Capitol Hill Democrats Have Met Their Enemy and It Is Them

Posted July 24, 2009 at 5:29pm

Earlier this week, I asked a veteran Washington-based Democratic political operative who has worked for more than his share of liberals whether he had seen any indication that grass-roots “progressives— were getting angry with the party’s performance on Capitol Hill and were starting to make their anger known.

[IMGCAP(1)]“No. No. Not yet,— he said, shaking his head. “Right now we are just happy to be in the majority. We were out of power for a long time,— he laughed. “But it will come; it will come,— sighed the Washington veteran, looking as if he might like either a glass of scotch or at least a couple of aspirin.

Twenty-four hours later, I was interviewing a reliably liberal Democratic candidate running in 2010 in a swing state. I asked him what he will say when his formidable Republican opponent argues that the country doesn’t need yet more Democrats in Washington, D.C. — that it needs more officeholders who will act as a check on President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress.

“I’ll say that if you look at what has been happening in Congress right now, we appear to have plenty of Democrats who are acting as checks on Democrats in Washington,— he answered with a smile.

Rattle off names such as Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) or Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) to a member of Democratic House or Senate leadership, and they are likely to think, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?—

Democratic Blue Dogs and deficit hawks are showing their muscle right now. Whether it’s out of principle or merely a political reflection of the president’s loss of support on health care among independent voters in a number of recent surveys, moderates in the president’s own party are now driving the bus.

The Democratic grass roots so far have been patient with Congress, but at some point that patience may wear out.

Few people outside of the political class understand how Capitol Hill works, so it shouldn’t be surprising that many Democrats around the country assumed that a 60-seat Senate, an overwhelmingly Democratic House and a Democratic president would pass a health care bill with a public insurance option rather easily.

Ultimately, the president is likely to get a health care bill that he will sign. No bill means broken promises by both the White House and the Congressional leadership, and with the healthy majorities that Democrats have on Capitol Hill, blaming Republicans will almost certainly not work, no matter how damaged the GOP brand currently is.

But it is increasingly obvious — indeed it has been rather clear for at least the past couple of weeks — that the final health care reform product won’t be what Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, would prefer. Nor will it be the bill that Obama would write, if he had the power to do so.

Still, the president is likely to hail passage of any bill as a historic achievement, taking credit for “the most dramatic health care reform in the nation’s history,— or words to that effect. It really doesn’t matter exactly what is and what is not in the bill. The president will have to claim victory for producing “change— no matter the specifics.

The key for Democrats is how much discontent will be caused by a bill that disappoints, maybe even angers, the party’s more liberal wing.

Will activists be so happy to get anything that they swallow hard and smile even if the final bill lacks a pure public insurance plan option? Will they accept the president’s likely assessment of the final product, when he says that the final bill is a huge step toward universal coverage and controlling cost?

The president continues to draw strong support from Democrats, particularly the most liberal in his party. Gallup’s massive mid-July aggregated weekly tracking numbers show Obama’s job approval at 92 percent among Democrats and 95 percent among liberal Democrats.

Both groups apparently have great confidence in him and are likely to give his interpretation of the final bill great weight. But between now and final passage, will the voices on the Democratic left get louder and more angry? And if they do, what will that mean for the rest of the Obama agenda?

The division within the Democratic Party has Republicans feeling almost giddy. The health care debate, following the stimulus bill, the fiscal 2009 omnibus spending bill, the auto industry bailout and the Troubled Asset Relief Program, has resurrected two issues, spending and taxes, dear to GOP hearts. And many Republicans are now confident that the pendulum is swinging back to them.

These are interesting times politically, even if Democrats do control all of the levers of power in Washington, D.C.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.