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Liberal Angst Gives Way to Realism in Senate

Democrats Say Allies Are Focusing on Elections

After a year and a half of demanding that Senate Democrats enact their long-awaited priorities, liberal groups may finally be ready to give it a rest.

In recent moves, liberal activists have scaled back their demands for sweeping reforms of immigration laws and climate change in the hopes of getting piecemeal advances on those issues.

Democrats say they are relieved that their allies in the liberal movement are starting to focus on the November elections, the perils faced by the Democratic majorities in Congress, and what realistically can be passed in the filibuster-prone Senate between now and Election Day.

“I think it’s good that folks are looking at the realities that we have and how we can get done something that’s a first step,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), who oversees outreach to Democratic base groups from her perch atop the Senate Democratic Steering Committee.

Stabenow added that liberals “see what we see in terms of unheard of [GOP] obstruction and filibustering. … They obviously want us to do as much as we can, but they also know that the election is also a point of accountability for those that have decided to root for failure in this country and those who are saying no to job creation, and they are now turning to I think elections as well.”

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said compromise on most issues was inevitable and that liberal groups might have been too optimistic about what Democrats could accomplish.

“The expectation level was probably too high when we came into this — a Democratic president, a Democratic Congress,” Durbin said. “But then we all learned, if you stick with [one] position, you’ll get nothing. So what can you achieve? Well, we achieved some progress.”

Democrats have privately bristled at the fact that even when they deliver on party priorities, liberals have accused them of selling out by compromising with party moderates on health care reform or with Republicans on financial services reform, for example.

But this week, immigration reform groups signaled to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that they are willing to set aside their push for a comprehensive bill this year in favor of action on an agricultural guest-worker program or the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented children to pursue higher education and legal resident status.

And climate change activists recently pared down their request for an economy-wide cap on greenhouse gases for one that would apply to utilities only. Reid has not ruled out moving either approach before or after the election, but Senate Democratic aides said action is unlikely.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), who has been negotiating a climate change bill with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), said President Barack Obama’s decision to put his political capital behind health care reform last year burned a lot of the energy for liberal priorities on Capitol Hill, particularly after activists vigorously criticized Democrats for eliminating a public insurance option from the Senate bill while Democrats were taking fire from conservative tea party activists as well.

“I think what everybody learned, especially in the Senate, is that even if you have 60 members of the Democratic caucus, it means it’s a very broad group ideologically and some of the negotiation … you would normally do between parties has to be done within the party,” he said. Sixty votes is needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate, and Lieberman was one of a handful in the then-60-strong majority caucus to oppose the public option.

Lieberman has felt liberals’ wrath: They opposed him over his support for the Iraq War in the 2006 Democratic primary, forcing him to run for re-election as an Independent. Some have speculated that experience makes Lieberman even more likely to buck the Democrats with whom he still caucuses.

But on climate change, he and Kerry have been liberal standard-bearers. However, they failed to secure the necessary political backing in the Senate even after activists scaled back their wish list.

Proponents of comprehensive climate change legislation say that while they are dismayed by Senate Democrats’ decision to abandon a long-sought bill capping greenhouse gases for a provision that only responds to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and includes other less controversial energy provisions, groups are directing their ire toward the Senators blocking the legislation.

“The anger isn’t at the administration, it’s at the minority of Senators who have decided that special interests come first, especially on our issues of energy and climate,” Democratic consultant David Di Martino said. “We’re focused like a laser on those who have decided to stand with Big Oil despite disasters in the Gulf and the 29 dead miners in Virginia.”

That anger will be directed toward the grass roots over the August recess. But the targets won’t be just Republicans. Several Democrats including Sens. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio) who have not committed to climate legislation will be facing pressure from liberal groups. But none of these targets are up for re-election this year.

Di Martino, who is a consultant for Clean Energy Works, said his coalition is planning a bus trip from California to Florida, targeting the group of Senators blocking comprehensive reform.

The Sierra Club is also ramping up an effort in August to ensure that Senators do not leave this fall without delivering on clean energy legislation, according to the group’s Melinda Pierce.

Proponents of both immigration reform and climate change legislation say they aren’t taking their eye off the ball on enacting comprehensive legislation.

Frank Sharry, head of America’s Voice, said that keeping the pressure on Congress to pass smaller bills on immigration is a steppingstone for broader reform.

The National Immigration Law Center’s Tyler Moran agreed.

“Our eyes are still on the prize in terms of achieving comprehensive reform,” Moran said. “The timeline has just changed given the politics.”

But several immigration advocates warned that if Congress puts off comprehensive reform until after the 2012 elections, there will be severe consequences for Democrats. While Hispanic voting was expected to be down this fall, the recently enacted Arizona immigration bill has reinvigorated activists.

Of course, not all progressives are trimming their wish lists yet. Gay rights activists believe they can still get the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy repealed. Repeal is part of the defense reauthorization bill the Senate is expected to take up in September.

“I think there would be a number of people who would have major heartburn if the defense bill didn’t move,” said Aubrey Sarvis of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund. “We would be at a tremendous disadvantage if this falls apart, and we have to start over next Congress.”

Still, Senate Democrats believe the base knows how much their political leaders have actually accomplished and that these voters will be there for Democrats on Election Day.

“Groups understand this Congress has delivered a lot for them,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “They’re not blind to what a Republican Congress would look like.”