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Budget Bill Proves Perfect Flashpoint For Debate Among Democrats

Did the nail biter of a vote on the government funding bill expose rifts in the Democratic party that will cause the White House headaches next year?

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The Senate could vote as soon as today on a $1.1 trillion government funding bill. That's the measure that almost did not make it out of the House of Representatives yesterday. The reason? - conservative Republicans refused to vote for it, and progressive Democrats refuse to vote for it, too. NPR's Tamara Keith reports on the Democratic debate over whether to compromise.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The rift in the Republican Party between the Tea Party conservative-we-were-sent-here-to-take-a-stand wing and the pro-business-America-wants-us-to-govern wing is pretty well documented. But a similar soul-searching is happening on the opposite end of the political spectrum. And this week's fight over the big government spending bill threw it right into the open.

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SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: Who does Congress work for?

KEITH: Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, is the face of an economic populist movement on the left. She rallied House Democrats and spoke on the Senate floor against the bill.

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WARREN: Does it work for the millionaires, the billionaires, the giant companies with their armies of lobbyists and lawyers? Or does it work for all the people?

KEITH: In addition to funding the government, the bill also allows a huge increase in campaign contributions to political parties. And it chips away at financial industry regulations. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and progressive Democrats opposed it. President Obama joined House GOP leaders in whipping up votes in support. His argument - Democrats aren't going to have more leverage next year when Republicans control the House and Senate. So why let the perfect be the enemy of the good?

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This, by definition, was a compromise bill. This is what's produced when you have the divided government that the American people voted for.

KEITH: In the end, 139 House Democrats voted against the compromise, but 57 sided with the president - enough for it to pass. Charles Chamberlain is executive director of Democracy for America, one of several groups trying to recruit Elizabeth Warren to run for president in 2016.

CHARLES CHAMBERLAIN: I'm not going to try to spin this lose as a victory. Of course, it wasn't, but this isn't the end to the fight. This is only the beginning.

KEITH: The bipartisan compromise-budget bill proved the perfect flashpoint for what had been a brewing debate among Democrats. Stephanie Taylor is co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

STEPHANIE TAYLOR: We see a huge internal schism in the Democratic Party between the Wall Street wing and Elizabeth Warren wing. I think that the Democratic Party is really going to need to go through a soul-searching moment to figure out what its direction is going to be.

KEITH: Among progressives like Taylor, there is suspicion towards President Obama and concern that he will compromise too much over the next two years with the new Republican majority in Congress.

TAYLOR: People want to vote for fighters and leaders. They don't want to vote for people who are caving and people who are compromising.

KEITH: As Taylor sees it, this is an inflection point for the Democratic Party. Anna Greenberg agrees. She's a Democratic pollster.

ANNA GREENBERG: I think there's a sense that we need 2016 to be about something. And if we're not picking these fights and we're not expressing, you know, our voice around these compromises that are unacceptable, then what is 2016 going to be about? Then, everyone's just a mush in Washington. Everybody's the same.

KEITH: If this sounds familiar, it should. Tea Party Republicans have been delivering a very similar message to their party leaders. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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