Congress' year ahead

Congress returns to session this week, but analysts expect lawmakers to be primarily focused on talking points ahead of the November midterm election. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune / December 31, 2012)

By Lisa Mascaro
January 5, 2014, 7:28 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Congress comes back to session this week with leaders of both parties planning a war of words in 2014 — dueling agendas that promise little substantive legislation but lots of messages aimed at establishing clear contrasts for voters heading toward the midterm election.

After they dispatch a few must-pass fiscal measures early in the year, legislators seem unlikely to put together major accomplishments. Rather, the Republican-led House and the Democratic-controlled Senate will essentially become something like sound stages for the advertising wars that will unfold in the handful of states and districts that could decide partisan control of the next Congress.

The agendas reflect a basic reality of the modern Congress — much of what lawmakers do does not include actually making laws.

“They are going to start off with some fairly consequential actions, but after that they probably are going to end up with arguments that fit into 30-second attack ads,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide in the Senate who is now a Democratic strategist.

For Republicans the focus will be a singular one: attacking President Obama’s healthcare law. Their campaign aims to convince voters, especially sought-after independents, that the law’s troubled launch proves Democrats cannot be trusted to run the government.

“Obamacare, Obamacare, Obamacare,” said Andrea Bozek, communications director for the House GOP’s campaign arm. “That theme really works in the races — from the Northeast to the South to the Midwest to the West.”

Democrats will counter by trying to turn attention to pocketbook issues. They plan to begin Monday with a test vote in the Senate on a measure to extend unemployment insurance. About 1.3 million jobless Americans lost their benefits Dec. 28 because Congress declined to continue the federal aid.

After that, Democrats plan to vote on raising the minimum wage.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) laid out the Democrats’ theme Sunday in a television interview.

“Let’s start focusing on helping the middle class,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “I have nothing against rich people. But the rich are getting richer; the poor are getting poorer; the middle class is being squeezed out of existence.”

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