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Obama sells budget to House Democrats

The president meets with skeptics in his own party to boost support for his $3.6 trillion plan.

By Staff writer / March 31, 2009

Rallying the party: President Obama visited the US Capitol with House majority leader Steny Hoyer (l.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Rep. James Clyburn (D) of South Carolina (far right) Monday evening.

Evan Vucci/AP

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Washington

In just under 15 minutes, President Obama made progress narrowing the rifts within his party over his proposed $3.6 trillion budget, according to House Democrats who attended a closed door meeting Monday evening on Capitol Hill.

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Accounts of the president’s visit to the Capitol – the second in as many weeks to rally Democrats behind a budget he calls “a blueprint for economic growth” – offer a glimpse into how the president is moving an ambitious agenda.

With a 76-vote majority, House Democrats could move a budget even with defections in their own ranks. But in the absence of bipartisan support — which looks elusive in the 111th Congress – the president wants every vote he can get on his own side of the aisle to signal broad-based support for change.

Leadership aides counting the votes say that these visits are helping bring Democrats together.

“The only way to get out of the economic mess we are in is to grow our way out of it,” Mr. Obama reportedly told the House Democrats.

“We’re all in this together,” he said, in closing.

Conservatives in his party, the so-called Blue Dog coalition, are balking at the $9.3 trillion in deficits the White House budget is expected to produce over the next 10 years. They want guarantees that the new Congress will stick to pledges to find offsets for new spending or tax cuts.

Many liberals want to seize the early days of a new administration to more fully fund social priorities that languished in the Bush years – or to urge deeper cuts in defense spending.

Calling on both wings of the caucus, the president reportedly said: "I need your vote in passing the budget. If we do that, we will create a sense of momentum that will allow us to do health care reform and education" and other major initiatives.”

“If we don’t pass the budget, it will empower those critics who don't want to see anything getting done,” he added.

The budget resolution to be debated on the floor of the House and Senate this week has no binding authority. But it sets a framework – and rules of engagement – for every item on the president’s agenda.

“He solidified support for the budget resolution, fired up enthusiasm for it,” said Rep. John Spratt (D) of South Carolina, who chairs the House Budget Committee.

“Budgets can be very passive, uninteresting documents, but they also can be about values and vision and investment. He took the latter approach,” he said.

“He’ll have great support from the Democrats, there’s no question about that,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D) of California, a cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. In the meeting, she urged Obama to cut funding for “cold war weapons.”

Progressives will still present an alternative budget that opts for less defense spending, “but that doesn’t mean that we won’t vote for his,” she said, after the meeting.

When another member of the Progressive caucus, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) of Oregon, called on the president to fund more infrastructure projects in the budget, the president quipped: “I know you think we need more for that because you voted against [last month’s stimulus bill]. Don’t think we’re not keeping score, brother,” according to an attendee, who took notes at the meeting.

Mr. DeFazio was one of seven House Democrats who voted against the $787 billion stimulus bill last month.

“Some say that he’s trying to do too much, but people seem not to see the connection between reforming health care and education and energy and creating jobs,” said Rep. Mike Doyle (D) of Pennsylvania, after the meeting.

“I liked what he said: ‘We can seize this moment,' ” he added.

The House and Senate are expected to vote on their own versions of the budget resolution this week. A final vote on a compromise bill is expected after a two-week recess.

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