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Senate Democrats Try Leading

The rollout of the Senate Democratic agenda Wednesday marks the highest-profile output to date of a revamped message and policy operation quarterbacked by Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.).

After counterpunching Republicans on the health care repeal and warning of the risks of a government shutdown in the early weeks of this session, the pressure has been rising on Democrats to produce a specific agenda of their own instead of simply playing the just-say-no role Republicans played in the 111th Congress.

The new Senate Democratic agenda, which was finalized last week at the party retreat, pays lip service to the public thirst for budget cuts by adopting President Barack Obama’s call for a five-year domestic discretionary spending freeze while trumpeting new spending that Democrats argue will create jobs. Democratic leaders also tied themselves to Obama’s State of the Union message that the country needs to “out-innovate, out-educate and out-build” the rest of the world, but they want credit for taking initiative on their own to build an agenda.

“We deliberately wanted the State of the Union to come first so the president could lay out a broad framework, and now we’re filling in the details,” Schumer said.

The details included are relatively modest, recycled ideas that in the past have garnered at least some bipartisan support. The 20-item list includes finally passing a long-delayed highway bill, protecting stimulus smart-grid and clean-energy investments from Republican cuts, creating a Clean Energy Deployment Administration, and making the research and development tax credit permanent. Other items include perennials such as patent reform, tax reform and a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law.

The messaging operation remains directed at House Republicans while largely making nice with their Senate Republican colleagues in an effort to appear moderate and sensible.

“The budget in the House is a road map to disaster,” Schumer said. “We are being responsible; they are being reckless.”

Democrats argued that their new investments in education, energy and highways in their five-page “Winning the Future” agenda, coupled with an overall spending freeze, are preferable to deep cuts across the government proposed by Republicans.

Democrats said cutting deep into education, infrastructure and scientific research, as the House Republicans plan to do this week, would cut future job growth and lead to deep cuts in both private- and public-sector jobs at a time when the economy cannot afford it.

The Senate Democratic blueprint comes as the House debates a continuing resolution to fund the government through Sept. 30. The measure calls for $100 billion in cuts from President Barack Obama’s 2011 budget recommendation, and Senate Democrats had previously been unable to articulate what spending level they prefer.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who said the bipartisan patent reform bill will be on the floor after next week’s recess, also said he has spoken to Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who is writing a Senate version of the continuing resolution to counter the Republican plan based on a spending freeze.

Even as they slammed Republicans, however, Democratic leaders said they hoped to work with them. Reid said he was pleased to see Obama reach out to Republicans on the deficit Tuesday and is reaching out himself.

“We are really trying very hard to work on a bipartisan basis,” he said.

Reid and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) said Democrats understand the need for spending restraint, noting Durbin’s support of the president’s fiscal commission plan to cut deficits by $4 trillion over the next decade as well as their support for the spending freeze, which would save $400 billion over a decade.

“The day will come, and I hope soon, that we’ll be at the same table” and negotiating a deal, Durbin said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, derided Democrats for lining up behind Obama’s “timid” proposal for a spending freeze.

“Don’t they realize that current levels of spending are the reason we just had the biggest wave election in a generation? The senior Senator from New York seems to think that anything short of freezing current spending levels is extreme,” the Kentucky Republican said.

“I’ll tell you what’s extreme: Extreme is to insist in the middle of a jobs and debt crisis that government has to spend a trillion dollars more than we take in every year.”

House Republicans also ripped the latest Senate Democratic plan as more of the same.

“The Obama-Reid plan advocates a so-called freeze that locks in bloated spending levels, which increased 24 percent over the past two years, and then takes any spending reductions and immediately ‘invests’ them back into more big-government spending,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) said. “The status quo is not an acceptable or serious plan and was overwhelmingly rejected by the people in the last election. It would continue to lead us down the road to massive debts, deficits and follows the flawed philosophy that Washington knows best when it comes to job creation and economic growth.”

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