The Note, 2/2/09: Most Exclusive -- Senate controls a make-or-break week for Obama agenda


Tom Daschle will have his fate determined by the club (and if he wasn’t a former member of it, it probably would have been determined already). 

Sen. Judd Gregg may be set to leave the club (but only with a deal in place). 

And President Obama -- or, should we say, former Senator Obama -- gets the near-term fate of his agenda determined in that very same place.

It’s a different Senate these days, but its quirks and curiosities and even its fault lines remain the same.

The Senate this week offers plenty opportunities for sticky votes, shifting coalitions, and balancing acts that invite messy clashes. It also gives Obama a chance to rebound from some early disappointments.

The message the president wanted to send with his Cabinet selections -- efficiency, competence, swift action -- has been diluted in a haze created by poor vetting and questionable judgments.

The message he wanted to send with the stimulus package -- a new tone of bipartisan cooperation and coordinated action -- has been lost in old Washington games, as the opposition party finds its voice.

If Obama’s going to salvage something out his first bipartisan push -- other than Super Bowl leftovers -- it’s going to have to happen here and now, with the men and women he once called colleagues.

“After a week of legislative successes for President Obama, Republicans seized on one asterisk: his inability to line up support from their ranks. As he heads into his second full week in office, members of both parties are waiting to see whether he will regard this as the failure that some have made it out to be -- and how much he is willing to alter his approach if he does,” Alec MacGillis and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post.

Don’t miss the pre-spin: “Others in the White House rejected the notion that the failure to garner any Republican votes on the stimulus bill represented a conclusive defeat for Obama's call for comity,” MacGillis and Kane write.

“We've known for a long time the size of Barack Obama's head. Now we're about to find out the size of his herd,” Time’s Nancy Gibbs writes. “I can't help but wonder at the gap between the aggressively sensible things Obama is saying and the passive way that he is acting. And you get a sense that a lot of people in the audience, the experts and economists as well as the worried working classes, are starting to wonder as well.” 

“The problem is that symbolism takes a president only so far, especially when his own aides admit privately that they're not sure the economic-recovery package will actually work,” Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter writes. “Once the honeymoon fades, pressure will mount for tangible signs of a presidential spine.” 

Opposing views . . . The president defines success, in a pre-Super Bowl interview with Matt Lauer: “The important thing is getting the thing passed. And -- I’ve done extraordinary outreach I think to Republicans because they had some good ideas. And I want to make sure that those ideas are incorporated. I am confident that by the time we actually have the final package on the floor that we are going to see substantial support.” 

Said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.: “In the House and in the Senate, the Democrats really didn’t negotiate at all with the Republicans. We’ve got to have a truly bipartisan approach. I think the president can and will lead in negotiations to eliminate so many billions -- tens of billions -- of unnecessary and non-stimulative projects,” McCain tells ABC’s Diane Sawyer on “Good Morning America” Monday.

Regarding Rush Limbaugh: “I hope we all succeed, working together -- that’s what the American people want us to do. And if the president gets the credit for it, fine -- I’ll give it to him.”

Looking like a united GOP front: “Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday the massive stimulus bill backed by President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats could go down to defeat if it's not stripped of unnecessary spending and focused more on housing issues and tax cut,” per the write-up from the AP’s Douglass K. Daniel

Even Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, isn’t on board: “Our constituents don’t want to see a bloated, overly expensive bill that wastes money and targets funding for programs that aren’t going to make a difference,” Collins said on CNN

And the politics begins: the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is launching ads in 28 GOP districts -- calling out individual Republican House members for opposing the stimulus.

From the release: “The ads focus on the Republicans out of step priorities by putting bank bail outs and building schools in Iraq before the needs of the Americans in the struggling economy. The Putting Families First ads begin airing on Tuesday morning during drive time and will run for a week. In addition to the strategic radio ads in 28 Republican districts, the DCCC will also begin a grassroots initiative which includes targeted e-mails to 3 million voters and nearly 100,000 person-to-person telephone calls.”

