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Roll Call

Liberals Seek Boost From Debt Talks

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Rep. Jan Schakowsky speaks Thursday during the American Dream Movement rally. The event was billed as “progressive pushback” to demand a debt ceiling deal that protects entitlements.

Two years ago, stimulus packages and bailouts fed a nationwide revolt that became the tea party movement. Now, liberal groups say frustration over the debt ceiling talks is fueling a left-wing equivalent.

As Members of both parties discuss making dramatic cuts in government programs in exchange for raising the nation’s debt limit, disenchanted liberals are trying to regain control of the debate to focus on increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthy and on preventing cuts in entitlement programs.

The fight is an early test for the American Dream Movement, a coalition formed last month and led by MoveOn.org Civic Action to counter the tea parties. The group took a lead role in liberal efforts to pressure Congress this week.

“There’s been kind of a sea change in how concerned about this our members are,” Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org, said in an interview. “We’re doing literally everything we can possibly think of to get this to move in a better direction.”

Congressional servers and phone lines  on Tuesday were flooded with emails and calls as competing camps — and President Barack Obama — urged supporters to let Congress know their views. As tea party activists implored Republicans to push for more cuts, liberals called on Democrats to resist cuts and consider tax increases, and the sheer volume of the response indicated an extraordinary outpouring of grass-roots interest.

Liberal groups are hoping they can harness some of it.

“The tea party has effectively shifted the frame of debate on the economy. From our perspective, we’re fighting in their frame and losing that battle,” Ruben said. “That sort of frustration is what we’re counting on that will give some lift to this [movement].”

In a campaign led by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, more than 200,000 Obama donors and volunteers also threatened to abstain from the president’s re-election campaign if Democrats agree to make entitlement cuts.

In addition to phone calls and emails to Congress, MoveOn.org and the PCCC worked with other groups to organize events in Congressional districts around the country that they said drew more than 20,000. American Dream Movement members also gathered Thursday on Capitol Hill to demand that Democrats stand their ground against deep spending cuts.

Democratic Members, including Rep. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), urged activists to fight to protect  Social Security and other government benefits.

“We believe in a country where after you’ve worked your whole life, you get to retire in the knowledge that your financial and health security will be met,” she said.

Though call volumes on Capitol Hill were back to normal levels by Wednesday, organizers said they expected this week’s increased grass-roots engagement to last.

“When we finally get an agreement and lift the debt ceiling, which is a device, we’ll still have an economic crisis. We’ll still have a bad economy made worse by whatever cuts they decide to pass,” said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, which is also part of the new liberal movement. “This coalition is not going to go away.”

Tuesday’s activism blitz followed a speech in which the president called on citizens to pressure lawmakers for a compromise. Obama’s campaign followed up with emails and text messages targeting specific districts.

Conservative leaders said the president’s call also mobilized their ranks.

“It’s very competitive, where if we know that the left is mobilizing and calling, it’s much more important that we be aggressively getting out there and making sure their voice doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” said Dustin Stockton, spokesman for TheTeaParty.Net, whose members sent more than 260,000 e-mails to Members of Congress this week, demanding that an increase in the debt ceiling be paired with spending cuts.

MoveOn.org Civic Action and TheTeaParty.Net requested donations this week to sustain their efforts.

Brendan Steinhauser of FreedomWorks, a libertarian group that works closely with the tea parties, said his organization has been adding to its membership of 1.2 million at a rate of 3,000 each week.

“The left has always been more active in general, but we’ve been beating them at this game for the last couple years,” he said. “I don’t think [liberals] have the energy we do.”

Like the liberal organizations, FreedomWorks also organized events in Congressional districts: Activists visited 250 offices last week. Additionally, more than 35,000 have signed the group’s Cut, Cap and Balance Pledge demanding significant, enforceable cuts and a balanced budget amendment.

Dozens of tea party activists also rallied Wednesday on Capitol Hill. Amy Kremer, chairwoman of Tea Party Express, attended the event and said the debt ceiling is “all anybody is focused on.”

“As these [Members] go back to their districts and start having town halls, they’ll start seeing some good constructive debate going on because people are just mad as hell,” Kremer said.

Members of the American Dream Movement plan to do the same.

“We’re going to plug the people active this week into a major effort … for jobs and to get the economy moving again, particularly during recess,” Ruben said.

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