08/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Senators Buck Obama, Urge Progressives To Keep Targeting Dems On Health Care

Two Senators said on Tuesday that they disagreed with President Obama's backchannel complaints that progressive advocacy groups ought to stop targeting Democrats on health care.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has been a target of the ads himself, said he was perfectly fine with progressive organizations airing television spots critical of him in his own state.

"Folks are using that wonderful First Amendment to be heard," said the Oregon Democrat, whose refusal to commit to voting for a public health insurance option has caused great frustration among health care reform advocates.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose progressive tilt has made him a champion of many such activists, was much harsher. Asked about Obama's remarks, in which the president reportedly bemoaned the ads run by a variety of left-leaning organizations, Sanders whacked the president for trying to stifle the same groups that got him elected.

"My own view is that constitution of this country provides the right of the people to get actively involved in the political process and express their point of view," the Senator told the Huffington Post. "Barack Obama would not have been elected as president of the United States without the active support of many of those people.

"I hear from people every single day who are very upset that single payer has not been given a real hearing or a real open acceptance in terms of at least being part of the debate," Sanders added. "So there's that reality. But to suggest that the people who helped elect Barack Obama, the strong grassroots activists who are fighting for working people and fighting for the environment should not be actively involved in this process, in demanding that at the very least every United States Senator in the Democratic Caucus agree to stop a Republican filibuster, I think if that message is coming from the White House it's an unfortunate message. It's a wrong message. We should encourage people to participate in the process."

The Washington Post was first to report that Obama was sour on the ad campaigns being run against moderate Democrats by groups like MoveOn, Democracy for America, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

"We shouldn't be focusing resources on each other," the president reportedly said on a call to six top Democrats in the House and Senate. "We ought to be focused on winning this debate."

In the subsequent days, representatives from several of the organizations involved pledged to keep targeting Dems, regardless of the president's wishes. MoveOn, on Tuesday, urged its members to call the White House to register their disagreement with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's favorable comments about a public option with a trigger.

There are, of course, multiple layers to the debate over the role progressive advocacy groups play in regards to ensuring Democratic unity on health care. Publicly, no member of Congress will back the president's sentiments, lest they give the impression of being too sensitive for public office. But in private, the White House undoubtedly gains some favor for trying to deflect the heat off.

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