Democrats Reach Out to Kerry, As GOP Pounces

Posted March 3, 2004 at 5:03pm

House Democratic leaders wasted no time Wednesday rallying around Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), and called on their presumptive presidential nominee to meet with them in the next two weeks to plot message and a strategy heading into the 2004 elections.

The move came as Congressional Republicans ramped up their attacks on Kerry and began setting the stage for what could be a brutal political season.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.), who endorsed the Senator last week, said he has already asked Kerry’s staff to schedule a time for him to attend a Democratic Caucus meeting.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) also made a personal call to Kerry to congratulate him and urge him to meet with House Democrats, and her staff is planning a sit-down with the presidential hopeful’s campaign as early as next week to talk about ways to work together.

“She wants to make sure we have fusion — whether the economy, national security, deficit reduction,” said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly.

House Democratic leaders say they want to meet with Kerry as soon as possible to begin building stronger relationships and work on coordinating their election year message. They have reached out in the same vein to Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe to meet with lawmakers.

“We want to be as vigorous in our coordination of our message as we humanly can,” Menendez said. “The more we can coordinate our message and issues and give his message and echo, the better off Democrats in the House and Senate and Senator Kerry will be.”

Steve Elmendorf, the former House leadership aide now working on the Kerry campaign, said his boss also wants to meet with House Members as quickly as possible to unify the party against President Bush and Congressional Republicans.

“Kerry is anxious to do a Caucus in both the Senate and the House,” Elmendorf said, adding that the only obstacle is scheduling.

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) said House Democrats are excited about their nominee-elect, adding that it is “critical” that Kerry sit down in the immediate future with House Members.

“If this is going to be a marriage, we need to make sure it’s not an arranged marriage,” Hastings quipped.

Senior House Democratic aides said Kerry, who has served in the Senate for 20 years, lacks close relationships with most House Members. But throughout the Caucus, Members insisted there are no negative feelings toward Kerry, and they are delighted the long primary season has given them a nominee to carry the party megaphone.

They also said Kerry’s longtime friend, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), will continue to be the lead conduit between the presidential campaign and the chamber.

“He has the trust of Kerry, and he’s well-respected within the Caucus,” said one senior Democratic aide.

Democratic Members and aides stressed that while the party itself is together and they share the same ideological principles as Kerry, they do not expect to tailor their legislative agenda around the Massachusetts Senator’s proposals.

They noted that one of the starkest differences will play out in the next two weeks when Democrats unveil their budget proposal, which will not mirror Kerry’s presidential blueprint.

House Democrats must put forth a budget that reduces the deficit and keeps spending in check. Broad increases in spending and new proposals — such as Kerry’s health care plan — will be difficult for party leaders to promote given the current economic landscape.

“That’s always going to be the case,” one Democratic leadership aide said of presidential and Congressional priorities. “But on the core principles that define us as Democrats, we are united.”

Republicans on both sides of the Capitol also focused their efforts on Kerry, holding dual news conferences Wednesday in which they attacked the Democratic presidential nominee’s legislative record. House GOP leaders previewed their most likely lines of attack against Kerry, painting the Massachusetts Democrat as a stereotypical tax-and-spend liberal.

“The Kerry plan is simple: Add more money to our national deficit; spend more money here in Washington; and raise taxes on job creation,” said Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “My friends, the Kerry plan does not add up. We don’t need more deficit spending, and we don’t need a return to the tax-and-spend days of the old Democrats.”

On the Senate side, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) on Wednesday described Kerry as the “the most liberal United States Senator today” and rattled off a number of legislative initiatives from the gun-liability legislation to asbestos reform bill as examples where the GOP and Kerry part ways.

Frist acknowledged that the presidential campaign would be fought partly in the Senate chamber — Kerry’s home base since 1985 — and the side of the Capitol where the Democratic minority wields considerable influence over the fate of President Bush’s agenda.

“The presidential race may play out in part on the floor of the United States Senate,” Frist said. “It is almost inevitable when you have one of your colleagues running who has six or seven thousand votes both in terms of history, but also we will be voting on a lot of the issues we have before us.”

Mark Preston contributed to this report.