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Parties Step Up Floor Messages

With Senate Republicans and Democrats fighting to a legislative standstill on a variety of fronts, both parties have ramped up their efforts to score political and rhetorical victories on the chamber’s floor.

Democrats, who have long relied on their communications “war room,” recently instructed their Senators to begin flooding the daily floor schedule to respond more forcefully to GOP criticism and promote the party’s agenda message of the day.

At the same time, Republican Senators have added to their growing communications apparatus by assembling a new Senatorial whip team to monitor legislative activity, coordinate the daily party platform and enlist Senators to use the floor to promote their message.

“There’s a recognition that we have to do it all, and we have to do it all well,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is charged with running the GOP’s floor message.

Unlike Republicans, Democrats have had a leadership-driven communications structure in place since 2005, designed to coordinate Senators’ message and response to the GOP. That operation remains intact, but now that the party is in the majority, leadership sources say they must do more — both offensively and defensively.

“We can’t grow complacent,” said one Senate Democratic leadership aide. “We’re only a few months in but you have to start with message discipline early. You don’t wait until your backs are up against the wall.”

The aide added, “Being in the majority, you’ve got a target on you. It’s as important to respond to untrue criticism as it is to promote a positive message.”

In conjunction with Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Caucus Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.) is running the Democrats’ latest message strategy, which sets a goal of organizing as many Senators as possible to use the chamber to respond to Republican attacks, promote party priorities and advance individual Senators’ proposals.

“We need to make sure [the public] understands what we are fighting for as Democrats,” Murray said.

As for the timing — a quarter into the first year of the 110th Congress — Murray said it couldn’t be more appropriate for Democrats to put a new premium to their overall communications effort. Freshmen have had time to assimilate to the Senate, and the party has had a chance to find its stride as a new majority, she said.

“We’re at the point where people are feeling more comfortable in their roles and now have the time to focus,” Murray said. “We now really have the time to look and see how to use all of our tools more effectively.”

The push was highlighted last week in an e-mail to Senate Democratic offices — tagged as a “renewed message effort” — calling on all Senators to volunteer to speak on the issues driving the debate, notably on the ongoing stalemate over the emergency supplemental spending bill for the Iraq War.

“They could be five-minute riffs, 10-minute outlines, 30-minute rants,” the message from Murray’s office tells Senators. “Anything that gets your boss to the floor. … The effort begins now.”

Republican Senators, meantime, have been quietly orchestrating their new floor-message strategy for several weeks, assembling a team of about a dozen Senators who are charged with tracking the day’s activities and lining up their colleagues to hit the floor to speak on the party’s behalf. Cornyn said the operation still is coming together, but Republicans are making progress, noting that during the recent stem-cell debate the Republicans armed and enlisted 22 Senators to the floor to try to counter the Democrats’ 28 speakers.

“We’re in the early stages, but we’re starting to get our sea legs,” Cornyn said.

The group includes Cornyn and GOP Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.), as well as Sens. Bob Bennett (Utah), Richard Burr (N.C.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), Jim DeMint (S.C.), Judd Gregg (N.H.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Mel Martinez (Fla.), John Thune (S.D.) and Craig Thomas (Wyo.). The group, which meets each Tuesday, has been scouting out the week’s events, monitoring the day’s activities and giving Senators consistent, simple messages to use in verbal combat with Democrats.

One Republican leadership aide said that while the GOP can no longer steer the agenda, it can have an influence, especially in a chamber divided by a narrow margin of two.

“We can win the debate, even when we lose a vote,” this staffer said.

Kyl said that Republicans have been working for months to get their communications structure in place, understanding it is a critical part of the minority party’s success this Congress. Republicans were widely criticized in 2006 for failing to articulate their vision and accomplishments, and have since tried to redouble their efforts including by creating a communications center under Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

“Now our folks realize — if we don’t act together as a team, it’s hard to get our message out,” Kyl said.

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