August 4, 2011 in Opinion

Dana Milbank: For Democrats, debt deal barely edges caning

Dana Milbank
 

WASHINGTON – Majority Leader Harry Reid, a principal sponsor of the debt-limit deal, went to the Senate floor Monday morning to say that, however ugly things are in Washington, they could be worse.

His evidence? The attack on Sen. Charles Sumner by Rep. Preston Brooks. In 1856.

“Congressman Brooks came to the floor, came to the Senate with his cane and beat Sen. Sumner, beat him with his cane. Sen. Sumner never really recovered,” the Nevada Democrat recounted. By that antebellum yardstick, Reid argued, “what we have just gone through has been extremely difficult, but there was never any consideration the Republic would fall.”

The debt deal: Better than canings and civil war! It was an unusual sales pitch, but it was about the best thing a Democrat could say about the compromise that ended the default standoff.

Democrats were despondent about the deal, which split their caucus precisely down the middle as it easily cleared the House on Monday night. Liberals complained that the White House had, for the third time in eight months, squandered its leverage, capitulated to the opposition and presented Democrats with a done deal they had no choice but to accept.

“It’s a Trojan Horse with Scylla and Charybdis inside!” Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, said as he walked out of Vice President Biden’s presentation to the House Democratic caucus. “It’s evil, or more evil.”

Progressives knew they couldn’t block the big spending cuts the president agreed to, because they weren’t willing to throw the government into default. That left liberals, Cohen said, to pursue two activities: “venting and kvetching.”

They did both with gusto on Monday. It’s “robbing Peter and Paul,” protested Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., going on about “terminal bleeding” of government programs.

“I don’t think it’s fair!” thundered Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va.

And what did D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton think? “I don’t think,” she replied. “I cry.”

In his private sessions with House and Senate Democrats, Biden reportedly likened dealing with the Republicans to negotiating with terrorists and said GOP leaders had “put guns to their heads.”

After morose caucus members filed out of the gripe session, the vice president all but admitted that the White House had to surrender to Republicans because of the “sword of Damocles” – more Greek mythology! – “hanging over everyone’s heads.”

“Look, I didn’t go to convince,” he told reporters. “I went to explain.”

Republicans received only a third of the $6 trillion in cuts over 10 years that they proposed in Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget. But liberal lawmakers are convinced that Obama gave away everything – big spending cuts, probably including Medicare, without any tax increases – all because of a few dozen tea party House members who, defying even House GOP leaders, were perfectly willing to see the government default. In essence, the progressives had been out-crazied by ideologues on the other side – and that drove them mad.

“Oooh!” Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., screamed when asked about the compromise. “Oooh!” she cried again, as if witnessing a ghastly accident scene.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., reported a crime by the Republicans. “A minority within the Congress of the United States has held up the president,” he told reporters.

“You have this small element,” added Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., “which is basically willing to hold Congress and the nation hostage.” Cummings read a complaint he received from a constituent calling the deal “a total capitulation.”

Democratic leaders made no attempt to calm their pitchfork-wielding backbenchers, such as Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., who described the deal on TV as a “Satan sandwich.”

“It probably is – with some Satan fries on the side,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told ABC News.

That left nobody to counter the likes of Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who called the deal “bizarre” and said it would lead to old folks in his state losing medical care. “It’s all about cutting, cutting, cutting!” he shouted at reporters.

Biden, after enduring three hours of such complaints, alluded to the verbal beating he had received. “They expressed all their frustration,” he said.

“I’d be frustrated if I was in there as well.”

Luckily for the vice president and his Secret Service detail, most lawmakers no longer carry canes.

Dana Milbank’s email address is danamilbank@washpost.com.


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