Factions in Congress, pressure from outsiders impede debt deal

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 12, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Besieged by single-interest groups, vocal constituencies insisting on ideological rigidity and influential fundraisers they're eager to please, many congressional lawmakers are dividing into small blocs that could make it hard to pass any deficit-reduction deal.

Since Congress convened six months ago, the Congressional Black Caucus, conservatives in the House of Representatives and Senate, and moderate Blue Dog Democrats all have offered budget blueprints. Each has its own priorities, nuances and differences.

While no bloc was able to get its plan passed, each showed enough strength that congressional leaders must pay attention to them, and that makes cobbling together a majority coalition more difficult.

These blocs are gaining influence in part because of the modern media, as they can garner support quickly over cable TV and the Internet, said Steven Greene, an associate professor of political science at North Carolina State University.

"The ability to organize and make one's views known is at a level never seen before," he said.

Pressure is building. For example, more than 4,000 pastors from around the country have signed a letter to Congress urging it to remember the poor and vulnerable. Brent Bozell, the chairman of ForAmerica, a conservative group, vows to "personally participate in a revolt to throw the GOP out of power" if Republicans yield too much. Tuesday on Capitol Hill, more than 200 people, many from labor-backed and community groups, urged resisting cuts in health care programs. All over town, groups rally and stage news conferences to press lawmakers not to gore their sacred cows.

The tea party movement, a loosely organized group of grass-roots conservatives, strongly influenced the 2010 elections, and Republicans are bowing before them. On the other side, labor unions, with their own firm agenda, are among the Democratic Party's biggest donors, and most Democrats try not to buck them.

This increasingly volatile environment and the Balkanization of Congress impedes getting a deal on the debt ceiling and deficit reduction.

"Conservatives are doing phenomenal fundraising and rallying of their voters. They've brought the Republican Party into an uncompromising position," said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, a liberal watchdog group.

Liberals are uncompromising on their priorities, too.

"The progressive caucus realizes they've been losing everything lately," Holman said. And preserving a strong social safety net, particularly Social Security and Medicare, "is at the core of everything they believe."

The White House and Senate and House leaders have met for three straight days trying to craft a deal that would reduce deficits by trillions of dollars over the next decade. They hope to attach any deal to legislation that would raise the nation's debt limit, now $14.3 trillion. If the limit isn't raised by Aug. 2, the government may go into default, which could panic financial markets and kick the economy back into recession.

But Democrats refuse to consider cuts to Social Security or Medicare beneficiaries, and Republicans insist that no taxes be raised. Each day, a deal seems more distant.

Last week, the Congressional Progressive Caucus sent Obama a letter urging him to keep Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid off the negotiating table. They also urged eliminating tax breaks for the rich.

"Republican insistence on protecting these tax breaks will force middle-class families to shoulder the burden of even deeper budget cuts, and this is unacceptable," the liberals' letter said.

Congressional Black Caucus members point out that more than 40 percent of African-Americans older than 65 rely on Social Security as their sole source of income. They say they're getting an earful from constituents who fear that lawmakers, in a zeal to reach a deal, might sacrifice programs they rely on.

"If you're at a senior center or a shopping mall, people are saying, 'Protect Social Security. Protect Medicare. Don't do this deal on the backs of children and the elderly,' over and over again," said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., one of 43 Congressional Black Caucus members. All but one are Democrats.

One Senate bloc of 10 to 12 liberals is adamantly against cutting spending too deeply. Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent, reminded Obama in a Senate floor speech Tuesday that the president vowed during his 2008 campaign to protect Social Security.

"The American people are sick and tired of candidates who run for office and say one thing and then, after they are elected, do something very different," Sanders said.

There's thunder on the right, too.

In the House, conservative groups are asking lawmakers to take a pledge to "cut, cap and balance," or require spending cuts of about $380 billion in the next fiscal year and strict limits on future spending; 103 House members have signed a letter endorsing the pledge.

The nascent Tea Party Caucus agrees, but it also wants another condition added to any deal: repeal of the 2010 health care law, which conservatives deride as "Obamacare."

"I'd love to see that happen. That would be a real plus," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a tea party-backed congressman. "I will not unilaterally just increase the debt limit ceiling."

Moderate House Blue Dog Democrats offered a budget outline this spring that called for rolling back spending to 2008 levels by 2013, and putting everything, including entitlements, on the bargaining table. Because they number only about 25 members, down from 52 last year, their influence has been reduced, but they're one more piece of the puzzle.

Can these groups come together and form majorities?

Holman thinks it'll be hard.

"Now that the debt issue has become so public, that really forces everyone into their own corners," he said, "and anyone who comes out of that corner is quickly identified as giving in."

(Intern Jarondakie Patrick contributed to this story.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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