Budget Showdown Democrats' Disgust with Obama

The budget deal, angrily rejected by Nancy Pelosi as it passed Thursday, was the last straw. Patricia Murphy on why some liberals are now pushing for a primary challenge to the president.

As President Obama headed to Chicago Thursday afternoon to kick off the first official fundraiser of his re-election campaign, he left behind a sizable collection of dispirited Democrats.

They were not relishing the chance to vote on a budget-cutting bill that had been forged without their input and that most found repugnant.

The compromise that Obama struck last week with House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to keep the federal government running contained steep cuts to some of the party’s most cherished programs—nutrition for poor women and children, long-stalled transportation projects, funding for community health centers—as well as language barring the District of Columbia from using its own tax dollars to finance abortions.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, warned that the $38 billion in promised cutbacks would hurt the most vulnerable Americans. “We don’t have enough time to talk about the ways it violates our values,” he told The Daily Beast.

There is no more visible symbol of Democratic disgruntlement than the woman who was perhaps the president’s closest ally when she wielded the speaker’s gavel. When Nancy Pelosi voted against the budget measure Thursday, she did little to hide her anger with the White House over the fact that Obama, for the first time, had left her out of the negotiations on a major deal. Instead, he chose to work directly with Boehner and Reid to hammer out the compromise that each could take back to their caucuses for approval.

“I have been very disappointed in the administration to the point where I’m embarrassed that I endorsed him,” one senior Democratic lawmaker said. “It’s so bad that some of us are thinking, is there some way we can replace him? How do you get rid of this guy?”

“I feel no ownership of that or responsibility to it, except to say we don’t want to shut down the government,” the minority leader said. “As was pretty evident, House Democrats were not a part of that agreement.”

Pelosi sounded miffed by the enhanced status that Obama granted Boehner and Reid. “They were the ones that had the votes, so they had the strength to negotiate and the president presided over that,” she said. (Eighty-one House Democrats voted for the measure, more than offsetting defections by 59 of Boehner’s Republicans.)

For many Democrats, the budget bill was only the latest in a string of disappointments served up from the White House since 2009, when Obama swept into office on a tide of goodwill and a platform of base-pleasing promises they say he hasn’t lived up to. On the list are his pledges to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, pass comprehensive immigration reform, and end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

In 2008, for example, Obama promised Latino groups that he would pass comprehensive reform within a year of taking office. But he made no serious push to do so when the Democrats controlled the House and Senate. Latinos are further incensed over the fact that his administration is deporting a record number of illegal immigrants, more than under George W. Bush.

In protest, Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez launched a cross-country tour, complete with a stop in Chicago on Saturday, to urge the administration to make its enforcement more compassionate. “I have made no secret of the fact that I think the president can do more to keep families together and that the focus of changes this year needs to be administrative and procedural because legislation is very unlikely,” Gutierrez said Thursday.

Some legislative grumbling is inevitable when a party returns to power after eight years. But a number of Democrats are past protesting the president, discussing among themselves ways to recruit a primary challenger in 2012.

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“I have been very disappointed in the administration to the point where I’m embarrassed that I endorsed him,” one senior Democratic lawmaker said. “It’s so bad that some of us are thinking, is there some way we can replace him? How do you get rid of this guy?” The member, who would discuss the strategy only on the condition of anonymity, called the discontent with Obama among the caucus “widespread,” adding: “Nobody is saying [they want him out] publicly, but a lot of people wish it could be so. Never say never.”

A serious challenge still seems unlikely. One Democrat who has repeatedly criticized Obama but won’t oppose him next year is Dennis Kucinich, the liberal Democrat from Ohio who ran for president in 2008 and reiterated Thursday that he won’t be making another run in 2012.

Kucinich said he disagrees strongly with Obama’s policies on Iraq, Afghanistan, civil liberties, and the budget, but added that even Obama could not live up to the expectations House Democrats had for him when he came into office. Instead, he made clear that the president may no longer be able to take his Hill allies for granted.

“Congressional Democrats are going to have to reassert themselves,” Kucinich said. “Instead of waiting for direction from the White House, we’re going to have to give direction to the White House.”

Patricia Murphy is a writer in Washington, D.C., where she covers Congress and politics.