02-19-2017  8:50 am      •     

WASHINGTON — Four months before midterm elections, the Obama administration and congressional Democrats show signs of collective battle fatigue, ducking political fights they might once have welcomed and quarreling among themselves as they confront the likelihood of majority-threatening losses this fall.
Republicans pounce on every sign of Democratic discord, seemingly confident of a political payoff after a two-year campaign to kill whatever White Houses-backed legislation they could while slowing the rest.
This past weekend, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs strayed across the well-defined party line when he said "there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control" of the House. There was no notification in advance to discomfited senior Democrats.
"What we are saying is it won't happen," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said Tuesday, the head of the party's campaign committee laboring to minimize the impact on fundraising and morale. Gibbs clarified, 48 hours after his initial remark, to say that he wasn't predicting the loss of the House. But by then, a Washington Post-ABC Poll showed public confidence in President Barack Obama at a new low, and that only one-quarter of those surveyed believe the economy is improving.
Republicans have had plenty of other material to work with — the administration's decision to file suit against Arizona's immigration law, the House's recent decision to skip a full-scale budget debate, and Obama bypassing the Senate and granting a recess appointment to a new director for the agency that oversees Medicare and more.
The decision to file a lawsuit challenging the Arizona law pleased critics who attack the measure as mean-spirited, racist and even unconstitutional. But several congressional Democratic officials argue privately it was aimed at helping the president in his 2012 re-election campaign and will hurt more than help the party's incumbents this fall.
There was public as well as private criticism.
Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat who won her once Republican seat in 2006, told the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that the law was both divisive and would create burdens for law enforcement agencies already stretched thin. But she quickly added she disagreed with the administration's decision to file a legal challenge.
"The irony of the lawsuit is its premise that (the state law) intrudes on the federal government's responsibility to enforce immigration laws. Had the federal government taken that responsibility seriously, neither this week's lawsuit nor the state law that prompted it would be necessary," she said.
Democratic governors voiced concerns over the weekend in a private meeting with White House officials.
Separately, the president's decision to bypass the Senate and install Dr. Donald Berwick as head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid appeared designed to deny Republicans a platform for renewing charges that rationing would result from the landmark health care law approved earlier in the year.
"It's unfortunate that at a time when our nation is facing enormous challenges, many in Congress have decided to delay critical nominations for political purposes," Obama said in a written statement as he gave recess appointments to Berwick and two other nominees.
Republicans have, in fact, blocked or stalled dozens of administration appointees in the past 18 months, but this was not one of them.
In Berwick's case, they said Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee, turned down their request to hold a hearing on the nomination last month, while the panel was still reviewing Berwick's background. The Montana Democrat subsequently issued a statement mildly critical of Obama, saying, "Senate confirmation of presidential appointees is an essential process prescribed by the Constitution that serves as a check on executive power."
Republicans reacted predictably, in rhetoric seemingly aimed at their own political base.
"What is this administration trying to hide?" Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., asked during a speech Tuesday in the Senate.
Answering his own question, he quoted Berwick: "The decision is not whether or not we will ration care. The decision is whether we will ration with our eyes open." The Harvard professor, he said, is Obama's "health care rationing czar."
Across the Capitol, House Democrats decided weeks ago against drafting a full-scale budget to guide spending and tax decisions for the next several years, the first time in decades either party has flinched from the task. Republicans gleefully recirculated criticism that Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., hurled against them when the two houses failed to produce a compromise plan in 2006: "If you can't budget, you can't govern."
The Democratic leadership opted for a one-year approach, saying they would reduce spending below Obama's recommendations. Their calculation was that the alternative would expose deep fault lines among the rank and file and risk a humiliating legislative defeat in an election year.
On one side of the divide are liberals in safe seats, generally willing to raise spending to stimulate the economy, often also ready to raise taxes, and less worried about voter anger over rising deficits.
On the other are moderates and conservatives in swing seats, far more concerned about soaring deficits, yet loath to raise taxes and trigger opposition from deep-pocketed business groups this fall.
There are more of the first, but not enough to enact Obama's ambitious agenda.
Many in the second group were elected for the first time in 2006 and 2008, when Democrats gained a total of 53 House seats, and now seek re-election for the first time in a difficult political environment.
"Democrats now hold almost every swing district in the country as a result of our successes in 2006 and 2008," said Van Hollen.
Not for long, judging by the Democrats' own actions.
EDITOR'S NOTE: David Espo is The Associated Press' chief congressional correspondent.

