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Roll Call

Talks Whipsawing Rank and File

Tom Williams/Roll Call
House Democrats were buoyed when it appeared House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was at the table last week in debt limit talks.

House Democrats are suffering massive mood swings when it comes to the debt limit talks.

The Caucus has gone back and forth emotionally, from being jubilant about President Barack Obama's handling of the talks to fearful that he might give away too much in bipartisan talks with GOP leaders.

The seesaw of emotions was on full display Monday, as the rank and file tried to make sense of the dramatic negotiations that took place during the weekend.

"I think there is leftover mistrust from the [continuing resolution] debate and other things that has been heightened by press reports and other reports of just how much the president is willing to put on the table," Rep. Gerry Connolly said.

The Virginia Democrat said the Caucus has found optimism in recent days as Obama has called for compromise with Congressional Republicans and fought to uphold entitlement programs that are central to Democrats' 2012 message. But, as Connolly pointed out, it hasn't been easy for Democrats to stay upbeat, and they've been downright distraught at times.

"Sometimes the Caucus blows off steam," he said with a shrug.

As recently as last Thursday morning, many House Democrats were praising Obama and were pleased that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi seemed to be part of the negotiations.

"Through this struggle, [Obama] has held the line, and that's been very reassuring to us," said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

A few hours later, the rank and file were sinking into deep depression as word leaked out that Obama was negotiating with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) without Democrats at the table on a deal that might cut deeply into their priorities.

"I don't know much, but I'm not happy," Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said. "What bothers me is they seem to be trying to get us to support an agreement that's obnoxious."

But the Obama-Boehner talks disintegrated Friday evening. Nadler complained the Caucus had not been briefed and compared the talks to last December's negotiations between White House officials and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Those talks led to a deal to extend the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, which led to a splintered vote on the House floor.

Now, with both parties taking their own approaches to the debt limit, Connolly said his House colleagues are again rallying behind the president, albeit with an air of caution.

"The Democratic Caucus [wants] the president to succeed and understands that we need him to succeed next year if we're going to succeed next year," Connolly said.

Rep. Brad Miller, who voted against the tax deal in December, also said "a lot of Members" were nervous last week about the Obama-Boehner talks. But, like Connolly, the North Carolina Democrat noted, "We are captive downballot from the decisions the White House makes," even if it's a deal they don't like.

"If the administration agrees to a deal that doesn't work for us, even if some in our Caucus choose to vote against it, we will have to live with the consequences," he said.

Senate Democrats have been less reserved and came out swinging last week in a closed-door session with Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) described the session as "volcanic," and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who faces re-election next year, said she "lost it" during the meeting.

House Democrats, though, are in a different position than their Senate counterparts. December's tax deal and the continuing resolution debate this spring left them feeling alienated at a time when they were searching for a way out of the minority.

But Democratic Rep. Kathy Hochul's victory in May's special election in New York and a unified message to protect Medicare provided a morale boost. Any deal that made cuts to entitlements threatened that message.

Obama has acknowledged taking heat from Democrats on his willingness to deal.

"We'd seen a pattern of not being included, especially with the tax cuts," Grijalva said.

The Progressive Caucus sent a letter to Obama this month calling on him to protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Some of those Members, notably Reps. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), spoke out during a recent Caucus meeting when there were rumblings that Democrats might agree to some entitlement changes.

And with several House Republicans unlikely to vote for any debt limit increase no matter what the terms, Democrats said Obama might need their votes and will need a strong sales pitch for their support.

"I think the Obama administration is correct in dealing with House Republicans; they're in the majority," Miller said last week, before Boehner shut down his talks with Obama. "But nevertheless, I think House Democrats would like to be included, and they are going to need some of our votes."

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