Obama, Dems are unified now but face tough tests
By JULIE PACE, AP White House Correspondent
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 Democratic 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 try to extract concessions from Obama on spending, deficit reduction and entitlement reform — all areas where Democratic 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.
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. It was a hard-line stance that many in the party wished he had taken during previous fiscal fights.
Democratic unity was further bolstered by the fissures that emerged among Republicans and a burst of polling that showed the GOP was taking the brunt of the public's blame for the shutdown. And 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 Democratic allies.
The biggest sticking point could be over reforms to federal benefit programs, which Democrats have refused to accept without accompanying increases in tax revenue - 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 (Senate Majority Leader) 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 Democratic 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.
Fearing the fractures could bleed over into the budget battles, the White House, along with Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, spent weeks trying to shore up support within the party. Obama was in frequent contact with party leaders and held meetings with the full Democratic caucus, both on Capitol Hill and at the White House.
Democratic officials say the unity spilled over into fundraising efforts. The DNC, which has struggled to raise money this year, said it brought in $850,000 the day before the government shutdown, marking its best one-day fundraising haul since before the November election. And halfway through the month, DNC communications director Mo Elleithee said October is already the committee's biggest fundraising month of the year. He did not say how much the DNC has raised so far this month.
Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee, said the GOP has also seen a "large uptick" in fundraising since the end of September, but he did not provide specific numbers.
WASHINGTON — The Republicans' clear defeat in the budget-debt brawl has widened the rift between the Grand Old Party and the blossoming tea party movement that helped revive it.
Implored by House Speaker John Boehner to unite and "fight another day" against President Barack Obama and Democrats, Republicans instead intensified attacks on one another, an ominous sign in advance of more difficult policy fights and the 2014 midterm elections.
The tea party movement spawned by the passage of Obama's health care overhaul three years ago put the GOP back in charge of the House and in hot pursuit of the law's repeal. The effort hit a wall this month in the budget and debt fight, but tea partyers promised to keep up the effort.
Whatever the future of the troubled law, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell vowed he would not permit another government shutdown.
"I think we have now fully acquainted our new members with what a losing strategy that is," McConnell said in an interview with The Hill newspaper.
Tea party Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas told ABC News he wouldn't rule out using the tactic again, when the same budget and debt questions come up next year.
"I will continue to do anything I can to stop the train wreck that is Obamacare," Cruz said.
That divide defined the warring Republican factions ahead of the midterm elections, when 35 seats in the Democratic-controlled Senate and all 435 seats in the Republican-dominated House will be on the ballot. In the nearer term, difficult debates over immigration and farm policy loom, along with another round of budget and debt talks.
The animosity only intensified as lawmakers fled Washington this week for a few days' rest.
The Twitterverse crackled with threats, insults and the names of the 27 GOP senators and 87 GOP House members who voted for the leadership's agreement that reopened the government and raised the nation's borrowing limit. Republicans got none of their demands, keeping only the spending cuts they had won in 2011.
Within hours, TeaParty.net tweeted a link to the 114 lawmakers, tagging each as a Republican in name only who should be turned out of office: "Your 2014 #RINO hunting list!"
"We shouldn't have to put up with fake conservatives like Mitch McConnell," read a fundraising letter Thursday from the Tea Party Victory Fund Inc.
Another group, the Senate Conservatives Fund, announced it was endorsing McConnell's GOP opponent, Louisville, Ky., businessman Matt Bevin.
"Mitch McConnell has the support of the entire Washington establishment and he will do anything to hold on to power," the group, which raised nearly $2 million for tea party candidates in last year's elections, announced. "But if people in Kentucky and all across the country rise up and demand something better, we're confident Matt Bevin can win this race."
The same group pivoted to the Mississippi Senate race, where Republican Thad Cochran is weighing whether to seek a seventh term. Cochran voted for the McConnell-Reid deal, so the Senate Conservatives Fund endorsed a primary opponent, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a private attorney the group says "will fight to stop Obamacare," ''is not part of the Washington establishment" and "has the courage to stand up to the big spenders in both parties."
There were more tea party targets: Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina and Lamar Alexander in Tennessee also are seeking re-election.
To her Facebook friends, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin posted: "We're going to shake things up in 2014. Rest well tonight, for soon we must focus on important House and Senate races. Let's start with Kentucky — which happens to be awfully close to South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi."
Opponents of the tea party strategy to make "Obamacare" the centerpiece of the budget fight seethed over what they said was an exercise in self destruction. Many clamored for Boehner and McConnell, the nation's highest-ranking Republicans, to impose some discipline, pointing to polls that showed public approval of Congress plummeting to historic lows and that most Americans blamed Republicans for the government shutdown.
A Pew Research Center poll released this week showed public favorability for the Tea Party dropped to its lowest level since driving the Republican takeover of the House in the 2010 elections. An AP-Gfk poll showed that 70 percent now hold unfavorable views of the Tea Party.
And yet, House Republican leaders tried again and again to resolve the standoff the tea party's way — by demanding limits on Obamacare in exchange for reopening the government — until they ran out of options and accepted the bipartisan deal.
"When your strategy doesn't work, or your tactic doesn't work, you lose credibility in your conference," said Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., referring to the tea partyers' tactics. "Clearly the leadership followed certain members' tactics, certain members' strategies, and they proved not to be all that successful. So I would hope that we learn from the past."
"I do believe the outside groups have really put us in this position," said Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., referring to the Heritage Foundation's political campaign arm and other organizations demanding fealty to their ideology. Those groups "have worked in conjunction with members of Congress and with Tea Party groups pushing a strategy that was never going to work."
Tea partyers hold a contrary view. Boehner, they say, solidified his standing as the GOP's leader by holding the line against compromise as long as he did. And the standoff, they add, has increased their movement's clout.
"I think it builds credibility, because I think Democrats did not think that we would press this," said Rep. John Fleming, R-La. "And now they know that we will, and that we might do it again."