Indecisive Democrats Struggle to Move Forward

Members Spend First Week of Lame Duck Disagreeing Over Policy, Strategy

Posted November 21, 2010 at 3:28pm

Senate Democrats are stuck in neutral.

After a week of navel-gazing meetings, the caucus remains divided and indecisive as Senators attempt to apply the lessons of the 2010 midterms to their lame-duck agenda and strategy for the new Congress. But as they spent hour after hour last week clearing the air with gripes against their leadership and President Barack Obama, their GOP counterparts have been taking comfort in a renewed sense of unity and purpose.

As a result, Democrats will return from Thanksgiving break on Nov. 29 with barely four weeks to solve tax and spending problems that have bedeviled them all year and no plan for how to move forward.

“It’s like a giant psychiatric session,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said last week of Democrats’ daily caucus meetings. “I mean, what everyone is doing is trying to talk out how they feel.”

Democrats continue to argue about, among other things, whether to pursue a limited continuing resolution to keep the government on autopilot or an omnibus spending bill for appropriations measures that are already two months overdue.

“Until Democrats recognize Americans rejected them not because of how they communicated but what they were advocating, they will continue flailing around,” said Ryan Loskarn, staff director for the Senate Republican Conference, which is chaired by Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.). “The Republican caucus as a whole has a far better understanding of what the country is asking of their leaders and that’s given us an incredibly unifying sense of purpose and direction.”

Senate Republicans, who gained six seats in this month’s midterms, returned to work last week and quickly coalesced around a Conference-wide resolution banning earmarks as well as other policy positions intended to rein in spending. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) adroitly avoided splintering his own caucus on the earmark moratorium by reversing his previously held position on the issue and supporting the ban. All but a handful of Republicans supported the moratorium, offered by Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), following McConnell’s lead.

Reid did make a significant change in announcing last week that he would cede much of his messaging and policy coordination duties to his No. 3 lieutenant, New York Sen. Charles Schumer. In the 112th Congress, Schumer will chair a new Democratic Policy Committee, which will merge Reid’s communications war room and try to harmonize the message with the policy pursuits. However, Reid continued to flounder at the end of last week in selecting a chairman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

And Democrats couldn’t even decide what to focus their internal deliberations on.

“It’s like Groundhog Day in the Senate year-round,” one Democratic aide said. “Republicans are refusing to meet with the president, and Democrats are divided about what to do. What did we all learn from the elections?”

The aide added that Democrats decided to avoid votes on tax cuts and gays in the military before the election, “because it would theoretically put people in a tight spot,” even though those votes have proved just as politically difficult after the elections.

“While the Republicans are lining up bills in the House designed to weaken or embarrass Democrats, we’re still fighting last year’s battles,” the aide said.

Indeed, last week’s discussions were largely a continuation of caucus battles that have been ongoing this year. Junior Democratic Members pushed to enact Senate and caucus rules reforms in a belief it would make the party more nimble and effective, while some Members became impatient with the lack of a strategy on the lame-duck agenda, which includes an important extension of Bush-era tax cuts that expire on Dec. 31.

Lawmakers such as Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson said that based on the drubbing Democrats took on Nov. 2 and the state of the economy, rules reforms will have no place in the party’s agenda next year.

“I think all these other things are interesting, but not until we’ve done jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Nelson, who is up for re-election in 2012.

Democrats are clearly worried about the Bush-era tax cuts, considering a failure to extend them by year’s end could cause a political disaster when the Treasury Department siphons more money from individuals’ paychecks. But whether to extend just those for middle-income families or those for all Americans has been a contentious issue.

Last week, Democrats indicated they are seriously considering voting on a bill that would extend tax cuts for those making $1 million or less, a significant change from Obama’s proposal to only extend the tax breaks for those making $200,000 or less ($250,000 for couples). Democrats said it would allow them to accuse Republicans who oppose the idea of being shills for the super rich.

Also in play is a suggestion by the White House to extend middle-class tax breaks for a longer period of time than any extension of upper-income tax cuts, sources said.

However, Senators said it was too early to say whether either of those options or another option would emerge as an actual bill.

Reid defended the pace with which the caucus was moving, saying the three consecutive days of party meetings were “very productive” and that “We’ve covered a lot of things in periods that have been informative and good for me.” But another Democratic Senator who emerged from one of those marathon sessions Thursday said under his breath, “It’s like a town hall in there.”

Indeed, Tuesday’s Democratic caucus meeting was unofficially dubbed by aides as a “grievance session,” and Thursday’s meeting at one point grew heated when a frustrated Sen. Bill Nelson criticized Obama of creating a “toxic” political environment for his 2012 re-election prospects in Florida and blasted the White House’s lack of a clear messaging strategy.

Several Members said their indecision grew out of a desire to make sure the lame-duck session sets a positive tone for Democrats and their agenda next year, while others said this stretch of 2010 is the last-best hope for some liberal items that surely won’t move next year when Democrats will shrink to a 53-Member caucus.

As a result, Reid has been trying to juggle the myriad requests of individual Senators. Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) called on Reid to carve out time to debate the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy and the defense authorization bill.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) hailed Reid’s plan to bring the immigration reform measure called the DREAM Act to the floor, and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said a vote to end secret holds is on her wish list.

“I think this is a discussion that goes beyond today,” retiring Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said. “It’s the right time to do this, it’s a good thing to do and Sen. Reid wants to have the caucus involved in the development of a plan forward.”