Senators are heading home for spring break armed with tailored messages for their constituents, with Democrats touting the latest round of pandemic aid and Republicans spotlighting the migrant surge at the border.
The lawmakers are filling their calendars with events, including a GOP-led trip to Texas and Democratic plans to coordinate with President Joe Biden’s cross-country tour to promote the Covid-19 relief package.
The two-week recess provides both parties with an opportunity to position themselves for the legislative battles ahead as well as test themes they hope will resonate in the 2022 elections, particularly in battleground states and districts that will determine control of both chambers.
Messaging for the next election is well underway and there’s a lot at stake for both sides, said Sarah Binder, a congressional analyst at the Brookings Institution.
“If we ever had a separation between the sort of campaigning on one hand and governing on the other, that distinction disappeared long ago,” she said in a phone interview.
Democrats are set to highlight wins for their constituents in the $1.9 trillion stimulus (Public Law 117-2) recently signed by Biden, including $1,400 in direct payments, extended unemployment insurance benefits, and an expanded child care tax credit. They also plan to start talking up what could be a $3 trillion plan from Biden to rebuild and expand the nation’s infrastructure, which the president said he will talk about next week in Pittsburgh.
“I encourage you to spend the State work period holding events on the Rescue plan with your constituents,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer(D-N.Y) said Thursday in a “Dear Colleague” letter sent to his caucus.
While congressional Republicans have criticized the recovery plan as wasteful, the party has largely shifted its attacks to immigration, an issue that resonates with their base. They have criticized Biden’s border policies and the flood of migrants, many of them minors, coming across the southwest border.
A group of 19 GOP senators led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) headed to the Texas border Thursday to highlight what Republicans have characterized as a crisis precipitated by Biden issuing a series of executive orders that revoked immigration policies of former President Donald Trump.
“It’s a completely self-inflicted wound,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in an interview.
Cornyn, who is part of the group traveling to the border, said a “guiding principle for the Biden administration was to reverse all the Trump policies, but they didn’t have any plan in place and I don’t think they had any idea of what they were unleashing — and it’s going to get worse.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) called that a GOP distraction tactic, saying the party wants “to distract Americans from the real story right now, which is the implementation of the very popular American Rescue Plan.”
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) said the Republican emphasis on the immigration problem wouldn’t get much traction in her state.
“My state has the highest unemployment rate in the country and people are still standing in line trying to get help,” she said in an interview. “They are not thinking about the border.”
Focus on Relief
Democrats are counting on voters being more concerned about recovering from a devastating pandemic that’s killed more than a half-million people in the U.S. and caused economic upheaval.
Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) have reminded voters their January runoff victories gave Democrats the majority and the ability to deliver the relief package. Warnock, who faces re-election in 2022, said he plans to use the recess to expand on the package’s details, particularly aspects aimed at lower-income people.
“I plan to move through my state and talk about the fact that we provide a $2 billion Medicaid expansion, $5 billion for farmers of color, debt relief and expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Care Tax Credit,” he said in an interview.
Congressional leaders are closely coordinating their messaging with the White House, which has undertaken its own “Help is Here” tour that’s sending Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and White House officials to stops throughout the country to talk up the details of the stimulus.
Biden traveled to Ohio on Tuesday to talk up the relief package and the Affordable Care Act. Accompanying him were Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), a potential Senate candidate, and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio). The planned retirement of Sen. Rob Portman(R-Ohio) has made the Senate race more competitive.
Next week, Biden will unveil an infrastructure and jobs plan in Pennsylvania. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) isn’t running for re-election in the competitive state, which will help determine whether Democrats can retain or build on their majority.
Shift the Focus
The Democrats’ focus on the relief package is a way for them to broaden their appeal to some suburban Republicans they will need to maintain their majorities in the 2022 election, Wendy Schiller, the head of political science department at Brown University and an expert on the Senate, said in an interview.
Schiller said Republicans’ focus on immigration fit into the law-and-order theme they used to pick up House seats in the 2020 election. She said with Democrats’ calls for gun control measures following mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado, Republicans may appeal to supporters by warning they could lose their right to defend themselves from those living in the country illegally.
“Messaging now matters a lot because if the Democrats fail, they will give the GOP the chance to plant these seeds and watch them grow for the next 17 months,” she said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org