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The Democrats' short-lived rebellion

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; 11:34 PM

New York Democrat Anthony Weiner, leaving a meeting between House Democrats and Vice President Biden Wednesday evening, likened the session to a prison brawl.

"Your first day in the prison yard," he said to a colleague, "you've got to punch the biggest guy out or else they're going to keep doing it to you."

The analogy from the aspiring mayor of New York, overheard by a reporter, revealed much about congressional Democrats' thinking as they stew over President Obama's tax-cut deal with Republicans. They know they have little chance of blocking the compromise, which preserves low rates for millionaires. Their protest, then, amounts to an exercise in venting -- coupled with a hope that Obama will think twice before triangulating against congressional Democrats the next time. Call it the lame duck that roared.

As was the case with the public-option protest during the health-care fight, the liberals' screaming and yelling is, at least so far, only noise. If that's the best they've got -- and that's with House Democrats still in the majority -- Obama could justifiably conclude that he ought to triangulate more often.

On Tuesday, the rebellious Democrats gave the impression they could mount a serious fight. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Obama had signed on to a "morally bankrupt" and "reprehensible" policy. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said the deal approached "moral corruptness." Others spoke about getting "screwed" and "taken to the cleaners."

But the angry words were little more than what Republican Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) had derisively referred to last week as "a political catharsis on the Democratic side."

By Wednesday evening, even some Democrats had embraced that theme. "This is a little catharsis going on in there," said Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), midway through Biden's two-hour pummeling in the Capitol basement. "The president's on the defense, the vice president's on the defense."

The administration fought back with a campaign-style persuasion effort. White House officials distributed to each of the Democratic lawmakers a bar graph labeled "What WE Got" and "What THEY Got." (According to the graph, "we" got more than "they.")

The White House communications operation issued a series of press releases during the day with titles such as "Congressman Peters Backs Middle Class Tax Cut Framework," and "Detroit Mayor Backs Middle Class Tax Cut Framework." The Democratic National Committee was reduced to disseminating blog posts and editorials with half-hearted endorsements of the deal: "This morning, I awoke feeling less angry," and "Good enough for now."

The average insurgency, the foreign policy experts say, lasts about ten years. The average liberal rebellion against Obama appears to last about a day. The crumbling began early in the day Wednesday, when Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) issued a statement calling the tax deal "the ultimate stimulus plan."

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would only say of the compromise: "I'm going to do what I think is right when it all comes down to it." But on Wednesday, after a lengthy session with administration officials Gene Sperling and Jack Lew, Reid told reporters that "they did some explanations I think were helpful to the caucus."

Sen. Kent Conrad, the budget committee chairman, said the closed-door session had changed "the tenor of the discussion" to a "more positive" vibe. And Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) forecast with confidence: "In the end there will be enough Democratic votes in the Senate to join with Republicans to pass this bill."

Same in the House. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), though he opposes the compromise, admitted to the Associated Press's Chuck Babington Wednesday afternoon that his side will lose. "It will be passed by virtually all the Republicans and a minority of Democrats."

But if the liberals didn't have the votes to block the deal, they had the lungs to make their unhappiness known. Biden, who gave Senate Democrats a chance to vent on Tuesday, performed the same service for House Democrats on Wednesday. The members kept him waiting for about 40 minutes, then devoted two hours to berating him.

Any kumbaya in the closed-door meeting? "No!" insisted Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.). "What's the opposite of that? Fight! Fight! Fight!" He pumped his fists for emphasis. Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.), when asked about the meeting, made a sound that could only be described as a growl.

Liberal Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.) said the abuse heaped on the vice president brought to mind Abraham Lincoln's story about the man who was tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. Asked how he liked it, the man replied, "If it wasn't for the honor of the thing, I'd rather walk."

Biden gamely took the abuse, but he didn't give an inch. "The vice president said, 'this is the deal, take it or leave it,'" Waxman reported as he left. And he even got support for that position from a few lawmakers such as Glenn Nye (Va.), who called the package "a decent deal."

It didn't matter if it was a decent deal: It was a done deal. Biden had merely allowed the caucus to "beat him up for two hours," as one lawmaker put it, and thereby get out their frustration.

"Some people," Rep. Gerry Connolly (Va.) said after the tarring and feathering, "felt they had to vent."

For liberals feeling outmaneuvered by Obama, it's all they've got left.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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