Just as Senate Democrats were sitting down Thursday to a scheduled meeting with White House budget director Jacob J. Lew, rumors of a new debt-limit deal between President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) flashed across their BlackBerrys.
One after another, Sens. John F. Kerry (Mass.), Barbara A. Mikulski (Md.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.) and others demanded that Lew explain what the president was doing.
The Democrats were winning, the senators said. The American people were with them on tax increases for the rich and the notion of “shared sacrifice.” Why give up now? Why cut a deal without guarantees of new tax revenue?
For 45 minutes, the cross-examination went on, with few details offered. When Lew left, Mikulski turned to her colleagues and said, “I haven’t seen a meeting like this in my 35 years in Congress.”
Outside the room, Lew said he was “not aware of a deal.”
For the first time in weeks of debt negotiations that have focused on rifts within the Republican Party, Thursday brought forward long-simmering tensions between Obama and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill.
With more concerns than details, Democrats lashed out, saying that deep cuts to federal agency budgets and entitlements were too steep a price to pay. They questioned whether Obama shared their core values, and they sought reassurance — at a hastily arranged evening meeting at the White House that lasted nearly two hours — that the final legislative package would be the balanced approach that the president had promised.
“There has to be a balance. There has to be some revenue and cuts. My caucus agrees with that. I hope that the president sticks with that,” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) told reporters.
In the House, rank-and-file Democrats said the situation had grown dire.
“It would concern me greatly if these folks — the tea party group — have been able to convince the president to go along with a deal that basically gives them everything they want but yet still takes away from those who are our most vulnerable,” said. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“The people that I’m talking about, when you’re talking about Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security — and I’m sure they’re all mixed up in there in this $3 trillion — those are people, a lot of whom are in my district, who have no alternatives,” he continued. “They’re not the guys who own the planes; they’re not the ones who fly off to Paris for vacation.”
Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (Ariz.), a leader of the House Progressive Caucus, said: “We feel like the programs we care about are on the table. The other side’s priorities that the American public thinks should be dealt with — tax cuts, corporate subsidies — are not on the table.”
Often kept in check out of loyalty for their president, congressional Democrats have grown increasingly suspicious of Obama’s motives over the past year.
Many in the House didn’t appreciate what they saw as meager support for Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) in her final, embattled months as House speaker before the 2010 midterm election.