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Summers Fight Signals Fractured Trust Between Obama, Senate Democrats

Alex Wong/Getty Images File Photo
Opposition to Summers taking over the Fed came from liberal Democrats, a sign that the relationship between the president and his party is strained.

If the failed candidacy of Larry H. Summers to head the Federal Reserve is any indication, the White House’s relationship with Senate Democrats needs a great deal of work at a crucial time for looming fiscal fights.

Operatives on both sides of the aisle say the small but successful rebellion from a group of Senate Democrats to the potential Summers nomination revealed broader distrust on policy issues between Democrats in Congress and the White House.

The unusually public battle over Summers, which ended when the former Treasury secretary and top economic adviser to President Barack Obama withdrew from consideration, came as the president prepares to confront Republicans over a possible government shutdown and the need to raise the federal debt ceiling. Clearly, however, the White House will need to step up its outreach to members of Obama’s own party.

The opposition to Summers came from liberal Democrats who already have signaled their concern that the president may be willing to sacrifice some of their priorities on entitlement programs or that he won’t do enough to end or replace the sequester cuts.

“If folks in this administration want to go for a grand bargain, how hard of a time will they have bringing Democratic votes along?” asked Dan Holler, a spokesman for the conservative group Heritage Action for America.

The Summers saga, he added, “was a rare instance where you saw the Democrat infighting come out.”

The Obama administration this summer indicated through anonymous sources in numerous news reports that Summers was the president’s preferred pick to replace Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke when Bernanke’s term expires in January. But progressives, including Senate Banking Committee members Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, expressed their hostility to Summers and signed a letter to Obama in July saying they supported Fed Vice Chairwoman Janet Yellen for the job. Moderate Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said on Sept. 13 that he would not support Summers.

Bart Naylor of the progressive group Public Citizen said the senators’ opposition indicated a problem with communication between Democrats and the president.

“If I’m a senator and I can’t get through to the White House other than a public letter, then we’ve got some work to do on improving communications,” he said.

In a Monday interview on MSNBC, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who signed that letter, said Summers was not her first choice to run the Fed and offered a strong endorsement of Yellen.

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