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Democratic Agenda Uncertain Heading Into Midterms

During the Bush era, Congress under Republicans would routinely set up tough votes for their counterparts on the other side of the aisle, using the results to their advantage in the coming elections. This happened before the 2002, 2004 and 2006 elections, and it was a win-win for the Republicans: either they got their way on a certain issue by calling Democrats’ bluff, or they got to pin some votes on their opponents and make blaring TV ads out of them, or both.

Will Democrats ape this technique in the session right before the 2010 midterms? They have no idea.

House Democratic leaders issued lawmakers three sets of talking points that included one package of new legislation, a collection of modest bills designed to revive the manufacturing sector. Senate Democrats have not exactly jumped to embrace those proposals, instead suggesting that between now and Election Day a more detailed agenda might be forthcoming.

“I think we’re working towards it. To my way of thinking — jobs, the economy and helping the middle class stretch their paycheck — but there are other issues out there. We have to fill in the details,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Thursday.

Schumer spoke after a special 30-minute session in which lawmakers approved a $600 million border security bill, probably the last piece of significant legislation to pass before November.

I don’t know about “last piece of significant legislation.” The small business lending bill has a pretty good chance of passing. But Democrats aren’t really thinking about how to make Republicans uncomfortable with particular votes. In fact, they seem to be going out of their way to avoid uncomfortable votes for themselves. We know that the budget resolution was informal and without long-term projections. The energy bill, even if there is one, doesn’t look like it’ll get a vote before November. Immigration also seems dead. And the debate over the Bush tax cuts, which Harry Reid seemed like he would press before the elections, now has an uncertain timetable. In fact, Republicans seem more interested in the debate than Democrats:

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) advocated Sunday for an extension of the Bush tax cuts, pushing a message Republicans hope will benefit them in the coming midterm elections.

“Let’s leave tax policy as it is,” he said during a discussion of the economy on ABC’s “This Week.” “Let’s not fiddle anymore.”

Actually, leaving tax policy as it is would allow the tax cuts to expire. Congress must affirmatively pass an extension. But the Democrats, who have all the leverage in this debate, aren’t signaling their intentions.

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David Dayen

David Dayen