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Election-Year Rhetoric Trumping Legislation

Senate Democratic and Republican leaders began Wednesday settling into campaign mode, embracing roles in what is likely to turn the Senate into an election-year echo chamber.

The Senate’s top Republican, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), accused the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), of ignoring the pain of increased gas prices. Meanwhile, leading Democrats painted the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), as being out of touch with average Americans.

With both sides sharpening their attacks, Republican and Democratic strategists and lawmakers acknowledged that any substantive work is unlikely to be completed as politics will dominate.

“We do intend to be something of an echo chamber” for Obama’s presidential campaign, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said. He said the nuts and bolts of coordination between his Conference and Obama’s campaign might take time, but it will not be a difficult transition. “It won’t be that hard because we’re already singing from the same page,” Schumer said in an interview with Roll Call.

A senior GOP leadership aide agreed that the Senate’s days of serious legislating are likely over for the year. “It’s campaign season,” the aide said, noting that Republicans have been prepping for their role in the general election efforts while Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) battled for the nomination.

“We have been fortunate enough to benefit from a three-month protracted Democratic primary,” the aide added, noting Republican lawmakers have had time to meet and become comfortable with liaisons from McCain’s campaign and to begin laying out the framework for their roles in the campaign.

Republicans moved quickly Wednesday to characterize Obama as an out-of-touch intellectual, a theme that probably will figure heavily into McCain’s critiques of Obama.

McConnell seized on Obama’s comments that a “gradual adjustment” upward of gas prices — instead of a spike — would have been more beneficial to efforts to curb gasoline use and encourage cleaner technologies. Obama made the comments in an interview Tuesday.

McConnell, in a floor speech Wednesday, accused Obama of thinking that the gas price spike was not a problem and sought to use the comments to paint a broader picture of Democrats being out of touch with the public.

“Yesterday, we heard the Democrat nominee for president suggest that rising gas prices aren’t the problem. Let me say that again: the Democrat nominee for president suggest that rising gas prices aren’t the problem. The problem, he suggested, is that they’ve gone up too fast. He said he would prefer a ‘gradual adjustment,’” he said.

Not to be outdone, Democratic lawmakers, acting as proxies for Obama’s campaign, seized on a comment by McCain Wednesday morning on the “Today” show in which he said it is “not too important” when troops return from Iraq.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), in a press call with reporters organized by Obama’s campaign, charged that McCain’s statements indicate that he is “unbelievably out of touch with the needs and concerns of most Americans,” a theme that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been increasingly weaving into his critiques of McCain and of Republicans more broadly.

Although Obama is not expected to have his communication and coordination apparatus running until after Congress breaks for the July 4 recess, Democrats have already begun working on basic message coordination. That process has been aided, senior Democratic aides have said, by the fact that Obama’s campaign themes are similar enough to those in the House and Senate that transition should be seamless.

For instance, following a string of procedural skirmishes with Republicans over the last 10 days, Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau slammed Republicans.

“Gas is over $4 a gallon and their solution is conservative judges? Foreclosures are over a million, and they’re talking about filling the tree? We’ve had five straight months of job losses and they’re shutting down committee hearings and refusing to debate the issues of the day? These guys just don’t get it,” he said.

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