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Democrats Fight ‘Do-Nothing’ Tag

In a clear signal that Senate Democrats anticipate a pummeling from Republicans on their record so far, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is taking nearly every opportunity to tout the bipartisan legislation the chamber has passed, while simultaneously appearing to set new, lower expectations for the Democratic Congress.

The message strategy that Reid and other Democrats have been employing underscores the majority’s growing unease about being tagged by the minority — as the GOP was — as a “do-nothing Congress.” It also demonstrates a realization among Democrats that to grow their numbers in the Senate in 2008, they must convince voters that they made the right call in November.

“I thought it was important to point out to the Senate and to the country what we’ve accomplished during this six months we’ve been in session,” Reid said Wednesday on the Senate floor. “We’ve had some hurdles to go through and as a result of that, it’s taken a little longer on most everything, but we’ve made some significant accomplishments.”

Reid’s list of Democratic domestic achievements, not all of which have become law, includes a minimum-wage increase, a 2008 budget plan, a stem-cell research bill, funding for children’s health care, and more money for disaster assistance, to name a few. He’s also continuing to boast about Democratic efforts to craft final deals on ethics and lobbying reform and the 9/11 commission recommendations — two of the party’s top priorities this Congress.

“So we feel comfortable with what we’ve been able to accomplish,” Reid said at a separate press conference Tuesday. “And it’s hard to break through on the accomplishments we’ve made when the Iraq War is in the forefront of everyone in America today.”

Indeed, the Democrats’ new message comes in response to increased media scrutiny on the party’s ability to deliver in the wake of their failure to force Iraq withdrawal timelines on President Bush as well as the breakdown of a bipartisan immigration reform bill last week. It also comes as Republicans ratchet up their rhetoric against the new majority for failing to get major legislation to Bush’s desk.

“The press is playing up the Republican comments about us not doing anything,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “So of course we’re going to respond. … We’re not going to allow the Republican spin machine in all its glory to be able to overshadow the facts.”

Republicans have spent recent weeks orchestrating what they say is a two-year strategy that will focus on accusations of Democrats failing to deliver on promises of change. Part of the plan has involved insisting on minority input on virtually every bill while also increasing use of the “do-nothing Congress” label as Senators eye a summer full of in-district time with constituents.

In a document distributed to Republican Senators on Wednesday, GOP leaders reminded their colleagues of new polling statistics that gave the Democratic-controlled 110th Congress the lowest approval rating in a decade — just 27 percent, according to a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey. The memo charges that “Democrats’ campaign rhetoric has not been matched by accomplishments” and that “Democrats have a limited window to reverse course.”

“If Democrats fail to reverse course, the dynamics in the 2008 elections may shift significantly, allowing Republicans to run as the party of change with a plan to get things done only two years after Democrats successfully campaigned on the same theme,” the leadership document tells Senators.

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the Republican Conference vice chairman, said Wednesday that the GOP hadn’t set out to make its leading message against the Democrats revolve around accusations of “do nothing,” but he said, “it’s working out that way because they aren’t getting anything accomplished.”

“They are doing a lot of table pounding, but the facts are what they are,” Cornyn said.

“Things are taking care of themselves,” added Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.). “Democrats’ only counter is if Congress does anything. It will be fairly easy to measure.”

Reid clearly understands the evolving political landscape. At the Tuesday press conference ostensibly about how Democrats will push forward on forcing an end to the Iraq War, the Majority Leader acknowledged recent polls showing the Democratic Congress’ approval ratings below those of the highly unpopular president.

“I understand their disappointment,” he said of the American people, noting that Democrats set overly ambitious expectations on their ability to curb the war. “We raised the bar too high. … But I say this: On Iraq, we’re going to hold the president’s feet to the fire, but as far as other things, I think this is a very, very productive Congress.”

Reid spokesman Jim Manley rejected the notion that Democrats’ recent dip in the national polls has driven the new message strategy, but he indicated that the new majority is mindful that they have to sing their own praises.

“We need to make clear to the American people that we are following through on the promises we made in November,” he said.

Other Democrats agreed.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (N.D.), the Democratic Policy Committee chairman, said his party has delivered on its promises and will continue to do so. He said the problem is twofold: The media is not reporting on key legislative victories, while Republicans are looking to block Democrats from pushing legislation forward.

“Their strategy is to delay and then to make out like we’ve got nothing done and claim it’s a do-nothing Congress,” Dorgan said.

Even so, Stabenow said Reid has taken the GOP strategy in stride. “Senator Reid has done an extraordinary job of maneuvering through every roadblock the Republicans have set up,” she said.

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