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  • WASHINGTON (AP) — One month after the inauguration, the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of Donald Trump's White House still is a hard-hat zone. Skeletal remains of the inaugural reviewing stands poke skyward. Random piles of plywood and cables are heaped on the ground inside crooked lines of metal fencing. The disarray outside the president's front door, though not his fault, serves as a metaphor for the tumult still unfolding inside. Four weeks in, the man who says he inherited "a mess" at home and abroad is presiding over a White House that is widely described as itself being a mess. At a stunning pace, Trump has riled world leaders and frustrated allies. He was dealt a bruising legal blow on one of his signature policies. He lost his national security adviser and his pick for labor secretary to scandal. He's seen forces within his government push back against his policies and leak confidential information. All of this has played out amid a steady drip of revelations about an FBI investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russian intelligence officials. Trump says his administration is running like a "fine-tuned machine." He points to the rising stock market and the devotion of his still-loyal supporters as evidence that all is well, although his job approval rating is much lower than that for prior presidents in their first weeks in office. Stung by the unrelenting criticism coming his way, Trump dismisses much of it as "fake news" delivered by "the enemy of the people" — aka the press. Daily denunciations of the media are just one of the new White House fixtures Americans are adjusting to. Most days start (and end) with presidential tweets riffing off of whatever's on TV talk shows or teasing coming events or hurling insults at the media. At some point in the day, count on Trump to cast back to the marvels of his upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election and quite possibly overstate his margins of support. Expect more denunciations of the "dishonest" press and its "fake news." From there, things can veer in unexpected directions as Trump offers up policy pronouncements or offhand remarks that leave even White House aides struggling to interpret them. The long-standing U.S. policy of seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Trump this past week offered this cryptic pronouncement: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." His U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, the next day insisted, "We absolutely support a two-state solution." Trump's days are busy. Outside groups troop in for "listening sessions." Foreign leaders call or come to visit. (Or, in the case of Mexico's president, cancel out in pique over Trump's talk about the planned border wall.) After the president signed two dozen executive actions, the White House was awaiting a rush order of more of the gold-plated Cross pens that Trump prefers to the chrome-plated ones used by his predecessor. Trump hands them out as souvenirs at the signing ceremonies that he points to as evidence of his ambitious pace. "This last month has represented an unprecedented degree of action on behalf of the great citizens of our country," Trump said at a Thursday news conference. "Again, I say it. There has never been a presidency that's done so much in such a short period of time." That's all music to the ears of his followers, who sent him to Washington to upend the established order and play the role of disrupter. "I can't believe there's actually a politician doing what he says he would do," says an approving Scott Hiltgen, a 66-year-old office furniture sales broker from River Falls, Wisconsin. "That never happens." Disrupt Trump has. But there may be more sound and fury than substance to many of his early actions. Trump did select Judge Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, a nomination that has drawn strong reviews from conservatives. But the president is regrouping on immigration after federal judges blocked his order to suspend the United States' refugee program and ban visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, which had caused chaos for travelers around the globe. Some other orders on issues such as the U.S.-Mexico border wall and former President Barack Obama's health care law are of limited effect. Trump says his early actions show he means to deliver on the promises he made during the campaign. "A lot of people say, 'Oh, oh, Trump was only kidding with the wall,'" the president told a group of police chiefs recently. "I wasn't kidding. I don't kid." But the Republican-led Congress is still waiting to see specifics on how Trump wants to proceed legislatively on top initiatives such as replacing the health care law, enacting tax cuts and revising trade deals. The messy rollout of the travel ban and tumult over the ouster of national security adviser Michael Flynn for misrepresenting his contacts with Russia are part of a broader state of disarray as different figures in Trump's White House jockey for power and leaks reveal internal discord in the machinations of the presidency. "I thought by now you'd at least hear the outlines of domestic legislation like tax cuts," says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer. "But a lot of that has slowed. Trump shouldn't mistake the fact that some of his supporters like his style with the fact that a lot of Republicans just want the policies he promised them. He has to deliver that." Put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the camp of those more interested in substance than style. "I'm not a great fan of daily tweets," McConnell said Friday, referring to the "extra discussion" that Trump likes to engage in. But McConnell was quick to add: "What I am a fan of is what he's been actually doing." He credits Trump with assembling a conservative Cabinet and taking steps to reduce government regulation, and promised: "We like his positions and we're going to pursue them as vigorously as we can." The challenge may be to tease out exactly what Trump wants in the way of a health care plan, tax changes and trade policy. At his long and defiant news conference on Thursday, Trump tried to dispel the impression of a White House in crisis, squarely blaming the press for keeping him from moving forward more decisively on his agenda. Pointing to his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, Trump said, "You take a look at Reince, he's working so hard just putting out fires that are fake fires. I mean, they're fake. They're not true. And isn't that a shame because he'd rather be working on health care, he'd rather be working on tax reform." For all the frustrations of his early days as president, Trump still seems tickled by the trappings of his office. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie visited the White House last week to discuss the national opioid epidemic over lunch, the governor said Trump informed him: "Chris, you and I are going to have the meatloaf.'" Trump added: "I'm telling you, the meatloaf is fabulous." ___Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nbenac
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