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President Barack Obama may be pushing a new plan to "bring manufacturing back" as a way to boost his own re-election case in key Midwestern swing states, but vulnerable Democratic Senators in the Rust Belt hope it will bolster their electoral chances, too.
It's no coincidence that the White House has pushed hard on the issue. Manufacturing got top billing in Obama's State of the Union address last Tuesday. He followed up on Wednesday with a trip to the battleground state of Iowa to outline a tax-incentive-based platform to revive the sector. Vice President Joseph Biden, in a speech to Democrats last week, revealed that Pennsylvania, Iowa, Ohio and Michigan were among the top six states being targeted by the administration in 2012.
Democrats believe manufacturing job growth, especially in the auto industry, has been one of the bright spots of their résumé and that it's about time the administration touts that success. And some Democrats hope they can paint Republicans into a corner on the issue, as they did during last year's showdown over the payroll tax cut.
"It was exactly the right kind of message about manufacturing," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is up for re-election this year. The Ohio Democrat had repeatedly chastised the White House in recent years for not putting enough emphasis on manufacturing, but he said the president did take important steps such as saving the auto industry from collapse.
"They've started to get [it]," said Brown, who along with Democratic Sens. Bob Casey (Pa.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), is in the best position to benefit from a strong presidential campaign on manufacturing. "I think he's getting there."
Senate Democrats, in particular, have the opportunity to make the manufacturing message their own, or at least use it on the floor with symbolic votes designed to put Republicans in a tough spot.
A Senate Democratic leadership source sees the manufacturing tax break as the kind of issue that could split Republicans and ultimately force them to back down.
"The payroll tax debate showed that the best type of policy proposal to put Republicans on the defensive if you are trying to spur the economy is a tax cut, even though many Democrats would prefer to do things that are directly stimulative," the aide said.
Sen. Dick Lugar (Ind.), an example of an establishment Republican facing a primary opponent this cycle, already drew attention for being one of the few GOP Members to stand and applaud Obama during the segment of his State of the Union speech on government help for the auto industry.
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.
But both parties have been reluctant to put their vulnerable Members on the hook for tough votes, and it's unclear how much either party will want to set up votes that may be designed to fail. And then the main question will be how forcefully Obama uses the bully pulpit for his manufacturing plan and whether his work on the trail will be enough to bring other Democrats with him.