In the wake of Tuesday's primary election results, some Democratic political operatives crowed that the Republicans were even more divided than the Democrats, a boast that took a peculiar sort of comfort from voters' mixed messages to both parties.
On Capitol Hill, however, it will be the divisions among Democrats that will have the more significant impact on legislation between now and November. Potential trouble spots were easy to detect as Congress got back to work this week.
The White House's wishes may be taken under advisement but they no longer rule the day. Sources suggested that President Obama and his team have grudgingly accepted that some Democratic lawmakers are eager to step out of formation on appropriations, financial regulation, clean-air regulation, and other issues. As a result, several Democratic congressional sources said with delight, the administration is more carefully tracking the pulse on the Hill to maintain a united front, particularly in reaction to the BP oil disaster.
With unemployment stuck near 10 percent and the largest man-made environmental disaster gushing from the Gulf of Mexico's seabed, the majority party returned to the Capitol thinking anew about legislation that may help or hurt its members' re-election chances. With Obama's job-approval numbers hovering below 50 percent under the weight of relentlessly bad news and unforced errors, some House and Senate Democrats see the president as a weakened influence on the political stage.
"There is more of a healthy skepticism now. They've got their antennae up," one Senate Democratic committee aide commented about the lawmakers he serves. "I don't think people have broken loose from [the White House]; they understand they can't separate from Obama. But they are not acting on blind faith."
The financial regulation bill pending in the Senate is one example. Senate Democrats, in a populist fever, are eager to get tougher on big banks and the regulation of derivatives than the administration initially envisioned. As Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, strode into Tuesday's policy luncheon with his colleagues, he insisted to reporters that he would not support "anything short of reinstating Glass-Steagall," the 1933 law that prohibited financial institutions from creating any combination of commercial and investment banking and insurance. President Clinton signed legislation in 1999 to repeal parts of the law.
When asked about bucking the Obama administration, Harkin acidly dismissed the president's economic advisers as "the people who engineered the destruction" of Glass-Steagall and now oppose its resurrection in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown. "Doesn't the Constitution set up three branches of government?" Harkin asked. "We don't have to do what that other branch wants all the time."
One of the interesting questions posed by Sen. Blanche Lincoln's Democratic primary victory in Arkansas is what her colleagues will do with her tough derivatives enforcement proposals, which were woven into financial regulatory legislation while she battled to keep her seat.
Bank lobbyists had hoped that Democratic leaders would delete her provisions if she lost her primary. But Lincoln's forceful victory over challenger Bill Halter, Arkansas's lieutenant governor -- who was backed by an estimated $10 million from organized labor and other progressive groups out of state -- recast her centrism. Labor's miscalculation and voters' support for Lincoln, who returns to the Senate race against GOP challenger John Boozman, colored her as a populist outsider, of sorts. Her crackdown on banks' derivatives business, an approach that the Obama administration and federal regulators oppose, could still survive.
"There is quite a populist mood right now, and I think members are being more receptive to that," said a former Senate Democratic leadership aide who did not want to be named because he does business with the White House. "Congress is moving in the direction of being more punitive to big banks. At the White House, I think they haven't quite appreciated the mood."
Another example is energy legislation, a centerpiece of Obama's agenda since his 2008 campaign. Through a recession, an economic crisis, a national preoccupation with job creation, and the difficult delivery of a landmark health insurance law, the president has tried to breathe life into energy and climate-change legislation. The effort to marry renewable-energy and other provisions with some form of carbon pricing was teetering in the Senate even before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion on April 20 complicated the offshore drilling debate.
The president is planning his fourth trip to the Gulf region next week to inspect the spill damage in Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi. He wants the petroleum gusher to fuel a renewed push in Congress for energy legislation this year.
Democratic lawmakers, unsettled by popular criticism of the White House's response to BP and the Gulf oil crisis, agree in theory that using the disaster to argue for sensible energy policies is good politics. But senators will go their own way to develop a measure that might attract 60 votes in a midterm election year -- a tall order. If successful, conferencing a Senate measure with a sweeping House energy and cap-and-trade climate bill passed a year ago would be equally strenuous; House members, especially freshmen, are feeling risk-averse and are eager to get out of town to campaign, not legislate.
Controversial climate-change provisions that Obama supports may fall by the wayside. Because GOP votes are needed, a combination of thinned-down energy conservation and other measures, plus BP-punitive provisions could be the last best hope for action, according to Democratic lobbyists who are tracking developments.
"Hill Democrats have become restive, especially in light of the uncertain poll numbers for Obama, both on the economy and his management of the oil spill," said Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker. "When that kind of uncertainty develops prior to a congressional election, the impulse becomes 'every man for himself.' "
Revelations about the administration's fumbled efforts to influence primary contests with job offers to at least two Democrat candidates to step aside for Obama-backed incumbents did not instill confidence.
The White House has been arguing that the midterms have to be a choice between the changes that Democrats have delivered and the messes that Republicans left in 2009. But Obama's advisers worry that if Democrats scatter and unity erodes, the effort to cast 2010 as a choice between the parties rather than a referendum on Democrats could fail. Obama's task is to bolster confidence in his leadership and in Democrats' achievements.
Baker added that, more than feeling angst about the president himself, fretful Democrats are having second thoughts about Obama's policy agenda, notably climate change, immigration, the debate about the federal response on jobs and unemployment benefits, and the president's overall spending priorities.
"While there has been a strong disposition to endorse the president's broad agenda -- except for certain Blue Dogs -- there seems to be a greater disposition to pick and choose and to poke the ground very gingerly for IEDs," Baker said.
Lawmakers disagree with the White House about an emergency offshore drilling moratorium and a proposed raising of the $75 million legal liability cap that defines BP's financial responsibility for the disaster. Obama is amending his reactions as Democratic lawmakers stake out their positions.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has introduced a bill to block the president from moving ahead with a plan to expand offshore drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. Until the cause of the Deepwater eruption is understood, Nelson wants an immediate halt to all operations and exploratory activities in coastal waters, he told Obama in a letter.
"Drilling too close to the coast poses too great a risk to the economy and the environment of Florida and other coastal states," Nelson wrote.
Separately this week, Senate Republicans, led by Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, hope to vote in unison to pre-empt the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act. The resolution to thwart EPA, expected to come to the Senate floor after press time, has attracted the support of enough Democrats to constitute a serious rebuke to the president, sources on and off the Hill said earlier this week.
On spending priorities, House and Senate Democrats are similarly independent-minded about responding to the bleak economy with continued federal assistance, balanced against the public uproar over Big Government and deficit spending. The popular environment for federal spending has changed, creating friction among progressive, centrist, and conservative Democrats.
"The election is coloring everything," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who is seeking his fourth term in November. "I think the best politics is to carve out your own substance. I and a couple of other Democrats voted against the supplemental [defense spending bill] last week; we've been in Afghanistan for a decade, and I think it's time to make some choices. I knew I was going home [for the Senate break] and I was going to have a lot of sessions with folks in the community about the size of government and other spending priorities. I said, it's time to make some choices."
This article appears in the June 12, 2010, edition of National Journal.