Dems bullish on cliff deal, enjoy turmoil among GOP lawmakers

Most Democrats feel bullish after the recent deal on the so-called fiscal cliff, believing that President Obama struck a reasonable bargain.

Democrats assert that Obama showed enough flexibility to appear conciliatory in the minds of the general public, while not caving in excessively to the Republicans.

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The kind of disarray on display in Republican ranks — in the House, Republicans voted against the deal by a margin close to 2-to-1 — also gladdens Democratic hearts.

“The president has got a great advantage, in that he has a party that is unified behind him,” Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf said. “The Republicans are all over the map. The House and the Senate are in different places, within the House they are divided, and on the outside you have people from Newt Gingrich to the Club for Growth all saying different things.”

Some in the party are worried that any negotiations that take place over the debt ceiling could hollow out the victory of recent days, especially if they result in significant cuts to social programs. And many liberals are wary of Obama, believing the recent talks show he’ll be quick to put Social Security and Medicare benefits on the table.

Republicans, for their part, treat Obama’s insistence that he will not horse-trade over the debt ceiling with skepticism, if not outright ridicule. They believe that the president will have no choice but to make some concessions to their party if the GOP is to consent to lifting the nation’s debt limit.

Yet overall, the morale for the moment is more buoyant among Democrats, who believe the agreement enshrines the principle that wealthy citizens should pay more as part of deficit-reduction efforts.

A former senior administration official said that the fight that consumed Washington in recent weeks had shown that Obama “has his mojo back.”

“I think the White House feels pretty good,” the former official added. “He compromised and gave Republicans enough to go forward but he held firm and got a lot of what he was looking for.”

Not everyone among the liberal ranks is so sanguine, however.

Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said that while his organization was glad that no big cuts were made as part of the fiscal-cliff deal, vigilance would be required as the debt-limit debate moves to center stage. The PCCC urged opposition to the deal before it was approved in the Senate.

“Hundreds of billions of dollars were left on the table by not insisting that the [higher tax] rates start at $250,000,” Green said. “Our concern is that middle-class people will pay for that in the next round of discussions.”

Green also drew a sharp contrast between the positions of Obama and most Democrats in Congress when it comes to benefit cuts.

“We are confident in the genuine desire of congressional Democrats to keep Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits off the table. But [Obama] has actively made clear that he wants to cut benefits, under the delusion that the American people want a compromise for its own sake.”

When he spoke in the White House press briefing room late on Tuesday night, Obama was forceful in insisting that he would not engage in protracted discussions about the debt ceiling.

“While I will negotiate over many things, I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they’ve already racked up through the laws that they passed,” he said. “Let me repeat: We can’t not pay bills that we’ve already incurred.”

But the president added that the consequences of a failure to raise the debt limit would be “far worse” than those that would have ensued had the fiscal-cliff deal gone off the rails. This fact, Republicans believe, means that he will find it impossible to stick to his “no negotiating” stance.

“In order to have a permission slip to raise the debt ceiling, he is going to have to have congressional Republicans make that happen,” said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean. “If Republicans, without any leverage, were able to force the president to make tax cuts permanent for people earning up to $450,000 rather than $250,000, I think they will be in a strong position.”

Some Democrats, however, took issue with the thesis that Obama would be in a weaker position over the debt ceiling than he was over the most recent negotiations. They argued that his relative success would strengthen him further for the battle to come.

They also pointed out that Obama has big opportunities to frame the debate in the nea future, both in his second inaugural speech and in his State of the Union address.

“He’s got these very big bully pulpit moments in the coming weeks where he'll be able to explain where we are and where he hopes to take us,” a second former administration official said.

Coming out of the fiscal cliff, he has more leverage, the former official added, because he got “most of what he wanted in the deal. But he also showed he was willing to negotiate and was willing to move off his position. And now he's got even more of the ability to say, 'Listen, I've negotiated and I have the backing of the American people.’ I'd say that's a pretty good hand and presents him with a good advantage.”

But an Obama donor was more circumspect.

“He did what he had to do and he still came out on top,” the donor said. “He campaigned on raising taxes for the wealthy, he talked about it in private fundraising dinners and he kept his word. I think for the most part people are pleased.

“But going into the next battle on the debt ceiling, and battles over entitlements, they're going to want him to stick to his guns even more so,” the donor added.