WASHINGTON – Democrats and Republicans each want to flash election-year signals that they are riding to the rescue of families struggling with rising costs and the 2-year-old coronavirus pandemic.
Not surprisingly, the parties differ over how to do that. And in comments and votes in the Senate last week, each side fleshed out themes it will use to stir up support in this fall's voting for control of Congress.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., talked about inflation, bashing President Joe Biden and Democrats for policies like curbing drilling on federal lands that he said were stifling domestic energy production and driving up gasoline prices. But he also raised culture war issues that have flared in the nation’s schools, including mask mandates and social justice instruction that conservatives find objectionable.
Republicans “are standing up for science, for common sense and for the children’s best interests,” McConnell said. “The party of parents has your back,” he added, a remark that conjured angry mothers and fathers at school board meetings that the GOP hopes to harness.
“Two years of needless school closures and unscientific forced child masking are two years too many," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Democrats will focus on pushing “solutions that will lower costs and leave more money in people’s pockets." Chiding Republicans, he said, “Complaining about the problem doesn’t make inflation better, proposing solutions does."
Schumer said Democrats are considering legislation to reduce costs for child care, food, prescription drugs and semiconductors, the vital computer part now facing supply-chain shortages. “We're still going to move forward” even if GOP opposition would doom a proposal, Schumer said, suggesting that unsuccessful Senate votes would produce political value for Democrats.
The economy and pandemic could look different by the time ballots are cast in November. A threatened Russian invasion of Ukraine and its repercussions could upend things.
But for now, Schumer's party is clearly on the defensive.
They have controlled the White House and Congress as inflation has risen to 7.5% annually, the highest in four decades. Regular gasoline, a benchmark people can easily see and feel, cost an average $3.53 per gallon nationally last week, up from $2.58 a year ago, AAA said.
Even communities in Democratic-led states like New York and California are easing mask mandates as people increasingly bristle at those and other restrictions that have reshaped life with COVID-19.
In addition, Democrats' 50-50 Senate control, thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris' tiebreaking vote, is in danger. Each party has at least four seats in play in November, but Biden's negative approval ratings further burden Democrats, who are facing the long history of midterm election losses by the party holding the White House.
Schumer acknowledged that Democrats are "not going to agree on everything” they want to pursue. Notably, he said Democrats have yet to unite behind a proposal to suspend the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gasoline tax through this year.
Sponsors said that bill would bring “much needed economic relief to families.” Based on government estimates on typical driving and vehicles' gas mileage, an average driver would save around $100 for the entire year.
McConnell mocked it as a “bold, creative plan” that would do little for voters while reducing federal money for road projects. He made clear he would oppose it, ensuring it will go nowhere.
That proposal's sponsors include Democrats' four most endangered incumbents facing reelection: Sens. Mark Kelly of Arizona, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada.
“It’s a desperate cry for help,” No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Thune of South Dakota said of Democrats' gas tax plan. He said it shows they "realize they’re on the wrong side of the energy issue, the wrong side of the inflation issue.”
Schumer said Democrats would pursue a bill setting a price cap of $35 monthly for insulin, the diabetes drug that can cost hundreds of dollars higher. It will be offered by Warnock.
The insulin proposal has been part of the party's stalled package of environment and social safety net spending. That measure has gotten little traction with a public confused about its potential benefits to their lives. Democrats have spent less time lately talking publicly about it, though closed-door bargaining continues.
Schumer also set a late February vote on legislation explicitly inscribing abortion rights into law. Opposition from Republicans and perhaps some Democrats mean it is certain to fail. But the vote could help mobilize abortion-rights voters in a year when the Supreme Court could strike down the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that declared the procedure constitutionally protected.
Still, it's Republicans who are going further to train voters' attention on social issues.
McConnell brought up reliable GOP favorites such as accusing Democrats of being soft on crime and “pandering to woke mobs” while leaving blameless victims of violence at risk. But Republicans are also latching onto fresher, COVID-19 era concerns.
When the Senate gave final approval Thursday to a bill averting an imminent government shutdown, Republicans forced votes on proposals ending federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates and vaccine requirements for students imposed by school districts.
Both were narrowly defeated, with every Democrat opposing each amendment. Democrats noted that vaccines, masks and testing have been documented to save lives, with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., comparing GOP opposition to those steps to “blaming the rescue crew for a shipwreck."
Still, the public and politicians of both parties are exhibiting growing impatience with pandemic restrictions. And as the omicron wave recedes nationally, Republicans warned that continued resistance to relaxing those curbs would hurt Democrats.
“Parents are frustrated by that," Thune of school masking mandates. “And I think Democrats are starting to hear that. So I think the politics of all these mandates is starting to change."
This story has been corrected to reflect that the bill averting a possible government shutdown passed the Senate on Thursday, not Friday.