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Democrats Face Tough Unity Test

Future negotiations with GOP may cause fractures

October 19, 2013
By JULIE PACE, AP White House Correspondent , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

WASHINGTON - For President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, this month's budget battles brought about a remarkable period of party unity, a welcome change for the White House after a summer of disputes over possible military action in Syria, government spying programs and the president's pick to lead the Federal Reserve.

But Democrat solidarity will face a tougher test during the broader budget talks following the reopening of the government and the increase of Treasury's borrowing authority. While the prospect of a large-scale agreement is slim, Republicans will attempt to gain concessions from Obama on spending, deficit reduction and entitlement reform - all areas where Democrat lawmakers have worried the president is willing to give up too much.

"When things get serious, some of these negotiations are going to be awfully tough for people," Jim Manley, former adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said of congressional Democrats.

Article Photos

AP Photo
President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid meet Democrat leaders in the Oval Office of the White House on Oct. 12.

Throughout the 16-day shutdown and march toward the debt ceiling deadline, congressional Democrats lined up solidly behind Obama and his vow to not negotiate with Republicans on defunding the unpopular health care law. It was a hard-line stance that many in the party wished he had taken during previous fiscal fights.

In the end, every congressional Democrat voted for the deal that keeps the government open until Jan. 15, lifts the debt ceiling until Feb. 7, and opens two months of budget negotiations.

But if any agreement does emerge from those talks, it will likely require Obama to make concessions that could rankle his Democrat allies.

The biggest sticking point could be over reforms to federal benefit programs, which Democrats have refused to accept without accompanying increases in taxes - a non-starter for GOP leaders. The budget plan Obama outlined this year put Democrats on edge because it proposed bold changes to Medicare and Social Security.

One possible compromise in the end-of-the-year talks may involve Obama offering more modest entitlement changes in exchange for easing the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester, echoing an idea floated by House Republicans during the shutdown.

The sequester is unpopular with both parties. But there is little consensus over how to offset the spending cuts, which are scheduled to intensify in mid-January, with the Pentagon bearing most of the cuts.

Democrats don't appear to want to compromise over spending levels. Party leaders say they already gave in to Republicans by agreeing to let the GOP extend the current sequester levels through Jan. 15 as part of the short-term deal to end the shutdown.

White House officials say Obama has made clear to Democrats that no one will emerge from budget negotiations with everything on his wish list.

"He will not get in a budget negotiation everything he wants, and neither will Democrats and neither will Republicans," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Patrick Griffin, who served as legislative director for President Bill Clinton, said Obama's challenge will be balancing an outcome that could help build bipartisan support for his other agenda items with the desires of Democrats facing re-election in 2014.

"What might be good for the president for his next three years might not be the same agenda that's good for Harry Reid and the caucus for the next year," he said.

Before the shutdown and debt debate, it appeared as though the ties between the White House and Democrats were fraying. Liberal Democrats were angry over revelations that the White House was continuing government spying programs started under President George W. Bush. Many in the party opposed Obama's call for possible military action in Syria following a chemical weapons attack. And several Democrat lawmakers revolted against Obama's preferred choice to lead the Federal Reserve, forcing economist Lawrence Summers to withdraw his name from consideration even before he could be nominated.

 
 
 

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