Finding themselves in the unusual position of having leverage in the debt limit talks, House Democrats are not letting traditional dividing forces fracture their Caucus — at least for now.
A senior Democratic aide said that because Republicans will need 50 to 70 — or even more — of their Members to pass any deal, “It does give [Democrats] some leverage, there’s no doubt about it.”
Democrats have traditionally been riven with conflicts among groups that range from the Congressional Progressive Caucus to the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, but Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) are managing to keep their party on the same page on the debt negotiations.
A Democratic aide said part of the Caucus’ ability to remain united is an understanding that it finds itself in a rare moment in which the minority party in the House — which is normally sidelined in the best of circumstances — has a say in a major policy debate in Washington.
“It’s serious, there’s no question about that. Being in the minority and still having a taste of what it was like to be in the majority, it helps remind folks what we need to get back there,” the aide said.
According to Democrats, Pelosi and other leaders sought to reinforce that unity during Tuesday’s Caucus meeting. “She also made the point that we’re with the president. He has a role to play, and we have a role to play,” a Democratic aide said.
“We know what our message is, our message is clear,” Pelosi told the Caucus, ticking off defending Medicare and attacking Republicans on tax loopholes for corporations, according to the aide.
“I think there’s going to be a great unity,” Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) said Tuesday of his party’s approach to the debt limit.
“Democrats have been ready,” House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) told reporters Tuesday. “We’re not the ones who have been making ultimatums. We’re not the ones who have walked away from the negotiations — more than once — and we’re not the ones that are calling this process smoke and mirrors. We’re ready. The American people expect us to be ready, and we’re ready for that adult moment whenever our Republican counterparts agree to come to the table.”
That is not to say Democrats will still be unified if the White House and Congressional leaders agree on a deal.
Democrats acknowledge that in the end, there is a small subset of their Members who will likely vote for almost any debt limit deal, so long as it does not include massive changes to Medicare or Social Security. Although neither party has begun counting votes, Democratic and Republican aides predicted Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) can likely count on just shy of 20 Blue Dogs and other moderates from the outset.
Earlier this year, 85 Democrats voted for a continuing resolution agreed to by Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and President Barack Obama, and aides predicted a number of those Members were also likely to be inclined to vote for a debt limit deal.
Still, some of those Democrats who voted for the CR cautioned that their support of that measure would not necessarily equate to support for raising the debt ceiling, particularly if Republicans push a measure that slashes entitlements.
“It’s completely different,” said Dicks, who voted for the CR.
“It wasn’t that bad a deal, it was acceptable,” the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee said about the funding measure. “That was serious; this is super serious.”
Rep. David Price said it “would be a sad miscalculation” for Republicans to expect many Democrats to join the majority in voting for a debt limit deal. Like Democratic leaders and Obama, Price said any deal must strike a balance between finding new tax revenues and trimming entitlement expenditures — but not at the expense of the people who receive them.
The North Carolina Democrat also took aim at Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who Monday said the GOP was compromising just by “the fact that we have been discussing voting for a debt ceiling increase.”
“If Cantor says he’s giving us a break by even being at the table, and the only question is how much are we willing to cut — what kind of negotiation is that? It’s not a negotiation,” Price said.
Hoyer issued his own retort to Cantor’s remarks during a Tuesday briefing with reporters, calling it “an extraordinary comment to be made in a democracy.” And while the Maryland Democrat has long called for a bipartisan debt deal, going back to April when he penned a letter to Boehner offering to work together on the issue, he said that support was not guaranteed.
“I think if what the Republicans do is try to hold hostage the creditworthiness of the United States of America so they can slash programs that are critically important to the American people and to stabilizing and growing the economy, the answer to that is they ought not to expect us to support that,” Hoyer said.
Meanwhile, Democrats were ramping up their message offensive against the GOP’s balanced budget amendment push.
On Tuesday, Boehner explicitly endorsed passing such an amendment to the Constitution, telling his Conference he could think of “no better” way to enforce future spending caps than by passing the amendment.
Democrats quickly began pushing back, and leadership has its Members linking the amendment to Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) plan to retool Medicare.
For instance, Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said Tuesday, “That’s not a balanced budget amendment. That’s a Trojan Horse for the Republican budget.”
Van Hollen argued that Republicans had written the amendment in such a way that it would impose significant cuts to Medicare and Social Security and “is an abuse, using the Constitution of the country to impose their plan to end Medicare.”