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Senators Enter Spin Cycle

Following a week of virtual gridlock over the Iraq War debate that left little for either side to gloat about, Senate Democrats and Republicans today will begin competing public relations campaigns designed to secure some stronger political ground heading into the first recess of the 110th Congress.

Democrats will spend the coming days trying to increase party momentum under the broad message that the voters put them in charge because they wanted change, and the majority has started to deliver. Republicans, meanwhile, will use the week to poke holes in the Democrats’ initial stewardship of the chamber, while outlining the specifics of a Congressional agenda they hope to sell to the public in the coming months.

Senate Democrats started to set the tone last week, arguing that they have made a strong case over the past two months that they are delivering change and insisting on accountability from the Bush administration. The Democrats will use this week and the recess to tout passage of an ethics package and a minimum-wage increase, while reiterating their resolve to oppose the president’s call to increase U.S. troops in Iraq.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said late last week that despite the logjam over how to debate the troop surge, he believes “the American public is satisfied with what is happening.” And, he added, “The American public is watching what we’re doing and is pretty happy with it.”

But Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) suggested that the Democrats shouldn’t be patting themselves on the back so fast: “We’ve been here two months and not one bill we’ve passed has been signed into law and we’ve only done two” bills.

The Senate has moved at a slower clip than the House, where Democrats with a 15-seat advantage have passed numerous bills and are set to do this week what the Senate could not — debate a resolution opposing Bush’s troop increase. Senate Democrats have a much bigger challenge given they have a narrow two-seat majority and the chamber’s rules afford the minority significant power.

Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledge that pace is likely to slow even more in the coming weeks as the Senate considers more controversial legislation and the 2008 elections muddy motivations. “It’s going to get harder,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley conceded. “Last week was probably only a taste of what’s to come. As everyone understands, a determined minority can be effective at thwarting the will of the majority.”

As such, GOP Senators have focused much of their energy over the first seven-week legislative stretch on trying to amend Democratic proposals, beginning with the ethics package and including the wage hike and the Iraq resolution debate. But Republicans also will try to move beyond the Democrats’ agenda this week when they lay out a detailed blueprint of their priorities for the 110th Congress.

“It was Republicans that made earmark reform part of the lobby reform bill to protect against waste; it was Republicans that ensured that tax relief was added to the minimum-wage bill to protect jobs; and it was Republicans that kept the funding bill within the administration’s budget to protect taxpayers,” argued Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “We promised reform and bipartisan accomplishments. We’ve delivered both.”

Sources familiar with the Republicans’ plans say GOP leaders, led by Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.), will arm Senators with their new agenda heading into the break. Still in the works, the Republicans’ agenda will center on fiscal discipline, tax relief, health care and energy reform, fair treatment of judicial nominations, immigration reform and the war on terrorism, sources said.

“We’re going to have a very positive message we can carry to our constituents,” Kyl said.

At the same time, Reid’s office late Friday circulated recess packages to Democratic Caucus members focusing on “a message of accomplishments,” a senior aide to Reid said. According to this source, Caucus members are being asked to spend much of the recess focusing on legislation passed thus far in the 110th — including ethics reform, the fiscal 2007 continuing resolution and minimum-wage legislation.

Reid also has asked Caucus members to use those themes to contrast themselves with the “do-nothing Congress” of the 109th to boost Democrats’ image as being more ethical and fiscally responsible than the GOP.

Reid’s communications “war room” has included a series of talking points and background documents as part of the recess package, as well as examples of the types of events they should hold. For instance, Reid suggests Caucus members arrange to tour the facilities of a local company that will be increasing workers’ wages to meet the minimum wage. Likewise, members are being encouraged to hold a press event with a group of women who currently make the minimum wage to highlight the impact on women.

Additionally, Democrats have been asked to highlight the Republican filibuster of Sen. John Warner’s (R-Va.) resolution opposing President Bush’s Iraq War “surge” proposal while in their home states.

The Senate was set to consider the troop surge early last week, but the GOP mounted a procedural block to moving forward on the matter — unhappy with the conditions of the debate laid out by the Democrats. In the end, the Democrats backed out of the negotiations and opted to punt the issue until after the House debates it this week and after Senators return to Capitol Hill following a week off.

Democratic sources explained that although Reid wanted to complete work on the resolution before the recess, his Caucus members now can paint Republicans as out of step with a public increasingly unhappy with the war — and also put pressure on vulnerable Republicans to break with their party and support the resolution.

Arguably, both parties have some ground to make up. While Republicans got much of the blame for the impasse over the Iraq resolution, leaders maintain that they simply are digging in for minority Senate rights. Late last week, McConnell still refused to concede a loss for his party, saying: “It’s not about keeping score. This is an extraordinarily important issue.”

But Democrats seem to be taking a tally and giving themselves points for pushing back against the Republicans and for their overall handling of their seven weeks of leading Congress for the first time in practically 12 years.

“Congress is beginning to play its role again,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Caucus vice chairman. “We’re feeling pretty good.”

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