Red-state Democrats may break with White House
From left, Sen. Mark Begich, President Barack Obama, Sen. Harry Reid and Sen. Tom Udall. | AP Photos
By: John Bresnahan and Manu Raju
January 18, 2013 05:35 PM EST
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his top lieutenants, the
challenges of balancing the 2014 Senate map and President Barack Obama’s
second-term agenda could cause as many headaches as anything
Republicans throw at them.|
Overall, 20 Democratic-held Senate seats are up for grabs next year, versus 13 for Republicans. Democratic incumbents face reelection in solidly red states like Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana and South Dakota, all of which Obama lost by double-digit margins in November.
(PHOTOS: 39 great photos from Obama’s first term)
A little more than a year after Obama is sworn in to another term, there will be high-profile Senate races in swing states like Colorado, North Carolina and New Hampshire. One red-state Democrat — Sen. Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) — has already announced his retirement, putting in play a seat that has been in Democratic hands for nearly three decades.
While Obama is now riding high in public-opinion polls — and the GOP is struggling with historically low approval ratings — senior Democratic senators and aides say the president must face a stark political reality even as he begins his second term as commander in chief.
Newly reelected and emboldened red-state Democrats, as well as senators up for reelection in 2014, want and need to show independence from the White House. For these Democrats,
a visit or endorsement by Obama is not going to help them win, although they will be happy to have his money or checks from his donor network.
(PHOTOS: 7 best campaign dustups)
From guns to immigration to budget fights — especially possible cuts to the popular Medicare and Medicaid programs — these upcoming battles will expose the fault lines within the Democratic Party. Obama will have to juggle the political needs of red-state Democrats even as he tries to outmaneuver a House GOP leadership pulled to the right by its hardliners.
Reid singles out those who are up for reelection and does whatever he can to promote their agenda and protect them from politically charged votes, aides said Friday.
“What you have in the Democratic Caucus — probably more so now than the Republican [Conference] — you have a sizable amount of moderates,” Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), up for reelection in 2014, told POLITICO. “We are kind of practical, let’s get things done, we’re willing to try some new stuff. But we’re not going to do the same ol’, same ol’. I think that’s a struggle with the administration at times.”
“We may have some other agenda ourselves,” added Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who also faces voters in two years. “We may as a Senate decide that we want to do something about jobs. The Senate may decide it wants to do something about small business and a tax package. We may want to do something on tax reform itself. Our agenda depends on our 55 senators — [and] what we decide we want to put on the floor.”
(PHOTOS: 10 great quotes about voting)
A senior Democratic aide said the White House must recognize the “blunt political reality” that 20 Democratic senators will face reelection in a cycle in which control of the Senate is at stake.
“And if they want to actually get stuff done, they’re going to have to make an effort to work with us, and personally reach out to the Mark Pryors, and the Mary Landrieus and listen to those folks and make them feel heard,” the aide said. “It can’t feel like an oppositional relationship, it has to feel like we’re partners with generally the same but sometimes slightly different options on how to get there.”
The aide added: “Gun control will be a test of that. That’s going to require a lot of hand-holding.”
While the 2014 Senate map may favor Republicans, the GOP would have to essentially run the table in six of seven red states where Democrats hold seats to win a majority. Opposing Obama on some issues may even help some Democratic incumbents, all of whom are leading or very competitive in early polls.
“To the extent that they break with the president, it could be — I don’t want to say it is — a big advantage for them in deep-red states,” said a Democratic strategist.
Several Democrats who are up for reelection and from red states told POLITICO they are skeptical of elements of — if not all — of Obama’s aggressive gun control agenda.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who could face a tough reelection and has previously opposed reinstating the assault weapons ban, said there needs to be “more emphasis on [mental health issues and counseling families in crisis] as well as enforcing some of the laws that are already on the books.” She added it was important for Washington “not to overreact one way or another.”
Begich added: “To start saying we’re going to have more laws and more regulations, I think, would be problematic.”
Udall voiced similar sentiments, though he suggested more of an openness to tightening background checks.
“When you talk about gun rights and the situation in the West, there are very mixed feelings in terms of pushing a nationwide package — a one-size-fits-all package,” Udall said,
questioning the effectiveness of an assault weapons ban.
“Everybody ought to be at the table,” said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who is also up in 2014. “And we ought to be talking about violent images and games. They’re readily available. We ought to be talking about mental health services and to what extent we can take a step forward and identify people who hurt themselves and others. And we need to be talking about the access to firearms that’s greater than any other developed country in the world, including some countries that are similar to us like Canada, who have much lower rates of mass killings [than] we do. So everything has got to be on the table.”
Reid must navigate these concerns within his caucus while facing heavy pressure from liberals and gun control advocates pushing hard for every element of the president’s agenda.
Senior Democratic aides expect Reid — a gun rights supporter despite recent distance from the National Rifle Association — to take the temperature of his caucus next week. Universal background checks, Senate aides say, is probably the one element of the agenda most Democrats can get behind. Other than that, it’s not at all clear what Democrats will be willing to pass.
And Reid said he wouldn’t stage votes on guns that don’t stand a chance to pass the House. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said his chamber will wait for the Senate to act before taking up the gun issue, but many House Republicans — concerned about NRA-backed primary challengers next year — would rather keep the status quo on federal gun laws despite the national uproar since last month’s shootings in Newtown, Conn.
On immigration, there’s more unanimity among Senate Democrats and Reid’s leadership team over supporting a comprehensive bill. Right now, the focus will turn to a small bipartisan group of senators trying to cut an immigration deal, and if they do, that would likely emerge as the main vehicle this year.
But the White House is expected to unveil its own sweeping immigration bill, which could b
e largely ignored if a bipartisan Senate deal starts to gain steam.
Added to the problems: There are also a number of senators from red and swing states who are nervous about advancing on such a polarizing issue. And there are several who hope the Senate will begin to focus on the No. 1 campaign issue in 2012: jobs.
“My No. 1 priority is jobs and the economy, and that is what I want the U.S. Senate to focus on,” said freshman Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, a state Obama lost by 11 points last year. “Overall, the Senate needs to address the pressing needs of our still-recovering economy and cutting spending to get our fiscal house in order in a bipartisan way.”
Mark Udall said he welcomes tough votes on guns, immigration or revamping U.S. energy policy, but said the economy is still the biggest issue.
“That’s what people [in Colorado] expect me to do. That’s what my reputation in part rests on,” Udall said. “Anything we do that counters people’s emphasis on that, we will be punished for that, I believe. We should be criticized. Anything that we do that moves our economy forward and creates certainty [for the business community], I think we have got to be acknowledged for it and the voters will have to decide if they’re going to reward us on Nov. 2, 2014.”
With tensions between Senate Democratic leaders and the White House still raw over the fiscal cliff battle, cutting spending, especially big changes to Medicare or Medicaid, will be difficult to navigate as they head into a confrontation with Republicans over raising the debt ceiling and extending government funding past the current March 27 deadline.
The House Republicans are planning to vote on raising the debt ceiling for three months and stop pay for members of Congress if the Senate doesn’t pass a budget, GOP officials said Friday.
But a Reid spokesman said the Senate would consider only a clean debt ceiling bill but felt the GOP movement was encouraging.
No matter how the debt ceiling battle turns out, Obama is almost certain to face new pressure from 2014 Senate Democrats over cutting deeper into the budget.
“I’m going to underline something very strong here: The president must propose — or we should — a combination of spending cuts,” Begich said. “We cannot do this budget just on the revenue issue that we did at the end of last year.”