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Vulnerable Democrats Display Their Timidity

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Sen. Mark Begich said Republican political posturing has been the main factor behind the Senate’s lack of action on big issues, such as those the chamber tackled in the 111th Congress.

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.'"

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.

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