Resentments between President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats that began simmering even before their midterm disaster are nearing the boiling point on Capitol Hill, as liberals make clear that Obama's efforts to strike a lame-duck deal with Republicans will come at a cost: open and on-the-record taunting about whether the president is a patsy.
"This is the president's Gettysburg," Rep. Jim McDermott, a leading progressive and a subcommittee chairman on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, told POLITICO Monday. Referring to Obama's choice about whether to compromise or stand firm against Republicans on the question of higher taxes for the wealthy, the Washington Democrat said: "He's going to have to decide whether he's going to withstand Pickett's Charge ... I worry."
McDermott's crabbiness - widespread among many of his fellow Democratic lawmakers - reflects a fear that Obama is being bullied by Republicans and is prepared to sacrifice large principles in exchange for paltry concessions as the two sides search for a bargain on taxes before the end of the year, an extension of unemployment benefits and a nuclear arms treaty. (See: Obama, Republicans reach deal to extend tax cuts)
The larger reality illuminated by the unhappiness, however, is that the party that Obama two years ago proved particularly adept at unifying now has divided into two factions. (See: Democrats divided on energy bill) (See: Democrats divided on immigration)
There is a presidential wing, led by Obama, that sees it in his and the party's interests to strike a posture of reasonable accommodation - on the theory that it is both good policy and good politics to be seen as trying to get public business done, even in a season of divided government. (See: Obama: 'The right thing to do')
And there is a congressional wing, led by liberal lawmakers and cheered on by several prominent commentators who believe in confrontation - on theories that Republicans will never bargain in good faith and that demoralized Democratic activists and the general public will both rally around leaders who draw clear lines and are willing to fight to defend them. (See: Pelosi blasts GOP on tax cuts as W.H. negotiates)
With regard to the next two years, McDermott said, "We're going to find out exactly what this president is all about."
Obama defenders say he is simply responding to political and legal realities: If he does not strike a deal by the new year, rates will automatically rise for all taxpayers, potentially hurting the economy and putting Democrats at risk of being blamed for imposing higher costs on the middle class. (See: Obama needs nerve, perspective)
But taxes are an especially sensitive issue for Obama to ask for maneuvering room from his own party. Democrats didn't much like former President George W. Bush's tax policy in the first place, and they're furious that Obama might put his signature behind a rate freeze for high-end earners.
Even Democratic leaders on the Hill are having a hard time swallowing the idea: When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) relayed her view of the White House's position on the tax cuts to her fellow leaders on Sunday, it was roundly panned, according to sources familiar with the discussion.
The general sentiment, as described by one participant: "What the [heck]? Could we have a little fight before we cave? Why go right to surrender?"
Outspoken Democrat Anthony Weiner of New York compared it to "punting on 3rd down - it seems the president is not seeing the value of being on [the] offense."
"You can't let Republicans win on this. There's no more central campaign promise made by President Obama than to repeal the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, and he needs to be willing to fight on this," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which on Monday circulated quotations from some of Obama's 2008 campaign organizers who are threatening to pull their support in 2012 over the tax cut.
Moreover, liberals are convinced that they have the high ground on policy and politics on this issue - if only the president would stop giving away turf every time they seize it. Senate Democratic leaders held a session Saturday in a bid to force Republicans to vote on options that would extend current tax rates on income under $250,000 per couple or under $1 million per couple. A Republican filibuster, coupled with the House's passage last week of an extension of lower- and middle-class income tax rates, set up a contrast that makes congressional Democrats very comfortable.
"I think if it's clear that we are doing what the country wants in saying yes to tax cuts for the middle class and extending unemployment [insurance] and saying no to a tax bonus to millionaires and billionaires, and [if] we stay here until New Year's and continue to push for that, that Republicans [will] realize that they're on the wrong side of history," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
But the president doesn't seem interested in playing chicken over the tax cuts for lower- and middle-income Americans - favored by both sides - who are caught in the middle. His highest priority, he says, is to make sure taxes don't go up for those who would feel the pinch the most.
"We've got to find consensus here," Obama said during a trip to Winston-Salem, N.C., on Monday. Allowing the tax cuts to expire across the board, he said, "would be very tough not only on working families. It would also be a drag on the economy at this moment. So I believe we should keep in place tax cuts for workers and small businesses that are set to expire."
Administration officials say there's no way to get to other Democratic priorities - including the repeal of the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military and ratification of a new arms-reduction treaty - if Congress and the White House don't first clear the underbrush of expiring rates on individual income and other tax matters.
"The White House remains fully committed to passage of the [defense bill], including the repeal of ‘don't ask, don't tell,' during the lame duck," said one official who requested anonymity. "This is a priority for the president, and are we confident that the Congress will be able to address this issue this year."
A spokeswoman for Obama's Organizing for America campaign arm, Lynda Tran, said it will be joining the tax-cut fight when it is "ripe" to do so.
"OFA volunteers have been actively supporting the president's agenda during the lame-duck session - including efforts to support the DREAM Act, urging members of Congress to repeal ‘don't ask, don't tell' and working to ratify a new START treaty," Tran said. "OFA supporters will continue to make calls, write letters and otherwise make their voices heard as other issues become ripe for our involvement - including ensuring middle-class Americans do not face a tax increase come Jan. 1."
To be sure, not all progressives are angry with the president. Some simply hope to provide ballast against the force of a unified Republican minority on tax cuts and other issues.
"You can attack the president to the point that you're going to get a Republican president, so just keep that in mind," said Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who will head the Congressional Progressive Caucus next year. "This is not about the president. It's [about what] Republicans are demanding. And the focus needs to be on them, not on him. ... I just want to encourage the president to hold his ground and just ask all Americans to think about what we could do with $700 billion instead of just giving it to people to buy luxury items."
But the push back from the left is powerful enough to have caught the attention of congressional Democratic leaders, many of whom come from the progressive wing of the party, and the White House. Vice President Joe Biden held meetings with Democratic leaders Monday afternoon at the White House to discuss the pending tax deal.
Some Senate Democrats say that the president telegraphed a willingness to negotiate on the matter too early in the process.
"When you come to the poker game and you've already anted up and thrown your cards on the table, and say, ‘let's negotiate,' you lose," said Alaska Sen. Mark Begich. "That's totally a bubbling point. The disagreement isn't about how long the extensions are but who gets them. Who benefits from all this? So the question is: Do we figure out this out together, or are there like three different courses going on?"
Senate Democrats took particular umbrage at the Obama administration's signaling of a willingness to make a deal in the immediate aftermath of the midterm election as New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and other lawmakers were looking to sharpen their political attack by drawing the income line at $1 million and forcing the GOP to side with millionaires and billionaires.
McDermott says Republicans are testing the president to see if there's "a point beyond which he will not go" in negotiating.
"They're bullying him. For the country's sake, he's got to stand up," said the Washington Democrat, who worked as psychiatrist in the Navy. "It's setting the standard for the next two years."