POLITICS
12/12/2014 11:07 am ET Updated Dec 12, 2014

Obama's New Triangulation Strategy Has Democrats On Edge

WASHINGTON -- Thursday night's close House vote to pass a government funding bill split both political parties into factions. But it's the division among Democrats that got the most attention Friday morning.

That's because, like few other times during President Barack Obama's tenure in office, disagreements over economic policy and legislative strategy have erupted not just between the White House and Congress but within Congress itself.

The disputes were prompted by a couple of policy riders added to the $1.1 trillion spending bill, the first of which guts a key part of financial regulatory reform, providing government insurance for the type of risky Wall Street trades at the heart of the 2008 meltdown. The second dramatically increases the amount of money individuals can give to national political parties for the purpose of retiring debt, hosting a convention and replenishing recount funds.

The White House, though opposed to the measures, urged Democrats to back the bill regardless. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), though not whipping votes against the broader bill, encouraged her colleagues to hold firm in opposition as a means of extracting the riders. In the end, she lost out.

Thursday night shed light not just on Democrats' willingness to stomach policy concessions, but also on their new divide over tactics. The prevailing concern among progressives on and off the Hill was that the latest battle was a preview of an Obama-era style of triangulation, in which the White House would craft policy with the hopes of pinching off the support of moderate Republicans.

Lawmakers in the House and progressive advocates identified several concerns about the crafting of the omnibus. Leadership in that chamber was not heavily consulted on the package prior to its introduction, which explains the initial shock over the campaign finance provision. During negotiations, one House Democratic member said, Senate leadership initially presented the proposal as a "small increase in the caps for the convention," which caucus members said they could live with. But when the bill's final language came out, it included a major hike in the caps for giving to several party functions.

"It was not just a surprise but a shock to House Democratic leaders," said the member.

Moreover, when it came time to whip votes for the measure, House Democrats were left without much instruction. It wasn't until hours before the vote that the administration made it publicly known that it wanted the bill passed. And, according to lawmakers, there was little outreach from the White House until things appeared to be falling apart. Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who was dispatched to the Hill to secure "yeas," had not been engaged on the omnibus prior to then, his time having been devoted to the release of the CIA torture report in the Senate.

When Pelosi went to the floor to vent her frustration, it was notably as much about process as it was about policy.

"I'm enormously disappointed that the White House feels that the only way they can get a bill is to go along with this," she said from the floor. "I feel sad for the American people today."

As a House Democratic aide who worked financial regulatory reform put it: "The reason this fight over the cromnibus matters is because this gambit only works insofar as Congressional Democrats go along and allow the White House to play kabuki with the Republican majority."

Administration officials could have drawn firm lines in the sand Thursday night, they argued. But then they would risk losing certain omnibus provisions -- funding for Ebola and the fight against ISIS, money for early childhood education, the maintenance of the health care law and the president's immigration executive action -- in the next Congress, with Republican control of the Senate. (This, lawmakers said, was the very message conveyed during discussions with House lawmakers).

Few party officials see a recipe for future victories with this strategy.

"There are going to be unbelievable divisions in the Republican Party which gives the Democrats an opportunity to drive a wedge in between the establishment and tea party," said Simon Rosenberg, founder of the Democratic interest group NDN. "The Democrats may end up with far more leverage in the next Congress than anyone is contemplating. ... But in order for them to achieve their own objectives it's not about playing defense, it is about going on offense."

Indeed, veterans of the George W. Bush administration said the last two years of their second term were highly dependent on preserving unity with Republicans on the Hill, if only to avoid the minefield of investigations and legislative blowups.

"We did coordinate really well," said Tony Fratto, deputy press secretary to Bush. "There was a lot more coordination with leadership in both houses but it was really essential with [then Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell because of Senate rules, because that's where the battles would be waged. ... Democrats had won but they still needed 60 votes."

The question vexing other progressives in the party is whether Congress and the White House are currently operating off the same playbook. The dispute over the omnibus, after all, was just the latest in a series of issues that have frayed Democratic unity. Propelled by the progressive wing of the party, which has been emboldened by Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.) immense popularity, the re-election of senators like Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and the success of progressive ballot measures in the midterm elections, lawmakers have pushed back on a series of White House initiatives over the past few weeks.

Warren, who led the opposition to the Wall Street rider in the spending bill, has also spearheaded the revolt among Democratic senators against Antonio Weiss, Obama's nominee to be the next undersecretary for domestic finance at the Treasury Department. She has argued that Weiss, the head of global investment banking for the financial giant Lazard, is not qualified for the position and that Democrats should stop the revolving door between Wall Street and government work.

Six senators, including conservative Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), now oppose Weiss, with the list continuing to grow.

Obama, meanwhile, has signaled his willingness to defy his Democratic base and partner with Republicans in the coming month on international trade and approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Many Democrats, labor unions and environmental groups oppose the 12-nation trade deal out of concerns it will exacerbate income inequality and undermine public interest regulations.

The president could make it work. The omnibus deal showed a majority of Republicans are willing to keep the wheels of government moving and many Democrats are fine with making concessions to achieve that aim. But it takes a deft political touch. And while Bill Clinton may have been able to pull it off with his strategy of triangulation, veterans of that White House aren't entirely sure if it will work in the current legislative environment, or with this particular president.

"Triangulation sought to split the difference on polarizing social issues like welfare reform. It divided the Democratic Party, but at least it defused some difficult and divisive issues by taking them off the table. And solid majorities of Americans supported welfare reform. Big pain, big gain," emailed a former Clinton White House official. "The budget deal divides Democrats, but it does not defuse anything. Instead of operating on a right-left axis, this deal operates on an inside-outside axis. Insiders want to get things done, even if it means benefitting big donors and Wall Street. Outsiders are appalled by special privileges for special interests. And I suspect large majorities of Americans will hate this deal. Big pain, very little (or no) gain."

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