Obama Seeks to Jumpstart His Agenda in Congress

When President Barack Obama first addressed a joint session of Congress last February, he set an ambitious agenda for the House and Senate.

Just over one month into his presidency, Congress had already sent the president a bill expanding children's health insurance, a massive stimulus package meant to create jobs and expand the suffering economy and a bill that would protect women from pay discrimination in the workplace. Now, he was calling for action on three agenda items he deemed "critical to our economic future: energy, health care and education."

Tonight, nearly one year later in the president's first official State of the Union Address, Mr. Obama is expected to call, again, on Congress to act on energy, health care and education. Not only will he renew that call, but White House officials say he will add immigration reform and repealing the military's "Don't ask Don't Tell" policy for gays in the military to Congress' already overflowing plate.

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For House Democrats, there is clearly frustration in the caucus that when Mr. Obama has asked Congress to jump over the past year, House members have asked how high. House Democrats have taken tough votes on health care, energy, education and even regulatory reform, another item high on the president's to-do list. They've faced irate constituents in town hall meetings back home and have fought to get the message across that these agenda items will help resuscitate the economy and curb the 10 percent unemployment rate.

And all those tough votes? So far, they've gone nowhere in the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid grapples with a diverse caucus and every member has the power to block legislation. One Democratic aide said there's concern in the caucus that the House could get painted with the same brush as the Senate if Americans perceives that Washington can't get anything done.

And members are even more concerned about the 2010 elections after last week's upset election in Massachusetts where Republican Scott Brown won the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, losing Democrat's supermajority in the Senate, and throwing a monkey wrench into efforts to pass health care reform.

Which is leading some House Democrats to say it's time to revise the agenda.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said he wants the president to send the message in his State of the Union that "as important as energy and health care has been- are- and as important as many other subjects, including education, we got to get people to work." He said ninety percent of the Democrat's agenda should be "jobs, jobs, jobs."

"We need to do better," said Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), a conservative Blue Dog Democrat. Taylor said it's time for Democrats to tackle one problem at a time, move more to the center, and warned that adding immigration to the docket is politically disastrous.

"The last thing that any president or any Congress needs to be doing is encouraging people to come here and compete for the already entirely too scarce number of jobs," Taylor said.

(AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi's spokesman Brendan Daly said that on the whole, members want to complete health care, energy and regulatory reform this year, but he said the speaker has made clear that "unless the senate takes up immigration first, we're not going to do it."

There are Democrats who want to finish the work they started this year, but they argue Democrats need to be better about connecting every agenda item to jobs. One Democratic aide said that it's important for Democrats to tell Americans that they hear their concerns about the economy and that Congress is responding.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, argues that Democrats should stay the course. She said "the agenda is not too ambitious considering the mess Democrats inherited and the work left to be done to get people back to work."

Lee argues the big issue Democrats need to address is how to communicate the message that the agenda is about jobs. "The American people voted for an agenda of change and it's important to communicate that agenda of change and how it affects ones daily life."

When Obama addresses Congress tonight, it is expected that he will push Democrats to finish what they've started. But the key message House Democrats hope he gets across to the American people weary of sausage-making, is that soon, sausage will be served.

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Jill Jackson is a CBS News Capitol Hill Producer. You can read more of her posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow her on Twitter.
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    Jill Jackson is a CBS News senior political producer.