A club of Capitol Hill liberals made life hell for George W. Bush in his second term.
Now the gang is back — and they don’t care that this time the president is their guy.
In the last few weeks, some of the loudest anti-Bush voices — including Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman and Ed Markey and Sens. Mark Udall and Ron Wyden — have been demanding answers from the White House on civil liberties, privacy and regulations, some of the same questions that defined Bush’s second term.
Then news broke that the NSA is sweeping up millions of Americans’ phone records and monitoring their Internet activity and the irritation turned to full-blown outrage.
As Obama grapples with a slew of second-term scandals about the scope of government power — from the Justice Department snooping on reporters to the IRS hassling tea partiers — it’s a bad time to be short on friends.
“The president said that I must return to my authentic self. And I think the president needs to go back and read his own speeches,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, implying Obama could use a refresher course on some of his own 2008 campaign rhetoric — when he spoke openly about not becoming part of the conventional politics of Washington.
Others likened him to Bush, directly.
“I’m very concerned that this is basically a continuation of the policies of the Bush administration and the abuses of the Patriot Act. I’d like to see better out of this administration,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who noted he’s long been game to question Obama’s priorities.
“I started rocking the boat first year, first term, first six months when I tried to get the Transportation Committee to vote against the stimulus because it was only a four percent transportation investment and 42 percent tax cuts,” DeFazio said in an interview.
House Judiciary Committee ranking member John Conyers also was steamed over the NSA eavesdropping, which he called another thorn in the side of progressive Democrats who fought Bush for nearly eight years on the issue and now must deal with Obama.
“I think the administration has brought it on themselves,” the Michigan Democrat told POLITICO. “These revelations are making it necessary that we speak up. We still support the administration but if we don’t speak up now they can keep drifting toward the right. So it seems to me it’s good for us and them that these things be put on the table.”
It’s not unusual for members of Congress to criticize a president, even one of their own party, and Democrats certainly have. What makes this criticism so striking is that these Democrats are nearly as vehement in their attacks on Obama as they were toward Bush, who was a reviled figure among liberals.
Obama rode to office promising to be the anti-Bush — in substance and style – yet some of the anger of the liberals is that they clearly feel betrayed by Obama. Not only has he let them down, but he’s done it in ways that remind them of Bush — and that makes them really see red.
White House officials scrambled Thursday to defend the monitoring program of phone data, calling it a “critical tool” for fighting terrorism and keeping Americans safe while also welcoming debate with their critics — Democrat or Republican — on the balance between national security and individual privacy.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper late Thursday defended the actions of the administration amid reports in the Washington Post and the Guardian that the NSA and FBI are gathering information from major American Internet companies including Google, Apple and Facebook, in an operation named PRISM.
He also said parts of the phone records program would be declassified.
But the NSA controversy — flagged for several years by Udall and Wyden — is only the latest in a long line of problems that some Democrats have with this White House.
Democratic leaders acknowledged there’s trouble brewing beneath the surface for Obama.
“I think the caucus is supportive of the president,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer told POLITICO, adding that Obama also faces dissent from his own party “like any president.”
“There are some policies that some Republicans disagreed with Bush on very substantially and voted against him on. I’m not surprised that you find Democrats discussing different points of view,” Hoyer said.
“We’re the Democratic party. Would you expect anything else?” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). “Even within a party, there’s always room for healthy debates like this. And this is another example of that. But this is a difficult challenge to get right.”
House Education and Workforce Committee ranking member George Miller said his first impression on the NSA eavesdropping suggests the administration was “way overreaching.” Asked whether the flood gates had opened for more Democratic criticism with three-plus years still to go in Obama’s second term, the California Democrat replied, “There’s a lot of concern about our agenda and whether it’s getting addressed or not. The administration, the president, however you want to characterize it: There’s a lot of concern in the Congress that they’ve just sort of wandered off here.”
A House Democrat who championed Obama during the 2008 campaign said the president faces problems now within his caucus because of just how much that was promised during that first White House campaign to clean up the government. “He came riding in on a white horse,” the lawmaker said.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) wasn’t happy with the NSA revelations because they continue efforts many liberal Democrats questioned during the last administration. “I think the fact they had an opportunity to look clear eyed at a policy that was there since 2006 and change it and didn’t, it’s disappointing,” he said.
Grijalva added that Democrats are more willing to speak out against Obama now because they’re stuck in the minority, battling not just the Republican majority but also a president who has shown an occasional willingness to compromise even when his rank-and-file want no part of it.
“When you see environmental regulations, when you see what happened with NSA, when you see the chipping away at Dodd-Frank legislatively, and then the oversight not there, yeah, I think it’s right and proper that members of Congress are striking out with their independence and opposition,” Grijalva said. “That’s not a question of disloyalty. I don’t think it’s even a question of not support. We’re talking about fundamental value issues here that a lot of us feel we need to protect.”
Several Democrats with oversight of energy, environment and public health rules lit into Obama’s Office of Management and Budget on Wednesday with a letter complaining that the number-crunching agency has been sitting on important new rules for months and in some cases even years.
“I think this administration has a good record on environmental issues. Particularly locally they’ve done a lot of things that are extremely positive. But I’d like to see them act more promptly than they have,” Sen. Ben Cardin, one of the co-signers of the letter, said in an interview.
OMB spokeswoman Jessica Santillo declined comment on the specific concerns in the Democrats’ letter — sent by Waxman, Markey, Cardin and Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, Tom Harkin and Richard Blumenthal — since the administration hasn’t formally responded to the lawmakers.
But she added, “The administration’s regulatory strategy maintains a balance between our obligation to protect the health, welfare, and safety of Americans and our commitment to promoting economic growth, job creation, competitiveness, and innovation. OMB works as expeditiously as possible to review rules, and when it comes to complex rules, it is critical that we get them right.”
Grijalva, a senior member of the Natural Resources Committee, was among the loudest Democratic voices criticizing the Bush administration’s environmental policies. Asked if he ever considered pulling his punches with Obama in the White House, Grijalva replied, “It’s about consistency.”
Former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a frequent first term critic of Obama’s energy and environmental policies, said he’s not surprised to see so much dissent as the White House plays defense on the IRS scandal, Benghazi attacks and surveillance of reporters’ phone records.
“In the shadow of all of that activity, some members of Congress want to use that opportunity to carve out some independent space for themselves,” he said. “It allows them to be bolder in pushing back on White House policies they don’t like.”
While Democrats know there’s “value” in having Obama in the White House, Dorgan said “they also see themselves as independent contractors on some issues and feel the need to find some space by showing their independence from the White House from time to time.”
Obama’s Democratic critics “have to do it carefully and they have to pick and choose,” Dorgan said. “If they go too far, the next time they call the president for help, they may not get their call returned.”
“Most, but not all congressmen and senators understand where it is safe to tread and where they start causing problems for themselves,” Dorgan added. “It’s the ultimate ‘inside/outside’ game.”