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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Obama Thrills on the Hill

By Jonathan Weisman and Ben Pershing

Sen. Barack Obama held his first meeting with House Democrats since clinching the Democratic presidential primaries, huddling in the ornate Cannon caucus room with lawmakers to coordinate policy messages.

House members who were deeply divided during the primary season greeted Obama with warm, sustained applause. Then they pushed him on their own platform of increased infrastructure funding, a new round of flood relief and a second stimulus package aimed at jobs creation. Those priorities meshed well with Obama's, as the senator shifts from last week's foreign policy push overseas to a renewed focus on the economy.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) said he was looking forward to the day when the occupant of the White House would sign a stem cell research bill into law, give 10 million additional children health care coverage under the Children's Health Insurance Program, and end the war in Iraq.

But Democratic aides said the loudest applause came when Obama discussed his trip through the Middle East, Afghanistan and Europe, and Democratic leaders hailed a new era when American leadership is respected abroad. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) alluded to that after the meeting when she spoke of "America's leadership role in the world," and implored Obama to "take our country in a new direction."

"We are in an historic time and every member of Congress recognizes what an extraordinarily challenge and what an extraordinary opportunity this election represents," Obama said, flanked by the entire House Democratic leadership.

He added, "Democrats are not for a bigger government but for a responsive, efficient and honest government that is listening to the voices of the American people."

He pledged to work with congressional Democrats and "like-minded Republicans" to govern after the election.

"This is one of those moments when big change can happen, but only if we seize that moment," Obama said, before rushing off for a flight to Missouri.

During the hour-long session, according to people in the room, Obama emphasized his plan to reach out to congressional Democrats, both during his campaign and his presumptive administration. Obama touched on subjects ranging from Iran and FISA to energy policy and Justice Department malfeasance.

Members described an upbeat session marked by calls for unity. The one note of discord came when Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) asked whether Obama planned to implement a "Team of Rivals" strategy in selecting his Cabinet. Specifically, Schiff asked whether Obama might keep Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his current post, prompting a chorus of boos and hisses from the assembled Democrats. Obama responded that he was focused on getting elected before he would consider such decisions.

Rep. Shelly Berkley (D-Nev.) said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) asked Obama about his stance on the current state of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. "If the Iranians don't accept a deal now because they think they're going to get a better deal from the next president, they're mistaken," Obama responded, according to Berkley.

"There were no surprises," said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.). Asked whether the subject of Obama's vice-presidential search came up, Ackerman said: "Are you kidding? There were 230 vice presidents in the room."

Obama was particularly pointed in discussing recent reports of partisanship and other malfeasance at the Justice Department. "He said his first order of business will be to direct his attorney general to find out what's gone wrong there," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.).

Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) said after the meeting that Obama reminded him of the last Democratic occupant of the White House. "It's very similar in manner to dealing with President Clinton. There isn't a thing that he can't answer, any question he can't just wow you with in terms of his answer," Kennedy said.

After a brief photo-op, Obama walked to the elevator with his arm around Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the two of them smiling and laughing. Pelosi seemed to say her farewell as Obama entered an elevator, then after a moment's hesitation, jumped into the car with him just before the door closed.

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