Election-year politics: Senate Dems shun GOP vulnerables

Greg Nash

Senate Democratic leaders have ­discouraged their colleagues throughout this year from working with vulnerable Republican senators, according to lawmakers in both parties.

The election-year effort is aimed at depriving Republicans of bipartisan achievements they can tout back home.

Control of the Senate is up for grabs this year as the GOP seeks to preserve its four-seat majority. Republicans are defending 24 seats while Democrats are only defending 10. There are nine incumbent Republican senators who are in challenging races this fall.

{mosads}Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) lost his lead sponsorship of a bill that he had worked on with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) for several years. The Miscellaneous Tariff Bill is relatively obscure, though it’s important to the business community.

Portman was told by Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, that if the Ohio Republican remained as the lead sponsor of the measure, Democrats wouldn’t support it, according to two congressional aides familiar with the behind-the-scenes discussions.

Portman and McCaskill gave up leadership of the bill to Wyden and to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who is not up for reelection.

A Democratic aide, however, said the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill sponsored by Hatch and Wyden — which President Obama signed into law in May — was never Portman’s bill. The staffer said Hatch and Wyden led the effort from the start and noted that they have sponsored all major trade bills that have moved through the committee this Congress.

Democratic leaders haven’t gone so far as to impose an absolute ban on cooperation, according to sources in the Democratic caucus, but they have advised members against signing on to Republican-sponsored bills, field hearings or letters that could be used to help GOP incumbents hang on to their seats.

Portman tangled with Wyden again earlier this year when he requested authority to hold a Finance Committee field hearing in Ohio on the state’s opioid crisis.

Wyden raised concerns that Portman had scheduled the hearing for political purposes and convinced Hatch to withhold permission.

Keith Chu, a Wyden spokesman, said his boss objected to breaking decades of precedent and politicizing the Senate Finance Committee by holding a subcommittee field hearing in an election year. 

Portman had to instead ask the Senate Homeland Security Committee, of which he is also a member, to authorize the field hearing. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the chairman who is in a challenging reelection race, and Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), the senior Democrat, gave the green light.

Democratic leadership sources say the examples of Democratic obstruction pale in comparison to what they call one of the biggest election year stunts in memory: the refusal of Senate Republicans to hold hearings or votes on Merrick Garland, Obama’s Supreme Court nominee.

Johnson, meanwhile, said he has had a tough time finding Democrats to work with him this year.

At one point this summer, he had compiled more than 30 Republican co-sponsors for his right-to-try legislation, which would allow terminally ill patients to try experimental drugs that may save their lives, but he couldn’t find a single Democratic co-sponsor.

Johnson was stunned he couldn’t find one Democratic colleague to sign on to what he thought was a relatively noncontroversial bill. Thirty-one states have signed a version of it into law.

“Obviously I’m in a tight election. They don’t want to give me any success,” Johnson told The Hill.

Eventually Johnson got Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a centrist Democrat who often bucks his party and works with Republicans, to co-­sponsor the bill.

Manchin said he’s heard “rumors” that Democratic leaders don’t want him to work with Republicans, but added that the GOP leadership has been guilty of the same tactics in other years.   

“I’ve heard those rumors forever, on both sides of the aisle. Whoever’s in cycle, don’t make them look good,” he said. “Let me tell you what I’ve told everybody. If it’s a good piece of legislation, if it makes sense, I don’t care if it was from my opponent running against me, I’d sign on to it.”

Another Democratic senator, who requested anonymity to discuss how his leadership operates, said, “it happens.”

“Word circulates that someone is going to get on a bill and the leaders call them in,” the lawmaker said.

Johnson said he was also thwarted in his effort to add a noncontroversial amendment to the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), a bill designed to fight opioid addiction. The measure would have included the Indian Health Service among the federal stakeholders in developing best practices for prescribing pain medication.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) objected to it on the Senate floor in early March, claiming the amendment was designed solely to boost Johnson’s political chances. 

“I don’t think it’s appropriate, for example, one of the amendments he chose is a senator running for reelection,” he said of Johnson’s amendment.

CARA later passed the Senate and was signed into law by Obama. It was a major win for several endangered Republicans.  

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican who has a tough race in New Hampshire, helped push the bill over the finish line, but the White House did not tell her when the signing ceremony was or invite her to the White House, according to a GOP aide.

At around the same time, Ayotte thought she was on the cusp of another legislative victory when the Senate was poised to approve a bill she co-sponsored with Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Chris Coons (Del.) to make surplus anthrax vaccines available to first responders.

