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How Dangerous Is the Rift Among Democrats? How Dangerous Is the Rift Among Democrats?

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How Dangerous Is the Rift Among Democrats?

Congressional Democrats have denied Obama twice in as many weeks, and that bodes poorly for a White House prepping for fiscal fights.

Can leadership get congressional Democrats in line?((AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais))

photo of Nancy Cook
September 17, 2013

Remember that split among congressional Republicans on fiscal strategy? Well, now it seems the Democrats have the makings of a similar problem.

In recent weeks, congressional D's have been uncharacteristically independent, breaking with their leadership and the Obama administration. First they opposed military action in Syria, warning the president they would deny his request to strike. And then came Larry Summers, who was brought down by a handful of Senate Democrats who let the White House know they would not confirm him as Fed chief.

All this bodes quite poorly for President Obama (and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi) as the spending and debt fights approach.


If Obama's advisers take anything away from the Syria and Summers episodes, Capitol Hill aides and lawmakers suggest it should be the message that Democrats are not going to get in line with a budget deal that compromises their liberal positions. No longer should the White House feel free, as it has in the past, to consider tweaks to programs like Medicare or Social Security, for instance (unless, of course, Republicans agree to extract more money from taxpayers).

Reid and one of his primary deputies, Sen. Patty Murray, continue to oppose the "chained CPI" proposal that would change the way government benefits are calculated and make them less generous—one of the ideas the president offered up in past budget negotiations. House Democrats largely are not in favor of one of the president's other previous budget offers—to cut Medicare by $400 billion.

These concessions would be an incredibly hard sell to Democrats during a year where the country's annual deficit continues to fall, says a House Democratic leadership aide.

"A lot of our members were concerned about the drift of the negotiations during the fiscal cliff," the aide said. "Our sense is that any deal this fall would not be as large so there is not as much of a necessity to offer up those items."

The White House hasn't ruled those items out though; it's not really even engaging in the discussion at all yet. If lawmakers start to draw lines in the sand, the president will have fewer tools to use and fewer levers to pull to score a deal that keeps the government running and the United States current on its debt.

Democrats hope it doesn't come to that—and many think it will not. The prospects for a major budget deal are so slim, they say, that the president will not get to the point of offering any deal-sweeteners that congressional Democrats dislike, like Medicare cuts or chained CPI.

Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen says the White House, for weeks, has promised House Democrats that it would only offer these cuts as part of a major budget deal. Now, that elusive grand bargain seems unlikely, given the short time frame of the fall's fiscal battles and overall budget fatigue. "It's all a moot point," says Van Hollen, a close ally to the White House on fiscal matters. "The Republicans have refused to raise one penny of revenue for the purpose of reducing the deficit. They are not even talking about it."

In the end, that may be the greatest force uniting Democrats. While they don't agree on the particulars of budget politics, they can come together around their disdain for the House Republicans and their attempts to cast them as extreme leading up to the debt ceiling fight.

"I think the president continues to enjoy broad-based support on our side of the aisle," says House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. "I think there is nobody in the Democratic Party who wants to shut down the government—the president certainly does not want to shut down the government. I think we're talking about tactics to make sure we don't do that."

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