WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans each want to send out election-year signals that they’re coming to the rescue of families struggling with rising costs and the 2-year-old coronavirus pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, the parties differ on how to proceed. And in comments and votes in the Senate last week, each side fleshed out the themes it will use to drum up support in this fall’s vote for control of Congress.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has spoken out about inflation, bashing President Joe Biden and Democrats for policies like limiting drilling on federal lands that he says are stifling the national energy production and drive up gasoline prices. But he also raised culture war issues that have erupted in schools across the country, including mask mandates and social justice instructions that conservatives find objectionable.
Republicans “stand for science, common sense and the best interests of children,” McConnell said. “The parent party has your back,” he added, a remark that evoked angry mothers and fathers at school board meetings that the GOP hopes to exploit.
“Two years of unnecessary school closures and unscientific forced masking of children are two years too long,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., said Democrats will focus on pushing for “solutions that will cut costs and leave more money in people’s pockets.” Rebuking Republicans, he said, “Complaining about the problem doesn’t improve inflation, but offering solutions does.
Schumer said Democrats are considering legislation to cut costs for childcare, food, prescription drugs and semiconductors, the vital computing part currently facing supply chain shortages. . “We will always move forward” even if the GOP opposition would condemn a proposal, Schumer said, suggesting that unsuccessful votes in the Senate would produce political value for Democrats.
The economy and the pandemic could be different when it comes time to vote in November. A threat of Russian invasion of Ukraine and its repercussions could turn things upside down.
But for now, Schumer’s party is clearly on the defensive.
They controlled the White House and Congress as inflation rose to 7.5% a year, the highest in four decades. Regular gasoline, a benchmark people can easily see and feel, averaged $3.53 a gallon nationwide last week, down 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 these and other restrictions that have reshaped life with COVID-19.
Additionally, the Democrats’ 50-50 control of the Senate, thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris’ decisive vote, is in jeopardy. Each party has at least four seats at stake in November, but Biden’s negative approval ratings weigh more heavily on Democrats, who face the long history of midterm electoral losses by the party holding the White House.
Schumer acknowledged that Democrats “will not agree on everything” they want to pursue. Notably, he said Democrats have yet to unite behind a proposal to suspend the federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon until this year.
The sponsors said the bill would provide “much needed economic relief to families”. Based on government estimates of typical vehicle driving and gas mileage, an average driver would save about $100 for the entire year.
McConnell derided it as a “bold and creative plan” that would do little for voters while cutting federal funds for highway projects. He made it clear that he would oppose it, assuring that he would not go anywhere.
The sponsors of this proposal include the four incumbents the Democrats most threatened with re-election: Sens. Mark Kelly of Arizona, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada.
“This is a desperate plea for help,” Senate GOP Leader No. 2 John Thune of South Dakota said of the 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 will pursue a bill setting a $35-a-month price cap for insulin, the diabetes drug that can cost hundreds of dollars more. It will be offered by Warnock.
The insulin proposal is part of the party’s environmental and social safety net spending package. This measure had little success with a confused public about its potential benefits to their lives. Democrats have spent less time talking about it publicly lately, though closed-door negotiations continue.
Schumer also organized a vote in late February on legislation explicitly enshrining the right to abortion in law. Opposition from Republicans and possibly some Democrats means he is certain he will fail. But the vote could help mobilize abortion-rights voters in a year when the Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade of 1973 which declared the procedure constitutionally protected.
Yet it is Republicans who go further to shape voters’ attention to social issues.
McConnell pointed to reliable GOP favorites like accusing Democrats of being soft on crime and “bowing to woke mobs” while leaving blameless victims of violence at risk. But Republicans are also clinging to more recent COVID-19-era concerns.
When the Senate gave final approval Thursday to a bill averting an impending government shutdown, Republicans forced votes on proposals ending federal COVID-19 vaccination mandates and vaccine requirements for students imposed by school districts.
Both were narrowly defeated, with each Democrat opposing each amendment. Democrats have noted that vaccines, masks and tests have been documented to save lives, with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., comparing GOP opposition to those measures to “blaming the rescue team for shipwreck”.
Still, the public and politicians in both parties are showing growing impatience with pandemic restrictions. And as the omicron wave recedes nationwide, Republicans have warned that continued resistance to loosening those restrictions will hurt Democrats.
“Parents are frustrated by this,” Thune of the school mask mandates. “And I think Democrats are starting to hear that. So I think the politics of all those terms is starting to change.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that the bill avoiding a possible government shutdown passed the Senate on Thursday, not Friday.
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