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Democrats find rare unity in budget fight

Giving in seen as invitation to demand more concessions

by Rosalind S. Helderman and Philip Rucker

The Washington Post

Shortly before the government shut down, House Republicans crafted their final spending offer, including two health care provisions designed to scare red-state Senate Democrats facing re-election battles: one to delay the Affordable Care Act’s unpopular individual mandate and another removing subsidies for lawmakers and their staffs.

But the Democrats didn’t budge, killing the proposal without a single defection. Their unity was so assured that Majority Leader Harry Reid didn’t bother to convene a private caucus meeting to discuss the measure before the vote.

After a difficult summer for the party — with President Barack Obama and lawmakers deeply divided over Syria, surveillance policies and a looming Federal Reserve nomination — the budget battle that resulted in the shutdown early Tuesday has brought rare unity to the Democrats.

“We’re joined with the president now,” said Sen. Richard Durbin. “This is totally irresponsible on (House Republicans’) part. It threatens the economy. It threatens jobs across America. We’ve got to make a stand, to make it clear once and for all that we are not going to be held hostage.”

While Republicans have been openly disagreeing with one another over their budget strategy, Democrats from the White House to the Capitol have been largely singing the same tune.

“It’s pretty unusual,” said Steve Elmendorf, a longtime Democratic operative and former House leadership aide. “Usually in situations like this, in private conversations with members and chiefs of staff, you have people saying, ‘I’m not sure if the leadership and the White House is getting this right.’ And I hear none of that — none.”

But it’s unclear how long the unity will last. Most public polling shows Democrats with an advantage over Republicans for now, but any shift could lead to splintering among lawmakers.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday showed that 41 percent of Americans approved of how Obama has handled the budget situation, while 34 percent approved of congressional Democrats’ efforts and 26 percent approved of GOP lawmakers’ moves.

“Nothing forges unity among Democrats like crazy Republicans driving the country to hell in a handbasket,” said pollster Mark Mellman, who counts Reid and several other Democratic senators as clients. “Sen. Reid has been very skillful in this instance, as in others, at keeping his caucus united. That is a skill, and that unity is a weapon.”

Democrats said that if they gave in during this budget fight or in upcoming negotiations over raising the debt limit, it would only embolden Republicans to seek more concessions aimed at undermining the rest of Obama’s term.

“They see correctly that this debate over ‘Obamacare’ is a stalking horse about a larger debate about the president, his agenda and Democratic policies,” said Jim Manley, a former adviser to Reid.

The unified front was on display late Monday as the midnight deadline for a shutdown drew near. The House passed a short-term spending measure that would have delayed for one year the individual mandate — one of the most controversial elements of the health care law known as “Obamacare” — and scrapped insurance-premium subsidies for members of Congress and their staffs.

Nine House Democrats from conservative districts voted with Republicans, but only after the bill’s passage was assured. Generally, Democrats in the House have formed an implacable force that has required Speaker John Boehner to amass a 217-vote majority from his fractious GOP conference with each bill.

In the Senate, the House bill failed after no Democrat voted for it — despite attempts by House Republicans to split their ranks by attaching provisions that they thought would be appealing, or at least hard to resist, for Democrats such as Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

First, House Republicans proposed defunding the Affordable Care Act entirely, then delaying it for a year and eliminating a medical-device tax opposed by members of both parties. Finally, on Saturday, they offered to delay the individual mandate for a year and eliminate the congressional subsidy.

“You can put some things in there that are very hard for them to say ‘no’ to,” Rep. Tom Cole said last week, as Republicans formulated their strategy. “They’re not going to be as sweeping as we would like for defunding ‘Obamacare,’ but there are things — like the medical-device tax — that a lot of them have voted for. Do you really want to vote ‘no’ and send it back?”

Senate Democrats did — repeatedly.

Pryor, looking ahead to a tough re-election fight in 2014, said the effort injected electoral politics into the process. “I think everybody is so tired of the brinkmanship and the cliffhanger politics,” he said.

Sen. Jon Tester said people in his Republican-leaning state favor revisiting the health care law — but not in the context of a government shutdown.

“Montana might be red,” he said. “But they’re thinking conservatives, and they understand when they’re being manipulated.”