Mindful of competitive races in conservative states, Senate Democrats are building out an agenda for the rest of 2014, taking up the populist parts of President Obama's State of the Union and laying aside issues that stir intraparty division.
Exposed on Obamacare and saddled with a still-sluggish economy, Democrats have focused on pocketbook issues like the minimum wage and unemployment insurance. They said for weeks they would wait until the president's address to lay out their full 2014 game plan.
Now they are expanding their agenda to accommodate a gender wage-gap bill and will continue to hash out the details of their strategy at their annual retreat next week at Nationals Park.
"We are certainly going to be focused on, along with the president, making sure the economy really works for everyone, the majority of Americans," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who along with Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York is organizing the event again this year.
But don't expect Democrats to shepherd each piece of the president's agenda through the chamber. Majority Leader Harry Reid, an opponent of fast-tracking trade bills through Congress, differs with Obama over the bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority legislation that House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus unveiled a few weeks ago.
Likewise on Iran, a number of Democrats have joined with Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois seeking tighter sanctions; though, unlike with TPA, Reid has been willing up to this point to toe the White House's line.
Despite the differences, Democrats are conscious of presenting a united front, a key contrast with Republicans whose split over legislative tactics in the fall resulted in the shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis.
Democrats are not immune from disagreements with their colleagues, though. A handful of Democrats—Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas—face grueling reelection contests in red states, and have been eager to contrast themselves with Obama and their liberal colleagues.
With the Senate majority potentially on the line, Democrats are honing a strategy aimed at avoiding divisive issues and embracing poll-tested measures. So is there any concern that pursuing Obama's agenda could hurt vulnerable Democrats? Democrats say the answer depends on the issue.
"If we're talking about the minimum wage and college affordability and the long-term unemployed, that's an issue that cuts across every state," said Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. "With those three issues? No."
Democratic leaders also are rejecting the notion that the taint of pushing the Obama agenda could hurt in the midterms, which do not historically favor the party of presidents in their sixth year in office.
"Just the opposite is true," said Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin. "Every one of them has said this is bringing it down to middle-class issues. Helping them earn more and be more secure are winning issues in November."
To that end, Reid plans to bring a bill to the floor soon that Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland introduced a year ago. The Paycheck Fairness Act has 50 cosponsors, but Republicans already blocked it once before, suggesting that Democrats don't expect to see the legislation become law.
Indeed, House and Senate Republicans are not likely to give the signature Democratic initiatives the support they'll need to put them on the president's desk.
Plus, despite a recent outbreak of bipartisan cooperation on budget and spending measures, Democrats are gearing up for a fight over the debt ceiling, warning Republicans they will not negotiate spending cuts in exchange for hiking the limit.
Bashing the GOP over the debt ceiling has become as much an arrow in the Democrats' political quiver as they expect the economic issues will be. Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray of Washington has recently increased her pleas to Republicans not to hold the debt limit "hostage," and on Wednesday Democrats met with Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew behind closed doors in the Capitol to discuss the high-stakes deadline, which he said could be reached in late February or early March, according to Senate Democratic aides.
"We just had a budget agreement. We have appropriations; we determined where our spending is going to be," Murray said Wednesday. "We have to pay our bills for that."
This article appears in the January 31, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.