Democrats, united in fiscal stalemate, seek gains beyond it

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama and congressional Democratic leaders, in their ongoing showdown with Republicans, now have a goal beyond protecting the health care law, reopening the government and preventing the first-ever default on the nation's debt.

They are gambling that if they can hang together and remain tough to the end, they stand a chance to break a dangerous cycle that has taken hold in Washington -- one of legislating through brinkmanship, which has brought the government and the financial system to the edge of disaster at least four times over the past three years.

"This not just about Barack Obama. This is about the next president, whoever and whatever party it might be," Mr. Obama told Democratic senators at a White House meeting on Thursday, according to Senate majority whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

So far, the Democrats' strategy of refusing to meet Republican demands -- which is not without risk -- appears to be working.

At least two well-regarded polls in the past week indicate that Republicans are bearing the brunt of the public backlash over the government shutdown. The party that controls the House is registering its lowest approval in the history of both the Gallup and Wall Street Journal-NBC News surveys. The political opportunity is not lost on Democrats, either. Even as public opinion turns increasingly negative against Washington, they are gambling that the GOP will bear the worst of the long-term damage.

Republicans note, however, that the final chapter has yet to be written.

"All parties need to be concerned," said GOP pollster David Winston. "The one thing we do know is that people are paying very close attention."

The Democrats' strategy has been made easier by the fact that the GOP went into the shutdown with no prospect of succeeding in their demand to gut the Affordable Care Act and with no fallback plan.

In setting that as the condition for keeping the government open, Republicans crossed a line that many Democrats believed made this showdown different from previous eleventh-hour negotiations over spending bills and the debt ceiling. Those earlier cliffhangers centered largely on budget issues.

Mr. Obama "decided this was a new level of extremism and that the only way to stop it was to draw a line in the sand," said a senior White House official, who agreed to speak about internal strategy deliberations on the condition of anonymity.

"What was happening on the Affordable Care Act was really extraordinary," said Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. "There was an underlying concern that if this sort of tactic is given in to, it will become the norm."

As often as Republicans have taunted Mr. Obama with the gibe that he is "leading from behind," the past few weeks suggest that is an effective political tactic when an opponent is marching toward a cliff.

But pulling it off has taken a degree of trust, coordination and discipline that Democrats have often lacked, historically and particularly in the more recent years of the Obama era. That unity has been the key to their success so far, particularly given the fractiousness that has hampered the GOP in its bargaining effort .

For Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the past two weeks have been a high-wire test of their skills at holding their troops together through some potentially damaging votes. Each has also been keeping a wary eye on potential missteps in the other chamber and by the White House that could undercut Democratic lawmakers.

In many respects, their strategy is the product of what they learned in previous crises over the past few years.

Congressional Democrats have made no secret of their belief that Mr. Obama yielded too easily to Republicans in the debt-ceiling negotiations of 2011, which laid the groundwork for the automatic spending cuts, known as the sequester, that have constrained spending for many popular programs.

Many also contend he could have gotten a better deal in the "fiscal cliff" talks at the end of last year, which left sequestration in place and the threat of another debt-limit clash on the table.

For his part, Mr. Obama was concerned that Democratic senators would be unable to resist the impulse for freelancing and deal-cutting that is so much a part of the Senate culture, and he worried that those deals could weaken his hand and that of their House colleagues.

When the president met with House Democrats on Wednesday afternoon, he got a laugh by invoking Will Rogers' famous line: "I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat."

But Mr. Obama turned serious, telling the House members, "All of you have shown extraordinary unity."

The biggest test of the Democrats' unity came after the shutdown commenced, bringing a string of embarrassing headlines for Congress as a whole.

House Republicans began putting forward bills that would take off some of the pressure by reopening politically sensitive parts of the government.

Ms. Pelosi, whose skills at counting and marshaling votes are widely regarded as unparalleled in the modern era, had to make some careful calculations. Those votes, she knew, could come back to haunt House Democrats in negative ads next year.

So Ms. Pelosi acceded when members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted to restore funding for the District of Columbia. And she made no objection when some of the vulnerable Democrats on what she calls the "front line" voted in favor of restoring funding for veterans.


First Published October 12, 2013 8:44 PM


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