The Democratic co-sponsors had cleared the bill for unanimous consent approval but right before it was to come to the floor, Reid phoned in an objection, according to a GOP aide.   

“The reality is Harry Reid plays games and he puts a lot of pressure on his members in a variety of ways to say, ‘Don’t work across the aisle,’ but individual members on the other side of the aisle make their own decisions,” Ayotte told The Hill.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who in the last Congress co-sponsored bipartisan gun control legislation to expand background checks, wasn’t able to find a single Democrat who would work with him this year on a measure intended to stop suspected terrorists from buying guns.

Toomey hoped his bill would occupy the middle ground between legislation sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), which only two Republicans backed, and a bill crafted by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), which only two Democrats supported.

“We definitely reached out to see if there was an interest in pursuing it; we didn’t get a very warm reception,” Toomey said.

Instead, Democrats such as Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.), Tim Kaine (Va.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Manchin co-sponsored a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), who is not up for reelection. That legislation would have given the attorney general authority to deny firearm sales to people on the no-fly list and who are selected for extra screening at airports.

Heinrich said Wednesday he was not familiar with Toomey’s gun control proposal; Manchin said he didn’t remember speaking with his GOP colleague on the issue.

Toomey had trouble last year scheduling a Finance Committee hearing in Pittsburgh with Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) to examine the local impact on the opioid addiction epidemic.

Wyden objected to a committee hearing being held for what he thought was a political purpose, but Hatch gave it the go-ahead because it wasn’t an election year.

Last week, Reid objected on the floor to a bipartisan bill sponsored by Toomey to make it illegally to subject animals to serious bodily injury. He blocked it even though it had 28 Senate Democratic cosponsors because it hadn’t had a hearing. 

Reid argued that Republicans were hypocritical to tout the importance of regular procedural order over the last two years and then flout it weeks before the election to help a vulnerable incumbent.  

Reid said he would agree to advance Toomey’s bill if Republicans agreed by unanimous consent to vote on Merrick Garland, the Supreme Court nominee who has been bottled up in the Judiciary Committee for most of the year.

Another Democratic senator said his leadership has urged the caucus to think twice about working with vulnerable Republican colleagues who are interested in bipartisanship in election years but vote party-line when not in tough races.

“It’s more of a general caution. It’s not like, ‘Don’t work with these guys.’ It’s more like, ‘Just be aware that whatever you do can and will be in an ad about how cooperative and bipartisan they are. So measure that,’ ” the lawmaker said, recalling discussions with Democratic leaders. 

“If Republicans want to get things done, they should do their jobs and follow regular order instead of rushing for the exits on their way to working the fewest days in 2016 of any Senate in half a century,” said Adam Jentleson, a senior aide to Reid. 

A Democratic chief of staff said this message is filtered through the entire senior leadership team.

“Schumer is pushing Murray and Tester to say things,” said the aide, referring to Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking member of the Democratic leadership, and Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.) and Jon Tester (Mont.), the Senate Democratic Conference secretary and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman.

The aide said Democratic leaders are pointing to how vulnerable Republicans are running ads touting passage of opioid addiction recovery act and arguing it wasn’t it great policy win for Democrats because the bill lacked adequate funding.

“They’re pointing to the opioids bill and saying, ‘Those guys are using it as a lifeline. They’re using it politically when there was no policy upside for us because it wasn’t funded,’” the aide said.

Tester said he was not aware of any discussion within the Democratic leadership team about not working with vulnerable Republicans but he acknowledged the practice is known to happen in the Senate.

“I don’t know what leadership does but the fact of politics is that whoever told you that is probably correct,” he said. “There’s nothing really wrong with that. Work on the issues that important to you and work on the issues that you think you can get across the finish line.”

He said the difficulty vulnerable incumbents are having padding their resumes with relatively non-controversial bills is not the Senate’s biggest problem. He said the partisanship that has paralyzed efforts to reform the Affordable Care Act, expand background checks for gun purchases, overhaul the tax code and extend the solvency of entitlement programs is a far bigger concern.

“The problem with this place is election year or no election year, I believe there’s so much money in politics it’s created a very difficult environment to get anything done on a bipartisan basis,” he said.

This story was updated at 11:34 a.m.

Tags Bill Nelson Bob Casey Chris Coons Chuck Schumer Claire McCaskill Dianne Feinstein Harry Reid Heidi Heitkamp Joe Manchin John Cornyn Jon Tester Kelly Ayotte Martin Heinrich Orrin Hatch Patty Murray Rob Portman Ron Johnson Ron Wyden Susan Collins Tim Kaine Tom Carper
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