Election-year politics is keeping the Senate idling, and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is finding it increasingly difficult to rack up the accomplishments that Members — including himself — need to tout back home.
That reality is also starting to frustrate House Democrats eager to have a jobs agenda to campaign on.
"This is a very difficult political time for Democrats because we're losing our edge on the jobs issue," said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), who recently lost his primary bid for governor. "The only way Democrats are going to avoid a disaster this November is if we recapture the edge on jobs and recapture the edge on the economy. Today, Republicans in district after district and state after state are winning that narrative."
But Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) indicated last week that House Democrats may not get much out of the Senate in the next few months. He said that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has made no secret of his plan to foil the Democratic agenda, particularly the majority's plans to try to shore up the country's discouraging unemployment picture.
"The general election campaign has begun," Durbin said. "Sen. McConnell has told Sen. Reid, Forget it. We're not going to do anything.' And so we're basically faced with that."
Durbin added: "Other Republican Senators have said, We're just not going to give you anything.' And I take them at their word. They believe this is the right election strategy to stop us from doing anything that we think will create jobs and turn the economy around. They don't believe that that's to their political advantage and so they're not going to help us do that."
Republicans deny they are employing any new tactics just because the midterm elections are a scant four months away.
"There is nothing different about our strategy at all," one senior Senate GOP aide said. "If for the first time this Congress Democrats pursue a legislative strategy that includes Republicans, we'll be happy to help, but if they want to continue racking up the debt on party-line votes then we don't have anything to talk about. It has absolutely nothing to do with elections, the weather or anything other than our obvious differences."
Even before the death of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) last week, Reid was already having a hard time moving an otherwise noncontroversial tax extenders bill that included an extension of unemployment benefits. Those jobless benefits expired more than a month ago.
Reid has lost his past three attempts to break a GOP-led filibuster of jobless benefits that are not offset with spending reductions elsewhere. Last week, Reid broke the unemployment portion of the extenders bill out — at the urging of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) — but still failed to garner the 60 votes needed. Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) supported the GOP blockade.
Given Reid was only one vote short, he should be able to get the bill across the finish line sometime next week once Byrd's replacement is sworn-in. A senior Senate Democratic aide said leaders expect West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) to name a new Senator "by the time we come back into session" on July 12.
Byrd's replacement could also get Democrats within one vote of passing the financial reform bill. Two Republicans — Snowe and Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown — who supported the Senate version of the bill have not yet said whether they would support the House-Senate conference report, but the senior Senate Democratic aide said the prospects for finishing the package were looking up since Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) announced last week that she would reverse her earlier position and support the measure this time.
Senate Democrats are also looking to use July to pass a supplemental war spending measure, change a controversial Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance rules and start a potentially historic debate on climate change, Reid spokesman Jim Manley pointed out. Also on the calendar is the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, which Reid wants to take up before Senators leave for the August recess.
"The fact is, we've got an ambitious schedule set up for July. In light of Republican tactics, it remains to be seen what we get done," he said, adding that McConnell has "laid down the law with his caucus and any deals between now and [Election Day] are going to be difficult to achieve."
That sentiment is not sitting well in the House, where Democrats believe Senate roadblocks have hamstrung their ability to get on offense on what matters to voters most: jobs and the economy.
"How many times are we going to pass unemployment insurance, and the Senate's going to block it?" a House Democratic leadership aide fumed late last week just before the House approved a five-month extension of unemployment benefits that has become the latest in a string of similar measures to stall in the Senate.
Still, House Democrats touted major economic victories last week when they voted for $10 billion to help cash-strapped school districts stem teacher layoffs as part of an emergency war supplemental and cleared the financial reform conference report. But the Senate left town before acting on either measure, and Education Department cuts used to pay for the teacher money drew a White House veto threat.
Friday's lackluster June jobs report brought more unwelcome news for Democrats, who face the difficult task of convincing voters that the billions in government spending they've championed over the past 18 months have staved off a much more severe economic downturn. However, Democrats in competitive districts are expected to use the July Fourth recess to continue to tout projects funded under last year's controversial stimulus package.
Republicans, by contrast, have a comparatively simple message: The economy is still broken and Democrats' spending policies are to blame.
"The Democrat problem is that it's obvious to millions of Americans that their economic policies have failed," House GOP Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) said.
President Barack Obama sought to counter that narrative last week during a campaign-like speech on the economy in Racine, Wis., during which he took aim at Republicans for blocking unemployment benefits extensions and other aspects of the Democrats' jobs agenda.
Congressional Democrats are likely to increasingly take aim at Republicans in the coming weeks to try to make the case that GOP gains in November would further undercut their ability to create jobs.