WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sought Wednesday to reassure Democrats nervous about the impact of his health care law and the prospects for immigration legislation, telling them “You’re on the right side of history.”
In two closed-door meetings on Capitol Hill, Obama focused on financial gains as the economy emerges from the worst downturn since the Depression. He was warned about nominating former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers as chairman of the Federal Reserve and faced questions about his health care law. Some lawmakers complained that three years after its passage, the law still baffles many Americans.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., told the president that tapping Summers to replace current Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke would be a mistake.
Obama defended Summers, saying he had been treated unfairly by the news media. The president insisted that he had not made a decision on his choice. Summers, a former Obama economic adviser, and Janet Yellen, the Fed’s current vice chair, are among the leading candidates for the job.
The first major rewrite of immigration laws in a generation and legislation to keep the government running without interruption are paramount issues for Democrats. So is the president’s contentious health care law, with uninsured people able to start shopping for a health plan on Oct. 1.
Provisions of the law that still confuse many Americans kick in on Jan. 1 although the administration announced earlier this month that it would delay a key requirement that employers with 50 or more workers offer affordable coverage, or face fines.
Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., expressed concern about competition within New Hampshire’s individual health exchange, mentioning that in her state there was not enough competition because only one company had entered into the health care exchange.
In response to the concerns, Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif., said Obama reminded Democrats “as we all go back to our districts in August that we are on the right side of these issues and the right side of history in terms of providing health care to Americans and to ultimately finding comprehensive immigration reform is the right thing for the country to do at this time.”
“It was a real send-off to us, I think, as we went back to our districts that we are on the right side of history,” she said.
Said Rep. John Yarmouth, D-Ky.: “I just think he was trying to bolster the courage of the group.”
Leaving the meeting, Obama said his message was about “jobs, middle class, growth.”
“It’s really about a focus on growing the middle class in this county after a trend of not just recession but really a couple decades of really all of Americans working really hard and not making economic progress for themselves or their kids … Whatever we do that has to be obviously at the top of our minds,” Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., told reporters.
House Democrats presented the president with a birthday cake; Obama turns 52 on Sunday. Later in the morning, the president huddled behind closed doors with Senate Democrats.
The sessions come just days before lawmakers leave the capital for a six-week recess and the prospect of facing constituents back home at town halls at a time when polls show Congress being held in low regard.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said it was a “good positive message for us to have as a send-off” before the break.
Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., said Democrats asked the president for his assistance in next year’s midterm elections, traditionally a rough ride for the party controlling the White House.
In a moment of levity at the start of the Senate session, Republican Sen. John McCain walked into the room where the Democrats were meeting and laughter could be heard. He walked out less than a minute later and laughingly said, “my mistake,” indicating he walked into the wrong room.
As Obama presses his economic agenda across the country, he’s playing one chamber against the other in Congress, hoping Americans will hear his calls for compromise and conclude it’s not his fault that little is getting done in Washington.
Call it a congressional two-step: Praise Senate Republicans for modest displays of cooperation, then contrast them with House Republicans, whom Obama has started describing as stubborn saboteurs. It’s a theme Obama has used repeatedly to bolster his argument that he’s the one acting reasonably as he prepares for clashes this fall with Congress, whose relations with Obama have always been notoriously strained.
“A growing number of Republican senators are trying to get things done,” Obama said Tuesday as he unveiled a new fiscal proposal in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Days earlier, Obama accused the House GOP of risking another financial crisis by issuing ultimatums over the debt ceiling and government funding.
“We’ve seen a group of Republicans in the House, in particular, who suggest they wouldn’t vote to pay the very bills that Congress has already racked up,” Obama said. “That’s not an economic plan. That’s just being a deadbeat.”