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Democrats Try Hardball on the Vanilla Issues of Legislating

Senate Democrats and the White House are striking an aggressive tone on some bread-and-butter issues after successfully playing “nuclear” hardball to confirm President Barack Obama’s executive appointees.

When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and his leadership team appeared before the cameras with Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, the group had a clear message: Democrats were going to be Democrats, seeking to move forward on funding for health, education, infrastructure and other domestic programs.

They also said that while they looked forward to negotiating through regular order, they want to avoid getting dragged into the same sort of crisis negotiation that’s been a hallmark of recent years.

“What we want to do, and certainly we have a real strong leader of our Appropriations Committee, we want to do appropriation bills, and we are not going to be stampeded into their sending us a [continuing resolution] and we take it at all costs,” Reid said. “We’re not going to do that.”

The stronger hand comes in part because top Democrats are finding willing negotiating partners from a newly independent wing of the GOP.

Reid, other Senate Democrats and White House officials (including the president) have been working with “gangs” of rank-and-file Republicans lately on no shortage of issues. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., played a key role in working with Arizona Republican John McCain and others to negotiate a way out of the procedural morass over filibusters. Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., worked out an agreement on student loan interest rates with a bipartisan coalition. Other senators are trying to hash out a big budget deal. Many of these negotiations have also included White House officials, up to and including President Barack Obama himself. Indeed, the president appears to finally be cashing in some dividends from the charm offensive he and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough orchestrated earlier this year.

However, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew told Bloomberg television that the administration would not repeat the 2011 debt ceiling debate that ultimately led to the sequester.

“The negotiation in 2011 over the debt limit led to a very bad outcome,” Lew said. “I think the Congress learned that in 2011. And the president has been clear we will not and cannot negotiate over this question of whether or not there should be the option of defaulting.”

That 2011 law, combined with the inability of the super committee to strike a “grand bargain,” led to the imposition of across the board spending cuts.

While Senate Democrats have long spoken against the sequester, there’s a renewed emphasis as the appropriations season heats up. National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins briefed Senate Democrats about sequester-related cutbacks Thursday.

“This presentation we just received from Dr. Francis Collins was one of the most sobering half-hours we’ve spent in that room since I’ve served in the Senate. When he talked to us about the real world impact of sequestration on medical research in America, it is alarming,” Durbin said.

Of patients who have been turned away by the NIH, Reid said, “If they’re not dead, they’re dying quickly.”

Outside groups have long made the argument that reductions in clinical trials and other treatments could have such dire implications.

Democrats think they have the votes necessary to get to work on spending bills; their first test comes Tuesday, when senators are scheduled to vote to limit debate on taking up the Transportation-HUD spending bill for fiscal 2014.

That’s a bill that shows Sen. Patty Murray’s many hats. The Washington Democrat is a member of leadership, the Budget chairwoman and the relevant appropriations subcommittee chairwoman.

Tranportation-HUD ranking member Susan Collins of Maine is one of the Republicans backing Murray’s effort to get to a House-Senate conference to try and work out budget levels, even though there’s no sign conservative opposition to that has weakened.

In addition, any good feelings will be seriously tested if Reid tries to call up the Labor-HHS-Education spending bill, which he says he wants to do. Subcommittee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is eager to finally get floor time for his measure.

“[T]he Labor-HHS bill hasn’t been on the Senate floor since 2007, and 46 current members of the Senate have never had an opportunity to participate in floor consideration of this vitally important bill. That needs to change,” Harkin said in a statement Friday. “I recognize that some say the Labor-HHS bill is too controversial to bring to the floor. The fact that members feel so strongly about the bill is all the more reason why the Senate has a responsibility to debate it, and I will do everything in my power to bring the Labor-HHS bill to the Senate floor as soon as possible.”

Such a debate would, no doubt, include no shortage of votes on rolling back and blocking funding for parts of the health care law.

“If Senate Democrats agree with the president that employers should be protected from ObamaCare’s costly mandate, do they also believe that the rest of America should have that same protection? Rather than a delay for some, we need permanent delay for all Americans,” Senate Republican leaders said in a joint statement earlier in the week, calling on Reid to schedule floor votes on stopping implementation of the law. The HHS spending bill would be a perfect vehicle for such votes.

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