Infighting Snags Democratic Leaders’ Agenda

Posted June 18, 2010 at 5:38pm

House and Senate Democratic leaders are stuck in neutral.

Spending fatigue has stalled a bill extending expired jobless benefits and middle-class tax breaks in the Senate, and opposition from members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition helped fuel the implosion last week of plans to bring a campaign finance bill to the floor in the House.

So far, the intraparty fighting has caused leaders in both chambers to revamp those bills, rather than give up altogether. House leaders plan to take another stab at the campaign finance measure — known as the DISCLOSE Act — this week, a leadership aide said Friday. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who held separate meetings late last week with the Congressional Black Caucus and the Blue Dogs to try to rescue the bill, called the measure “fundamental to our democracy” and declared that the House would pass it. Leaders had looked to clear the package last week after tweaking the measure to exempt the National Rifle Association and win over moderates in their Caucus, but that change prompted a backlash from liberals — forcing them to punt to this week to give it another try.

Across the dome, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) vowed to keep pressing ahead on the extenders bill, after he twice failed to muster the 60 votes necessary to beat back a filibuster from united Republican opposition and a few Democrats. The deadlock has gotten so bad that Reid has been forced to begin breaking his extenders bill into smaller pieces. On Friday, he and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) agreed to move a stand-alone, six month “doc fix” to restore Medicare payments to doctors, which lapsed on Friday.

Reid had included a full one-year extension of the doc-fix program in the extenders bill, but moderate Democrats such as Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) had balked at its hefty price tag, and Reid was ultimately forced to move the smaller compromise.

A similar, scaled-back compromise on unemployment insurance benefits could come together this week. But the broader package of extenders isn’t likely to go anywhere soon unless Reid can come up with a way to offset its cost.

Other brush fires in the extenders fight are also smoldering within the Democratic ranks — most notably with Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.). Landrieu on Thursday evening warned that she is increasingly unhappy with leadership’s decision to hike oil taxes to help pay for the package unless more money is directed to the Gulf oil disaster.

“I just remain concerned … [that] every time we vote on the bill, that [tax] keeps going up, but I don’t see commensurate revenue stream going to the Gulf Coast region,” Landrieu said.

Things won’t get any easier when the measure gets back to the House, where Blue Dogs in late May forced House leaders to pare back its price tag significantly to assuage concerns about deficit spending.

“The Blue Dogs were obviously very concerned about the overall cost, and we still are,” said Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-Md.), a vulnerable freshman. “Most of us believe that we ought to be doing everything we can to pay for some of this.”

Democratic infighting also has stalled action in the House on a supplemental spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) has proposed tacking on $23 billion to stave off teacher layoffs, but conservative Democrats are bristling at the idea that the cost would not be offset. Although Pelosi did not mention the teacher money specifically, she signaled last week that leaders were aware that offsets would be needed to shore up her ranks.

“We are trying to pay for some of the things that are in the bill,” Pelosi said. “And when we get our pay-fors, we will proceed to the floor.

Testifying at a Senate hearing last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was growing increasingly concerned about the House’s inaction on the supplemental. He said the military would have to begin planning to curtail defense operations if the measure is not enacted by July 4. Pelosi told reporters on Thursday that the House was “on track” to meet that goal.

The House could take up the measure as soon as this week, but much depends on the Senate: Obey said last week that his preference was to wait for the Senate to return the extenders package — so he could know what was in it — before tackling the supplemental.

Further complicating matters, Obey’s original proposal designating the teacher money as unpaid-for emergency spending has raised the hackles of Blue Dogs who are fed up with having to cast politically challenging votes and want to send a message to leadership: No more deficit spending.

Several Blue Dogs said last week that they would oppose including the teacher money in the supplemental if it isn’t paid for, even if that meant voting against funding the war, which has strong support among moderates.

“I think that’s what our people want,” said Rep. Bobby Bright, a Blue Dog who faces a tough race in a conservative Alabama district this year. “They want us to curb spending and to piggyback something that they would like on something they don’t want to support is not right.”

Referring specifically to the teacher money, Bright added, “If it’s not paid for, you’re harping on deaf ears as far as I’m concerned.”

Liberals are pushing for a separate vote on just the war money, so opponents can vote against that while supporting domestic spending items like teacher money. But it’s unclear whether there would be the votes to pass the non-war portion of the supplemental if it is not attached to the war funding.

Obey’s quest to add teacher money to the package also could create snags in the Senate. Moderate Democrats and Republican Senators there have repeatedly rejected such language, meaning Reid could find himself with a replay of the extenders fight. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), one of the chamber’s leading Democratic fiscal hawks, said he would look to ensure any funding for teachers’ salaries is paid for. “Clearly I’d be concerned with making sure it was paid for. The deficit is too big,” Bayh said. Likewise, Nelson and other moderate Democrats have issued similar warnings on the supplemental bill as deficit fatigue has set in.

And while Democratic leaders argue strongly to the contrary, Rep. Artur Davis (D), who recently lost in the Alabama gubernatorial primary, said it had become clear that Democrats had lost the messaging war on the deficit “and that’s causing consternation for a lot of moderate Members,” which is making bills that ordinarily would be routine — like the extenders package — a heavy lift.

“The public believes there’s too much spending in Washington, D.C.,” Davis said. “It’s causing problems because Members are concerned about the deficit, and they’re concerned about Republicans running ads talking about the amount of spending that’s gone on the last few years in Washington, and they’re trying to separate themselves from that.”