It was a telling glimpse into the state of mind of rattled Senate Democrats.
Worried that they were going to be skewered for pushing a jobs bill that was stuffed with business tax breaks and pork, Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, pulled the plug Thursday on a rare bipartisan proposal, gambling both with the party’s best chance of posting a needed legislative win as well as with President Obama’s new push for cross-party cooperation.
The surprise move by Mr. Reid, partly in response to fears from lawmakers that they were going to take a pummeling on cable news, has put the future of the jobs legislation in question and showed how the criticism heaped on their health care plan and the loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat have put Democrats in a protective crouch.
At the same time, Mr. Reid’s gambit puts pressure on Republicans to back elements they had already endorsed as part of the broader package, rolled out by top Democrats and Republicans on the Finance Committee, a note the White House sounded Friday.
“I think the legislation that Senator Reid will move when the Senate comes back into town will garner bipartisan support,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman.
Yet if Mr. Reid cannot assemble 60 votes to advance a slimmed-down measure he is proposing when the Senate returns from a 10-day recess on Feb. 22, he could be accused of turning a potential bipartisan victory into a Democratic defeat. He seemed ready to try to turn the tables on Republicans, warning them that they would be guilty of opposing popular provisions they were already backing as part of the broader, more costly bill.
The latest polls underscore the depth of dissatisfaction with Washington around the country in the opening weeks of this election year. For nervous Democrats on Capitol Hill, nothing will be more important to their reelection prospects than how President Obama responds to the anger that's out there.
The new polls found anti-Washington and anti-incumbent sentiment today as great as it has been in many years. The deep recession, continued high unemployment and political polarization in Washington have put the country in a sour mood toward politicians. Disapproval of Congress hit 71 percent in the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.
This has sent political strategists scrambling for historical analogies. What they see are similarities to 2006 and 1994, two midterm election years in which control of Congress changed hands. Anger at Washington was also quite high during the standoffs in the mid-1990s between the Republican-controlled Congress led by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and then-President Bill Clinton.
No two elections are identical, however. The Pew Research Center, under the direction of Andrew Kohut, issued its latest national survey Friday. The report called the level of anti-incumbent sentiment "as extensive as it has been in 16 years of Pew Research surveys." But it went on to note two important differences between the political climate of today and that of 2006 and 1994.
First is the public perception of the two parties. Today, Democrats are seen more favorably than are Republicans, although that margin has narrowed considerably in recent months. Through most of the 2006 cycle, the opposition party (then the Democrats) was seen more favorably than the incumbent party (the Republicans). In 1994, both parties had much more positive images than they do today.
Sarah Palin has proved that she can draw a crowd. What she has yet to demonstrate is that she can translate the appeal of a phenomenon into a political force that can attract or mobilize sizable numbers of voters.
The former Alaska governor is the Republican Party's biggest celebrity. She has given voice to a grass-roots movement grounded in anger with Washington and President Obama's policies. But her political future remains in question. Is she presidential timber? A force only within the Republican Party? A protest candidate like George Wallace (minus the racial divisiveness) or Ross Perot?
"Sarah Palin will have to choose to be either the leader of a movement or the leader of a nation. She can't be both," said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. "Right now, she is a figure like [George] McGovern or [Barry] Goldwater, two candidates who led the most intense movements in our country's political history, but who couldn't win the middle."
If Palin harbors presidential ambitions, she has a huge mountain to climb. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 71 percent of Americans do not think the politician who was Sen. John McCain's running mate in 2008 is qualified to be president.
Those numbers are so daunting that some Republicans who otherwise admire what she has accomplished doubt that she will run in 2012. Others say that unless she can transform attitudes dramatically, she cannot hope to win a general election. Still, GOP strategist Phil Musser said, "if she ran for president today, she would be the Republican nominee."
Musser's comments are notable because he is an adviser to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), who is eyeing a 2012 candidacy of his own. Palin's political future remains "very much an open question," Musser said, "but the intensity that she brought to the ticket in 2008 hasn't faded, and one could argue that perhaps it's been enhanced."
Under intense pressure from Washington and Sacramento, California’s largest for-profit health insurer delayed a double-digit rate increase by two months on Saturday, but expressed confidence that its new premiums would pass state scrutiny.
The state insurance commissioner, Steve Poizner, requested the delay on Monday after an estimated 700,000 individual policy holders began receiving notices from the insurer, Anthem Blue Cross, of increases, some as high as 39 percent. The increases, originally scheduled to take effect March 1, were suspended until May 1.
Mr. Poizner said his department needed time to determine whether the increase would violate state regulations that require insurers to spend at least 70 percent of premiums on health claims, rather than on overhead and profit. Absent that, he said he had no authority to reduce Anthem’s rates.
The Obama administration criticized the company relentlessly, arguing that the increases demonstrated the need for the health care overhaul now stalled in Congress.
“While a two-month delay offers some temporary relief,” said Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, “what California families need is long-term health insurance security. This rate increase underscores the urgency of passing real health insurance reform.”
Mr. Poizner, a Republican candidate for governor, said in a conference call Saturday that he had hired outside actuaries to review Anthem’s rate filing. If the company is found in violation of the 70 percent rule, he said he would withdraw its license to sell individual policies in California unless it reduced its rates.