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Rust Belt Democrats Trying to Manufacture a Win

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama speaks Friday at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor while on a trip to several battleground states during which he promoted his State of the Union policy proposals.

Senate Democratic aides said they are in discussion over how to most effectively use what the White House has presented, a plan filled with tax incentives for domestic companies, in their own agenda this year. Aides suggested manufacturing will be one of several key issues the party will discuss at its retreat next month.

"Our strategic plan does involve having some votes, but it's also about press events, steering committee meetings, what should committees be doing," one Senate aide said.

"We're going to go right along with the same things the administration has presented," the aide said. Whatever Democrats bring to the floor will likely include "insourcing" provisions, or measures designed to level the playing field for domestic companies against foreign ones.

Brown said he'd like to see a manufacturing bill on the floor soon, hoping that Republicans will ultimately back the new tax breaks the way they did the payroll tax cut last year.

The Ohio Democrat even noted that former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) has made manufacturing a key platform in his run for the GOP presidential nomination. "I don't agree with Sen. Santorum a whole lot, but his emphasis on manufacturing is right," Brown said. "I think there is a real opportunity here for bipartisanship."

Republicans, however, are not sold on the strength of the president's manufacturing plan, and they questioned how successful Democrats will be in pushing it.

"I think it's a strategic decision they're making, but the problem is there's a pessimism among voters paying attention to those issues, and that pessimism is real and it's palpable, and I don't know if half-measures from D.C. will help turn things around for those voters," said one Senate GOP aide familiar with Rust Belt politics. "The leadership in the manufacturing world has been very concerned where the administration is from a regulation perspective."

Though growth in the manufacturing sectors in the White House's targeted states was significant in 2011, those states still suffer from some of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Pennsylvania, Iowa, Ohio and Michigan had unemployment rates in December 2011 of 7.6 percent, 5.6 percent, 8.1 percent and 9.3 percent, respectively, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Job growth in the manufacturing sector from December 2010 to December 2011 in those states was 2.2 percent, 2.9 percent, 4.3 percent and 5.5 percent, according to the BLS.

Republicans have long said that industries under the Obama White House are overregulated, a situation they argue has hurt the economy. The GOP used the payroll tax cut debate at the end of last year to try to push for lower emission standards for boilers in paper mills, for example. But it's unclear that Republicans can use opposition to regulations as their only weapon to fight back.

"You have to hit it on a more broad 37,000-foot level, I don't think Boiler MACT sells," the GOP aide said.

Republicans have pointed to the tepid response to Obama's State of the Union address from the National Association of Manufacturers. NAM's statement ripped the administration's decision to block the Keystone XL pipeline for now and demanded the president rein in the National Labor Relations Board and the Environmental Protection Agency, in addition to taking on the tax code.

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