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Leadership Test Awaits in Senate

Democrats in Somber Mood

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) leadership will be under a microscope during the crucial five-week work period ahead as demoralized Senate Democrats look to restart their stalled agenda on multiple fronts.

“The caucus is looking for our leaders to do a better job leading, but there’s no panic because we’re putting everything in perspective,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said. “The problem we’re having is not because of our performance. It’s the [economic] situation Republicans have left us.”

Several Democratic aides with knowledge of leadership’s thinking said that help from Reid and the White House is on the way in the form of jobs legislation and a renewed push on health care reform, but they acknowledged that Members are concerned about the drumbeat of bad news over the past two months — and the lack of response by Congress.

Democrats had hoped to address voter angst over the nearly 10 percent unemployment rate by quickly pivoting to a “jobs agenda” after an unsettling January in which they lost their filibuster-proof supermajority and saw their health care bill stall. But Reid created some turbulence when he decided the week of Feb. 8 to scrap a bipartisan jobs bill and move a narrower measure.

Then Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) last week took shots at Democratic leaders in his retirement announcement and subsequent interviews for what he sees as their unwillingness to pursue deals with Republicans, and he specifically mentioned Reid’s gambit on the jobs measure.

Following that, Democrats got word that 86-year-old Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is battling a treatable stomach tumor and his availability for votes will be uncertain for the next couple of months. Democrats have already had trouble identifying one Republican to help their 59-member majority reach a filibuster-proof 60 votes on most bills, and Lautenberg’s absence would put them one more vote in the hole.

Aides said the anxiety among Senate Democrats is palpable.

“It’s every Senator for himself at this point. People are just trying to survive,” another Senate Democratic aide said. The aide added that many Democrats have been increasingly wary of attempting to forge bipartisan deals with Republicans, given that attempts by Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) on health care yielded few results. Additionally, Reid ditched Baucus’ bipartisan jobs bill agreement with ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Many Democrats were angry with Reid for letting Baucus take on the jobs measure in the first place. Several Democratic aides said Baucus’ jobs bill had too many favors for lobbyists.

“The idea that we would leave the jobs bill to Baucus didn’t sit well with a lot of Democrats after health care,” the aide said. “We don’t have time for that anymore.”

However, Reid’s move on the jobs legislation also angered some in his caucus, who said it opened up Democrats to claims of partisanship.

The senior Senate Democratic aide called it a “totally unnecessary debacle. … We can’t go back in time and turn the economy around, and we can’t control Evan Bayh being Evan Bayh, but we can prevent things like that.”

The aide added, “There’s a sense that no one was in control of the thing that was the highest priority of the caucus.”

Reid made the decision to scrap the bipartisan jobs measure just hours after Baucus and Grassley announced it and after the White House praised it.

Meanwhile, others said the lack of action on health care after Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) won the special election to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) has continued to add to the deflated mood of the caucus.

“Passing health care is absolutely important,” another Senate Democratic aide said. “If we don’t deliver this bill, it’s going to viewed as a failure of leadership.”

One Senate Democratic leadership aide said leaders believe they can “turn everything around” by “pushing a jobs agenda, which will allow for a series of votes on jobs over the next several months and which will put us back on the offensive.”

Reid already set up the first test vote on jobs today with his pared-down bill, and more jobs measures are likely to come, the leadership aide noted.

The aide also predicted “a resolution on health care … that will be a huge weight off Democrats’ shoulders.” The White House is expected to unveil a slightly revamped health care proposal ahead of a bipartisan summit Thursday to discuss solutions to the nation’s high-cost health care system.

Finally, the leadership aide noted that Senate Democratic leaders would be pushing Members resolve their differences on legislative strategy. Democrats have been debating whether to pursue a generally bipartisan strategy that they fear might result in watered-down legislation or to stick closer to Democrats ideals at the potential expense of failing to enact anything substantive.

Another senior aide predicted that Members would return to work this week “more united around the focus on jobs” and eager to settle on a strategy.

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