It was a close one on energy legislation last week, but Senate Democrats finally got a PR-friendly bill passed that they can tout to constituents during the July Fourth break. Unfortunately for them, that may be just about all they get to crow about next week.
Even if the Senate passes an immigration bill this week — which remains uncertain — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) very public proclamations that it is “the president’s bill” and “not a Democratic bill” may make it tough for Democrats to claim credit for the mammoth rewrite.
And while House and Senate negotiators are preparing to unveil conference reports this week on two top Democratic legislative priorities — a bill implementing terrorism-prevention measures suggested by the 9/11 commission and a measure to overhaul lobbying and ethics rules — Senate Republicans, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), likely will object to the quick consideration necessary for either to be sent to the president before the recess.
“If Sen. McConnell and the Republican leadership in the Senate chose obstruction on this legislation, it serves no one’s interests but the special interests,” said a Democratic House aide.
Democratic aides familiar with the negotiating efforts said a “bigger push” was behind passage of the 9/11 bill rather than the lobbying bill, primarily because Democrats want to burnish their national security image during the recess.
Though Reid stated his desire to return to the debate over how and when to end the Iraq War, it doesn’t appear he will be able to do much more than file a procedural motion to begin debate on the defense authorization bill before recessing for July Fourth.
Still, it appears that after six months in charge, Democrats are still struggling to come up with an impressive list of accomplishments to hype back home — that is, beyond the 16 building-naming bills and other cats-and-dogs type legislation that makes up the bulk of the 39 measures that have been passed into law.
Granted, House Democrats have sent a whopping 239 public bills over to the Senate, but Republicans on that side of the Capitol have played their part to the hilt, objecting to just about every major piece of legislation that Reid has tried to bring up.
“I think we are legitimately moving toward having an impressive list, but it’s just going to take time,” said one knowledgeable Senate Democratic aide. The aide added that GOP objections have slowed down the process, but, “We’ve put ourselves in a position to really deliver in the next six or so weeks.”
Still, no one disagrees it was a much-needed win for Reid last week when he squeezed out passage of the energy bill, which contains the first new automobile fuel economy standards in 25 years.
“It was extremely important based on both the fact that we really wanted and needed to get something done on energy ... and for momentum,” said the knowledgeable Senate Democratic aide. “It is important, as leaders of a new Congress, to actually get things done to show that we are making progress.”
One senior Senate GOP aide noted that any mileage Democrats hope to get out of their energy bill likely will be “vastly overshadowed by immigration.”
However, Senate Republicans generally agree that Democrats have the upper hand on the energy front going into the recess.
“I think we expect to get more out of it over the long haul,” said one Senate GOP leadership aide. The aide added, “Gas prices are going to continue to be a problem. Energy is going to continue to be an issue, and they’re not going to be able to say, months down the road, that [their bill] did anything.”
Meanwhile, House Democrats plan to unveil their energy package this week, and Democratic leaders are strongly urging their rank-and-file Members to hold at least one energy-themed constituent event over the July Fourth recess to build momentum for their intention to have a comprehensive package on the House floor shortly after they return.
To make sure everyone is on message, leadership aides have been canvassing Member offices to make sure lawmakers are scheduling events.
A packet distributed to Members suggests outreach efforts such as: tying events to the Live Earth concerts scheduled for July 7, pumping gas at a local station to meet with constituents, holding roundtables with farmers or touring businesses that incorporate “green” practices.
With gas prices one of the top voter concerns, there is significant pressure on Democrats to move legislation this year — a fact not lost on leadership. “The American people trust us more than Republicans on virtually every major issue, but we must create a drumbeat of accomplishments this summer if we are to maintain the American people’s confidence in our leadership,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and other House leaders wrote in a letter to fellow Democrats last week.
Democrats also are urging their Members to hold July Fourth veterans events, where they would promote their recent passage of a military construction/Veterans Affairs spending bill that would provide $4 billion more than the president requested.
For their part, House and Senate Republicans also are expected to focus on energy, but in large part to attack what the Democrats have put forth as a “cobbled-together, recycled semblance of an energy plan,” according to a GOP leadership aide.
Of course, the House has had its own “accomplishment” problems of late — having set a goal of passing all 12 fiscal 2008 spending bills by July Fourth, only to see the House floor taken over by Republicans as they protested a Democratic plan to withhold information on appropriation earmarks until House-Senate conference committees.
But by the end of this week, the House is on target to send at least half of the annual spending bills over to the Senate.
Passage of spending bills notwithstanding, House Republican leaders are asking their rank and file to tout their efforts to increase earmark transparency in recent floor fights, as well as what they say are Democratic plans for massive spending and tax hikes.
Despite their difficulties so far in both sending bills to the president and getting them signed, House and Senate Democrats have a multipronged recess message strategy that appears to be equal parts self-congratulation and blame-game.
“Everyone feels strongly that we need to highlight the many positive items we’ve passed,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “Having said that, we wouldn’t be doing a good job if we didn’t point out that Republicans have gone to unprecedented lengths to block us.”
The immigration bill, for example, could end up being a wash for both parties, regardless of the outcome.
If the immigration bill is approved, Democrats will attempt to seize credit by boasting of their commitment to border security and reuniting families of immigrants, the senior Senate Democratic aide said.
If immigration fails, however, it will be the president’s fault for failing to rally Republicans in the Senate to vote for the measure, said the aide.
“It’s an individual Senator-by-Senator issue,” said the Senate GOP leadership aide. “Nobody is going to walk away from this a winner.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.