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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.
Even now, it’s not a sure thing that Senate Republicans can influence their House counterparts. A transportation bill approved on a large bipartisan vote in the Senate has faltered in conference committee, even though House Republicans didn’t come to the table with a bill that made it to the floor.
“The way the narrative lines up for us is as follows: We see increasingly a desire among rank-and-file Republicans to see the Senate work better,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said. “There’s sort of a quiet majority, among the minority, of people who would like to work together, make the procedure less onerous, and we’ve been on a roll lately with bills of increasing importance.”
The struggle to separate the House and Senate — and the subsequent tension between the White House and Congressional Democrats — was one created by President Barack Obama late last summer, when he barnstormed the country to promote his jobs bill. And while relations between Democrats across Pennsylvania Avenue have improved, Obama still is running against Congress, and Democrats want to ensure that they look functional in the one chamber they control.
Senate Democrats are fighting a war on two fronts, one against the presidential campaign narrative that Congress is incapable of governing, and the other against Republicans who believe Democrats govern the wrong way.
Democrats believe the narrative against the House is already well-defined. Since last spring, Senate Democrats have focused largely on the House dynamics, making House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and tea-party-inspired Members the targets of their ire. House Republicans are just one of several outside forces on which Democrats will focus. The others include Norquist, Republican-controlled super PACs and the Romney campaign.
By contrast, they’ll be a lot gentler on the Republicans in their own chamber — at least for a bit.
Last week, Schumer pointed to the partnerships in committees as ones that could swing the lame duck in the Senate’s favor: from Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and ranking member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) to Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and ranking member Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).
But in the end, Republicans said voters will look to whether lawmakers can pass legislation that’s not only popular or on-message but effective.
“Their biggest challenge is the results that people see every single day,” one top GOP aide said.