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Democrats to Shift Strategy

Congressional Democrats are struggling to get out from under the weight of their unfinished work on a health care overhaul and come up with an election-year agenda that will help revive their flagging political fortunes.

The Democrats’ plan is to wrap work on the reform package — and a number of other knotty items left over from 2009 — as quickly as possible so they can pivot to selling their legislative achievements and teeing up less ambitious, consumer-friendly items.

Democrats on both sides of the Capitol don’t expect to make much progress on formulating their offensive until they finish last year’s business. Beyond the grueling work of marrying the chambers’ disparate versions of the health care revamp, lawmakers need to find agreement on a long-term increase in the federal debt limit that will also enshrine pay-as-you-go budgeting in law and establish a commission to tackle entitlement spending, an extension of the estate tax that fell short in the Senate at the end of last year and an extension of the USA PATRIOT Act, among others.

And the majority party has the added headache of fighting off the controversy surrounding the racially tinged comments made by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). After suffering withering criticism from the right over their votes on health care and in the House on a climate change measure last year, Democrats had hoped to seize the momentum from the Senate’s Christmas Eve passage of their health care bill. But they found themselves again on the defensive after the revelation this weekend that Reid in 2008 said one of then-presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) positive traits was that he had “no Negro dialect.— The resulting media firestorm effectively trumped coverage of House-Senate negotiations on health care — which is not always a pretty picture but vastly preferable to the Reid controversy.

[IMGCAP(1)]With health care negotiations expected to take up much of the House’s and Senate’s time this work period, Senate Democrats said they also hope to pass a measure aimed at job creation before the late February Presidents Day recess. After that, a measure to restructure financial regulation will likely be on tap.

“We’re going to have to focus like a laser on jobs and the economy,— Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said Monday in an interview. “And I think the first two major things we’ll do are a jobs bill and financial regulation, both of which the people want us to do, both of which fit their mandate: Fix the economy and get people working again.—

But other Democrats acknowledged that much of this year’s agenda, while focused generally on the pocketbook concerns, has yet to be worked out.

“The other item on the agenda for this work period is the agenda,— one Senate Democratic aide said. “For a lot of the priorities that people want to push in the months ahead, we have to make decisions on timing and sequencing so we can accomplish as much as possible before election season really heats up.—

Schumer said it isn’t necessarily appropriate to decide now what will be on the schedule in March and April, because Congressional leaders will likely make their decisions based on how the economy fares in the first quarter of the year.

“You have to see how the economy is doing,— Schumer said. “The economy has got to be the focus all year. But if the economy in March is in good shape or is getting in good shape, you might be able to focus more on deficit reduction and some other things. If it’s not in good shape, we’re going to have to keep focusing on jobs and the economy.—

Beyond concerns for the economy, House and Senate Democrats said they would be focused this year on continuing to sell their health care reform efforts to the American people. “The battle on health care doesn’t end with the signing of a bill,— the Senate aide said. “It continues through Election Day and beyond.—

Indeed, the aide indicated that Democrats are fully aware of the beating they’ve taken on health care but are convinced they can turn that around by fully explaining how the bill might benefit the American people. But, they say, they are working on passing the overhaul first and fighting that public relations battle after the votes have been cast. Congressional Democratic leaders, however, expect the White House to do the heavy lifting in terms of marketing health care reform, particularly since they feel the president and his staff have done a poor job of guiding the measure during the messy intraparty battles that characterized passage in the House and Senate.

“We need to sharpen our message to do a much better job of contrasting our agenda, what we’ve done and what we want to do with what Republicans did when they were in leadership,— one senior House Democratic aide said.

House Democratic leaders hope to offer their most vulnerable Members a reprieve from politically perilous votes, given that the Senate is still chewing over major bills such as financial regulation, a student-loan revamp and a climate change package, and that it is expected to move first on the thorny issue of immigration. However, immigration and climate change legislation are wild cards in the Senate, where lawmakers also have little appetite for another contentious legislative fight.

Instead, House Democratic leaders have signaled they want to train their focus on creating jobs and reducing the deficit — a two-pronged agenda that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) acknowledged “seems to be contradictory.—

“I think what you have to do is convince the American public and Members of Congress that in order to get to a fiscal balance, you’ve got to have a growing economy,— he said in an interview last week with CNBC’s chief Washington correspondent, John Harwood.

As part of that effort, leadership aides have instructed committee staff directors to work up ideas for politically popular bills that their most vulnerable Members can introduce and champion heading into November.

“We’re looking for things that are consumer, average-working-person-friendly items that our Members can talk about,— one leadership aide said. “We’re not looking for three more cap-and-trade bills.—

Leadership and committee aides alike consumed by work on the health care package are still brainstorming ideas. But one senior aide said the majority should have little difficulty identifying those items when the pace of work on must-pass legislation slows. “Finding that low-hanging fruit is not going to be the hardest thing in the world,— the aide said.

Hoyer is expected to discuss the push at his weekly meeting with chairmen on Wednesday.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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