Parting ways: President's path is diverging from Senate Democrats

The political fortunes of Senate Democrats and President Obama are moving in opposite directions, complicating their efforts to win a titanic battle against Republicans over federal spending.


Obama’s reelection forecast has improved since the midterms, when he looked like a one-term president. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, must defend 23 seats next year, handing Republicans a strong chance to win back the upper chamber even if Obama cruises to a second term.  

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The dynamic opens the door to intra-party tension that has already broken through the surface unity.

What’s political hay for the president and White House, after all, isn’t necessarily good for his party’s majority in the Senate. That’s one reason Obama has left much of the work of dealing with Republicans on spending cuts to party leaders in the House and Senate.

“I imagine the president doesn’t want to really get his hands dirty with this until he can walk away with an agreement, which isn’t helping the leadership at the moment,” said one Democratic strategist. “Now, does that have something to do with 2012? Sure it does.”

The short-term result, say several Capitol Hill staffers, is that the “every man for himself” attitude of an election year has arrived even sooner than expected. Senate Democrats wonder if or when the White
House will take the reins in a budget fight that has several of their vulnerable colleagues in a vise.

Democrats suffered a setback Thursday when their proposal to cut spending this year won fewer votes on the Senate floor than a rival bill approved by the GOP House that proposed cutting far more.

Democrats suffered 11 defections in the vote, while Republicans maintained more unity.

Many of those defections were from members whose reelection prospects next year may be bleak and who wanted to vote for something that would cut spending more this year than the White House proposed.

One Democratic Senate aide compared Obama’s strategy to the one he used late last year during the fight over extending the George W. Bush-era tax rates.

It was Obama and Senate Republicans who got the credit for the deal, and Obama emerged looking like a bipartisan problem solver — a pretty good image to acquire so soon after his party’s massive defeat in the 2010 midterm elections.

But while it was a great outcome for Obama, the benefits are less clear for Senate Democrats, who this week face another vote on a short-term spending measure from House Republicans to avert a government shutdown.

Unhappiness in the Senate Democratic Conference broke into view last week.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) used a floor speech to criticize Obama for not being a leader in the spending fight.


A few days later, several Democratic senators gave White House officials an earful after Vice President Biden was appointed to lead talks on a spending deal, and then promptly left the country.

The tension, said Democratic pollster Stefan Hankin, is that if one side of the budget debate on Capitol Hill bends and an agreement is reached, “Obama can look like the great arbitrator and he wins.”

For the White House, Hankin added, it doesn’t much matter which side blinks. “If there’s an agreement, it will most likely be viewed as the president working with Republicans. So the president stands to get much more credit than Senate Democrats do,” he said.

No big-name Republican has yet officially started a bid for the White House, and the realization is setting in that Obama isn’t nearly as beatable as he looked to some just four months ago.

The president’s approval rating remains under 50 percent, but it has rebounded. While 50 percent of voters disapproved of Obama two weeks before the midterm election, his latest Gallup spread shows 47 percent approving and 45 percent disapproving.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, began the cycle at a distinct disadvantage because, while they must defend 23 seats next year, Republicans need to defend only 10, most of them safe.

Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and four Democrats, Sens. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Jim Webb of Virginia, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, have already announced plans to retire, creating a handful of open-seat contests that either favor Republicans or offer the GOP an easier pickup opportunity.

Another four vulnerable Senate Democrats represent largely Republican states that were won by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008 — Manchin and Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Jon Tester (Mont.).

Democratic senators insist they can get a budget done and do well in the 2012 election.

“Everything is tougher during a campaign year,” Nelson said of the budget fight. “But it’s not so tough that you can’t do it — it’s how you do it.”

Nelson was one of four Democratic senators up for reelection next year who voted against the Democratic spending bill. The others were Sens. Manchin, McCaskill, Herb Kohl (Wis.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.).

Despite all the tension, pollster John Zogby said the reality for both sides is that a rising tide will lift all boats next year.

“The president can’t win reelection without building up the Senate Democrats, and the Senate Democrats can’t win without high-intensity base support for the president,” said Zogby.

But he noted that between retirements and toss-up races in GOP-leaning states, “If the election were today, the Senate would go Republican, I don’t think there’s much question.”

Alexander Bolton contributed to this story.