After unity, Obama faces Democratic pushback
WASHINGTON — Just two weeks after President Barack Obama saw his Democratic Party put up an unyielding front against Republicans, his coalition is showing signs of stress.
From health care to spying to pending budget deals, many congressional Democrats are challenging the administration and pushing for measures that the White House has not embraced.
Some Democrats are seeking to extend the enrollment period for new health care exchanges. Others want to place restraints on National Security Administration surveillance capabilities. Still others are standing tough against any budget deal that uses long-term reductions in major benefit programs to offset immediate cuts in defense.
Though focused on disparate issues, the Democrats’ anxieties are connected by timing and stand out all the more when contrasted with the remarkable unity the party displayed during the recent showdown over the partial government shutdown and the confrontation over raising the nation’s borrowing limit.
“That moment was always going to be fleeting,” said Matt Bennett, who worked in the Clinton White House and who regularly consults with Obama aides. “The White House, every White House, understands that these folks, driven either by principle or the demands of the politics of their state, have to put daylight between themselves and the president on occasion.”
Obama and the Democrats emerged from the debt and shutdown clash with what they wanted: a reopened government, a higher debt ceiling and a Republican Party reeling in the depths of public opinion polls.
But within days, attention turned to the problem-riddled launch of the 3-year-old health care law’s enrollment stage and revelations that the U.S. had been secretly monitoring the communications of as many as 35 allied leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And with new budget talks underway, Democratic Party liberals reiterated demands that Obama not agree to changes that reduce Social Security or Medicare benefits even in the improbable event Republicans agree to increase budget revenues.
The fraying on the Democratic Party edges is hardly unraveling Obama’s support and it pales when compared to the upheaval within the Republican Party as it distances itself from the tactics of tea party conservatives. But the pushback from Democrats comes as Obama is trying to draw renewed attention to his agenda, including passage of an immigration overhaul, his jobs initiatives and the benefits of his health care law.
The computer troubles that befell the start of health insurance sign-ups have caused the greatest anxiety. Republicans pounced on the difficulties as evidence of deeper flaws in the law. But Democrats, even as they defended the policy, also demanded answers in the face of questions from their constituents.
“The fact is that the administration really failed these Americans,” Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., told Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner at a hearing this week. “So going forward there can be just no more excuses.”
In the Senate, 10 Democrats signed on to a letter seeking an unspecified extension of the enrollment period, which ends March 31. “As you continue to fix problems with the website and the enrollment process, it is critical that the administration be open to modifications that provide greater flexibility for the American people seeking to access health insurance,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., wrote.
Another Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has called for a one-year delay in the requirement that virtually all Americans have health insurance or pay a fine.
Democrats who have talked to White House officials in recent days describe them as rattled by the health care blunders. But they say they are confident that the troubled website used for enrollment will be corrected and fully operational by the end of November.
The spying revelations also have created some tensions between the administration and Democrats. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and until now a staunch supporter of the NSA’s surveillance, called for a “total review of all intelligence programs” following the Merkel reports.
She said that when it came to the NSA collecting intelligence on the leaders of allies such as France, Spain, Mexico and Germany, “Let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed.”
With Congress renewing budget talks Wednesday, liberals have been outspoken in their insistence that Democrats vigorously resist efforts to reduce long-term deficits with savings in Social Security or Medicare. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who usually votes with Democrats, has been the most outspoken, saying he fears a budget deal will contain a proposal in Obama’s budget to reduce cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security and other benefit programs.
Obama, however, has proposed that remedy only if Republicans agree to raise tax revenue, a bargain that most in the GOP firmly oppose. Moreover, leaders from both parties as well as White House officials have signaled that budget talks are looking for a small budget deal, not the type of “grand bargain” that would embrace such a revenue-for-benefit-cuts deal.