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.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, left, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, speak outside the West Wing of the White House following a meeting between President Barack Obama and Congressional leadership to discuss Afghanistan and Pakistan in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
National Journal
Nancy Cook
Sept. 17, 2013, 8:29 a.m.

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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