Last month, it became clear that President Obama wasn’t prepared to draw a line in the sand when it came to the fight over the debt ceiling. The White House had asked for a clean bill, but quickly signaled its willingness to negotiate with Republicans.

Why? In large part because too many congressional Democrats were buying into the GOP line, pushing for deficit cuts as a requirement for doing the right thing.

This month, Democratic leaders are gearing up for a major budget fight and want to offer a strong counter-weight to Republican extremism, but it’s off to a rough start. Why? In large part because too many congressional Democrats are buying into the GOP line, balking at progressive tax increases.

At issue for Democrats is whether the party risks going overboard in its embrace of tax increases — a perilous proposition for lawmakers from political battlegrounds.

Those tensions erupted at a private meeting this week of a handful of key Democratic members.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), facing reelection next year, spoke up to oppose a plan being drafted by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad that would impose a new surtax on millionaires of about three percent on top of the higher tax rates they would face when the George W. Bush tax cuts expire next year, according to several people familiar with the exchange. […]

Several centrist Democrats have been voicing concern in private sessions that Conrad’s draft may be shifting too far to the left in order to placate liberals on the committee whose votes are needed to move the legislation, according to aides.

The idea among leading Dems is to create some kind of balance. House Republicans have already approved their radical budget agenda and are gearing up for heated negotiations. Senate Dems would ideally be able to respond with a more liberal alternative, not only because it’d be a better budget, but also because it would lay down a marker towards a less right-wing compromise down the road.

But “centrist” Dems don’t want to support a progressive budget alternative, because they’re afraid voters might get mad at them.

You’ll notice, of course, that Republicans don’t have this problem. The GOP leadership embraces a far-right vision, and the rank-and-file go along.

With Democrats, nothing is ever this easy. Moderate Dems are quick to accept the Republican premise on the debt ceiling and taxes, and a handful of Dems are even leaning right when it comes to subsidies for the oil industry.

Herding cats has to be easier than this.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.