Senate

Democrats desperate for a win hail spending bill

The massive spending bill approved by Congress this week comes as a relief to Democratic senators facing difficult reelection prospects this year.

Democrats running for reelection in pro-Trump states are touting bipartisan accomplishments in the $1.3 trillion package after having few legislative victories to claim under President Trump amid a congressional calendar dominated by GOP pushes on health care and taxes.

The Senate passed the legislation early Friday morning ahead of a two-week recess scheduled to begin Saturday. The bill is the last major legislative vehicle for Congress before lawmakers take a break over the summer and return home to campaign ahead of the fall midterms.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (D), who is running in a state Trump won by 42 points, is highlighting his work to add a provision to the bill known as Jessie's Law to give doctors more information about patients' previous opioid addictions before they prescribe medicine.

In Montana, Sen. Jon Tester (D) is hailing his effort to include $249 million in the bill for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's pre-disaster mitigation program.

Montana, which Trump carried by 20 points, was hit hard by wildfires last year and spent its two-year, $60 million emergency wildfire fund in one year.

Tester's first campaign television ad focuses on his ability to get laws passed despite Washington's dysfunction.

"Washington's a mess but that's not stopping me from getting bills to help Montana signed into law by President Trump," the Democratic senator tells viewers in the spot.

Tester is telling constituents about the $85 million - a 55 percent increase - he secured in the spending bill for grants to help local, tribal and federal law enforcement agencies fight drug smuggling and human trafficking across the northern and southern borders.

Montana shares a 545-mile border with Canada. 

Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) is talking about the $4 billion in the bill to fund prevention, treatment and recovery programs in Indiana and other states hit hard by the opioid epidemic.

"I'm proud that these necessary funds were included, and I will continue fighting for the resources needed to combat this public health crisis," he said.

And Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) sent a press release to North Dakota reporters Thursday pointing out a provision she wrote to keep a flood wall in Valley City, as well as language extending a regulatory waiver for livestock haulers. 

"This delay is the action I asked for," she said.

Trump won Indiana and North Dakota by 20 and 36 points, respectively.

Democratic strategists say the omnibus spending bill will beef up these incumbents' résumés for November.

"It's been a good month for red state Dems," said a senior Democratic aide, who pointed to funding for wildfire relief, opioid treatment and veterans in the omnibus spending package as well as the banking reform bill that centrist Democrats helped pass earlier this month.

Sixteen Democrats, including Manchin, Tester, Donnelly and Heitkamp, voted for the banking reform measure.

"One, it shows we can work with the other side and, two, it shows the truth is we're not driven by ideological compasses, we are driven by legislative principles that we think are in the best interests of our states," said Steve Jarding, a former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee aide who now teaches at Harvard University.

"It gives them a kind of middle-of-the-road position," he said.

Vulnerable Democrats are eager to have some accomplishments to tout after they decried being essentially boxed out of the health-care and tax-reform debates.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made it clear from the outset of the health-care and tax debates that he planned to pass major initiatives entirely with GOP votes by using a special process known as reconciliation, which allows legislation to pass the Senate with 51 votes instead of 60.

Centrist Democrats said they wanted to reform ObamaCare but refused to negotiate with Republicans after they opted for the reconciliation fast track.

More than a dozen of them held a press conference in November pleading with Republicans to bring a tax bill to the floor that they could support.

"A group of us are saying to our colleagues and our friends on the Republican side, 'Please, we want to work with you,' We've come here and we're serious about sitting down in a bipartisan way," Manchin said at the event.

But the 21 percent corporate tax rate that Republicans insisted on was too much of a cut for any of them to accept.

Not a single Democrat voted for the tax overhaul and Republicans have used that to pound vulnerable Democratic incumbents ahead of the November elections.

"Millions of Americans are already reaping the benefits of the GOP tax relief plan that red state Democrats voted against," said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Katie Martin in a press release earlier this year.

Americans for Prosperity, a Republican-allied advocacy group, has spent $4 million in Indiana bashing Donnelly for voting against the tax package.

One ad featured a community health-care provider criticizing Donnelly for not realizing the impact of the tax cuts "on the everyday person" and declaring that "Joe Donnelly let Hoosiers down."

The group has run similar ads in Missouri against Sen. Claire McCaskill, another Democrat facing reelection in a pro-Trump state.

Democratic strategists say the omnibus is good news for vulnerable incumbents who pledged after the 2016 election to work with Trump on areas of common ground.

The problem they've had over the last 14 months is that those opportunities for bipartisanship have been few and far between.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) hailed the budget deal in February as a "breakthrough" after what he called "months of legislative logjams."

Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic strategist, said vulnerable Democrats can use the omnibus to campaign for reelection as pragmatists willing to reach across the aisle.

"The biggest knock on Congress is that they don't do anything and all they do is fight and argue," he said. "There are real dollars in this bill that will go to priorities in these states.

"It gives Democrats seeking re-election in the Senate something to go back home and brag about what they've been able to do for the state," he added.

"The second part is it shows we work in a bipartisan manner, will be able to get something done and can work with Trump," he said.

Red-state Democrats can say they are wiling to stand up to Trump when he's wrong but also cut deals to help West Virginia, Montana and Indiana, Mollineau noted.

Democrats who are considered less vulnerable than Manchin, Tester, Donnelly or Heitkamp are also touting the omnibus.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who is running in a state Trump won by just more than a point, is touting the inclusion of gun control legislation in the wake of the Parkland shooting.

"We're moving a little closer to turning the voices of the students marching across the country into action," he said, referring to provisions to fill in gaps in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and to fund gun violence prevention measures at schools.

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