Midterm elections are still a year off, but the scramble to gain a political edge at the polls is already well underway on Capitol Hill.
Bills are brought up and votes taken not so much in hopes they will prevail, but rather to send a political message. In the Senate, both parties are at it.
When the Senate reconvenes Tuesday, it will be voting to break a GOP filibuster of the nomination of Georgetown University law professor Nina Pillard — one of three people President Obama named to fill vacancies on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Senate Republicans recently filibustered another woman nominated to that court, Patricia Millett, and they promise to do the same with Pillard.
Democrats say there’s a simple explanation: Republicans are blocking highly qualified women from serving on that court.
“Do we have to get women elected to the United States Senate to get women on the Judiciary Committee to get women on the courts?” asked Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state. “Because our colleagues aren’t going to help us do that?”
Last week, Senate Democrats, with support from 10 Republicans, voted to ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Thirty-two Republicans voted no, including Indiana Sen. Dan Coats.
The measure, he said, had a clear political objective.
“Same point that’s made with a lot of bills that come up: Put the other party on the defensive,” he said.
Majority Leader Harry Reid seemed to confirm that. He lamented to reporters that House Speaker John Boehner had no plans to take up the nondiscrimination bill, despite polls that show more than 4 out of 5 Americans support it.
“I’m flabbergasted as [to] why they’re stopping everything the American people want,” Reid said.
Another thing more than 80 percent of Americans say they want is to increase the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, says his party last Thursday discussed raising the minimum wage to around $10 an hour and then indexing it to inflation.
Durbin says it’s about sending working families a message: Democrats can help them.
“It’s more than a message vote. It appears that there are so many nonstarters for Speaker Boehner, you just wonder, where are the starters?” Durbin said. “If you can’t help working families who are struggling paycheck to paycheck to get by in America, then where are your priorities? What is important?”
Durbin admits he knows of no Senate Republicans who would vote to raise the minimum wage.
Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey said it’s clear why Democrats are raising the issue.
“It’s a populist measure,” he said. “They think they can probably score some political points, but it’s very bad policy and it would, if it were to pass, it would actually exacerbate a terribly high unemployment rate that we already have.”
But Senate Democrats are not the only ones trying to force tough votes on their opponents.
Last week at the Capitol, National Right to Life Committee President Carol Tobias was on hand as South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who’s seeking re-election, introduced a bill already passed by the House. It would ban all abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy except in cases of incest or when the mother’s life is at risk.
“We’re choosing today to speak up for all babies at 20 weeks and try to create legal protections under the theory that if you can feel pain, the government should protect you from being destroyed by an abortion, which I imagine would be a very painful way to die,” Graham said.
Supporters cite recent polling showing nearly two-thirds of Americans agree with them. Still, last week on the Senate floor, Washington state’s other Democratic senator, Patty Murray, called this bill co-sponsored by 33 Republicans “blatantly political.”
“This extreme unconstitutional abortion ban is an absolute nonstarter,” she said. “It is going nowhere in the Senate, and those Republicans know it.”
But they also know any vote on the bill could leave some Democrats seeking re-election in a tough spot — just like the votes Democrats are forcing Republicans to take in these pre-election days.