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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.