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Kaufman: Democrats Muffled Their Message

As he prepares to leave the Senate in the middle of November, Sen. Ted Kaufman sounds like the public relations man for the 111th Congress.

The Delaware Democrat says it will go down as one of the most productive in recent history. And he’s ready to dispute any complaints about his party’s accomplishments by those on the left.

‘You can say, ‘Well, we didn’t do the right thing. We didn’t do that.’ But this stuff about a dysfunctional Congress? A dysfunctional Senate? What are you talking about dysfunctional? One of the measures of a legislative body is, do they actually get things done,’ he said in an interview Wednesday with Roll Call.

Kaufman ‘ who has worked in the Senate on and off for more than three decades, mostly as an aide to then-Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) ‘ took over the remainder of his former boss’s term when Biden was sworn in as vice president.

His two years as a Senator have been noteworthy for someone who was a lame duck on day one. Kaufman, a short-term caretaker of the seat, has been blunt that he has no political aspirations.

But as a member of the Judiciary Committee, he was involved in the confirmation hearings of two Supreme Court justices ‘ Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. He has participated in Congressional fact-finding trips to Iraq and Afghanistan and was a major figure in the financial regulatory reform fight. Like any good Senator, Kaufman has also developed his own odd quirks, most notably his often quixotic tributes to federal workers that have become a staple of the chamber’s floor speeches.

And he attended a presidential signing ceremony when President Barack Obama approved his Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act in May 2009, four months after being sworn in as a Senator.

‘I’ve always said that if you ever want to be in the Senate, this was the time to be here,’ Kaufman said. ‘It was a great ride. It was a great opportunity to do things.’

He can tick off a list of legislative accomplishments ‘ health care and financial reform, tobacco legislation, the Lilly Ledbetter fair employment bill and small-business legislation, among others ‘ that he views as proof that this Congress has been extraordinarily productive.

And it is because of that list that the normally affable Kaufman bristles when discussing criticism that this Congress has been broken.

‘I’ve been around this place since 1973. There has never been a Congress in my experience that has been [as active],’ he said. ‘If you passed health care in a Congress, that would be the Congress.’

[IMGCAP(1)]He says much of the discontent, particularly within the Democratic Party, started in the liberal blogosphere and intellectual circles, where activists had hoped Obama would usher in a wholesale, and immediate, transformation of the nation’s social and economic policies. Those activists wanted Congress to create a public health insurance option and to do more to take on Wall Street interests.

‘I began to see it from a lot of the thinkers, a lot of people on the left, a lot of people I sympathize with,’ Kaufman said. ‘I can understand that. I wouldn’t have written a number of these bills the same way they came out … but to say [the Senate is] dysfunctional? Naw.’

Kaufman, however, acknowledged that Democrats have done a poor job of capitalizing on their record and said that’s a problem for the party heading into the November elections.

‘Just from a political prism, we spent way too much time legislating and way too little time messaging,’ he said. ‘Essentially, when we passed a bill, we moved on to the next one. We didn’t spend time litigating it, we didn’t spend time letting [the public] know what we were doing.’

But he says that from a policy perspective, he is happy leaders did not drop pieces of their agenda to make the elections easier.

‘That’s not the deal I want to make,’ he said.

Despite Democrats’ political woes, Kaufman said he believes New Castle County Executive Chris Coons (D) will easily beat tea party favorite Christine O’Donnell (R) to fill his seat. While O’Donnell has benefited from an energized base of conservative Catholics in the state, the Senator says it is simply not enough for her to win in November.

‘You can’t win state-wide in a general election based on religious conservatives. It can be very helpful in the primary,’ he said, noting that establishment favorite Rep. Mike Castle (R) was hurt by the surge of tea party donors and a shrinking pool of Republican voters in the state. Only registered Republicans could vote in the primary. ‘If it had been an open primary, loads of former Republicans that are now independent and Democrats would have come over and voted for Castle,’ he said.

No matter what happens in the midterms, Kaufman downplayed the effect a potential new crop of conservative Republicans could have on the Senate, arguing that in the long run the chamber will change very little.

But that doesn’t mean he isn’t worried about bitter partisanship gripping Capitol Hill in the coming session.

It won’t help solve the nation’s problems if the Senate is filled with ‘folks that just want to stop whatever is going on, want to throw hand grenades, who want to look at it as an opportunity to push their ideological agenda,’ he said. ‘The country can’t stand that right now. The situations we face are too serious.’

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