Up until this point, Democrats in Congress have worked pretty hard to support Barack Obama.
When he came into office, he laid out three pillars of how government spending should work over the course of the next four years: big reforms to health care, energy, and education. Democrats have pressed ahead with the first two, despite the political difficulties of doing so.
This has been particularly true in the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has marshaled impressive unity in a diverse caucus during her time in power, went to bat for Obama not just on health care--maneuvering around objections over abortion and the public option--but on energy, mustering enough votes to pass a cap and trade bill that became the downfall of many House Democrats during the 2010 elections.
There were hard votes, but every step of the way, Democrats lined up behind the president's agenda, having worked hard to elect him in 2008. The biggest clash came over the public option, when liberal Democrats threatened to block Obama's health care bill, but he overcame that opposition in the end, and Democrats proved ultimately loyal to the president even when they didn't exactly like what they were being asked to support. As far as Democratic leaders in Congress were concerned, they'd been on the same page as Obama, and their support for his initiatives was more or less automatic.
Now, that's not the case.
Democrats have not endorsed Obama's deal with Republicans on the Bush tax cuts, and there's no indication that any House Democratic leaders will work to convince their colleagues to vote in favor of it. None of them support it, at this point. In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid said today, during a press stakeout, "I think there's some things that would make the tax bill better, and that's what I'm going to try to do"--not quite an endorsement.
No, it's up to the White House to sell this deal to members of Congress. They'll have to do the convincing. One Democratic aide suggested the White House will have trouble even getting a bill to the floor. That's how unhappy Democrats are about this deal.
"We got screwed," New York Congressman Gary Ackerman said.
This isn't the first time the White House has been left on its own to sell legislation to Democrats in Congress. When Obama sought additional funds for the war in Afghanistan, Pelosi said last December that the president would have to make the sale.
"What I've told members is give the president room," Pelosi said at the time. "The president is going to have to make his case." The White House did make its case, and Obama did get his way, as the House passed a war-funding bill in July of this year.
But now, for the first time, President Obama is coming into conflict with his party.
Which raises a question: How much sway does Obama have over Democrats, and has he lost it in this deal? Can he convince them to support the compromise he laid out in two press conferences on Monday night and Tuesday afternoon? How much weight does the presidential stamp carry?
Vice President Joe Biden is entering a meeting with the House Democratic caucus this afternoon to discuss this deal. Having met with Senate Democrats yesterday, he's the appointed salesman. According to a Democratic aide, the caucus will probably want to hear from Obama himself at some point.
A good number of House Democrats seem willing to let this deal fail, to hand Obama a real defeat, and to and let taxes go up on everyone, rather than extend the Bush-era rates for the wealthiest Americans.
It should become clear over the next few days whether or not the president can move Democrats in the direction of his choice.
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