Dems stop short of deal endorsement

Amid the ongoing fight over the fate of unemployment insurance (UI), House Democratic leaders declined Wednesday to commit their support for a bipartisan budget deal.

Behind House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the lawmakers suggested the budget agreement unveiled Tuesday by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is at least a mark of progress following years of stalemates, shutdowns and partisan bickering.

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But with UI benefits scheduled to expire Dec. 28 – and House GOP leaders showing little interest in preventing it – the Democrats are withholding their support for the budget package, if only temporarily as a last-ditch effort to pressure the Republicans to reconsider.

"We haven't even seen the finished product. We're hearing this morning that now there may be another amendment drawn to it about SGR [sustainable growth rate]," Pelosi said following a meeting with her caucus in the Capitol. "It's something we should do, but why wouldn't we do unemployment insurance if we're doing that?

"So when they freeze the design of what it is we're going to vote for, I'll solidify my thinking on the subject."

The SGR reference was to an amendment to the budget bill that would prevent a pay cut for doctors treating Medicare patients. The House Rules Committee, which posted the amendment on its website Tuesday night, is scheduled to meet Wednesday to consider the proposals, with floor votes expected Thursday.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, also declined to endorse the package before it's finalized.

"Waiting to see it," said Becerra, the only member of the leadership team to oppose the bipartisan "fiscal cliff" package at the start of the year.

The comments are part of the delicate dance playing out on Capitol Hill in the wake of the deal announced by Ryan and Murray, which would finance the government until Oct. 1, 2015, and replace $63 billion in sequester cuts over that span.

The package includes provisions unpopular on both the left and right, and leaders in both parties met with their respective troops Wednesday morning to lay out the details and gauge levels of support.

A number of liberals emerged from the Democrats' meeting grumbling that the final product is unbalanced, cutting things like federal pension benefits without raising revenues.

"We're not meaningfully dealing with any problems. This is just small ball, kick the can down the road, and I don't see what it accomplishes," said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who's leaning against the package. "The Republicans essentially won here. I mean, they drew the line and said no revenues. … I think it's just a victory for the Republicans."

Still, with President Obama already endorsing the budget deal – and with the legislative calendar evaporating quickly – there's strong pressure on Democratic leaders to back the agreement, even if there's no resolution to the UI issue.

"We would have preferred something quite different, but we do recognize the value of coming to a decision so that we can go forward with some clarity on other legislation that we want to see," Pelosi said, adding that Democratic leaders will not whip the vote.

"They will carefully review the provisions of the proposal and ask questions of our conferees, and members will make their decision," she said. "I don't know where that will come down."

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, blasted Republicans for threatening to leave town without extending unemployment benefits. But she also suggested that she'll back the budget deal.

"We can do better, but I think that this is the best that we can do at this point," Lowey said.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee and a conferee during the budget negotiations, was one of just a few Democrats endorsing the budget deal outright on Wednesday. But he also warned that the Rules Committee could derail that support with the amendment process.

"I think it's a small step forward – far from perfect, but better than the alternative," he said. "But there is a separate issue here because of the effort to add SGR without unemployment insurance, and so that's something we're looking at right now."

Highlighting the tough position Democrats are in, several liberal lawmakers with close ties to Pelosi – including Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) – declined to comment on the deal.

"I will think it through," DeLauro said.

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