WASHINGTON — Impatient and worried about their futures as their power wanes, the liberals who dominate Democratic congressional caucuses want to see President Barack Obama fight harder for their causes.
They're concerned that he may emulate former President Bill Clinton and cut deals with Republicans on GOP terms too much for their liking.
Democrats will begin the 112th Congress in January having lost 61 seats in the House of Representatives and six in the Senate. While they'll still control the Senate by 53-47, their 190 House seats will be the lowest Democratic total since 1949.
What's left is largely the liberal base, which gave Obama crucial support in his 2008 presidential bid. The liberals are watching three big tests over the next month to see whether the president is firmly in their corner: extending Bush-era tax cuts that are set to expire Dec. 31, ratifying a new nuclear-arms treaty with Russia and repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military.
Whatever doesn't get done in the lame-duck Congress in December will face a far tougher fight in 2011, when Republicans will have more power.
Obama has begun making a strong case for the New START treaty with Russia, and aides say he's working behind the scenes to clear the way for gays to serve openly in the military.
But the tax cut extension is seen as the truest litmus test of whether the president is still willing to fight for his base. Liberals want to extend the breaks only for the working and middle classes — a stand Obama championed all fall — but the president has signaled recently that he may acquiesce to Republicans, who want to extend the tax reductions for the wealthy as well.
If Obama is open to compromise on his once-firm stand, that will amplify questions that Democrats have been asking for nearly two years — essentially, what does he stand for when his back's to the wall? — questions that were vigorously, at times angrily, discussed this week at closed party meetings on Capitol Hill.
Liberals argue that too often they've watched Obama compromise on health care, financial regulation, climate change and other issues. So now they want to know: What will he demand? How much of his own political capital will he stake to defend the principles he ran on in 2008? And what consequences will befall lawmakers who cross him?
Many liberals are openly disappointed and angry, and don't seem to fear the consequences of challenging the president.
"I think the greatest failing in this Congress was that the House ... enabled the White House, and the White House was not always right," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.
After a raucous House Democratic caucus this week at which liberals vowed to push Obama harder, DeFazio said, "We're beginning to revisit our relationship with the White House. I think we've got to push harder from our position to do what Democrats need."
Obama's in a difficult position, one that presidents whose parties suffer congressional setbacks in the middle of their terms often face. Voters want more comity between the parties, and Obama must consider how his style going forward will affect his 2012 re-election campaign. At the same time, most Democrats in Congress want the White House to hold the liberal line.
Democratic strategist James Carville said it was too soon after this month's election losses for the president to have his strategy for the next two years gamed out, and therefore it was premature to declare his stands too wimpy. But soon, Carville said, Obama will need to draw firm lines, something that Obama, an instinctive conciliator, has struggled with throughout his political career.
"I'm the guy," Carville recalled from the 2008 contest, "who said if Hillary gave him one of her balls, they'd both have two."
Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., said Obama was in a "no-win" situation.
"The president's going to be criticized whatever he does. If he's bipartisan, certain people will say he's giving in, but if he only listens to one side, people will say he's not really trying to govern."
Asked this week whether Obama will lay down his demands more clearly, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs rejected the premise that his boss hasn't been forceful enough.
'The president has some very clear goals for what needs to get done before Congress leaves," he said.
Lawmakers are less sure. The tax cut debate, due to begin when Congress returns Nov. 29 from its Thanksgiving recess, will be a revealing test of the president's resolve.
Gibbs said that Obama and congressional Democratic leaders agree that the expiring tax reductions are an issue "that has to be dealt with..." and that the top priority is "that middle-class families don't see at the beginning of the year a tax bill that is higher than they have right now because Congress failed to act."
Both chambers of Congress are expected to vote on extending only the middle-class tax cuts, but that's not expected to win the 60 votes needed to cut off Senate debate, so some compromise is likely in the end.
For two years Obama has championed extending the reductions only for individuals who earn less than $200,000 a year and couples that make less than $250,000. Lately, however, in a bow to reality, he's signaled a willingness to compromise, which has a lot of Democrats steaming.
"The White House backpedaled on tax cuts," said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio.
Democratic lawmakers are happier with his handling of "don't ask, don't tell."
The House passed a repeal earlier this year, but it's stuck in the Senate. The repeal is part of a massive defense bill, and most Republicans want at least two weeks of debate on that. However, Senate leaders hope to limit the lame-duck session to three weeks, and there are lots of items on the agenda.
The president has been working behind the scenes, calling key lawmakers and having Pentagon officials do so, too.
"We've checked one big box, that military leaders support the policy," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
They'll check another Dec. 1, when the Pentagon is to finish its study on repeal.
Gay-rights groups laud Obama's effort. "He set out his priorities on this early in the year, and look how far it's come. It just wasn't always public," said Joe Solmonese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign.
Obama's also giving the New START treaty a strong push; this week he held a high-profile White House meeting with foreign-policy leaders from previous administrations, at which they all stressed the pact's importance to national security.
In the end, events are likely to dictate the president's positions. After Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994, Clinton's strategy was called "triangulation": He positioned himself between congressional Democrats and Republicans, aiming to broker his own centrist agenda.
In those years liberal Democrats charged that Clinton was too cozy with Republicans on such issues as overhauling the nation's welfare system. Clinton easily won re-election in 1996, but Republicans maintained control of Congress that year and for the rest of his presidency.
Today's Democratic lawmakers aren't eager to see that history repeat itself.
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