Red Meat on Senate Menu

Posted April 23, 2008 at 6:47pm

The rallying cry Wednesday was, “Equal pay for women.” Today, it likely will be “Insurance companies: Play fair.” And in the next month it will probably be “Gay rights.”

By design or happenstance, Senate Democrats have been rolling out a passel of “red meat” legislation that appeals to the Democratic base in this pivotal election year.

With Republicans in the majority, they signaled to their base with issues favored by religious conservatives. Democrats, now in control, are pushing bills favored by gay groups, women’s organizations and labor unions while denouncing insurance companies.

Democratic leaders said it was more coincidence than plan that has led them to push during this work period a bill to make it easier for people to sue for wage discrimination, two measures attempting to ensure that insurance companies don’t discriminate on the basis of mental health or genetics, and legislation creating a federal hate crimes statute that includes sexual orientation.

“When we go home and people are really worried about their lives right now, we’re trying to respond with an agenda here on the floor that directly affects that,” said Senate Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.), referencing the economy and rising food and gas prices. “Does that happen to be a host of issues our base cares about? Yeah, but that’s what people care about right now.”

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said the presence of Democratic “meat and potato” issues on the floor is a result of Republicans’ attempts to block even noncontroversial bills from moving quickly through the chamber.

“We’ve more or less made a decision that, because they block everything, we might as well get our program out there,” Schumer said.

Labor unions and women’s groups are lobbying for the wage discrimination bill. Wednesday night’s vote failed to get the 60 votes needed to beat back a GOP-led filibuster, but Schumer said the debate was worthwhile from a policy and political perspective.

“It’s not just the Democratic base,” said Schumer of the bill’s appeal. “It’s a lot of swing voters – single women, older women who are in the workforce. … So I think it can have real ramifications” for the election.

Republicans said Democrats were holding the vote for crass political reasons, noting that Democrats have previously scheduled debates to coincide with left-leaning political rallies around the Capitol. Wednesday’s vote was partly held in recognition of the union-sponsored “Equal Pay Day” on Tuesday, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) kept the Senate out of session most of Wednesday to make sure that Democratic presidential contenders Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) could attend the evening vote.

“We’re staging this for another political interest vote,” complained Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Serving up red meat during a heated election year is hardly the province of just Democrats. When Republicans were in control of the chamber in 2004 and 2006, the Senate held votes on conservative issues such as bans on flag burning and gay marriage. In those days, Democrats groused loudly about the political nature of those debates.

Some Republicans are likely to protest Thursday when the genetic nondiscrimination bill is expected to hit the floor and again when Democrats attempt to add hate crimes legislation to the Defense Department authorization bill. Unlike typical red meat votes, the genetic nondiscrimination legislation appears likely to pass and be signed by the president.

Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said Wednesday he hoped to bring up – before the Memorial Day recess — a bill requiring employers to provide paid sick leave as well as a measure to ensure that insurance companies provide mental health care coverage equal to coverage for physical ailments. The mental health parity legislation also has a chance at passage.

“I wouldn’t confuse red meat with issues Republicans simply hate,” said one Senate Democratic leadership aide of the legislation scheduled to hit the Senate floor. “We find ourselves in a period where we’re waiting for a supplemental [war spending bill], and there are issues that have been on our agenda for years that we haven’t been able to pass, and now we’re trying to.”

Additionally, Democrats have been considering reviving the fight over extending unemployment insurance and expanding food stamp benefits by attaching those provisions to the supplemental bill that is expected to move through both chambers next month. Democrats attempted unsuccessfully to add the unemployment and food stamp issues to the economic stimulus bill that passed earlier this year.

“The meat and potato issues are health care, education, energy prices, jobs – and those are our strengths,” Schumer said. “All of those are going to come up.”