Sensing momentum, Senate Dems don’t want to ease up

Senate Democrats are calling on their leaders to continue tackling controversial proposals even though the elections are nearly five months away.

From senior members to newer freshmen and sophomores, Democratic senators say they don’t want the caucus to shy away from topics like climate change legislation, immigration reform or a repeal of the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

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While some senior aides and members privately note the legislative calendar won’t allow room for much past July, a larger group of Democrats say they want to build on their momentum. Even after GOP Sen. Scott Brown’s upset win in Massachusetts denied Democrats a filibuster-proof majority, the party has passed healthcare reform and a jobs measure and was poised at press time to pass Wall Street reform.

“I think we keep going and realize we’re not here to win elections. We’re here to get things done,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who will be up for reelection in 2012. “I’m not afraid of tackling any of it. I’m a believer that the American people ultimately are going to be glad that we’re working on hard problems rather than self-perpetuate our time here. I think we keep pushing.”

“When we look back, this has been a hell of a Congress, and the term ‘go slow’ isn’t going to describe what happens,” said retiring Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.). “You’re going to see it get more and more frenetic.”

The calendar will make that tough. For now, in the last week before the Senate’s Memorial Day recess, Democratic leaders plan to push through a supplemental package and a tax extenders bill.

The supplemental package could include $23 billion to states for teacher funding, sought by Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and the extenders package may include an increase in the damage liability cap for oil spills, sought by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). Money for Tennessee towns damaged by recent flooding and more earthquake aid to Haiti could also be in the mix.

In the four weeks that separate the Memorial Day recess from the Senate’s week-long July 4 break, Democratic leaders want to pass campaign finance reform legislation and a jobs-promotion package with incentives for small businesses. The summer will also bring confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan and a confirmation vote on the floor before the August recess.

That means it could be September — two months prior to the elections — before the Senate could consider hot-button topics like climate change, immigration and the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

And that leads some party leaders to flatly predict it won’t happen.

“It seems to me we’re going to be pretty well into the summer on other things,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Menendez. “Then in the time frame that’s left, there has to be an intellectually honest assessment as to what could be actually done. So I’m not sure those things get pursued … I certainly don’t see that in the cards.”

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) this week gave no hint of slowing down the party’s agenda in the upper chamber. Reid said that after the week-long Memorial Day recess he plans to meet with the committee chairmen who are in charge of climate change legislation to plot a path forward on the bill. The following week, Reid said, he plans a full Democratic Caucus meeting on the topic.

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One senior Senate aide said immigration reform is generally more likely to surface this summer or fall because bipartisan support is more possible than for a climate change bill.

Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) makes the case that his climate change proposal is not controversial.

“It’s political to some people, but that doesn’t mean it’s controversial,” Kerry said. “What’s controversial about making America energy-independent? What’s controversial about putting 1.5 million to 2 million jobs online for the next 10 years?”

Several Democrats say the idea behind doing more, not less, is to turn upside down the theory that voters will punish the party for taking on too much controversy. They also suggest that the party has become almost immune to controversy after the hard-fought battles that have surrounded topics like immigration and healthcare reform in recent years.

“There’s very little we’re doing that’s not controversial,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). “But I don’t think we have a choice. As they say in track meets, you’ve got to keep running right through the tape.”

A similar discussion is happening in the House, where Democrats are split over the wisdom of tackling more legislation instead of “coasting” into the fall elections. Liberals, specifically, want the party to take on uphill battles, particularly on jobs legislation.

“What we’re trying to impress on leadership is that a big part of campaigning is doing, getting something done,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus. “I think it’s counterproductive to walk the rest of the session slow.”

Leaders of both chambers also have an eye on the consequences for their majority-party status. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) this week told The Hill that Democrats will “for sure” keep control of the House after November, pointing to Rep. Mark Critz’s (D) special-election victory on Tuesday to keep the seat of the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.).

Jared Allen contributed to this article.