House Democrats feel jilted by the president in budget, debt talks

House Democrats feel like jilted lovers. 

They’re looking down Pennsylvania Avenue for some sign of affection from President Obama in the White House. But all they feel they’re getting in return is the back of his hand.

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“How is it that the House Democrats played such an important role [in the majority], and all of a sudden [the White House says], ‘Forget it, we’ll work with the Senate and the Republican leadership?’ ” asked Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), vice chairman of the Democrats’ Steering and Policy Committee.

House Democrats’ frustration with Obama is boiling in the intense heat of negotiations to reach a budget deal and raise the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.

Capitol Hill Democrats have been steaming for months, since being sidelined during talks to extend the George W. Bush-era tax rates and fund the government this year. Many say the White House takes their support for granted but ignores them when it comes to making policy.

“Before this year we were playing a strong role,” said Cuellar, but “now a lot of us feel like we’re almost being ignored.”

A fellow Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Capitol Hill Democrats called months ago for oil to be released from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to lower gasoline prices, but the president waited until last week to do it.

The lawmaker called the White House “obtuse” and added, “I’m disappointed in their politics.” 

The frustration “seems to be growing” with “senior members of the caucus … shaking their heads,” the lawmaker said.

Partly to temper mounting discontent, Obama called House Democrats to the White House on June 2, a day after meeting with House Republicans, to hear their concerns about the debt negotiations.

It was a tense encounter, according to several accounts.

One Democrat who was there said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) bluntly asked Obama whether he was willing to fight for Democratic priorities amid GOP calls for trillions of dollars in spending cuts.

In asking the question, Waxman said he’d asked several Republicans about their White House meeting the day before and had been concerned by their response. 

“To a person, they said the president’s going to cave,” Waxman told Obama, according to his colleague’s account.

“If you’re not going to cave, eliminating that misunderstanding is very, very important to the negotiations,” the lawmaker said, retelling Waxman’s message. “And if you’re going to cave, tell us right now.”

Obama, however, “didn’t answer the question,” the Democrat added. “Obama got in a huff, and he said, ‘I’m the president of the United States, my words carry weight’ — which is not the answer,” the lawmaker said. “That’s not what anyone challenges. It’s whether he is doing this negotiation in the right way.”

The White House declined to comment Monday. Waxman’s office did not dispute this account of the White House meeting, but said the lawmaker was traveling and could not be reached to comment on it.

Democrats’ complaints are surfacing after the opening round of debt-ceiling negotiations, led by Vice President Biden, fell apart last Thursday when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) withdrew to protest Democratic demands that certain tax breaks be eliminated. 

Obama has stepped into the breach, meeting separately Monday with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in an attempt to restart the talks.

Obama also met Wednesday with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Thursday with House Democratic leaders, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), assistant to the leader. 

A House Democratic aide said party leaders consider the Thursday meeting, which was requested by Pelosi, an indication that House Democrats will have much greater sway over the debt deal than they did over earlier spending agreements.

Democrats see a chance to be more influential because dozens of House Republicans are threatening to oppose a debt-ceiling hike because they say the government has spent too much already. GOP defections probably leave Boehner without enough votes to raise the debt limit without Democratic support. 

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“We are at the table now,” the Democratic aide said. “If the Speaker had the votes, we wouldn’t expect to be included, but he doesn’t have the votes.”

Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union” program on Sunday, Pelosi said there “won’t be any agreement … unless the House Democrats are part of that.” An exception would be made, she added, if “the Speaker comes to the table with 218 votes.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that Obama doesn’t have any debt-related meetings planned after those with Reid and McConnell. Biden, however, “has been in regular contact with Republicans and Democrats on the Hill,” he said.

“We remain confident that we can continue the progress that we’ve made,” Carney said, “and that there’s reason to believe that we’ll be able to find common ground to achieve significant deficit reduction.”

Not all Democrats are frustrated with Obama. Most note that entrenched GOP opposition has tied his hands.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) said the frustrations voiced on June 2 were not unusual between a president and lawmakers of the same party. “There were tensions, and that’s OK,” he said. “He’s got his own dynamics he’s got to deal with. All he wants to do is have us understand that. That doesn’t mean we have to agree.” 

Bob Cusack contributed to this story.