By Alexander Bolton and Molly K. Hooper - 03/29/11 10:00 AM EDT
Democrats are deploying a divide-and-conquer strategy in their negotiations with House Republicans over spending cuts.
After being put back on their heels earlier in the budget message battle, Senate Democrats are now trying to drive a wedge between Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Tea Party freshmen.
Democratic leaders, most notably Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), have repeatedly accused Boehner of kowtowing to the Tea Party in an effort to pressure him into moving away from conservative freshmen, many of whom don’t want to compromise over spending cuts.
It’s a tough choice for Boehner.
Striking a deal with Democrats would set off a wave of revolt among the most conservative members of his caucus. It could also allow Schumer to say Boehner abandoned the Tea Party, which would hurt the Ohio Republican with the GOP base.
But refusing to find a middle ground with Democrats could risk a government shutdown and alienate crucial centrist voters. If such a scenario unfolded, Democratic leaders would accuse Republican leaders of appeasing what they have called “extremists.”
Republicans counter that Democrats are the ones out of touch with political reality, noting that Democrats — including President Obama — initially refused to embrace any cuts. They also point out that Senate Democrats have not passed their own budget plan, adding that 11 members of the Democratic Conference broke with the their leaders earlier this month on a key test vote.
For much of February and March, the GOP has enjoyed the upper hand on the short-term budget bills because the Democrats have been fractured. However, the political winds appear to be shifting as angst on the Republican side of the aisle mounts.
Democrats say they are open to compromise, a word they know Boehner doesn’t like. In an interview with “60 Minutes” after the midterm elections, Boehner said he prefers the term “common ground.”
During a press conference earlier this month, Schumer called Boehner “a good man” who has a big problem.
He said, “The problem is a large percentage of those in his party think compromise is a dirty word. So the Speaker’s going to have to make a choice. He can cater to the Tea Party element … that will inevitably cause a shutdown on April 8. Or he can abandon the Tea Party and these negotiations and forge a consensus among more moderate Republicans and a group of Democrats.”
House Democrats are also playing their role in the divide-and-conquer strategy. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office on Monday issued a release highlighting Tea Party frustration with House GOP leaders.
Meanwhile, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, told ABC News Monday that “the Tea Party caucus is whipping the Speaker.”
After bipartisan talks crumbled at the end of last week, both sides are positioning themselves for the blame game if the government shuts down, which Democratic and GOP aides say is becoming more likely.
“I am extremely disappointed that after weeks of productive negotiations with Speaker Boehner, Tea Party Republicans are scrapping all the progress we have made and threatening to shut down the government if they do not get all of their extreme demands,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement Monday.
Reid urged “mainstream Republicans” to “stand up to the Tea Party and rejoin Democrats at the table to negotiate a responsible solution.”
Schumer, who heads the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, said in a Twitter post Monday afternoon that the Tea Party is the chief obstacle in talks to avert a government shutdown.
He claimed the talks were going well until the Tea Party forced Boehner to move the goalposts.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has strongly rejected the notion that House GOP leaders were poised to agree to a deal.
“Sen. Schumer’s comments … that the negotiations on a long-term solution to fund the government for the remainder of the year are going well are completely farfetched,” Cantor said in a statement Friday.
He followed it up on Monday by accusing Democrats of refusing to “make any spending cuts.
“He instead plans to force a massive future tax hike on families and small-business people,” Cantor said.
Boehner has faulted Democrats for not having enough votes to pass an alternative proposal through the upper chamber.
“At no point in the 34 days since the House acted have the Democrats who run the Senate and the White House put forward a credible, long-term plan to resolve their budget mess,” Boehner said in a statement late last week.
Democratic strategists say Boehner risks his party’s standing with centrist voters, including younger voters, women and Hispanics, in 2012 if GOP leaders are seen as beholden to the Tea Party.
“Originally the Tea Party was considered more popular than Republicans or Democrats, but their numbers are coming down,” said Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research, a Democratic polling firm.
Lake noted that Republicans won big gains in the House after female voters shifted away from Democrats in the final weeks of the 2010 campaign season.
But the GOP’s proposed spending cuts and controversial riders in the House-passed package, such as amendments to ban taxpayer funds for Planned Parenthood, could alienate female voters, Lake said.