The Senate Democratic leadership – all of them, Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, Patty Murray, Debbie Stabenow and Mark Begich – planned a morning press conference today where they will call for job creation measures, or stimulus, to be included in any debt limit deal. They will say that deficit reduction cannot bring Americans back to work, and that recent soft numbers for the economy demand that jobs get the primary attention. According to the press release “they will urge the negotiators to consider new proposals to boost hiring in the short term at the same time that they pursue a plan to bring down the debt in the long term.” The phrase “equal priority” is in there as well.

Before Democrats let the narrative completely get away from them, this was the basic idea – stimulus now, doing no harm and even helping the economy through the rough patch over the next year or two, with deficit reduction to come later. But obviously, Democrats and the White House thought that the rough patch had ended with a few decent months of job creation, and so job creation was put on the back burner, at least in the context of the debt limit talks and the deficit deal. Now, with the new numbers, it’s clear that reducing the deficit will just put the country in a bigger hole.

There’s a sense that this is mainly rhetorical. Democrats have seen Republicans obstruct even the most piddling of jobs bills in the Senate. Yesterday the reauthorization of the Economic Development Administration, an old Great Society program, failed to break a filibuster. The reauthorization gave just a few hundred million more to the program, and was more than offset by the successful passage of the elimination of ethanol subsidies. Republicans still didn’t vote for it. Sen. Reid said yesterday,
“I don’t like to question my colleagues’ motives, but whether they work with us to pass these policies, or continue opposing ideas they once supported, will tell us a lot.”

This is particularly coming up in the context of the payroll tax cut that expires at the end of the year, which the President wants extended, and perhaps expanded to the employer side. This is a tax cut, something Republicans have drooled over in the past, and they are highly uninspired by it. They claim not to want any “short-term gimmicks,” but Democrats will spin that into saying they don’t want to do anything to boost the economy in the short term.

Democrats are trying to turn this sort of agnosticism into a political win-win. As one top Democratic aide noted to me, “Senate Democrats at first weren’t wild about the idea [of an extended payroll tax cut] when it was floated by the White House, but they now see an opportunity to put Republicans on record on this and either get something done on jobs or, if the GOP follows through on opposing it, show how anti-jobs they are.”

If their public and private statements are any indication, Democrats may be left with nothing but a rhetorical cudgel.

There’s definitely value in wielding the rhetorical cudgel, and in being on the right side of what’s needed for the economy. You never know what can shift when you start fighting instead of seeking compromise. Maybe this pins the Republicans into a corner. The fact that the Senate HELP Committee is highlighting the stories of real people affected by this economy, taking a page from the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ Speak Out for Good Jobs tour, shows that they are willing to let the voice of the people guide public policy, or at least try to wedge them into the public discussion.

As to what this means for actual policy, who knows? But it would have been much easier to get this done, you know, a year ago, when the same headwinds were present in the economy, and the need for a second stimulus was clear. The President had pivoted to the deficit by then, and it’s not clear that he’ll join his Democratic colleagues in pivoting back to jobs.