Not the result Obama would have wanted: “There are compelling reasons, both substantive and political, to hope that the Senate consideration of the bill, which begins tomorrow, is far more open, even if that means spending more time than Obama and the Democrats would prefer,” David Broder writes in his Sunday Washington Post column. “Beyond these policy challenges, there are political considerations that make it really important for Obama to take the time to negotiate for more than token Republican support in the Senate. Nothing was more central to his victory last fall than his claim that he could break the partisan gridlock in Washington.” 

Watch that pricetag: “A push in the Senate to expand business-tax cuts and infrastructure spending in the economic-stimulus plan making its way through Congress poses a challenge for Democratic leaders, who want to keep the package's cost below $1 trillion,” Greg Hitt and Brody Mullins write in The Wall Street Journal

Not that there’s too much to chew here: “The question that the Senate will begin debating Monday is whether grand ambitions are getting in the way of pulling the country out of a nose dive,” David Sanger writes in The New York Times. “Some of what is going on might best be called a classic case of pent-up demand -- demand by Democrats for the kinds of programs that they could never get passed during the Bush years.” 

Pressure not to give too much: “The coming week will test the strength of President Obama and the Democrats: Will they lose their nerve, or will they face down a rapidly forming conventional wisdom that would allow them to claim victory only if their economic stimulus package passes with substantial Republican support?” E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his column. “If achieving bipartisanship takes priority over the actual content of policy, Republicans are handed a powerful weapon. In theory, they can keep moving the bipartisan bar indefinitely. And each concession to their sensibilities threatens the solidarity in the president's own camp.” 

Keeping an eye on No. 2: “From the telephone to the Senate gym, Mr. Biden has been plying former colleagues for Republican support in the Senate, with little obvious payoff so far,” John Harwood writes in The New York Times. Plus: “He is working to salvage the [Daschle] nomination, which even Daschle allies agree is in doubt.” 

The questions for Daschle continue. The Senate Finance Committee meets privately Monday to discuss his tax missteps, as senators consider whether to put the brakes on the nomination of one of their former colleagues.

“Former Sen. Tom Daschle, already facing questions over his failure to pay some taxes in a timely fashion, will likely face another question when the Senate Finance Committee meets Monday to consider his nomination as health and human services secretary: whether he improperly took gifts of value from charities with which he was involved,” Jonathan Weisman and Melanie Trottman report in The Wall Street Journal

“A Finance Committee memo given to members Friday night alluded to the issue as ‘outstanding,’ stating, ‘Committee staff still is reviewing whether travel and entertainment services provided to the Daschles by EduCap, Inc., Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation, Academy Achievement, and Loan to Learn should be reported as income.’ ”

And Michael Steele gets his feet wet as RNC chairman by splashing some water. Don’t confirm Daschle, he tells Republicans -- and don’t let Judd Gregg leave the Senate, either.

Steele tells USA Today’s Jill Lawrence: “We've already let one cat out of the bag with [Treasury Secretary Timothy] Geithner,” Steele said. “So what's the standard down to, to be a Cabinet secretary? You don't have to pay your taxes? Come on.” 

“We'd better be very suspicious,” Steele said of any promise from Gov. John Lynch, D-N.H., regarding Gregg’s replacement.

Daschle starts his day with an apology, in a letter sent to the Finance Committee Sunday where he says he’s “deeply embarrassed and disappointed.”

Writes Daschle: “In an effort to ensure full compliance and the most complete disclosure possible of my personal finances, we remedied these issues by filing amended tax returns with full payments, including interest. We provided all this information to the Committee in addition to the completed Committee questionnaire and my responses to your staff’s questions. I disclosed this information to the Committee voluntarily, and paid the taxes and any interest owed promptly. My mistakes were unintentional.” 

