Signs of midterm angst

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is getting pushback from Democratic colleagues balking at the legislative agenda he set for the weeks before Election Day.


Several Democratic senators have questioned the wisdom of voting on the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and a scaled-down version of immigration reform, known as the DREAM Act.

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Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said Democrats are worried about bringing up hot-button political issues that are likely to rev up the liberal base but could alienate more conservative swing voters.

“I think there’s a little concern about bringing these issues up right now,” he said.

Pryor said he did not intend to criticize Reid, who faces a tough reelection campaign.

“Harry Reid is a very good leader, and he’s trying to be a good legislator,” Pryor said. “He has the toughest job in Washington.”

On Tuesday the Senate will vote to begin debate on a defense authorization bill that includes a repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the Clinton-era policy that bans gays from serving openly in the military. Reid plans to offer the immigration proposal as an amendment.

Reid’s office defended the agenda.

“It is not surprising that different members of the caucus have different ideas on what the Senate should consider before we leave. That being said, the defense authorization is a very important bill that will help provide our troops with the funding that they need. It will also help qualified men and women who want to serve our nation be able to do so,” said a spokeswoman for the majority leader.

Some lawmakers would prefer to consider legislation that focuses on jobs and the economy, such as an energy bill that promotes green technology but does not include restrictions on carbon emissions.

They expressed their concerns at a Democratic policy meeting on Thursday, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

Some Democrats also wonder if it makes more sense to vote on a package of business tax-relief extenders that could have an immediate impact on the economy, instead of the broad income tax cuts that passed under President George W. Bush.

Since January, Democratic leaders have promised to focus on “jobs, jobs, jobs,” in the words of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Much floor time this year has been spent debating healthcare reform and Wall Street reform, bills that were not on the Democratic jobs agenda.

One of the critics is Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), a prominent member of the Armed Services Committee.

Webb argues that Congress should not vote to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell” until the Pentagon has completed an analytical study of how it may affect the armed services.

 Webb notes that Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked for Congress to allow up to a year for the review to be completed before acting.

Webb has also questioned attaching the DREAM Act, which would allow the children of illegal immigrants to become legal residents if they came to this country before the age of 16; lived here for five consecutive years; graduated from high school; and attended college or served two years in the military.

“I don’t think that’s germane to the defense bill,” he said. “It’s just going to make people mad.”

Webb said “it really surprises” him that Reid decided to attach it to the defense legislation.

While he thinks the proposal is a “good idea” in concept, Webb said, “we have to deal with the border first.”

A Democratic leadership aide said the immigration proposal is relevant because it will expand the number of young people eligible to serve in the military.

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Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said he would prefer the Senate take up legislation to strip tax breaks from companies that ship American jobs overseas. He also said an energy bill that would promote investment in green technology — not including a cap-and-trade plan — also deserves priority.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), a member of the Energy and Finance committees, believes that the upper chamber should tackle legislation that would immediately unleash private-sector investments and create new jobs.

Cantwell added that representatives from the solar energy industry have stopped by her office to discuss massive investments they would make if they received benefits from the federal government.

Cantwell said if it were her call, she would schedule a package to extend expiring tax provisions introduced last week by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

The bill would cut taxes for families paying college tuition and allow companies to write off research-and-development costs.

Cantwell thinks this legislation could have more of an immediate impact on the economy than a bigger bill to extend the income tax cuts that Congress passed in 2001 and 2003.

Senate Democrats scored a major victory for their jobs agenda last week, when they passed legislation that would provide $12 billion in tax cuts to small businesses and set up a $30 billion Small Business Lending Fund.

Some Democratic lawmakers say they want to stay on this policy track.

Jon Ralston, a Nevada-based political analyst, said immigration reform and repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell” could boost Democratic turnout for Reid’s reelection.

“He needs to drive up his base and fight the enthusiasm gap” that polls show between conservative and liberal voters, said Ralston, who noted that Reid hopes Hispanic voters will make up 12 percent of Nevada’s electorate on Nov. 2.

Republicans have accused Reid of turning consideration of the defense bill into a political exercise by attaching the DREAM Act. They claim their allegations were validated when Reid announced last week that he would schedule a vote to attach the immigration proposal but likely delay final passage until after the election.

It remains to be seen whether Democratic leaders can muster the 60 votes needed to begin debate on the defense authorization, though there are several positive signs.

Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), a conservative Democrat, has said he will vote to begin debate.

A spokesman for Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), a centrist Republican swing vote, said his boss “would like the Senate to proceed to a full and open debate on the defense authorization bill, with members able to offer amendments on all relevant issues.”

A lobbyist for a pro-immigrants’-rights group who has worked with Democratic leaders said Reid would have enough votes to begin debate. The source, however, said the leader has only 55 confirmed votes for the DREAM Act.