Road Map: Agenda Idles as Recess Looms

Posted February 8, 2010 at 5:43pm

The traffic in downtown Washington isn’t the only thing the winter of 2010 has brought to a near standstill.

[IMGCAP(1)]Senate Democrats are still digging out from their crushing loss in the Massachusetts Senate special election, and their agenda this work period has shown that.

Before Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) scored his surprise victory on Jan. 19, Democrats had big plans for this four-week stretch of work: finish a health care conference report, shake loose some stalled nominations and get busy on a jobs package.

But as they prepare to head into their first recess of 2010, Democrats are struggling to keep health care alive and cobble together a bipartisan job-creation bill. But, hey, they unstuck four low-level executive branch nominations, swallowed their misgivings to confirm Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and passed an unpopular increase in the debt limit.

However, Democrats say they are not completely unsatisfied with where they are, given that they lost their filibuster-proof majority when Brown became the GOP’s 41st vote.

“The things we said we were going to fight for before Scott Brown’s election are the same things we’re going to fight for now,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “But you’d be naive to say that that would not affect the way that the agenda would be implemented.”

The aide noted that GOP blockades of even some of the lowest-level Obama administration nominees forced Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to devote precious Senate floor time to filing motions to end a filibuster, or invoke cloture, on those candidates. As a result, the Senate spent weeks freeing the nominations of the Labor Department solicitor general, the administrator of the General Services Administration and two judges. Barring another snow delay, the Senate is expected to vote today on the nomination of Craig Becker to be a member of the National Labor Relations Board and of another circuit court judge.

“We wish we didn’t have to file cloture, but these things need to get done,” said the senior Senate Democratic aide.

Democrats also say they needed to give Members a chance to digest the Massachusetts results and come up with a path forward.

“The most lasting result of this work period is the political reset that came along as a result of Massachusetts,” said another senior Senate Democratic aide. The aide explained that the special election forced an already planned shift in direction for Democrats to happen more quickly, and that the party may be the better for it come November when voters go to the polls.

“We’re altering our approach, tacking more toward issues related to jobs and the economy and going stronger at Republicans in an effort to bring them along,” the aide said.

Democrats need to “rack up accomplishments here on stuff that is relevant to people … and if the Republicans don’t work with us, we’ll be seen as on firm ground fighting for something that’s popular,” the aide added.

But for now, the agenda for the next work period appears to be a work in progress.

“There is no unanimity on what to do next and that is the real problem going forward,” another aide said of the Senate Democrats’ push for a jobs agenda that would require the passage of several targeted measures aimed at creating jobs this year.

Still, Democrats say they do see a political road map in forcing Republicans to come to the negotiating table on jobs and health care. Though Democratic leaders reacted coolly to President Barack Obama’s call for a bipartisan health care summit later this month, aides said it could breathe new life into an effort that came to a screeching halt with Brown’s victory.

By drawing Republicans deeply into the debate, Democrats hope the president will be able to poke holes in the GOP’s arguments on health care and give the majority the political will to unlock the stalled bill.

“It has the potential to resuscitate health care, and it certainly can’t do any harm,” the second senior Senate Democratic aide said.

Meanwhile, Republicans are still relishing the Massachusetts win and the effect it has had on the Democrats’ ability to move legislation.

“Senate Democrats are completely twisted in knots,” one senior Senate GOP aide said. “The rank and file is justifiably concerned about following leadership into any more high-profile legislative battles so it appears they’re resigned to a much more modest approach. It remains to be seen whether their modesty is also bipartisan, however.”