With President Barack Obama running against a "do-nothing" Congress — and Congress actually running out of things that the president has asked it to do — Senate Democratic leaders are working on a strategy to help boost the credentials of their Members up for re-election.
Twenty-three of the 33 seats up this cycle are held by Democrats, seven of whom already have announced their retirement, and many are in challenging matchups that could go either way. Senate Republicans, after weeks spent on social issues, are doubling down yet again on gas prices and jobs. And Democrats say they will need to hit back with a mix of test votes, press conferences and floor speeches. But there is some question whether mere "messaging" votes will be enough for some Members, especially on the deficit or jobs.
"We keep saying you have to get your financial house in order, you have to have energy policy, you have to have all these things to get going in the right direction, but we seem to be at loggerheads," said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who is facing re-election this year. "That's the problem: Everybody's worried about the politics and the next election."
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) has been working with Democrats facing re-election to help organize and develop message amendments to counter the GOP on gas prices and the Keystone XL oil pipeline, another tool Republicans have used this year to attack the president on jobs.
The politics are complicated: Hold too many test votes on measures that can never pass, and Democrats risk looking like they're overly politicizing the floor. Hold too few and you let the GOP in both chambers off the hook, from vulnerable Senate Republicans not being subjected to tough votes to House Republicans who Democrats believe have made the legislative process impossible.
"I don't know that we get anything done there," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who is also up for re-election this year. "Because these guys in the House don't really want to do the substantive things that create jobs. Everything is talking points on cutting spending, nothing about job creation."
But Sen. Benjamin Cardin (Md.), another Democrat up for re-election this year, said his party has to try to legislate. "We should keep moving our agenda, regardless of the election," Cardin said. "To me, it's about jobs. It's about dealing with the budget in a responsible way. It's about sequestration problems. I hope we can deal with the issues. My preference is not to worry about the election, just do our work."
Though Democratic staffers have been meeting regularly to discuss messaging strategy, there already have been missteps. Last week, Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) tried to push through 17 judicial nominees, thinking he could box in Republicans as obstructionists. But Republicans were able to turn the tables on Democrats, painting a picture of a choice between "judges" or "jobs."
Republican aides touted the merits of their simple strategy, but Democrats were able to secure an agreement from GOP leaders to vote on 14 judges. Still, Republican Members seemed to find a bit of higher ground and continued to hammer a message of job creation, bolstered by Reid's decision to move forward on a House-passed jobs bill.
The other looming question is what Democrats will do on budget and deficit issues in response to GOP maneuvers. House Republicans continue to push for a lower amount of government spending than agreed to in last summer's Budget Control Act, and Senate Republicans have vowed to roll back the more than $500 billion in defense cuts built into the same deal.
Manchin is a proponent of reopening the debate on the Bowles-Simpson deficit recommendations. The idea of "going big" on deficit reduction was one Democrats touted throughout the summer as part of debt ceiling negotiations and also during the ill-fated "gang of six" talks in the Senate. But after repeated failed attempts between Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to reach a "big" deal, the idea of pursuing sweeping reforms fell flat. And it's less clear how well deficit reduction plays outside of the Beltway, where Americans are still more concerned with unemployment and housing.
"You have to have something such as the Bowles-Simpson, which is the template that basically puts on us on a downward glide, if you will, to get our finances to a manageable place," Manchin said.
Then, there's a larger White House problem.
Obama's agenda for Congress isn't particularly robust. At his last press conference, he called for votes on the "Buffett Rule" that would tax millionaires and on ending tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas — both items sure to be defeated or filibustered by the GOP. The third thing he called on Congress to pass immediately was a broad mortgage refinancing plan, but there also is a low probability of action on that.
Instead, the White House has increasingly shifted into campaign mode, with Obama last week sharpening attacks on his rivals, although not yet by name; deploying Vice President Joseph Biden for a campaign rally; and releasing a 17-minute campaign film.
At a briefing last week, senior administration officials held out hope that Congress would get more done, but the White House had already pointed to the payroll tax cut as the only must-pass item before the election. The focus of late has been on gas prices, but Obama's speeches are more about taking victory laps on what he's already done and touting a broad scope of his energy policies than on pushing specific legislation.
The one energy item he's demanding a vote on now is ending tax subsidies for oil companies — but that's simply a rehash of votes and bills from last year that went nowhere. And it isn't likely to end up as anything more than another show vote this year.
Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.