WASHINGTON — Just as Senate Democrats were sitting down Thursday to a scheduled meeting with White House budget director Jacob Lew, rumors of a new debt-limit deal between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, flashed across their BlackBerrys.
One after another, Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Maria Cantwell of Washington and others demanded that Lew explain what the president was doing.
The Democrats were winning, the senators said. The American people were with them on tax increases for the rich and the notion of "shared sacrifice." Why give up now? Why cut a deal without guarantees of new tax revenue?
For 45 minutes, the cross-examination went on, with few details offered. When Lew left, Mikulski turned to her colleagues and said: "I haven't seen a meeting like this in my 35 years in Congress."
Outside the room, Lew said only that he was "not aware of a deal."
For the first time in weeks of debt negotiations that have focused on rifts within the Republican Party, Thursday brought forward long-simmering tensions between Obama and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill.
With more concerns than details, Democrats lashed out, saying that deep cuts to federal agency budgets and entitlements were too steep a price to pay. They questioned whether Obama shared their core values, and they sought reassurance — at a hastily arranged evening meeting at the White House that lasted nearly two hours — that the final legislative package would be the balanced approach that the president had promised.
In the House, rank-and-file Democrats said the situation had grown dire.
"It would concern me greatly if these folks — the tea party group — have been able to convince the president to go along with a deal that basically gives them everything they want but yet still takes away from those who are our most vulnerable," said. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., a leader of the House Progressive Caucus, said that "we feel like the programs we care about are on the table. The other side's priorities that the American public thinks should be dealt with — tax cuts, corporate subsidies — are not on the table."
White House officials rejected the idea Thursday that they were abandoning their allies and said Obama was still seeking fresh tax revenue in a final deal.
"It is absolutely essential that any 'grand bargain,' if you will, any significantly sized deficit-reduction package be balanced; that it contain, that it address all the drivers of our long-term debt and our significant deficits," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
Among the Democrats, it was the senators who were most vocal in their criticism of a president who used to be one of them.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California pleaded to return to negotiations over a Reid-McConnell plan that contained no tax increases and no entitlement cuts.
"This is a very sensitive time," she said, trying not to directly criticize the White House.
Did she think the White House was working off the same page as her?
"No," she replied.