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Senate Democrats Battle Back

Senate Democrats are ramping up communications efforts, hoping to combat well-coordinated Republican accusations that they are purposely obstructing legislation on the Senate floor.

Democrats charge that Republicans are misstating their commitment to completing work on big-ticket items, ranging from the establishment of an asbestos trust fund to the JOBS bill (FSC-ETI), among others. To the contrary, Democrats accused Republicans of blocking progress on these and other bills and vowed to publicize it when given the chance.

“The more aggressive Democratic effort is necessary, because Republicans have shown a breathtaking capacity for spreading misinformation,” said Todd Webster, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). “And the best way to combat their spin is with the unvarnished truth.”

In addition to an aggressive public questioning of GOP statements, Daschle’s office has been issuing periodic e-mail bulletins to update Democratic offices and K Street allies about ongoing negotiations on key bills. Senior Democratic staffers have also made it a top priority to disseminate timely information to liberal magazines and left-of-center bloggers, the independent and widely read opinion writers of the World Wide Web.

Daschle’s “Leader Alert” bulletins began in April and offer a mixture of scathing critiques of Republican negotiating tactics and informational updates on the issues of the day. In an April 23 alert, Democrats sharply criticized Republicans for the lack of legislative activity in the Senate calling it “a typical week in the ‘Do Nothing’ Senate.’”

“In the past four legislative weeks, there have been only nine votes on the Senate floor,” said the alert, which was e-mailed to Democratic staffers and allies. It went on to provide a “snapshot” update on the current negotiations regarding asbestos, JOBS (FSC-ETI) and the Internet tax moratorium.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) scoffed at the Democrats’ efforts to counter the GOP’s obstructionist charge.

“Facts are a very tricky and a very sticky thing,” he said. “The fact is they are doing it. The proof is in the pudding. We are not getting anything done because they are not letting us do anything.”

K Street Democrats said they welcomed the new line of communication from Capitol Hill, because they argue that up until now the GOP has done a better job on relaying its message to Republican lobbyists downtown.

“It is important to provide our clients with unfiltered information about where Democrats actually are, as opposed to the spin the business community sometimes gets from the majority,” said Rich Tarplin, a managing partner at Timmons and Company.

The Democratic communications effort on K Street effort is being spearheaded by Paul Bock and Jonathon Jones, who serve as chiefs-of-staffs to Sens. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.), respectively. The group was formed last year with only a handful of lobbyists. It has since grown to about 40 people meeting twice a month. A representative of Daschle’s staff attends each meeting.

Jones said no lobbying takes place at the meetings. Rather, the group talks strategy about what bills are on the floor as well as the upcoming legislative agenda. He said the “genesis” of the group began after Democratic Hill aides-turned-lobbyists spoke openly about how their Republican colleagues were kept abreast of legislative developments by the Senate GOP leadership.

“It is critical to counter the spin of the Republicans because on a variety of issues, whether it is asbestos reform or the FSC bill or the class action bill … there are a lot of Democrats who are working very hard to come to those solutions and get the legislation passed,” said Bock. “It is very frustrating to hear from K Street that you guys are blocking all of this stuff.”

While Democrats said they are not trying to model their strategy sessions after similar meetings Santorum has successfully convened for several years, some Democratic lobbyists grudgingly acknowledge that the GOP leadership’s connection to K Street is nearly seamless.

“I think they have been very effective, not only because they use weekly internal meetings but they have gotten used to reading off the same script,” said a Democratic lobbyist, who requested anonymity. “It is an uphill battle but their tactics need to be heard.”

K Street Democrats were particularly pleased when Daschle publicly rebuked Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist last week after the Tennessee Republican accused Democrats of holding up the JOBS (FSC-ETI) bill. Daschle countered that it was Frist who had failed to pare down the number of amendments that his Republican colleagues wanted to offer as well as agree to a time frame in which to debate the bill.

“I appreciate that the stakes for our respective political parties and the country are high,” Daschle wrote Frist in a April 28 letter. “However, that does not justify assigning responsibility for bad behavior not supported by fact.”