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Indecisive Democrats Struggle to Move Forward

Members Spend First Week of Lame Duck Disagreeing Over Policy, Strategy

Bill Clark/Roll Call

Senate Democrats are stuck in neutral.

After a week of navel-gazing meetings, the caucus remains divided and indecisive as Senators attempt to apply the lessons of the 2010 midterms to their lame-duck agenda and strategy for the new Congress. But as they spent hour after hour last week clearing the air with gripes against their leadership and President Barack Obama, their GOP counterparts have been taking comfort in a renewed sense of unity and purpose.

As a result, Democrats will return from Thanksgiving break on Nov. 29 with barely four weeks to solve tax and spending problems that have bedeviled them all year and no plan for how to move forward.

“It’s like a giant psychiatric session,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said last week of Democrats’ daily caucus meetings. “I mean, what everyone is doing is trying to talk out how they feel.”

Democrats continue to argue about, among other things, whether to pursue a limited continuing resolution to keep the government on autopilot or an omnibus spending bill for appropriations measures that are already two months overdue.

“Until Democrats recognize Americans rejected them not because of how they communicated but what they were advocating, they will continue flailing around,” said Ryan Loskarn, staff director for the Senate Republican Conference, which is chaired by Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.). “The Republican caucus as a whole has a far better understanding of what the country is asking of their leaders and that’s given us an incredibly unifying sense of purpose and direction.”

Senate Republicans, who gained six seats in this month’s midterms, returned to work last week and quickly coalesced around a Conference-wide resolution banning earmarks as well as other policy positions intended to rein in spending. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) adroitly avoided splintering his own caucus on the earmark moratorium by reversing his previously held position on the issue and supporting the ban. All but a handful of Republicans supported the moratorium, offered by Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), following McConnell’s lead.

Reid did make a significant change in announcing last week that he would cede much of his messaging and policy coordination duties to his No. 3 lieutenant, New York Sen. Charles Schumer. In the 112th Congress, Schumer will chair a new Democratic Policy Committee, which will merge Reid’s communications war room and try to harmonize the message with the policy pursuits. However, Reid continued to flounder at the end of last week in selecting a chairman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

And Democrats couldn’t even decide what to focus their internal deliberations on.

“It’s like Groundhog Day in the Senate year-round,” one Democratic aide said. “Republicans are refusing to meet with the president, and Democrats are divided about what to do. What did we all learn from the elections?”

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