Not enough, says John McCain: “It hasn’t, quote, ‘satisfied me.’ I just think we need to find out more information -- his relationship with Mr. Hindery, what he did for the millions of dollars, and why it is that he didn’t report a great deal of income in taxes.”

“Daschle's appearance today is likely to follow the Geithner script, congressional aides said,” per The Washington Post’s Ceci Connolly and Paul Kane. “The 23 committee members will first meet in an anteroom to review a report on Daschle's finances prepared by staff members. Daschle, who participated in similar sessions during his years on the panel, will wait outside, ready to answer questions.” 

Impact, already: “Daschle's unpaid taxes -- which came to light just 2 1/2 weeks after Obama's nominee for Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, had to admit he had failed to pay enough income taxes -- have held up his confirmation at a time when the Obama administration is trying to push ahead with a major healthcare reform campaign,” The Los Angeles Times’ Noam Levey writes

“While Republicans weren't ready to declare war on the Daschle pick, they noted the irony of Democrats downplaying the latest in a series of Obama nominees not measuring up to the candidate's and the party's rhetoric on ethics,” the Washington Times’ Sean Lengell writes

What about Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.? “Baucus -- who quickly came to the defense of then-treasury nominee Timothy Geithner when he had tax problems -- has said nothing in public about Daschle’s issues,” Politico’s John Bresnahan and Carrie Budoff Brown report. “The silence has been deafening,” said a Democratic staffer. 

The president’s day: Obama has an 11 am ET meeting with Gov. Jim Douglas, R-Vt., to talk about the stimulus package. (Douglas, you’ll be shocked to learn, doesn’t agree with House Republicans on the matter.)

The president and vice president have a 1:50 pm ET meeting in the Oval Office with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

At 4:45 pm ET, they host congressional leaders in the Roosevelt Room -- and then debate on the stimulus starts in the Senate.

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs briefs at 1:30 pm. Gregg looks to be on track for Commerce -- but Six-Oh is going to have to wait.

“President Barack Obama was poised to tap Republican Sen. Judd Gregg as his commerce secretary but officials cautioned yesterday the move would not deliver Democrats more firm dominance of the Senate as they had hoped,” per the New Hampshire Union Leader. “Leading the pack to replace the fiscal conservative was his former chief of staff and a veteran of the Reagan White House, Bonnie Newman. Officials expect New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, would name her to fill the final two years of Gregg's term. Newman would not seek the seat for a full term in 2010.”

“Newman's resume and Lynch's appointment history make her seem like a logical possibility,” Lisa Wangsness writes for The Boston Globe. “Consider: Newman served as assistant secretary of Commerce for economic development in the Reagan administration. She was in charge of administrative operations for the George H.W. Bush White House. She was chief of staff to Gregg when he was a congressman in the 1980s, and she was one of the first Republicans to publicly endorse Lynch in his 2004 challenge of then-Republican Governor Craig Benson, and co-chaired Republicans for Lynch.”

Why this works for Obama: “For President Barack Obama, picking Senator Judd Gregg to be his commerce secretary would add another Republican to his administration, more credibility to his efforts to promote bipartisanship and an important ally for his economic-recovery plan,” Bloomberg’s Julianna Goldman reports. “Gregg -- who is described by friends as a policy wonk -- would be a player in Obama’s efforts to solve the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression and would get a ticket out of his minority status in a rancorous Senate.”

Buzz out of Chicago: “White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is interested in potentially returning to Chicago someday to reclaim the congressional seat he held until a month ago, a candidate running to replace him said Sunday,” John McCormick and Dan Mihalopoulos report in the Chicago Tribune. “When 11 Democrats at the first 5th Congressional District forum were asked whether they have had direct or indirect conversations with Emanuel about being a ‘place holder’ for the seat, only state Rep. John Fritchey (D-Chicago) said he had.”:

The Kicker:

“She’s losing a weight battle apparently. Oh, well.” --President Obama, commenting on Jessica Simpson’s appearance on the cover of US Weekly, in a spot that the magazine might have used to include him with his family. 

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