House Speaker John A. Boehner’s new “Senate first” strategy could put red state Democrats — especially those facing potentially tough re-election battles in 2014 — in a tough spot: Reject the White House’s liberal second-term agenda and run afoul of party leaders, or back the president and alienate voters back home.
Still basking in the afterglow of November, a confident Mr. Obama called on Congress last week to tackle a number of the nation’s thorniest political issues, urging them to combat climate change, raise the minimum wage, increase taxes, expand preschool education, create a pathway to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, and tighten the nation’s gun control laws.
Two days later, Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican, challenged Senate Democrats to take the lead on Mr. Obama’s liberal wish list — an attempt to put pressure on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
Much — if not all — of the Obama agenda would require Mr. Reid to ask fellow Democratic senators to cast votes that could backfire at the ballot box in 2014.
“This is really smart,” said Mike McKenna, a Republican strategist. “The president has decided in the wake of the election that he has about a year, or a year and a half, in the political sweet spot where he can do something, and he is not going to do anything that enjoys widespread popularity. He is going to take on gun control, immigration and take another bite of the apple on tax increases. That is great unless you happen to be one of the Democrats that are sitting in states that he lost. Most of them are not desperate to talk about immigration reform, gun control, tax increases or climate change.”
Others said Mr. Boehner is passing the buck to the Senate because he has struggled to get his House troops to agree on significant legislation.
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“On hot-button issues such as immigration and gun control, it is less a strategy than a reality that the House is all but ungovernable right now,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and senior aide in the Senate. “So, the only way there is even remotely a chance of getting something done is if the Senate goes first and puts pressure on the House to act.”
Republicans hope the new wrinkle in Mr. Boehner’s political game plan reinforces the storyline heading into the 2014 elections, when Democrats will be defending 21 Senate seats and Republicans will be looking to protect 14. Republicans needs a net gain of six seats to take back the chamber.
In their latest electoral forecast, the authors of the “Crystal Ball” at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics say, “The seven most imperiled seats in the whole country are all currently held by Democrats.”
That list includes West Virginia, where the GOP is favored to capture the seat of retiring Democrat John D. Rockefeller IV, and Louisiana, where Republicans are positioned to put up a serious fight against Democrat Mary L. Landrieu.
Other Democrats who could be in trouble, according to “Crystal Ball”: Sens. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark L. Pryor of Arkansas, Kay R. Hagan of North Carolina and Max Baucus of Montana.
All seven represent states Mr. Obama lost in November.
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“There are definitely going to be some Senate Democrats whose political priorities in this tough re-election cycle will not match up with the political goals of the president,” said Kyle Kondik, one of the co-authors of the “Crystal Ball.” “That said, opposition to the president’s proposals is not centered in the Senate; rather, it’s centered in the Republican-led House. The Democrats need to be careful not to try to ram legislation through the Senate that can’t also pass the House. They surely don’t want a repeat of the ‘cap and trade’ fiasco from 2009, where the [Democrat-controlled] House passed ‘cap and trade’ only to see it get effectively ignored by the [Democrat-controlled] Senate.”
Mr. Boehner’s you-first approach follows a couple of rough months for the Republican leader on Capitol Hill, with bruising intraparty battles over the expiring George W. Bush-era tax cuts, Superstorm Sandy relief spending and the debt-ceiling debate.
Along the way, Mr. Boehner has vowed to abandon the one-on-one meetings with Mr. Obama that dominated the deficit-reduction negotiations over the past two years, and that some say helped Mr. Reid bolster his Senate majority by two seats in the November election.
The announcement of Mr. Boehner’s new game plan has been months in the making. It was at the heart of the debt-ceiling deal last month that allowed the federal government to borrow an unlimited amount of money through mid-May in exchange for forcing Senate Democrats to write a budget for the first time in four years. Last week, Mr. Boehner also called on Senate Democrats to offer a proposal to cancel and replace the $85 billion in spending cuts — know as sequesters — that were triggered by the 2011 debt deal.
Speaking to reporters late last week, Mr. Boehner said that if Mr. Obama is “serious about enacting his agenda, I think it must start with the part of this Congress that his party controls, the United States Senate.”
“What can he get passed in the United States Senate?” Mr. Boehner said, arguing the president’s agenda is out of touch with most Americans. “And I think many in the president’s own party won’t support those ideas.”