By Erik Wasson - 04/07/14 08:42 PM EDT
Democrats are hoping this week’s House debate over Rep. Paul Ryan’s new budget is the jump-start they need to boost their chances of regaining the House and keeping the Senate majority this fall.
But using the Wisconsin Republican’s past plans as silver bullets has failed before. Now, with eight months before the midterm elections, the new attacks could quickly lose their resonance.
Polls show Republicans enjoy an advantage in the House elections and have a better-than-even chance of taking the Senate, so Democrats acknowledge they will have to work harder than ever this year to make the Ryan plan a game changer.
To kick off the Democratic assault, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) held a press conference Monday on the Ryan plan, but she denied that Democrats are seizing on the proposal for purely political advantage.
“We are not thinking politically about this; we just want to have a debate on the issues. This is about who we are as a country,” Pelosi said. “If we are going to be strong as a country, we have to mitigate challenges to the well-being of America’s families.”
House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) earlier in the day released a plan that he touted as promoting a wide range of Democratic priorities that poll well, from higher federal minimum wage and immigration reform to protecting Medicare from partial privatization in the Ryan plan.
His alternative might have its own liabilities, however, because it contains higher deficit spending than in President Obama’s 2015 budget.
At the press conference with Pelosi, Van Hollen said the Ryan budget allows the public to see the true agenda Republicans would implement if they win control of all the levers of power in Washington.
“This is the debate the country should have,” he said.
But the plan’s biggest effect might come in the Senate, where Democrats are defending a fragile six-seat majority.
“He gave us a gift, Paul Ryan did,” Democratic messaging guru Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday. “That budget is so out of touch with what the average middle-class people want that, when you see the contrast, it is going to make a difference.”
Senate Democratic aides say they will spend the coming months slowly rolling out their eight-point “Fair Shot” agenda that includes the minimum-wage increase as well as unemployment insurance extension and spending on manufacturing.
This week, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will run online ads about gender pay equality as part of phase one of the effort to draw contrasts.
A Democratic leadership aide argued their action plan would keep the Ryan budget in the public conversation into the fall because it repeatedly draws contrasts to votes Senate Democrats plan to hold. Even though Senate Democrats are not creating their own budget resolution, the strategy would keep Ryan’s budget in the forefront, the aide said.
The party plans to focus especially on support for the Ryan budget from Reps. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who are vying to unseat Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) in Republican territory.
“Ryan did his guys running for Senate a real disservice by putting forward a budget,” the aide said.
Jim Manley, a former top Senate Democratic aide, said the Ryan budget will be most useful in creating campaign ads.
“Buried in the budget are a whole bunch of tough votes that are going to allow Democrats to run some nice ads in the fall,” Manley said.
He said the Senate elections would not be about ObamaCare, so much as about the economy and the Ryan budget’s “draconian” cuts figure into every economic conversation.
As for control of the House, Manley admitted putting Pelosi back in the Speaker’s chair is looking like a tough lift, but he said Democrats are “salivating” over the Ryan budget with good reason.
“Those who may be running in highly gerrymandered districts, maybe something like this will give them a little oxygen,” he said.
GOP strategists dismissed the Democratic excitement as misplaced.
National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Andrea Bozek said Democrats failed to use the Ryan budget to win back the House in 2012, even with Obama on the ballot.
“Clearly, they are grasping at straws,” she said. “In 2012 — with President Obama on the ballot — [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman] Steve Israel called Paul Ryan the Democrats’ ‘majority-maker,’ yet his party didn’t even come close. We hope Democrats keep running on their support of ObamaCare’s drastic cuts to Medicare, opposition to a balanced budget and support for an unpopular president.”
“The Democrats have tried to make a political issue out of every Ryan budget ever imagined, and they haven’t been successful thus far. Why would this year be any different?” said John Feehery, a GOP strategist and columnist for The Hill.
Other GOP observers agreed that the election will be about the president, arguing the public simply will not be aware of the Ryan plan, despite Democratic messaging.
“The midterm election will be about ObamaCare, the weak economy and a referendum on President Obama. Most voters have no idea what the Ryan budget is,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog.