Senate Democrats Happy to Shun Spotlight, for Now

Posted January 5, 2011 at 7:08pm

Senate Democrats are used to being the center of attention, but for the first time in two years, they say they are content to take a back seat to the new House Republican majority.

With much of the media focused on the spectacle of the House’s transition of power from Democrats to Republicans, Senate Democrats, who retained power after the November elections, said they realize their agenda and plans for the 112th Congress are not the most interesting thing going on in Washington, D.C., right now. They seem content to let House GOP leaders continue to trip over themselves as they try to justify decisions that appear to go against their own stated goals of changing the way the chamber works.

“There’s no reason to step on the difficulties the Republicans are having in their opening week,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the newly installed chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Center. “We will be focusing on a strong, pro-growth agenda that will help the middle class get ahead. But right now Republicans are dominating the news with their inconsistencies and promises that they can’t live up to. Part of our job is to underscore that.”

The message strategy is part of the newly merged Democratic communications and policy operations’ effort to take a more aggressive, proactive and campaign-like approach to the party’s public relations strategy. And aides said the new DPCC is trying to take advantage of the media’s concentration on the House.

On Tuesday, Jon Summers, the new communications director for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), issued a statement blasting House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) for “laying the groundwork for Republicans’ extremist agenda” and for the GOP’s “hypocrisy on fiscal responsibility” in their push to repeal the 2010 health care reform law and add $143 billion to the deficit.

Indeed, Cantor had a rough first press conference as Majority Leader that day, with reporters asking him about Summers’ comments as well as why the Republicans’ plan for next week’s repeal vote appeared to break GOP campaign promises to reduce the deficit, have an open legislative process and allow amendments on the floor. 

Cantor, who seemed taken aback by the hostile questions, defended all three decisions, saying the original health care bill would not actually reduce the deficit and that the issue already had enough debate in the House during the 111th Congress.

He also dismissed the unfriendly fire from Senate and House Democrats.

“I think it is fair to say, when it comes to Leader Reid, to Leader Pelosi and their statements of that sort, they clearly don’t understand what Americans want as far as health care is concerned,” Cantor said, referencing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

But Senate Democrats said they see the House Republicans as their chief opponent in the new Congress.

“We’re going on offense, in an aggressive effort to define them from the day they take office,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said. Another senior aide added that the strategy of defining Republicans and their agenda would continue throughout the Congress.

Democrats, including Schumer, have also tried to put pressure on new tea-party-inspired House Members this week to reject the government-provided health insurance they will get as Members of Congress. 

Senate Democrats also planned to hold a press conference today to highlight what they say are the myriad ways in which House Republicans have backtracked on their vows to cut the deficit and reduce spending. 

When the Senate goes on a two-week recess starting today, Democratic Senators will be armed with more talking points on just what House Republicans are voting to repeal when they vote next week on health care. Democrats have already been noting that repealing the controversial law would force seniors to pay more for Medicare prescriptions, prohibit families from keeping older children on their insurance and end free coverage for preventive care, among other things.

Another Senate Democratic aide said the more aggressive messaging approach is also intended to emphasize what Democrats believe is the House Republicans’ “extreme” agenda.

“There’s a sense that they’re going to be taking their wildest swings now, whether it’s goofy stuff like getting sworn in by the chief justice or health care repeal,” the aide said. “The more these zany ideas are exposed and the more hypocrisy is exposed, that only helps the Democratic Party.”

Upon their return on Jan. 24, the first senior Senate Democratic aide said, Democrats will begin to outline their own agenda, which will be dubbed the “American Competitiveness Agenda,” and focus on jobs and the economy.

“Health care repeal has nothing to do with jobs and the economy,” the aide stated. “House Republicans are just rehashing fights from the last Congress.”

Along with the enhanced message strategy, the DPCC announced Wednesday the long-expected staff shake-up caused by the merger of the former Democratic Policy Committee and Reid’s own communications “war room.” Summers will serve as communications director for Reid but work out of the DPCC. Schumer Communications Director Brian Fallon will serve as chief spokesman for the caucus at large, and Schumer Legislative Director Katie Beirne will be the DPCC’s staff director, overseeing both the policy and communications teams.

Other staff changes are expected as well. In the past month, former war room staff director Rodell Mollineau and Reid Senior Communications Adviser Jim Manley announced their departures.