Fractures Emerge Between Obama, Congressional Democrats
Coming Midterms Complicate White House's Agenda on Trade, Energy, Health Care
Updated Feb. 3, 2014 8:01 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON—Democrats in Congress are parting ways with President Barack Obama on issues including trade, energy and health care as the gap widens between the political demands of keeping control of the Senate and advancing parts of the White House agenda.
A phalanx of Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have announced opposition to the president's top trade initiative. Many Democrats are clamoring for Mr. Obama to act soon to allow construction of the Keystone XL pipeline—a decision the White House is expected to make before midterm elections. Vulnerable Democrats are bluntly criticizing the rollout of the 2010 health-care law. Even an under-the-radar issue such as a flood-insurance bill has been a point of tension.
Against that backdrop, Mr. Reid met with the president in the Oval Office for about an hour Monday along with Sen. Michael Bennet (D., Colo.), who is chief strategist in his party's drive to keep control of the Senate after November. The meeting was to review the political landscape of the crucial midterm-election year.
A Democratic official familiar with the meeting said it was requested by Mr. Reid as a routine matter, unrelated to the rift between the Nevada senator and the president on trade policy that emerged last week.
"We don't stay on the same page through smoke signals," the official said. "We sit down and talk."
Despite those tensions, Democrats and White House officials say they remain united on major elements of the legislative and political agenda, such as the extension of unemployment benefits that lapsed late last year.
"There is far more that Democrats in Congress and the president agree on than there are areas where there might be differences," said Obama pollster Joel Benenson.
Republicans, too, are riven with deep divisions within their party—on immigration policy and how to handle the coming debt-limit increase. But Democrats are finding that a united front that was so durable through last year's budget battles has its limits in an election year. Action on Mr. Obama's trade policy could advance his economic plans but hurt Democratic candidates in the process.
"Our caucus would rather see this issue come up at another time because there are strong feelings on both sides of the issue, and you hate to be pushed into a decision that might be easier to make after an election," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D., Ill.).
The White House and Senate Democrats share a powerful political interest in the fight to keep Republicans from picking up six seats they would need to take control of the Senate this year. Mr. Reid doesn't want to relinquish control of a chamber that has proved a bulwark against a Republican-controlled House and would be crucial to Mr. Obama's ability to have any sway in Congress during the last two years of his presidency.
Although he is unpopular in the states with the most fiercely contested Senate races—including Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska and North Carolina—Mr. Obama remains a mighty asset in helping his party's candidates raise money. He participated in seven fundraising events for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee last year, and Democrats are expecting more in 2014.
Some Senate races have become more competitive since the problems with the health law's rollout—and because of a big influx of ads spotlighting those hiccups by conservative outside groups. That has weakened some once-strong incumbents like Sen. Kay Hagan (D., N.C.) and made open seats like one in Michigan tougher to hold.
Vulnerable Democrats have made greater efforts to distance themselves from unpopular aspects of the health law. Late last year, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana introduced legislation to protect individuals whose policies were ended because they didn't meet the law's new standard. That added to pressure on the White House to propose an administrative fix.
The most striking fissure between the White House and Senate Democrats came last week when Mr. Reid, one of the president's most reliable allies on Capitol Hill, told reporters he opposed administration-backed legislation aimed at speeding passage of free-trade agreements, a vital component to advancing two major international trade deals. Bitterly opposed by many labor leaders, a vote on the fast-track trade bill would put Democrats in the difficult position of choosing between Mr. Obama and the unions who are a crucial source of campaign workers and cash.
"I think everyone would be well-advised just not to push this right now," Mr. Reid said. An official familiar with his thinking said it was "pretty unlikely" the majority leader would bring the bill to a vote before Election Day but that it was "possible" he would do so after November.
Mr. Durbin predicted the White House would be hearing from other Democrats beside Mr. Reid who would rather not vote on the issue anytime soon.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, another Democrat with a potentially tough fight this fall, demurred when asked about the issue. "It does have pressures on both sides," she said. "We're taking a look at it."
Helping spotlight one of his most vulnerable incumbents, Mr. Reid last month called up a flood-insurance bill that was a signature initiative of Ms. Landrieu's. The bill, to delay scheduled flood-insurance-premium increases, passed easily. Ms. Landrieu expressed anger when, before the bill came to a vote, the White House issued a statement criticizing the bill because it believed it undercut the program's financing.
Some red-state Democrats have welcomed opportunities to stake out positions in opposition to the White House on issues like the Keystone XL pipeline, giving them ammunition to argue they are independent of the president. The pipeline project is opposed by environmentalists, but many Democrats in swing states support its construction as a way to create jobs—especially in a state like Louisiana, where refineries stand to benefit.
If Mr. Obama doesn't approve the pipeline soon, Senate Democrats could face repeated GOP efforts to force a vote on the issue. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said recently he would "continue to push for immediate consideration of bipartisan legislation…that will get the pipeline built."
A White House official said a verdict seems likely before the November elections. The official also said the administration fully expects that some Democrats will part ways with the president on issues such as Keystone and trade.
"Overall, on our economic-opportunity agenda, that's something Democrats are excited about," the official said.