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Spending Showdown's Odd Factions Might Give Taste of Things to Come

It's the governing wing versus the populists.
Image: U.S. Senator Warren stands behind Senate Majority Leader Reid after leadership elections for the Congress in Washington
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) stands behind Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) as he speaks to reporters after leadership elections for the 114th Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington November 13, 2014. Senate Democrats on Thursday chose current Majority Leader Reid of Nevada as their minority leader for the next congressional session, which begins in January, according to Senator Dianne Feinstein. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)JONATHAN ERNST / Reuters

We’ve seen plenty of drama in Congress over the past two years, but what was different about last night’s narrow passage of the $1 trillion spending bill through the House was this dynamic: You had the Obama White House, John Boehner, and Harry Reid on one side, and you had Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, and Ted Cruz on the other. Call it the governing wings vs. the populist wings. And it’s likely a preview of things to come in next year’s 114th Congress. After all, it’s the result you get when you have: 1) a House speaker whose very conservative base doesn’t feel like they owe him anything; 2) a president who is no longer feared (or even respected?) by his own party; and 3) legislators who still realize that you have to get essential bills passed and take the best deals you can get. What gets overlooked in last night’s drama was that the bill that passed the House -- and is likely to pass the Senate in the next couple of days -- was a bipartisan bill, something Washington hasn’t often seen these last few years. But the opposition was bipartisan, too. Is this the new normal?

The four other things we learned from last night

We learned four other things from last night’s narrow passage of the House spending and all of the events leading up to it:

  • Elizabeth Warren’s role wasn’t too dissimilar from Ted Cruz’s

Yes, we realize that Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) opposition to the spending bill -- because of the rider rolling back part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform -- wasn’t going to lead to the kind of government shutdown we saw in Oct. 2013. (Had the vote gone down to defeat, the House was going to pass a three-month extension to fund the government.) But consider Warren’s similarities to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Like Cruz, Warren is a brand-new member of leadership (after being elected in 2012) taking an action against the leadership’s wishes. Like Cruz, her rhetoric riled up House colleagues. Like Cruz, she got plenty of publicity through partisan media and outside groups. And like Cruz, she didn’t have much of an end game. As we wrote yesterday, some Democrats feared that had the House bill gone down to defeat, all the same measures they didn’t like -- plus many, many more -- would be inserted into a spending bill three months from now, when Democrats no longer controlled the Senate. What then?

  • Nancy Pelosi was fired up -- and angry at the White House

Not only did Pelosi say she was “enormously disappointed” in the Obama White House for supporting passage of the spending bill, check out what her allies said. Rep Steve Israel (D-NY): "The president and the vice president are free to make their calls, but they don't have a vote on the floor of the House. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA): “We’re fighting anybody lobbying for this bill, including the president.” NBC’s Luke Russert lists three reasons why Pelosi was so fired up: One, because House Democrats lost so many seats in 2010/2014, many of the only House Dems who are left are ultra libs, minorities and urban unions -- all folks happy to fight on this. This rallied them. Two, the White House’s outreach to Hill Dems has been too little, too late. And three, Pelosi wanted to prove her relevance. Our take: Don’t overlook the aspect that Pelosi was ticked that the White House and Harry Reid cut her out of the negotiations.

  • Obama and the White House got enough Democratic support -- but they don’t have the juice they once had

Yes, in the end, Obama won and Pelosi lost. But how public and personal it was is a big sign of things to come in the next Congress. It would have been disastrous for Obama had the legislation gone down to defeat. So call it the White House’s near- (lame) DUCK experience. For six years, the divides inside the Democratic Party were papered over by the greater goal of the party to rally around their president. But now that many congressional Democrats view their president as weak and less powerful today (thank you 22nd Amendment!), there is more comfort in the populist wing of the Democratic Party to clash with the president and the establishment wing. As has been noted for the last four years as Washington has been engrossed in the drama of the divided GOP, there are similar divides in the Dem Party, they just were papered over by Obama. That paper has now been shredded.

  • Boehner still has a base issue

Finally, lost in the very public and open spat between House liberals and the White House, were the existing divisions inside the Republican Party. Yes, most of the GOP caucus (162 of them) voted for the spending bill. But a sizable portion (67) voted against. And if that dynamic remains, Boehner is going to need votes from House Democrats to get to 218 votes. Then again, if he thinks Pelosi will make things even harder for him, it could mean he sends more conservative legislation to the Senate and the leverage then changes to the 8-10 more centrist Democrats in the Senate, probably the last group of Democrats Pelosi and her supporters want to see have the key leverage in any policy debate in 2015.

Brennan speaks

To us, the biggest conclusion from CIA Director Brennan’s remarks yesterday was that he chose not to fight. What he did do was say things that would please all sides of this debate – he stood up and praised CIA workers, he acknowledged wrongdoing that had been committed, and he took a middle ground on the question of whether the harsh interrogations worked (he concluded it was “unknowable”). While Sen. Dianne Feinstein certainly battled with Brennan, don’t miss this statement she released yesterday after the CIA director’s remarks: “CIA Director Brennan’s comments were not what I expected. They showed that CIA leadership is prepared to prevent this from ever happening again—which is all-important. I watched today’s press conference closely and agree with many of the things Director Brennan said.”

Is Mitt hoping that Jeb doesn’t run?

Lastly, don’t miss the Politico piece that has Mitt Romney sounding more and more like someone who’s now thinking about a third presidential run, and that also has Romney taking some shots at Jeb Bush. From the piece: “While some people close to Romney insist he hasn’t moved from saying he has no plans to run, the 2012 Republican nominee has sounded at least open to the idea in recent conversations, according to more than a dozen people who’ve spoken with him in the past month. In his private musings, Romney has sounded less than upbeat about most of the potential candidates in the 2016 Republican field, according to the people who’ve spoken with him, all of whom asked for anonymity in order to speak freely.” And then there’s this: “He has said, among other things, that Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, would run into problems because of his business dealings, his work with the investment banks Lehman Brothers and Barclays, and his private equity investments. ‘You saw what they did to me with Bain [Capital],” he has said… ‘What do you think they’ll do to [Bush] over Barclays?’” Is Romney’s logic here: Pick me, because at least I’ve dealt with these kind of attacks before?

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