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Administration's Cliff Offer Presents a Challenge for Centrist Democrats

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Begich, a Democratic senator from Alaska, said he could consider changes to the debt ceiling voting procedure, but is uneasy about ceding all power to the executive.

Lost amid last week’s hubbub over the GOP’s quick and public rejection of the White House’s latest plan to solve the fiscal cliff was the quiet alarm some in-cycle Senate Democrats felt at the prospect of voting to raise $1.6 trillion in revenue, provide more government stimulus and permanently minimize Congress’ role in approving debt limit hikes.

Democrats hold 20 of the 33 Senate seats up for up for grabs in 2014 — many of them in red or purple states. And just like in 2012, many of the moves Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., makes will be with his most vulnerable Members in mind.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, for example, said he could consider changes to the debt ceiling voting procedure, but said he’s uneasy about ceding all power to the executive.

“If it’s just, ‘Get rid of it,’ without any future oversight, I get a little nervous about that,” Begich said of reconfiguring the law guiding debt limit votes. “But at the end of the day, the people who do have control over the deficit and the debt is us, by our votes and our actions. So the debt limit [vote] is just another procedure that may not be necessary.”

Another potentially vulnerable Democrat, Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, demurred when asked whether she could support a permanent solution to raising the debt ceiling, saying she was still reviewing the specifics of the president’s proposal.

Begich said he did not know of any in-cycle Democrats who have been consulting Reid in the fiscal cliff talks, and he cautioned that he wasn’t conveying any election-specific concerns.

But he noted that it’s difficult to change an established voting record or set of policy positions in the two years leading up to an election, so any provision he might support in negotiations now would largely mirror those he has supported in the past.

“I’m not going to have a transformation in the last two years and be a new senator — I’ve been one for four years,” Begich said. “I’ve voted for debt limit increases because it’s responsible.  . . .  Some of these guys want to play these games where they’ve been here for 20 years, where they say, ‘OK, I’m not going to vote for it this year.’ You can’t fool the voters. They know what you’re doing, so just be consistent.”

Republicans, however, know that the Senate Democrats’ desire to keep their majority, even with elections so far away, is one of their few points of leverage. That showed in the kind of rhetoric they used last week to dismiss the White House offer.

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