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Senate’s Slow Pace Frustrates Newer Members

The glacial pace of action in the Senate this year is starting to wear on some of the ambitious junior Democrats who want more of a record to run on.

Several first-term Democrats said the all-encompassing budget and debt debates have put other ideas on hold — from education to energy to infrastructure and more.

“We know the Founding Fathers wanted the Senate to be a place of deliberation, but they probably couldn’t have imagined sometimes how slow. … It is frustrating, in a word,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said.

Indeed, the deficit talks are “sucking the air out of the room,” Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said.

And Sen. Mark Udall said that while the debate over the debt limit must be the priority with an August deadline on the horizon for a default on federal debts, he would like to see action move more quickly and have other issues teed up.

“We do need to first and foremost deal with the ’12 budget, the deficit ceiling increase and the Simpson-Bowles or a Simpson-Bowles-like proposal,” the Colorado Democrat said. “My frustration is tied to the fact that let’s get to work now on those policy debates, not wait until Aug. 1.”

Udall said that committees right now feel “hamstrung” by the debt debate and that he has held off on some of his own legislative proposals until the air clears.

“Until we get the parameters in place for our long-term budgeting, we shouldn’t be starting new programs or dealing with other things,” he said. “But that shouldn’t be an excuse for letting our policy debate linger and languish and bump along while the rest of the world is putting in place an energy policy … while other countries are dealing with their immigration system … while other countries are investing in infrastructure.”

But it’s not just the budget debate that has thwarted Senate action. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) put a noncontroversial small-business bill on the floor for five weeks of debate, only to pull it in a dispute over whether to vote on an amendment by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

Senate Democrats also have made the calculated decision for now not to do a budget resolution of their own — which would expose them to unlimited amendments on the floor — and staged a messaging vote on the House Republican budget instead.

Democrats have also blamed Republicans for blocking other bills, such as one targeting oil company tax breaks.

“No one is more frustrated than Sen. Reid,” said his spokesman, Jon Summers. “Unfortunately, when Republicans force us to spend two months on a jobs bill that they then ultimately block anyway, it makes it difficult to get things done. Hopefully, Republicans will hear the voices of the American people, drop their Medicare-killing agenda and start working with us to create jobs and strengthen our economy.”

Republicans, however, put the blame squarely on Reid for being afraid to expose his caucus, many of whom are up in 2012, to tough votes.

“If Democrats are frustrated with the pace of the Senate floor, they don’t have to look any further than their leader,” a senior Republican aide said. “Republicans are more than willing to have debates on legislation, but that would require Harry Reid to let us have votes on our amendments. The only way to speed up the Senate is for the majority to allow an open process with amendments, votes and debate.”

Despite the slow pace, Begich said there are signs of legislative life starting to percolate on the Senate floor. And younger Senators are now pushing the agenda from the bottom up through the committee process instead of from leadership down. That’s different from two or four years ago, Begich said, when there was an extensive leadership-driven agenda.

He said newer Senators on the Democratic side are looking for something beyond the budget that can get bipartisan support.

“I think it’s going to be energy,” Begich said.

“And the reason why is they’re getting beat up at home every day. I don’t care if you’re a House Member, Senate Member, tea party, not tea party, you’re getting your teeth kicked in every time you go home, and people are getting fed up with paying $4 a gallon [for gas],” Begich added.

Sen. Claire McCaskill said the focus right now is rightly on the fiscal situation, and that has put a chill on other agenda items.

“We’re obviously constrained,” the Missouri Democrat said. “A lot of legislative proposals over the last decade were about spending money, and that’s not going to be the priority for a long time.”