Senate Democrats hope they can succeed where the president has failed, differentiating themselves enough from House Republicans to avoid becoming trapped in the narrative of a broken Congress.
Inherent in this strategy, though, is playing up their own bipartisanship and a willing, productive Senate Republican Conference. Democrats touted the strength of their Senate GOP colleagues last week after approving a sweeping farm bill on bipartisan lines, but in the same breath they attacked House Republicans for being beholden to anti-tax champion Grover Norquist and the “Romney-Ryan” budget plan.
It’s a bit of a gamble in their tough battle to keep the Senate, but clearly Democratic top brass — or at least the currently prevailing voices — has decided it’s more in the party’s interest to show it can govern the chamber than to paint Senate Republicans as obstructionists.
“The Republican House is still far from getting its act together, but there are good bipartisan vibes all around the Senate these days,” Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said, just hours before the Senate passed a nearly $500 billion, five-year farm bill.
“With each of these accomplishments, we’re building up a reserve of trust and goodwill that will help during the big picture negotiations coming at the end of the year,” continued Schumer, the party’s message captain.
Democrats will need Senate Republicans on their side in the looming lame-duck session, in which Congress must extend the nation’s debt limit, renew expiring tax cuts, at least partially, and potentially replace $1.2 trillion in scheduled across-the-board spending cuts triggered by the failure of last fall’s super committee.
In the same press conference in which Schumer praised Senate Republicans, Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) went after the GOP for its ties to Norquist and his no-new-taxes pledge: “Nearly every Republican in Congress has signed Grover’s pledge. [Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell signed it; [presumptive GOP presidential nominee] Mitt Romney has signed it and he’s sticking to it.”
Politically, the biggest question is whether Senate Democrats can successfully draw nuanced distinctions in a way that resonates with voters without appearing to step on either message. Obama has barely tried to absolve Democrats in Congress from the dysfunction he decries, making it crucial that Senate Democrats do it themselves. But it is unclear whether they can.
From a policy perspective, the most significant challenge is drawing a clear distinction between Senate and House Republicans so as to not alienate the Senate GOP, whom Democrats will need on their side if they hope to pressure the House on major compromises that must be worked out after the elections.