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Obama encountering growing election-year dissent from Democrats

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May 14, 2014: President Barack Obama speaks to the media at the Washington Irving Boat Club in Tarrytown, N.Y. (AP)

President Barack Obama is encountering an increasingly resistant Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers in his party break with him on a series of issues in the run-up to the November elections.

On issues such as judicial nominees, the Keystone XL pipeline, taxes and trade, the fraying party unity is a sign that individual Democrats have reached a point where their own re-election needs take precedence over Mr. Obama's goals.

It is a common election-year posture for lawmakers from the same party as the sitting president, especially one whose popularity has waned, as Mr. Obama's has. But Democrats' recent moves to demonstrate their independence are forcing Mr. Obama to compromise on an agenda already largely opposed by Republicans. And it comes at a point in his presidency when time is running short to accomplish his goals.

In the past week, Democrats have diverged from the White House over its insistence that the cost of extending certain tax breaks due to expire should be offset with tax increases and other measures, so as not to add to the deficit.

Other Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, expressed opposition to one of Mr. Obama's judicial nominees. Mr. Reid and more than 40 Democratic senators also signed a letter to the administration voicing concern about its preliminary decision to exempt South Korea from a trade-policing mechanism.

"This is part of the Catch-22 about second terms: Members want to get re-elected, and the president wants to have his agenda. Those don't always sync," said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist and former chief of staff to Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.).

There are some ways in which divisions with the White House could be useful to Democrats in the midterm election. Mr. Obama opted to delay, likely until after the elections, a decision on construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which Republicans and some Democrats on the November ballot support. Vulnerable Democratic senators in swing states who back the pipeline and want Mr. Obama to support it used his decision to show their independence from the White House, Democratic officials say.

The White House also had to contend with Senate Democrats who want to vote on the pipeline despite Mr. Obama's position.

The White House, including Mr. Obama, held a series of meetings with congressional Democrats earlier this year to try to minimize party splits leading up to the midterms. The president's team crafted an agenda under the theme of providing Americans with increased economic opportunities, after getting support from key Democrats. The aim was to rally Democrats around policies such as raising the minimum wage, providing equal pay for women and making college more affordable.

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