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Senate Democrats convening for their annual retreat are hoping to put some meat on a sparse floor agenda and polish their messaging on the economy.
The trip to Charlottesville, Va., comes as the party is struggling to resolve splits within the caucus over when, where and how deeply to cut spending to shrink the $1.5 trillion deficit.
And while Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has promised to make the Senate’s agenda all about jobs, there are few bills of consequence ready to move to the floor, Democratic aides acknowledged.
A senior Democratic aide said the sparse agenda is largely due to the light early Senate schedule — including taking weeks off in January and only organizing committees last week — as well as the new bipartisan agreement to let the committee process work.
“In the new era of gentlemen’s agreements ... there’s going to be less dreaming up bills on the fly” and taking bills directly to the floor, the aide said.
Senate Democrats also wanted to wait for the president’s State of the Union address before setting out their agenda, a senior leadership aide said.
“We are focusing on the specific proposals we will push in the Senate to help create jobs and stretch middle-class paychecks,” Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “The president gave us a framework in the State of the Union, and we are filling in the details.”
But there are also at least as many ideas of what should be on that jobs agenda as there are Democratic Senators, and they all will be lobbying each other over the three-day confab at the Boar’s Head Inn resort.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) is pushing for bold new measures to revive the housing market, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) will be talking up highway and water bills, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) hopes to resolve liability issues for oil drillers in the Gulf of Mexico, and others are pushing for broader legislation on energy, immigration and tax reform.
But the overarching question for party leaders is how to deal with the deficit and navigate competing demands from moderate Democrats for austerity and liberals who are rallying to protect entitlement and domestic spending programs from deep cuts.
The retreat agenda, according to Democratic aides, started with a welcome from Reid and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), as well as an overview of lessons learned from the 2010 elections and the challenges faced by the party.
Today, Democrats are expected to hear presentations on a message strategy. There will also be presentations on jobs, the economy and fiscal strategy, including appearances by White House economists Austan Goolsbee and Gene Sperling.
Thursday’s agenda will include a presentation on “going on offense” and finish with a review and next steps.