Within days, vulnerable Senate Democrats will cast perhaps the toughest vote of their career on politically volatile legislation to raise the debt ceiling. But such votes have been in remarkably short supply this year for the Democratic class of 2006, which entered Congress in a hurry to change Washington and achieve big things.
These Members point with pride to the risky votes they cast in the last Congress. Those roll calls led to the enactment of a historic health care reform law and a sweeping overhaul of the financial regulatory system that celebrates its first anniversary today. Still, Democrats up for re-election concede that the politics of 2012 has significantly influenced the Senate's productivity this year and the general willingness to take tough votes, even if it hasn't affected them personally.
"We're now in our election cycle, so we are keeping a pulse on what's happening as far as the politics of our states. But that's normal, and that's what is expected," Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), who is up for re-election next year, said Wednesday. "But I don't think we were focused on that before, and I think, as a result, we're proud of the record that's been done under this four and a half years of our six-year term."
Aides confirmed that vulnerable Democrats have not been shy about telling their leadership during private meetings when they believe an issue or proposed vote on particular legislation might cause political heartburn for them back home. And Democratic operatives who follow the Senate say Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been effective in protecting his Members from taking votes with potentially damaging political consequences — particularly on amendments pushed by the Republicans for just that purpose.
Sen. Claire McCaskill noted the irony of some Members trying to avoid tough votes even as a decision on debt ceiling and deficit reduction legislation looms. (The Missouri Democrat faces the prospect of a tough re-election battle next year in a state that did not support President Barack Obama in 2008.)
McCaskill, arguing that the chamber has become increasingly politicized on both sides since she arrived in 2007,
asserted that it has been Members' focus on re-election and their aversion to casting tough votes that has led to the nation's fiscal crisis. The Senator, during a brief interview with Roll Call, sounded as though she expects her presumed votes on the debt ceiling and spending cuts to make her re-election that much more difficult.
"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.'"