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"It's way more important for me to solve this problem than it is for me to get re-elected," McCaskill said. "People need to try on risky votes and wear [them] around and get comfortable with it. Because this kind of problem does not get solved without a risky vote. I mean, someone needs to explain how you solve the debt crisis and our fiscal imbalance without risky votes — because we're used to saying 'yes' to everybody, and now we have to start saying 'no.'"
But Democrats also lay blame with the Republicans for the pointedly political approach to legislation and voting they have taken this year.
McCaskill, echoing many Democrats, said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) "smells the job of majority floor leader around the corner" and has focused his energy and strategy mostly on politics and "ways to make the process as difficult as possible — especially for people like me that are in swing states."
Sen. Mark Begich, an Alaska Democrat whose 2008 class shares the impatience and ambition previously expressed by the 2006 class, offered a similar critique of the GOP. Begich said Republicans have repeatedly slowed the legislative process for purely political purposes. "They'd rather go down there and jawbone, rather than get the work [done] that this country expects them to do," he said.
Democrats also point the finger at what they deem an unreasonably stubborn Republican House majority, saying there has been no upside to casting tough votes when any legislation produced in the Senate is likely to die on the south side of the Capitol. Comparatively, Democrats controlled the House and Senate by wide margins during the 111th Congress, as well as the White House, motivating Members to take risks on controversial issues.
"They couldn't do anything, even if they wanted to," one Democratic operative said.
Exercising legislative caution in an election year is a biennial Capitol Hill tradition, with Senators from both political parties tending to run for political cover in the face of a tough re-election battle. But this cycle, primarily Democrats are in trouble, including the hard-charging class of 2006 that helped regain control of the chamber.
Incumbent Democrats are in peril, and so is their party's hold on the Senate. Four in-cycle, Democratic-held seats are in the Republican-leaning states of Florida, Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota; four are in the swing states of Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio and Virginia. Other states with Democratic-held seats in play include Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — all of which experienced GOP gains of some sort in 2010.
Of the 33 seats up in 2012, Senators who caucus with the Democrats hold 23. Republicans, who need to flip only four seats to take control of the chamber, hold 10.
The Democratic operative confirmed the view that many of the chamber's Democrats elected in 2006 and running for re-election next year have played it safe in 2011, saying that the brashness that characterized these Members when they took office has been tempered by experience. "Like anyone else, you realize that things don't always work in the Senate the way you'd like," the operative said.