Opinion: No sign of a break to Washington’s dismal deadlock

Senate Democrats have offered a revealing peek at how they plan to keep their majority in place in 2014.

They passed a budget before the Easter break by a vote of 50-49. (89-year-old New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg was ill.)

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That tally means four Democrats somehow got a gold-plated ‘Get-Out-of-Jail-Free’ pass from their party leadership, allowing them to tell voters they are not really Democrats.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Budget Committee, said this budget is more than a financial plan. After four years without a budget, she said, this is Democrats’ official statement of “values and priorities” for the American people.

On a vote of such high importance it is hard to understand how the Democratic leadership allowed any of their members to walk away from the party without punishment. Not one Republican walked away from their party.

The reason for the peeling away of some Democrats, as The Hill’s Erik Wasson pointed out after the vote, is simple: “All the Democratic senators who voted ‘no’ are up for reelection in 2014 in states that voted for GOP nominee Mitt Romney.” Democrats fear losing seats in the next cycle and giving the GOP total control of Capitol Hill.

The four straying Democrats whose party identity is now in the political version of a “Witness Protection Program,” include two freshmen: Mark Begich of Alaska and Kay Hagan of North Carolina. The other two fearing defeat if they are identified with Democratic budget priorities are Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Max Baucus of Montana.

The political landscape for Democrats in those four states is perilous. Two of the four are in the South, the GOP’s strongest region. Even in the process of losing the presidential race by a relatively broad margin, Republican candidate Mitt Romney won Arkansas by nearly 24 percentage points  (60.5 to 36.9 percent). North Carolina was, admittedly, much closer. President Obama won there in 2008 but in 2012 he lost by more than two percentage points (50.6 to 48.4).

Alaska and Montana are not in the south but they definitely form part of the crimson tide of red states where Republicans are dominant. Romney won them both easily. Last November he beat President Obama by 14 percentage points in Alaska and by 13 percentage points in Montana. And consider that Sen. Begich, a freshman, won his seat by less than 2 percentage points over an embattled Republican, Ted Stevens. Sen. Baucus, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, is looking at Montana polls that indicate he is more politically vulnerable than Sen. Begich.

The vulnerability of conservative and Southern Democrats is the reason why Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) did not want to even risk a budget vote for the past four years. It is also why President Obama has been hesitant to “go big” on controversial policy proposals from immigration to gun control to climate change. And it also explains why negotiations between the president and Republicans on a “Grand Bargain” for the budget have little to do with spending and a lot to do with fear that it is a political loser for both sides.

For their part, the Republicans have in mind to stall any budget deal until they possibly have added leverage with control of the Senate after 2014.

With the Senate doing nothing, a newly reelected President Obama is losing the political momentum that came from his victory. The GOP is running out the clock until the president is a lame duck.

Democrats, meanwhile, are happy to promote Republicans to voters as a dysfunctional party, focused on using filibusters and delay to prevent anything from getting done. Just as the Republicans are hoping to gain control of the Senate, the Democrats hold out hope that losses by unpopular Republicans will give them control of the House as well as the Senate in 2014 — a change that would make it exponentially easier for them to enact their agenda.

But one-party control of both houses after 2014 is unlikely.

Take a look at the Senate: As of now, there are 53 Democrats and 2 independents caucusing with Democrats, and 45 Republicans.

Democrats hold 21 Senate seats that are at stake in the coming cycle while Republicans hold 14. Republicans will need to gain six seats in the Senate to gain majority control.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, recently wrote “Republicans could run competitive challenges in 10 or more Democratic seats.” Another way to look at the map is that Democrats are trying to hold Senate seats in seven states won by Romney in 2012.

There are several retirements at play as well. Democrats Tom Harkin, in Iowa, Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia and Carl Levin, in Michigan are retiring. Last week, Sen. Tim Johnson, a South Dakota Democrat, also announced his retirement, putting another seat at risk for Democrats.

But for the Republicans to win six Senate seats they will have to defy history. Democrats have not lost more than three incumbent seats in any of the last five cycles. And Republicans will have to overcome polls showing strong negative perceptions of their party as a group of “extreme” elected officials who are “out of touch.”

Taken in total, none of this supposedly smart political strategy makes sense. And it does not serve the country. The result is a broken Senate governed by the politics of fear.