With Additional Reporting By Ryan Grim
President Obama's request for lawmakers to pass $50 billion in emergency aid to state and local governments received what one House aide described as a "chilly reception" during a leadership meeting on Monday evening.
According to multiple aides briefed on the meeting, top lawmakers expressed doubts that there was an appetite for additional spending, noting the difficulties that the chamber already has had in passing provisions designed to extend emergency benefits for jobless workers and avert layoffs of public school teachers. The letter sent by Obama pleading with Congress to help avoid "massive layoffs of teachers, police and firefighters," was viewed more as a publicity generator -- timed appropriately for discussion on the Sunday show circuit -- than legislative lobbying.
"They all were caught off-guard," said one Democratic leadership aide. "It is great to finally have a request from the White House but what was the intent?"
"I think I would describe it as unhappy," added another aide with direct knowledge of the discussion. "It seems it was done for the Sunday shows rather than for serious dialogue with us... and to not offer us any guidance about how to pay for it in this environment after talking about the deficit commission was striking."
The reception Obama's letter received on Monday was even more skeptical than the one House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) offered the day before when asked about it on ABC's "This Week."
"There are clearly funds in there that have not been expended, to see whether or not there are some available for this more immediate priority than some that may not be quite as immediate," Hoyer said. "I think it's accurate that there's spending fatigue, not only on Capitol Hill, but around the country."
The irony, of course, is that Democratic leadership in House is philosophically aligned with the president on the need for more spending. If anything, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her deputies have been ahead of the administration on this front. But with concerns over deficit spending mounting, the party has been forced to accommodate the demands of the fiscally conservative members. The chairs of the Blue Dog caucus met on Tuesday to discuss the $50 billion measure and came to no consensus, aides said. A full Blue Dog meeting is planned for later in the evening.
Indeed, for Hill aides, the best way to ensure that the president's spending proposal has legs in Congress would be if he and his administration followed up the letter with direct lobbying. But the White House has been hesitant to push too deeply into stimulus-politics, also wary of the perception that it's somehow addicted to spending.
"It was out of the blue," said a third leadership hand. "Where was it two weeks ago? People were debating this issue two weeks ago and it was never communicated to us that this was a huge priority for [the president.] And then he sends this letter to us."
Already, members are having difficulty advancing even pared-down provisions. The House and Senate are struggling to reauthorize several expired stimulus bill programs. The House removed from a grab-bag "tax extenders" bill $24 billion to help states with Medicaid costs -- money the president now is requesting. The Senate is hoping to pass the funds with their version of the legislation. And there has been intense lobbying from governors to include the money. But one Senate aide said the vote tally remained unclear, in large part because there was debate over how it would be paid for.
"It has something that the House has excluded and two things that the Senate hasn't voted on," Senator Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) told the Huffington Post.