March 10, 2009


Democrats Stung by Dissenters: Unity on Agenda Eludes Party Leaders (Shailagh Murray, 3/10/09, Washington Post)

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. [...]

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.).

Because the Democratic Party is just a coalition of discrete self-interested groups, without any coherent governing philosophy, everyone is just in it for what they can get for themselves. But these desires inevitably butt up against each other and advancing a rival group's cause can be political poison with your own constituents.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at March 10, 2009 7:32 AM
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