With few remaining options for enacting major public policy before the November election, Democrats instead are looking to set a political trap for Republicans on income inequality issues and hoping the GOP takes the bait.
According to several sources, some Republicans, especially on the Senate side, are reluctant to have House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., push forward with his annual budget framework, which he telegraphed this week would focus on the federal government's antipoverty programs. Senate Republicans, several of whom are caught between primary challengers on the right and Democratic upstarts on the left, would rather talk about something else, as opposed to being forced to contend with issues better suited to the Democratic party line.
"You are correct they have a vote count problem and that has led to concern on our side. We have better issues on which we can message," said a Senate Republican aide, of the cross-chamber view of Ryan's potential budget unveiling.
Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., already have set topline numbers for this fiscal year and next, and Murray has said she will not produce a budget this year. With those spending levels, it could be hard for House Republicans to actually pass the budget, given the 62 GOP defectors on the 2013 Murray-Ryan agreement.
“We don't have any announcements to make at this time. It is Chairman Ryan's intent to again put forward a balanced budget," a Ryan spokesman said in an e-mail.
But perhaps more significant in the GOP's calculations, assuming there is a regard for Senate Republicans' political needs from their House counterparts, is that since 2010, Senate Democrats have used Ryan's budgets as a political weapon against Republicans, and are sure to do so again.
The potential political "trap" goes like this: Democrats, through a series of messaging votes and initiatives from the White House, make "income inequality" issues — extending expired unemployment benefits, raising the minimum wage — the centerpiece of their 2014 midterm narrative.
Republicans, in turn, respond to these messaging efforts by trying to engage on the issue. Republican senators such as Tim Scott of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida already have given speeches to these ends. And on Monday, Ryan unveiled a 204-page report assessing the failures of federal antipoverty programs.
Once Ryan releases his budget blueprint — if he does — Democrats plan to attack him and House Republicans, as they have for years, for slashing safety net programs to balance the budget. For their part, Democrats are happy Republicans are playing on their turf.
"House Republicans are realizing that the major issue that's affecting the American people is the decline of incomes for the middle class and people below the middle class. ... We may not agree with their solutions, but I think it's a good step that they're focusing on these things now rather than some other stuff," Sen. Charles E. Schumer said Tuesday.
When reminded of previous Democratic messaging efforts, largely led by the New York Democrat himself, Schumer added the following caveat: "Well, I haven't seen the whole Ryan budget this year, but I imagine most of it is going to be similar to last time — where he's trying to dramatically cut things that will help the middle class grow, like education, infrastructure, scientific research. It's not going to work."
A Senate Democratic aide conceded the political nature of budgets in a way that underscored this dynamic: "A lot of these political debates aren't necessarily won or lost on the answers to questions, but what you can frame as the important question, and on that front, we feel like we've already won."
That has some Republicans asking why give Democrats an easy messaging issue when control of the Senate is in play. With President Barack Obama's approval ratings hovering around 40 percent, and almost a complete disregard of his budget release Tuesday, these Republicans believe that other messages would be clearer and more effective.
But other Republicans dismiss the idea that attacking Ryan's budget brings much political advantage to otherwise struggling Democrats.
"I don't think the Democratic talking points on our budget [are as] effective as they think they are," said one GOP aide. "I think they'd love to find an issue that would become a national issue to combat the general fatigue with the Obama presidency."
And even some Democrats admit that what's said on the ground by candidates plays a more significant role in voters' decisions than national narratives.
"At the risk of going off-script, I don't think the problem is Paul Ryan, I think it's the ideas that all these candidates support and that's what will have big consequences in these Senate races," said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Deputy Executive Director Matt Canter, citing recent stories of GOP candidates opposing the principle of a minimum wage . But Canter suggested that national policy decisions "build a narrative."