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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.
Moderate lawmakers, meanwhile, plan to push their colleagues hard during the retreat to get behind serious deficit reduction.
“If you’re going to vote on the debt ceiling ... you better have a plan in place to get your fiscal house in order,” Sen. Joe Manchin said at a bipartisan press conference Tuesday backing new authority for the president to get up-or-down votes on packages of spending cuts.
The West Virginia Democrat said he’s looking forward to talking to his colleagues at the summit about what he’s hearing back in his state — with fiscal responsibility at the top.
Sen. Mark Pryor said he expects the retreat will be a chance for Democrats to hash out a way forward on the deficit.
The Arkansas Democrat is one of a sizable bipartisan group interested in pushing something akin to last year’s presidential deficit commission, which would cut the deficit by $4 trillion over the coming decade and trim Social Security, Medicare, tax breaks and a host of other programs.
“It’s going to be very hard; it’s not a pleasant subject,” he said. But “the debt commission gave us a very good blueprint to follow.”
Pryor, like Manchin, also pointed to the coming debt limit increase as a focus point for getting a deal and said he hopes Democratic leaders and the White House ultimately get behind a plan.
“It’s a time for presidential leadership,” he said.
But liberals are pushing back, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) leading the charge against cutting Social Security, a sentiment shared by Reid.
Sanders has argued that Social Security can pay current benefits until 2037 and hasn’t contributed a dime to the deficit, and he said he wants items such as an increase in the retirement age off the table.
Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who has opposed Social Security cuts, said the retreat will help separate “the wheat from the chaff” on the various proposals for dealing with the deficit.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) are leading the negotiations on a bipartisan deal with Senate Republicans to bring the fiscal commission recommendations to the Senate floor.
“We’re going to have a long discussion about that,” Landrieu said, adding that the retreat will give Democrats a rare chance to have some extended time together, instead of the fleeting conversations they tend to have in the Capitol.
Sen. Mark Udall said he hopes to discuss energy, immigration and the deficit, adding that those three issues are closely tied to job creation and will be critical for Democrats.
“We are going to talk substantive policy concerns, and of course, we’ll talk about our caucus, discuss how we can effectively work together — that wouldn’t surprise anybody,” the Colorado Democrat said, adding they will also discuss how to best communicate their message to the public.
But it won’t all be serious.
“We’ll have a little fun, we’ll be off site, people will be able to let their hair down. That’s always a good thing to do,” Udall said.
Republicans, meanwhile, poked fun Tuesday at the Democrats’ choice of location. The National Republican Senatorial Committee issued a release highlighting the fact that the retreat was being held at the posh resort instead of a location in Washington, D.C.
Sen. Chuck Grassley also mocked their light agenda.
“Do they have a jobs agenda?” the Iowa Republican asked. “Tell me what it is.”
“They’re going to come back from Charlottesville and they’ll have a ‘jobs agenda’ because they know that’s what people want. But they’ll all come back a little more fiscally conservative,” he predicted.