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Senate Democratic leaders made clear to their rank and file Wednesday that they may be down, but they are not out.
Several Senators who spoke to Roll Call said a private, caucus-wide conference call served as part pep rally, part post-election assessment after Democrats lost at least six seats but retained control of the chamber. House Democrats, meanwhile, will be the minority party in the next Congress.
“The voters have spoken. We need to listen. We need to be gracious,” Sen. Tom Carper said.
“At the same time, we should recognize that we’re not operating from a position of weakness,” the Delaware Democrat added, given that the party still holds the White House and the Senate majority.
Democrats tried to walk a fine line between acknowledging voter discontent with their agenda and believing that the Senate results proved they still had a hand to play over the next few years.
Sen. Ben Nelson said the mood of the caucus was “upbeat,” but the Nebraska Democrat added that there was an “admonition from several [Members] to understand what happened and not be in denial about what happened.”
Nelson and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) urged leaders to limit the agenda for the lame-duck session. A broad agenda that tries to push through politically difficult legislation before the next Congress will only inflame an already angry electorate, Nelson said.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Carper said Democrats talked quite a bit about how voters want the parties to cooperate more. “It’s incredibly important that we do our part,” Stabenow said. “We’re going to do everything we can to reach out to Republicans, but we do it from a position of strength.”
She added that bipartisan deals cannot be “just political compromises. It’s got to be things that work.”
One Senator on the call said there was a plea from another Senator for more party unity on procedural votes — a suggestion that was not welcomed by Members who believe the party’s lock-step approach to some legislation in the 111th Congress did not serve them well.
Senators also briefly talked about how to deal with extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts in the lame duck. The consensus appeared to be that Democrats still want to limit the tax breaks for upper-income households.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid indicated as much during a news conference call Wednesday. The Nevada Democrat said that an across-the-board, permanent extension of the tax cuts, which Republicans advocate, “won’t happen” but that he will “do everything we can to ensure the middle class gets the tax cut it deserves.”
Despite losing two of their own, Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Russ Feingold (Wis.), as well as four Democratic-held open seats Tuesday night, Senators said their mood was buoyed during the call when the Denver Post declared Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet the victor in his close race against tea party favorite Ken Buck in Colorado.
Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, whose battle against Republican Dino Rossi in Washington state remained too close to call Wednesday evening, told colleagues that she is confident she will come out ahead when the final votes are tallied.