Fully 10 months before a vote is cast, the Senate is in full election mode, with both parties shifting the action to fit their strategies.
The Democratic majority is putting forward its vulnerable incumbents to promote popular bills, while keeping the Senate's agenda focused on a cadre of economic issues that force Republicans to take unflattering votes. Republicans, meanwhile, have a more favorable electoral map and are following an anti-Obamacare script while attempting to tie Democrats to the most unpopular parts of President Obama's record.
On the economic front, Democrats have held five votes on unemployment insurance (seven if you count Republican procedural motions). On Thursday, Republicans blocked both a paid-for and an unpaid-for three-month extension. The issue united Democrats and gave them an opportunity to pound Republicans.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, for example, stood near a television prop that showed the number of long-term unemployed, which stands at more than 1.7 million, according to Democratic estimates.
"From the time I walked in here till now, we have 102 new people because of Republicans' obstruction," he said.
Democrats aren't done with the issue. Reid promises to bring it up again, along with a minimum-wage hike and a bill to ensure equal pay for women doing equal work as men.
But that's just a piece of what Democrats are doing. Politically vulnerable Democrats are also promoting popular pieces of legislation.
On Monday, for example, Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas is the lead sponsor of a bill getting a vote next week to undo the unpopular military cost-of-living-adjustment measure that passed as part of the December budget deal. Also this week, the Senate might take up a bill cosponsored by Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. The Bipartisan Sportsmen's Act has a number of provisions, including one that permits electronic duck stamps and exempts lead fishing tackle from certain regulations.
Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska has come to the fore as a leading proponent of the Keystone XL pipeline, an issue that divides the Democratic caucus. Last week, after the State Department's environmental report found the pipeline would not significantly affect climate change, Begich called on the White House to green-light the project.
"We've cleared all the hurdles," Begich said. "It went through the environmental process. It's resolved a lot of the issues. So I don't know what the biggest hang-up is here. We should get this done."
Sen. Mary Landrieu, who faces a tough contest in Louisiana against GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy, helped pass a bipartisan bill that prevents flood-insurance premiums from spiking. It's an issue that provides her a point of contrast with the White House, which has said it opposes parts of the law—though it stopped short of saying the president would veto the legislation.
Democrats also got a political boost late last week when Montana Gov. Steve Bullock named Lt. Gov. John Walsh as interim successor to Max Baucus, who was confirmed as Obama's ambassador to China on Thursday. Walsh's appointment gives him a head start in a race against incumbent GOP Rep. Steve Daines in a red state.
"John is the kind of guy who may not agree with the party on every single issue, but he has the selflessness and courage to always do what he thinks is right for Montana, and that is exactly the kind of leadership we need here in the U.S. Senate," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet said in a statement.
For their part, Republicans are again jabbing Obama over the Internal Revenue Service, which last year admitted to profiling tea-party groups seeking 501(c)(4) status—groups whose focus must primarily be social welfare, not politics.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, locked in his own reelection fight with primary and general opponents, is calling on the IRS to back down from a proposed regulation that would change how the agency calculates political activity when deciding 501(c)(4) status.
"The Obama Administration's proposed rule has almost nothing to do with actual tax policy. It's more about making harassment of its political opponents the official policy of the IRS. And that's completely unacceptable," McConnell said last week.
This article appears in the February 10, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.