- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 1, 2014

As growing numbers of voters and even some top Republicans in Congress express unhappiness with the tea party after a government shutdown and criticism of the budget deal, progressive liberals like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are trying to fill a space in the political debate by pushing issues such as income inequality and increasing minimum wage.

It’s unlikely, however, that they’ll get very far in 2014, which is shaping up to be as unproductive as 2013, according to one Democratic strategist.

“I can’t see much difference between 2013 and 2014. House Republicans in particular made it very clear they’re not interested in legislating,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. “I think we’re in for a long debate on some important issues, but I’m not so sure — with the exception of nominations and appropriations bills — [that] we’re going to see much done this year.”

Mr. Sanders, Vermont independent and one of the most liberal lawmakers in the Senate, posted his priorities for 2014 on Monday in a blog on Huffington Post. He blamed the “extreme right wing” of the Republican Party for the majority of congressional dysfunction and gridlock in 2013, but said Democrats also had to take some of the blame for tolerating “Republican obstructionism” for too long and failing to rally enough support to bring about economic change.

“At a time when the problems facing us are monumental, Congress is dysfunctional and more and more people (especially the young) are, understandably, giving up on the political process,” Mr. Sanders wrote. “The people are hurting. They look to Washington for help. Nothing is happening.”

Included on his 2014 priorities list: addressing the large gap in wealth, creating jobs, protecting Social Security, increasing the minimum wage, expanding rights for gays and lesbians, and cracking down on surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency.

A spokesman for Mr. Sanders said the senator plans to introduce legislation to address many of these problems when Congress returns to Washington this month.

“The working families of this country are hurting and they want members of Congress to start defending their interests,” spokesman Michael Briggs said in an email. “When you have the majority leader of the Democratic Party, Harry Reid, talking about the need to address wealth and income inequality, there is no question but that an opportunity now exists to make some real progress.”

Mr. Manley, however, said he didn’t see much opportunity for progress or bipartisan cooperation in Congress in the new year.

“In light of the House and Senate Republicans’ phony debates with Obamacare and, to a lesser degree, Benghazi, it’s tough to imagine much happening on the legislative front,” he said. “But I think it’s going to lead to a debate that will help the Democratic base in 2014 elections.”

Mr. Manley said progressives like Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, see a space in the political debate that they’re trying to fill given rising dissatisfaction in the polls with the tea party. Even GOP House Speaker John A. Boehner seems to have had enough with the far right wing of his caucus, speaking out in December against the conservative interest groups who called for the government shutdown in October and bashed the budget deal before it was even finalized.

Liberals believe they can exploit the fact that the tea party movement remains powerful within the Republican opposition, but far less popular with the general electorate.

“In the past, I’ve underestimated the staying power of the tea party, but if you look at all the polls, they are wildly unpopular across the country, yet they still have a significant amount of control over House and Senate Republicans,” Mr. Manley said. “But I think that’s changing, and more and more of at least the smart Republicans understand that continuing to be so closely aligned with the tea party will be the kiss of death, maybe not in 2014, but in 2016.”

Mr. Briggs, however, said progressives have a chance to connect with middle-class Americans regardless of the fate of the tea party.

“Whatever happens to the tea party, Senator Sanders believes that the obscene level of income and wealth inequality in America, the decline of the middle class, high unemployment and low wages, and the greed of Wall Street and corporate America offer progressives an excellent opportunity to connect with millions of Americans who are increasingly alienated from the political process,” Mr. Briggs said.

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