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Will ‘Obstructionist’ Label Stick?

Stuck in legislative gridlock, the Senate floor is instead turning into a testing ground for what will likely be dueling campaign themes for the next six months: obstructionist Democrats versus do-nothing Republicans.

Stymied by their inability to get around Democratic attempts to force votes on key amendments, Senate Republicans have, at least for the short run, opted for an approach geared toward driving home the message that Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) is not letting them move their agenda.

Walking out of the Senate at the conclusion of another unproductive day in the chamber, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) summed up the frustrations last week with one word said over and over again: “Obstruction, obstruction, obstruction — every bill.”

But Democrats contend that the Republicans will not be able to use that label again this election cycle, saying the GOP controls the White House, House and Senate.

The GOP inability to get anything accomplished legislatively, if that continues, will be turned against Republicans in the fall, and is already being turned against them in battling floor speeches that each side has resorted to during downtime from the dearth of legislative activity.

“The do-nothing part is real, because we’re not doing anything,” Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said last week, concluding a two-week run in which there were a total of three votes cast.

Like other Democrats, Dorgan blames Republicans for not wanting to vote on the Democratic amendments on issues that they believe are politically popular, including provisions protecting overtime and increasing the minimum wage.

“We don’t like their obstructionism on our amendments,” he said. “They don’t want to vote on them, so they shut the Senate down.”

Republicans insist that they are willing to allow the Democrats a few of their amendments to be voted on but only if they can get an agreement that the bill will move to a vote on final passage, an agreement that hasn’t been reached yet given lingering Democratic objections to how House-Senate conferences have been handled in the past.

So the GOP has opted for a strategy of “turning up the volume,” according to a Republican aide. The effort is being coordinated by Sens. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), Republican Conference Chairman and Vice Chairwoman, respectively.

Efforts are under way to round up more and more Senators to go to the floor to speak out on Democratic obstructionism, as well as more press conferences on the issue. A particular emphasis is also being placed on finding GOP Senators who are not the usual suspects in launching partisan attacks to build more credibility for the effort and to broaden the potential media coverage, according to a GOP aide.

The effort, partially laid out in a memo last week, got its kick-start on Thursday at a pen-and-pad briefing in one of the Senate’s press galleries led by Santorum, possibly the most outspoken critic of Daschle and Democrats the past few years. At either side of Santorum were two other frequent critics of Democrats, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).

But Republicans also brought with them Sens. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) to fire attacks at the Democrats, focusing on bills to promote job growth that they alleged Democrats were blocking. Enzi, who has kept a generally low partisan profile in his seven-plus years in the chamber, fired one of the sharpest salvos: “You can’t have a blanket obstructionist policy and get away with it.”

Democrats are openly disdainful of the idea that Republicans are crafting memos and strategies to pressure Democrats and regain control of the legislative momentum on the floor. “The fact that they need a strategy to take back a Senate that they already control speaks volumes,” said Todd Webster, Daschle’s spokesman, adding Democrats plan to continually highlight “the inability of the majority to run the Senate.”

“Republicans can make all the excuses they want,” Webster said. “Pointing fingers and whining and assessing blame is not leadership.”

Not wanting to be pegged as purely against the GOP agenda, Senate Democrats are working in teams of message groups to be able to craft their own set of floor speakers who will counter the GOP’s floor attacks by laying out a set of Democratic values and priorities.

Election years are always regarded as difficult to pass legislation because of the heightened political tension heading into November. And this year’s total of floor votes in the first quarter is not necessarily out of line with recent years, according to a Democratic analysis of voting trends.

So far this year the Senate has conducted 64 roll call votes, far fewer than the 112 that were cast in the first three months of 2003. However, in 2003 the Senate had to pass 11 appropriations bills that were left-over from 2002, creating an inflated level of votes for the month of January. In the first three months of 2002 there were 59 roll call votes, and there were 63 in the first quarter of 2001.

Still, Democrats and Republicans say they see few ways out of their current logjam on legislation, making it possible if not likely that a few big appropriations bills — bundled together in a few packages rather than passing all 13 separately — might be the only achievement of the second session of the 108th Congress.

That predicament sets up a monthslong battle for winning the message wars of obstructionists versus do-nothings.

Republicans know that the bar will be higher for them than in 2002, when Democrats held the majority, but contend that the political climate still suits them in races throughout the country.

“We’re in good shape,” Frist said. “There’s no burden.”

Some GOP aides privately said it will be a tough task given the difficulties in explaining the nature of cloture motions and other parliamentary tactics to a public not well-versed in Robert’s Rules of Order.

“Can we communicate that, despite the fact that we’re in the majority, they’re obstructionists? Can we make that argument? That remains to be seen,” one aide said.

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