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Senate Democrats to Discuss Strategy at Retreat

Senate Democrats are set to meet at Nationals Park today to discuss their 2012 political strategy, but they will have to find agreement on which issues to highlight and how to balance the president’s priorities against their own.

Using the policies President Barack Obama outlined last month in his State of the Union address, the caucus hopes its annual retreat will help replicate the success it had in bringing pieces of Obama’s August jobs proposal — such as the payroll tax cut — to the floor last year.

“We intend to do the same thing,” said Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who oversees the party’s messaging.

Schumer said issues that might receive a lot of attention are “everything that’s focused on jobs and the middle class.”

Schumer added: “The president gave us a wealth of things to look at. And we’ll talk about a whole bunch of them. A lot of people are excited about the community colleges [proposal]. A lot of people about the keeping jobs here and changing the tax laws to do that.”

Obama is scheduled to address the Conference, as is his campaign manager, Jim Messina. Messina’s appearance is of particular note because the campaign chief announced Monday night that the Obama team was reversing its position on super PACs and encouraging donors to contribute to Priorities USA Action, Obama’s independent-expenditure-only committee.

Just last week, Senate leaders led by Schumer held a press conference to announce their efforts to address campaign finance reform, committing to hearings on this issue as well as a revival of a failed campaign finance disclosure bill.

Democratic Senators still have residual concerns over how closely they can align themselves with a president who has focused so much on running against Congress.

“To the extent that he’s running against a do-nothing Congress, I hope that some distinction is made between a Senate caucus that has tried very hard to be a good and effective partner and some of the more unreasonable efforts to block his nominees and to block his legislation,” freshman Sen. Chris Coons (Del.) said of what he’d like to hear Obama say. Obama’s appearance has been described by other lawmakers as more of a “conversation” than a speech.

Democrats will also have to decide how to craft their own floor strategy, from both a policy and political perspective. Twenty-three of the 33 seats up this cycle are held by Democrats or Independents who caucus with Democrats, 16 of whom are seeking re-election.

The issues the party chooses to focus on will be tailored with those considerations in mind.

For example, Obama highlighted the need for a manufacturing policy in his State of the Union address. Manufacturing is an issue that has long been championed by Rust Belt Democrats such as Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Bob Casey (Pa.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), all up for re-election this year.

“I want to hear more about the manufacturing agenda, putting people to work there, and whether we actually have a manufacturing strategy, which every other industrialized country does,” Brown said of what he’d like to hear from the president.

Lawmakers and aides alike have discussed framing manufacturing issues in part of a larger “economic fairness” narrative — one that matches domestic tax policy and “insourcing” provisions that encourage companies to keep their business in the United States.

Brown himself hinted at this when he noted that the party should be focused on “issues that will help us be competitive” economically in a global market.

Top caucus aides and strategists acknowledge that those same issues can help Members remain competitive in their races at home.

Leadership also has discussed whether bills can be brought to the floor one by one or whether they need a rhetorical umbrella to move them for the greatest effect.

Democrats used the larger jobs bill to put forth smaller measures — such as the millionaires’ surtax — that were as much political statements as they were legitimate policy attempts.

Not everyone believes coming together around a common theme will be difficult, however.

Asked whether Democrats needed to create a more specific framework for their efforts this year, Sen. Mark Begich (Alaska) said, “Pretty easy, it’s called the economy … and jobs.”

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