'World News' Political Insights: President Obama Faces Democratic Angst
Obama Risks Democratic Revolt in Lame-Duck Session
By RICK KLEIN
WASHINGTON, Nov. 28, 2010
In a lame-duck session that will be anything but lame, the ties that bind the Democratic Party will be tested anew.
The week's big focus will be on the bipartisan summit to be held Tuesday at the White House -- a key indicator of how the president plans to govern under the new reality imposed by voters in the midterm elections.
But it's President Obama's relationship with his own party in its waning weeks of total control of Washington that still will determine a range of policy outcomes. Moves to the right in the coming weeks will be viewed with skepticism on the left, as Democrats still must guard against a revolt inside their ranks in their final weeks in control of the House.
Before a new House majority takes power, Congress convenes for a final burst of legislating with a crowded agenda that includes expiring tax cuts and unemployment benefits; a push to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy; and attempted ratification of a key nuclear weapons treaty with Russia.
In the middle lands the report of the president's deficit commission, the recommendations of which appear likely to provide a stark choice for a president who's seeking new footing.
The co-chairmen's initial recommendations were denounced by those on both sides of the aisle. Particular vitriol emanated by leading Democrats, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pronouncing the draft proposal "simply unacceptable."
The president has stayed mostly mum so far on the commission report. While he'll come under pressure to embrace its broad principles, Democrats will balk if he's seen as backing cuts to favored programs such as Social Security.
"Simply unacceptable" is also an apt summation of many leading Democrats' stance toward the likeliest emerging compromises on the expiring Bush tax cuts.
Top House Democrats continue to insist that the tax cuts for upper-income earners be allowed to expire. Republicans and some moderate Democrats want all the tax cuts extended; Obama has vowed repeatedly to allow them to lapse for couples making more than $250,000 a year.
That's an obvious area of compromise for the White House, with temporary extensions of perhaps two or three years being floated as possible middle ground. That would be a chance for the White House to put some policy flesh on promises of working across party lines.
But it would also spark anger among both liberal Democrats and some deficit hawks, who view the tax cuts for the wealthy as unnecessary and ill-advised in a time of fiscal duress. At the very least, Democrats in Congress will insist on separate votes for tax cuts affecting the middle class and those primarily benefiting the wealthy.
Ultimately, some give on the tax cuts may be key to efforts to extend unemployment insurance, which will expire for some 2 million long-term unemployed Americans unless Congress acts this week.
With Democrats still controlling the congressional agenda -- and, of course, the bulk of the votes in the House and the Senate -- the president will need to work on those on his own side of the aisle in the short-term, even as he begins to build relationships with Republicans for the new Congress.
The White House has calculated that with power comes additional responsibility for Republicans. The president surely hopes that the public will hold the GOP to a higher standard for governance starting in January, when John Boehner becomes speaker of the House.
But before we get there, the tensions and questions that have haunted Democrats over the past two years get one more go-around.
The party soul-searching lingers -- did Democrats suffer setbacks for doing too little, or not doing enough? -- and unfinished agenda items mean the electoral "shellacking" won't be the final word on the matter.
The president may yet be judged on how he adjusts in the wake of the mid-term elections. But Democrats who have a few more weeks in power want to make sure those adjustments don't have lingering policy consequences before then.