WASHINGTON — Four months before midterm elections, the Obama administration and congressional Democrats show signs of collective battle fatigue, ducking political fights they might once have welcomed and quarreling among themselves as they confront the likelihood of majority-threatening losses this fall.
Republicans pounce on every sign of Democratic discord, seemingly confident of a political payoff after a two-year campaign to kill whatever White Houses-backed legislation they could while slowing the rest.
This past weekend, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs strayed across the well-defined party line when he said "there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control" of the House. There was no notification in advance to discomfited senior Democrats.
"What we are saying is it won't happen," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said Tuesday, the head of the party's campaign committee laboring to minimize the impact on fundraising and morale. Gibbs clarified, 48 hours after his initial remark, to say that he wasn't predicting the loss of the House. But by then, a Washington Post-ABC Poll showed public confidence in President Barack Obama at a new low, and that only one-quarter of those surveyed believe the economy is improving.
Republicans have had plenty of other material to work with — the administration's decision to file suit against Arizona's immigration law, the House's recent decision to skip a full-scale budget debate, and Obama bypassing the Senate and granting a recess appointment to a new director for the agency that oversees Medicare and more.
The decision to file a lawsuit challenging the Arizona law pleased critics who attack the measure as mean-spirited, racist and even unconstitutional. But several congressional Democratic officials argue privately it was aimed at helping the president in his 2012 re-election campaign and will hurt more than help the party's incumbents this fall.
There was public as well as private criticism.
Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat who won her once Republican seat in 2006, told the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that the law was both divisive and would create burdens for law enforcement agencies already stretched thin. But she quickly added she disagreed with the administration's decision to file a legal challenge.
"The irony of the lawsuit is its premise that (the state law) intrudes on the federal government's responsibility to enforce immigration laws. Had the federal government taken that responsibility seriously, neither this week's lawsuit nor the state law that prompted it would be necessary," she said.
Democratic governors voiced concerns over the weekend in a private meeting with White House officials.
Separately, the president's decision to bypass the Senate and install Dr. Donald Berwick as head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid appeared designed to deny Republicans a platform for renewing charges that rationing would result from the landmark health care law approved earlier in the year.
"It's unfortunate that at a time when our nation is facing enormous challenges, many in Congress have decided to delay critical nominations for political purposes," Obama said in a written statement as he gave recess appointments to Berwick and two other nominees.
Republicans have, in fact, blocked or stalled dozens of administration appointees in the past 18 months, but this was not one of them.
In Berwick's case, they said Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee, turned down their request to hold a hearing on the nomination last month, while the panel was still reviewing Berwick's background. The Montana Democrat subsequently issued a statement mildly critical of Obama, saying, "Senate confirmation of presidential appointees is an essential process prescribed by the Constitution that serves as a check on executive power."
Republicans reacted predictably, in rhetoric seemingly aimed at their own political base.
"What is this administration trying to hide?" Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., asked during a speech Tuesday in the Senate.
Answering his own question, he quoted Berwick: "The decision is not whether or not we will ration care. The decision is whether we will ration with our eyes open." The Harvard professor, he said, is Obama's "health care rationing czar."
Across the Capitol, House Democrats decided weeks ago against drafting a full-scale budget to guide spending and tax decisions for the next several years, the first time in decades either party has flinched from the task. Republicans gleefully recirculated criticism that Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., hurled against them when the two houses failed to produce a compromise plan in 2006: "If you can't budget, you can't govern."
The Democratic leadership opted for a one-year approach, saying they would reduce spending below Obama's recommendations. Their calculation was that the alternative would expose deep fault lines among the rank and file and risk a humiliating legislative defeat in an election year.
On one side of the divide are liberals in safe seats, generally willing to raise spending to stimulate the economy, often also ready to raise taxes, and less worried about voter anger over rising deficits.
On the other are moderates and conservatives in swing seats, far more concerned about soaring deficits, yet loath to raise taxes and trigger opposition from deep-pocketed business groups this fall.
There are more of the first, but not enough to enact Obama's ambitious agenda.
Many in the second group were elected for the first time in 2006 and 2008, when Democrats gained a total of 53 House seats, and now seek re-election for the first time in a difficult political environment.
"Democrats now hold almost every swing district in the country as a result of our successes in 2006 and 2008," said Van Hollen.
Not for long, judging by the Democrats' own actions.
EDITOR'S NOTE: David Espo is The Associated Press' chief congressional correspondent.