WASHINGTON - President Obama cut a budget deal with congressional Republican leaders that outlined draconian cuts to needed programs while doing little if anything to address a supposed fiscal crisis. As such, it was a classic austerity agreement that served the special interests that dominate the upper ranks of both parties while ill-serving the great mass of Americans.
Congress has approved the deal that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders says "moves America in exactly the wrong direction. It cuts programs for struggling working families, the elderly, children and the poor while preserving tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires." But Sanders and a majority of House Democrats opposed it.
That represents a significant break with Obama and his attempt to get congressional Democrats to buy into the austerity agenda -- and the false premise that America has the resources for wars and bank bailouts but not for health care, education and meaningful investments in community renewal and job creation.
The House vote was especially telling.
Whipped by the White House and Republican leaders, the plan to cut $39.9 billion in spending passed the House by a 260-167 vote.
But, like the Clinton-Gingrich free trade deals of the 1990s, this proposal by a Democratic president and his Republican partners did not pass with the support of most House Democrats.
Of the 260 "yes" votes for the deal, 179 came from Republicans who answered the call of the president and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Of the 167 "no" votes, 108 came from Democrats and 59 from Republicans.
The Democrats who voted "no" included the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Keith Ellison of Minnesota, as well as Congressional Black Caucus chair Barbara Lee of California and Congressional Hispanic Caucus chair Nydia M. Velázquez of New York. Ranking Democrats such as George Miller of California, Barney Frank of Massachusetts and John Conyers of Michigan voted "no." And so did House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
“It was pretty evident the House Democrats were not a part of that agreement,” Pelosi explained before the vote. “I feel no ownership of that or any responsibility to it — except that we don't want to shut down the government.”
Pelosi and the House Democrats deserve credit for their show of independence, and support for the basic principles of the party of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. They know that pro-Wall Street "austerity" budgets serve special interests and reinforce Republican talking points, not working Americans and progresive values.
The same cannot be said for Senate Democrats, all but two of whom backed the Obama-GOP deal.
The measure passed the Senate 81-19. Sixteen of the "no" votes came from conservative Republicans who thought the deal did not cut enough. Two senior Democrats, Vermont's Patrick Leahy and Michigan's Carl Levin, opposed the deal. So, too, did Vermont Independent Sanders.
In addition to arguing that the budget agreement "moves America in exactly the wrong direction, Sanders said, "Unfortunately, this is just the beginning. Republicans in Congress have tasted blood. Now they are dead set on making even deeper cuts. They have proposed a radical budget for 2012 that would end Medicare and Medicaid as we know them while providing $1 trillion more in tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans and large corporations."
Sanders captured the sentiment of progressives in Congress and across the country when he said, "There is no question that we must reduce soaring deficits, but it must be done in a way that is fair, which protects the most vulnerable people in our country, and which requires shared sacrifice.”