Dems enlist help to push their agenda

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chairwoman of the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, will meet labor leaders today — an encounter that underscores the party’s determination to work hand-in-hand with outside advocacy groups to raise public support for bills on the Democratic agenda.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chairwoman of the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, will meet labor leaders today — an encounter that underscores the party’s determination to work hand-in-hand with outside advocacy groups to raise public support for bills on the Democratic agenda.

The presidents of big labor unions will meet with Stabenow and other steering committee  members such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) — the first such formal encounter since Democrats took control in January. It is intended to entrench labor as an electoral and legislative partner after 12 years of near-total GOP control.

“Labor’s been a huge partner with Democrats during a lot of dark years when their agenda was not on the table,” said a Democratic aide. “There will be a lot of agreement in that room, on moving forward on healthcare, on getting a hold on prescription drug costs. It’s good to have a discussion on controlling the agenda and what we can accomplish.”

Stabenow expected trade to be one of the labor presidents’ highest priorities, along with the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier to unionize workers. 

When Democrats were in the minority, their steering committee was less active, keeping in touch with coalitions that make up the Democratic base or could become allies on specific issues. Organizing them, however, was difficult because Democrats rarely knew what Republicans would schedule on the Senate agenda.

“Now that we’re in control and set the agenda, we’re in position to bring people in as we move the agenda forward,” Stabenow said in an interview. “We had a meeting with stem cell leaders as we’re getting ready to work on stem cell legislation. The week after we get back we’ll be doing the 9/11 recommendations, so we’re doing a meeting with first responders” about a House-passed bill implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, which the Senate will take up immediately after the Presidents’ Day recess.

That Wednesday, Democratic leaders will meet first responders and hold a press conference with them to gather momentum for pending floor business.

The following week, beginning March 5, the Senate will take up House stem cell legislation, said Stabenow, taking advantage of work Democrats did last week with leading advocates of federally funded stem cell research, including Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D).

When Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) headed the steering committee in the 109th Congress, it kept a relatively low public profile. Stabenow said the job used to be more difficult because “in the past we met with many different groups, but it was more in defense rather than offense.”

She added that it will now “be relevant to what we’re working on the floor. That’s very helpful.”

Panel meetings will not be limited to interest groups perceived as “Democratic,” she said, but would forge ties with any group, such as first responders, for example, that could advance the party’s agenda at a given time.

“We’re talking to people on stem cells who aren’t necessarily Democrats,” she said, “They’re coming together to help us move forward what I would call the American people’s agenda.”

A Democratic aide said, “The reality is we have an aggressive agenda. We have a lot of advocacy groups that care deeply about things that we want to pass and we need to work closely. We’re going to need to get the action on the floor, but this is also about convincing the American public. It’s time to convince them that we’re really moving in a new direction.”

The presidents of 14 to 15 major unions are expected to visit the Senate today. Kennedy said they want most to discuss agenda items that affect the middle class.

“We’ll listen to what’s on their agenda and what are their priorities,” he said. Union leaders would likely press the leadership to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.

That would set up a fight with business interest groups. At a press briefing this year, leaders at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce vowed not to spare any effort opposing that legislation.

The union presidents may also criticize Senate Democrats for failing to pass a stand-alone bill to increase the national minimum wage. Despite strong pressure from House Democrats to keep the wage increase free of amendments, Senate Republicans successfully attached small-business tax cuts.

Kennedy said he was not troubled by that small Republican victory.

“I wanted a clean bill but … the tax provisions were ones I voted to extend the last four years,” he said. “I would probably vote for extension the next four. So if something’s going to go on, that’s not going to give me a lot of heartburn.”

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has been less sanguine about the tax cuts. He has threatened to file a procedural objection, known as a “blue slip,” against them, forcing Senate leaders to postpone further action.

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