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Administration’s Cliff Offer Presents a Challenge for Centrist Democrats

Lost amid last week’s hubbub over the GOP’s quick and public rejection of the White House’s latest plan to solve the fiscal cliff was the quiet alarm some in-cycle Senate Democrats felt at the prospect of voting to raise $1.6 trillion in revenue, provide more government stimulus and permanently minimize Congress’ role in approving debt limit hikes.

Democrats hold 20 of the 33 Senate seats up for up for grabs in 2014 — many of them in red or purple states. And just like in 2012, many of the moves Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., makes will be with his most vulnerable Members in mind.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, for example, said he could consider changes to the debt ceiling voting procedure, but said he’s uneasy about ceding all power to the executive.

“If it’s just, ‘Get rid of it,’ without any future oversight, I get a little nervous about that,” Begich said of reconfiguring the law guiding debt limit votes. “But at the end of the day, the people who do have control over the deficit and the debt is us, by our votes and our actions. So the debt limit [vote] is just another procedure that may not be necessary.”

Another potentially vulnerable Democrat, Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, demurred when asked whether she could support a permanent solution to raising the debt ceiling, saying she was still reviewing the specifics of the president’s proposal.

Begich said he did not know of any in-cycle Democrats who have been consulting Reid in the fiscal cliff talks, and he cautioned that he wasn’t conveying any election-specific concerns.

But he noted that it’s difficult to change an established voting record or set of policy positions in the two years leading up to an election, so any provision he might support in negotiations now would largely mirror those he has supported in the past.

“I’m not going to have a transformation in the last two years and be a new senator — I’ve been one for four years,” Begich said. “I’ve voted for debt limit increases because it’s responsible.  . . .  Some of these guys want to play these games where they’ve been here for 20 years, where they say, ‘OK, I’m not going to vote for it this year.’ You can’t fool the voters. They know what you’re doing, so just be consistent.”

Republicans, however, know that the Senate Democrats’ desire to keep their majority, even with elections so far away, is one of their few points of leverage. That showed in the kind of rhetoric they used last week to dismiss the White House offer.

“I can’t imagine they would vote for what the Treasury secretary showed the speaker and myself today — I can’t imagine it,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt when asked about moderate Senate Democrats up for re-election.

He pointed to specific revenue provisions offered by the White House as part of its $1.6 trillion request, including setting the estate tax at 45 percent and raising top rates on capital gains and dividends.

“There’s hardly anything they miss — it’s a massive, whopping punch right in the nose to the American economy,” McConnell said of the tax increases. “I can’t imagine the Democrats would support it. Max Baucus, the chairman of the Finance Committee, is certainly not going to support the estate tax proposal; Mary Landrieu — the Democrat from Louisiana — is not going to support the gas tax, neither is Mark Begich of Alaska. It’s completely unserious.”

It is no coincidence that all three members McConnell mentioned by name are up for re-election in 2014 in states that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won handily.

Baucus, of Montana, and Landrieu told reporters last week they want to see the estate tax maintained at its current rate. And Begich and Landrieu, both from oil-rich states, have historically broken with their party on oil tax breaks, voting against a Democratic bill as recently as March.

Roll Call currently rates the 2014 races in Alaska, Lousiana and North Carolina as Tossups, while Montana is rated Leans Democratic.

Reid, for his part, spent much of this Congress successfully protecting his in-cycle senators and, by extension, his majority. Though Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents held 23 of 2012’s in-cycle seats, they were able to not just maintain but expand their majority. That effort was assisted in Washington by a carefully crafted floor strategy, which gave some senators bragging rights at home while shielding them from potentially toxic measures.

Top Democratic aides acknowledge that accommodating members key to maintaining their majority is part of their overall responsibility as talks continue. But they caution that it will be difficult to find an agreement that will be acceptable to all of their members, moderate or liberal, in-cycle or out, and said that no matter whether you’re Democrat or Republican, the vote on a deficit reduction agreement will be a tough one.

“There’s significant consideration to how our entire caucus views a potential agreement,” said one Senate Democratic aide, who noted that Reid has a “full and fair” seat at the negotiating table, even if Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner have bigger roles to play. “The truth is, no matter what the final agreement looks like, this will be a very difficult vote for the vast majority of lawmakers.”

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