingly AWOL on this.