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Democrats Look to Pivot From Milestones to Today's Priorities

Dingell with the gavel he used when he presided over the vote to pass Medicare. ( Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Wielding the gavel he held nearly 50 years ago to the day, former Rep. John D. Dingell told a group gathered in the Capitol Visitor Center Wednesday, “We did it! Now let’s see some real enthusiasm," adding, "They fought us all the way.”  

The Michigan Democrat was back in the Capitol  to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid becoming law. At the House Democratic event, Dingell waved the same gavel he held when he presided over that historic vote a half century ago — and that House Minority Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., used for the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Along with Medicare and Medicaid, Democrats are taking a series of other legislative victory laps this summer, including marking the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and the 80th anniversary of Social Security.  

These markers give Democrats a prime opportunity to push their priorities, despite the news being dominated by reports of Republican infighting , a congressional indictment and presidential politics.  

“As we celebrate a half century of Democratic initiatives coupled with the two recent Supreme Court decisions that made love the law of the land and protected affordable access to health care for all Americans, I’m very encouraged that our nation continues to become more free, caring and inclusive," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement. "The Democratic Party continues to focus on creating opportunities for everyone, no matter their race, gender, religion or sexual orientation."  

But as Democrats reflect on legislative victories of bygone decades, they also note that accomplishing similar victories is increasingly difficult today, given the congressional gridlock and opposition from the GOP-led Congress.  

“I certainly think that it’s been tougher to run big ideas through this Congress," House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., told CQ Roll Call. "And I do believe that there is a sense that going big, hitting a home run, isn’t the preferred way of scoring for some of the congressional leaders on the Republican side.”  

Democrats across the Capitol share a similar sentiment.  

Less than an hour after attendees at the House event blew out the candles on the Medicare/Medicaid birthday cake, top Senate Democrats gathered to commemorate the anniversary.  

"It is really too bad that we’re having such difficulty doing simple things like funding a highway bill," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., responding to a question about passing sweeping legislation today. "This isn’t the way we used to legislate. So for us today to think we could pass something like Medicare is just — Republicans are going to have to change to become legislators, willing to compromise, willing to work toward a goal.”  

At the event, Reid pulled a tattered piece of paper he carries in his wallet, reading quotes from Republican leaders criticizing the entitlement programs. One of the quotes was from former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., who said of Medicare, "We knew it wouldn't work in 1965."  

Dole was back on Capitol Hill Monday to mark the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which turned 25 on Sunday. He was also asked about the prospect of developing such sweeping bipartisan legislation in today's political environment.  

“It seemed easier when I was in the Senate for 28 and a half years," Dole said. "We had friends on both sides of the aisle and sometimes we’d get some votes. And sometimes we would vote with Democrats, they would vote with us. I’ve always felt that any bill that had real substance was bipartisan, was going to last."  

He later added that "compromise is not a bad word" and said there were glimmers of hope Republicans and Democrats could come together in the future.  

At the ADA event, as with similar commemorations, lawmakers including House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., used the opportunity to discuss the work that still needs to be done for Americans with disabilities, particularly increasing employment opportunities.  

A few days later, Democrats also utilized the 50th anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid to make their arguments against budget cuts or attempts to phase out these programs.  

On Thursday, Democrats are set to gather in front of the Capitol to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which is Aug. 10, and call for Republicans to act on legislation to update provisions of the law that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013.  

Expanding voting rights is one of the messages House Democrats will be taking back to their districts for the August recess. And though the anniversaries present a prime opportunity to highlight priorities like voting rights, Democrats will also be working to stay on-message and focused on other issues facing Americans today.  

“We should not lose sight or focus for a moment on the importance of those legislative victories," said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who chairs the Democratic Caucus' policy and communications committee. "At the same time, voters right now are hyper-focused on their own personal financial freedom, on whether the job they have now is going to be there next year."  

"People say that our problem is we don’t have a message," Israel later added. "No, that’s not the problem. The problem is we have too many messages and so we’ve got to be disciplined to talk about the everyday concerns that the American people have."  

Nicole Puglise contributed to this report.

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