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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."