WASHINGTON - Seeking to preserve party unity in an election year, President Barack Obama is trying to tamp down internal Democratic divisions on issues like trade and energy, even as friendly lawmakers show little restraint in publicly breaking with the White House.
Obama met Monday with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has sharply opposed the president's proposal for letting Congress vote quickly to approve international trade pacts. The president will also meet with House Democrats on Tuesday and Senate Democrats on Wednesday, when he's likely to face more pushback on the Keystone XL pipeline and health care, particularly from lawmakers who will face voters in November.
White House officials have tried to dismiss the intraparty divisions, saying they're aware of the election-year pressures driving some Democrats to oppose Obama on high-profile issues.
"All of these folks got elected in the first place by being really strong advocates for their states," said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama's longtime adviser. "And sometimes the interests of their individual state may be at odds with the administration, but that's OK. They have a job to do."
After a rough last year that sparked questions about the limits of his influence in Washington, Obama could risk the appearance of being a hindrance to his own party each time Democrats push back against him. But the friendly fire might prove to be well worth it for Obama if it helps Democrats hold the Senate.
Keeping control of the chamber was the central focus of the president's discussion Monday with Reid, who was joined at the White House meeting by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Guy Cecil, the committee's executive director. A White House official said the meeting had been scheduled before the Nevada lawmaker made his comments on trade and the issue was not a topic of discussion.
Obama's advisers are hoping to offset Democratic disputes on issues like trade and energy with party cohesion on the economic agenda the president outlined in last week's State of the Union address. The president's meetings this week with House and Senate Democrats will focus in part on mapping out a legislative strategy for raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 - a proposal the party sees as both a political and policy winner. The White House is planning an aggressive push on the minimum wage in the coming months, including trips by the president to states that are taking action on their own to increase the hourly pay rate.
Some Democratic lawmakers have also split with the White House in recent months on Iran sanctions and National Security Agency spying.