Midterm Elections Looming Large in Senate Agenda

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) speaks to members of the media after the Senate Democratic weekly policy luncheon November 19, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
Feb. 9, 2014, 7:34 a.m.

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.

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