Democrats Stung by Dissenters

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hoped to win enough GOP votes for the spending bill to offset Democratic nays.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hoped to win enough GOP votes for the spending bill to offset Democratic nays. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Democratic leaders in Congress did not expect much Republican support as they pressed President Obama's ambitious legislative agenda. But the pushback they are receiving from some of their own has come as an unwelcome surprise.

As the Senate inches closer to approving a $410 billion spending bill, the internal revolt has served as a warning to party leaders pursuing Obama's far-reaching plans for health-care, energy and education reform.

Those goals, spelled out in Obama's 2010 budget blueprint, continue to enjoy broad Democratic support. But as the ideas develop into detailed legislation, they will transform from abstract objectives into a tangle of difficult trade-offs. Crop subsidies, the student loan program and Medicare radiology rules are all currently niche concerns, but any one could become the next crisis for party leaders, with the potential to derail a major agenda item. One major proposal, to limit itemized deductions for wealthy taxpayers, has already raised doubts among prominent Democrats in both chambers.

Some issues that inflamed Democrats in previous years have yet to even register, including the proposal in Obama's budget plan to "means-test" the Medicare drug benefit as a way to pay for health-care reform. Doling out entitlement benefits based on income has long been anathema to most Democrats.

"There are a lot of items in the budget that would normally get a lot more attention, if we were in a normal year," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who heads the House Democrats' fundraising arm. "They've been eclipsed by the tidal wave of the economy." But Van Hollen added: "They are waiting in the wings."

Democrats rejected four GOP amendments to the omnibus spending bill last night, and they will face more today. The additional amendments are the price that Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) was forced to pay Thursday night after he sought to bring an end to debate on the bill and came up one vote short. Several Republicans whose support Reid had anticipated did not deliver, but the most costly defection was that of Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), a member of the Democratic leadership, in protest of a little-noticed Cuba provision that would ease U.S. rules on travel and imports to the communist-led island.

The Menendez rebellion was a jolt of political reality for Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Obama, signaling that the solidarity of the stimulus debate is fading as Democratic lawmakers are starting to read the fine print of the bills they will wrestle with in the coming weeks and months, and not always liking what they see.

Reid had been focused on fending off a bloc of conservative Republicans who were seeking to eliminate more than 8,500 pet projects in the bill, many of them inserted by GOP lawmakers. Democratic leaders were hearing some internal grumblings, but those concerns focused largely on the bill's hefty overall price tag.

Menendez knew that his hard-line approach to Cuba was a minority view within his party, and that it was at odds with Obama's approach. But he did not expect to discover a significant policy change embedded in the text on an appropriations bill. His policy aides came across the language when the legislation was posted on a congressional Web site.

"The process by which these changes have been forced upon this body is so deeply offensive to me, and so deeply undemocratic, that it puts the omnibus appropriations package in jeopardy, in spite of all the other tremendously important funding that this bill would provide," the enraged son of Cuban immigrants said last week on the Senate floor. Menendez even slapped a hold on a pair of Obama nominees to draw attention to the issue.

Treasury officials, working with Reid's office, continued yesterday to search for an administrative resolution with Menendez that would ensure a narrow interpretation of the legislative language in order to prevent gaping loopholes from developing. Menendez has pointed out that, had the bill sought significant changes in U.S. policy toward Iran or Venezuela, lawmakers would revolt. "What's the difference with Cuba?" said Menendez spokesman Afshin Mohamadi.

By allowing Republicans to offer a total of 11 amendments last night and today, Reid was hopeful that GOP support for the bill would grow and he would not need his New Jersey colleague's vote when the bill comes to a final vote, which is expected today.

Already, a pair of provisions in Obama's budget have attracted determined, if limited, Democratic opposition. One proposal would overhaul the federal student loan program to guarantee yearly increases in the Pell Grant program. That idea enjoys broad Democratic support. But to pay for the Pell Grant expansion, Obama would end federal support for private lending. And one of the major corporate providers of student loans is NelNet, a company based in Lincoln, Neb., the home state of Sen. Ben Nelson, a moderate Democrat who balked at the stimulus package and teamed up with three moderate Republicans to cut $100 billion from the final bill. Cutting off support for NelNet would cost Nebraska about 1,000 jobs, according to Nelson's office. Nelson said the move could hurt middle-class students who do not qualify for Pell Grants. "I don't support anything that could reduce those benefits," Nelson said.

Nelson is also one of several Democrats who have objected to changes Obama has proposed in the farm subsidy system. By stopping direct payments to farms with annual sales of more than $500,000, the White House expects to save about $10 billion over 10 years. But along with Nelson, another Democratic opponent of Obama's annual-sales model is Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (N.D.).

Similar revolts are building against tax changes Obama has proposed, including one to limit deductions that many Democrats privately consider to be a non-starter. Climate-change legislation is months away from emerging, but some Democrats already worry about the political consequences of creating a cap-and-trade system that could result in higher utility bills. Some House Democrats have floated the issue of tariffs on foreign companies -- potentially an explosive trade issue -- to equalize the cost of a carbon cap.

Obama's proposal for Medicare means testing has received surprisingly little attention so far, beyond plaudits from Republicans who have supported the idea for years. The debate over an income scale was especially heated when Congress created the Medicare drug benefit, known as Part D, during President George W. Bush's first term. As a senator, Obama voted against a Medicare means-testing proposal in March 2007.

But times have changed, said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who also voted no two years ago. The growing consensus among Democrats that health-care costs must be contained, and that coverage must be expanded to everyone, has redrawn the battle lines. "In the past, we've dealt with Part D on its own, and that tends to be polarizing. So the thought here is, that's much less likely if people think we're all in this together," Baucus said.

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