Senate Dems Very Carefully Plot 2014 Strategy

With midterms ahead, Democrats are avoiding divisive issues — and, in some cases, President Obama.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 16: (L-R) U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) arrive at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol January 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. Reid and other Senate Democratic leaders spoke on pending legislation to extend unemployment insurance. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
National Journal
Michael Catalin
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Michael Catalin
Jan. 30, 2014, 2:48 p.m.

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.”

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