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Indecisive Democrats Struggle to Move Forward

Bill Clark/Roll Call

The aide added that Democrats decided to avoid votes on tax cuts and gays in the military before the election, “because it would theoretically put people in a tight spot,” even though those votes have proved just as politically difficult after the elections.

“While the Republicans are lining up bills in the House designed to weaken or embarrass Democrats, we’re still fighting last year’s battles,” the aide said.

Indeed, last week’s discussions were largely a continuation of caucus battles that have been ongoing this year. Junior Democratic Members pushed to enact Senate and caucus rules reforms in a belief it would make the party more nimble and effective, while some Members became impatient with the lack of a strategy on the lame-duck agenda, which includes an important extension of Bush-era tax cuts that expire on Dec. 31.

Lawmakers such as Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson said that based on the drubbing Democrats took on Nov. 2 and the state of the economy, rules reforms will have no place in the party’s agenda next year.

“I think all these other things are interesting, but not until we’ve done jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Nelson, who is up for re-election in 2012.

Democrats are clearly worried about the Bush-era tax cuts, considering a failure to extend them by year’s end could cause a political disaster when the Treasury Department siphons more money from individuals’ paychecks. But whether to extend just those for middle-income families or those for all Americans has been a contentious issue.

Last week, Democrats indicated they are seriously considering voting on a bill that would extend tax cuts for those making $1 million or less, a significant change from Obama’s proposal to only extend the tax breaks for those making $200,000 or less ($250,000 for couples). Democrats said it would allow them to accuse Republicans who oppose the idea of being shills for the super rich.

Also in play is a suggestion by the White House to extend middle-class tax breaks for a longer period of time than any extension of upper-income tax cuts, sources said.

However, Senators said it was too early to say whether either of those options or another option would emerge as an actual bill.

Reid defended the pace with which the caucus was moving, saying the three consecutive days of party meetings were “very productive” and that “We’ve covered a lot of things in periods that have been informative and good for me.” But another Democratic Senator who emerged from one of those marathon sessions Thursday said under his breath, “It’s like a town hall in there.”

Indeed, Tuesday’s Democratic caucus meeting was unofficially dubbed by aides as a “grievance session,” and Thursday’s meeting at one point grew heated when a frustrated Sen. Bill Nelson criticized Obama of creating a “toxic” political environment for his 2012 re-election prospects in Florida and blasted the White House’s lack of a clear messaging strategy.

Several Members said their indecision grew out of a desire to make sure the lame-duck session sets a positive tone for Democrats and their agenda next year, while others said this stretch of 2010 is the last-best hope for some liberal items that surely won’t move next year when Democrats will shrink to a 53-Member caucus.

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