House Democrats are once again afraid they’re about to get sold out by a president from their own party.
As bipartisan debt limit negotiations between congressional leaders and the White House rev up, a number of Democrats are worried that President Barack Obama will agree to a deal with the GOP that cuts federal spending too deep, undermines the social safety net, slashes entitlement programs and does not include a single dime in tax increases.
These Democrats, mainly progressives and liberals, fear the White House will be too quick to give in to an ideologically rigid group of tea-party-driven Republicans who won’t even consider Democratic proposals to close certain tax loopholes or cut off certain tax credits to raise more revenue. Democrats are scheduled to meet with Obama at the White House on Thursday.
Some liberals, such as Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Jim McDermott of Washington, said it’s “irrational” to link spending cuts to the debt ceiling debate.
“What I’m concerned about — it’s not that I don’t trust them — is they [the White House] figure, ‘Let’s get this thing the hell out of the way, and if we gotta suffer from our base, let’s do it now,’” said New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell, a member of both the Budget and Ways and Means committees.
And if Obama makes a deal that angers liberals, it will only add to the growing disenchantment on other progressive priorities, including Afghanistan, gay marriage, Guantanamo, environmental and labor legislation, the Libya conflict and the tax and spending compromises in general, including December’s agreement to extend the Bush-era tax cuts while simultaneously slashing $40 billion in federal spending.
“There’s a great deal of concern about this,” said Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, an outspoken progressive Democrat. “Given that [tax increases] are not on the table, there’s a great deal of consternation and worry that the deal will be cut and it will be unacceptable.”
While liberals worry about compromising too deeply, they look to the other side of the aisle and see Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor taking a hard line on not raising taxes. Democrats haven’t drawn such hard lines in their end of the negotiations.
Some lawmakers were upset that Obama seemed to indicate to House Democrats during a recent White House session that he wanted to “get past” the debt ceiling debate — a sign that he was most interested in the politics of a mega-budget deal.
“I think the president and his team have their calculation where they want to posture him for his reelection,” Grijalva added. “And we have our calculation, too, and we think that our base and our constituency is not going to be happy with the deal.”
Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio said his Republican colleagues told him that Obama was moving toward the GOP position on spending cuts after they left their own meeting with the president at the White House.
“So my position is the president really can’t be sort of the laid-back and wait-and-see-what-develops position. [Obama] needs to say what’s on the table, what’s off the table and start pushing for an outcome,” DeFazio said.
The fear of being “sold out” or “pushed under the bus” by Obama is not a new one.
House Democrats have used marathon negotiating sessions in the past few months to insist that, despite their numbers, they remain part of the discussion on major legislation. Democrats note that Boehner had to turn to them for help in passing a 2011 federal funding resolution or face a government shutdown, and party strategists note Boehner must walk an even finer line in order to get his tea-party-aligned freshman class to support any increase in the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.
And it’s not as though House Democrats aren’t involved in the talks. They have two high-ranking members involved in the budget and debt negotiations being led by Vice President Joe Biden: Reps. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. Van Hollen and Clyburn are sticking by the House Democratic position that revenues must accompany deep slashes to government programs.
“Any plan has to be a balanced plan,” Van Hollen said Wednesday. “It has to, in addition to including cuts, it’s gotta include revenue provisions, like getting rid of special interest tax loopholes for the oil and gas industry and others. And we will absolutely insist on a balanced final package. And if we don’t get a balanced final package, everybody retains the right to vote no.”
Nonetheless, progressives are fearful that Medicaid, Medicare and TRICARE will see serious cuts while the rich face no new taxes and corporate rates are cut. The refrain “The rich get richer while the poor get poorer” is a frequent one heard inside the House Democratic Caucus.
California Rep. Barbara Lee, former chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus, said she has faith in Obama’s ability to cut a fair deal, but when asked about potential cuts to Medicaid, Lee said, “No, you can’t cut that.”
“That’s a safety net, really,” Lee told POLITICO.
Ellison, current chairman of the 70-plus-member Progressive Caucus, said if Obama strikes a budget deal with House Republicans and Senate Democrats but ignores Democratic priorities, “Good luck, but they shouldn’t count on my vote.”
“I’m not voting on anything out of loyalty to any individuals,” Ellison said Wednesday.
But the secretive nature of the budget talks doesn’t help calm nerves, said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).
“I continue to hope and pray that we’re not going to be thrown under the bus, that the cuts aren’t going to be all focused on programs that benefit poor people, the most vulnerable,” McGovern said. “It’s difficult, because you have an unreasonable new majority in the House that’s making unreasonable demands. But I got enough to be depressed right now without thinking what the debt ceiling deal is going to be. I will get depressed when I see it.”
Any deal that liberals dislike could have reverberations within the Democratic base, and progressive lawmakers warn that Obama needs the grass roots to stay fired up for 2012.
“I would say at this point the base is not particularly energized,” DeFazio said. “I think the White House’s hope is the Republicans will nominate someone so far to the right and so unacceptable that will energize the base. I wouldn’t depend on that. I think that the White House needs to take some steps that energize the base, and we just don’t see that.”
McDermott, a longtime member of the House, said Obama is dealing with Republicans who are akin to “children playing with sticks of dynamite.”
“The president is not the decider in this issue; the House decides,” McDermott told POLITICO. “These issues start in Congress. He may make a deal, but it’ll be without any of us — [if it] makes serious cuts in programs and [doesn’t include] revenues.”
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