Senate Democrats, fearful of losing their majority in November, rolled out an ambitious, populist agenda that aims to rally their base and divert voter attention from Obamacare.
Democratic leaders, though, claim that economic issues will be more important to voters than Obamacare.
“Eighty-five percent of all Americans are not affected by the Affordable Care Act,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “People are discontent because of the overall state of the middle class."
“Concerns of the middle class can trump the Republican attacks on the Affordable Care Act, because what Americans really care about is making their lives better and lifting us up,” he said.
Republicans were quick to mock the agenda, calling it a transparent and insincere effort to give embattled Democrats something to talk about other than Obama’s missteps.
“Senate Democrats won't be announcing a plan for getting things done but rather a plan to use the Senate as a campaign studio and an attempt to paper over their support for Obamacare,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
But Democrats insist their strategy is based on hard numbers and cited polls showing concern over economic issues.
In a recent CBS poll, 30 percent of Americans said the economy was the most important issue facing the country. Only 7 percent named health care. Polls also show a majority back raising the minimum wage, raising Democratic hopes that their economic push will sway voters.
“This agenda is what the American people want to hear,” Schumer told reporters. “You folks all want to ask about Obamacare."
The agenda includes a bill to raise the minimum wage nearly 40 percent -- to $10.10 an hour -- and an “equal pay” measure for women. Another bill would end tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas, and one measure provides stimulus money for infrastructure projects, which Democrats say will create jobs.
Democrats are also pushing to help students reduce their college loan debt and proposed new regulations governing student loans. And they plan on introducing legislation they say protects Medicare and Social Security from cuts.
The agenda has little chance of becoming law with the GOP-controlled House unlikely to vote on its provisions.
Conservative lawmakers say that the Democrats' agenda would slow job growth, raise government spending and burden businesses with even more regulations.
But Senate Democrats will use the plan to emphasize their differences with Republicans, who they characterize as the party of big corporations and the rich.
“While Republicans defend a system that benefits huge corporations and a few at the top, Democrats will go on offense with a positive agenda that has broad support among liberals, conservatives and moderates,” Democratic leaders said.
It will be an uphill fight, though, with polls showing Republicans — who must net six seats — gaining momentum to win back the Senate.
Many vulnerable Senate Democrats have watched their poll numbers sink in the wake of the disastrous rollout of the health care law, and Republicans have capitalized on Obamacare’s problems with a barrage of ads attacking Democrats who voted for the law.
A recent Pew survey found that only 41 percent support the president’s signature initiative.
Vulnerable Senate Democrats say that despite its unpopularity, the law is now lower on voters’ list of priorities. Back at home, people are talking about student loans, jobs and protecting Medicare, they say. And they believe a steady drumbeat of Senate votes on economic measures will boost Democratic candidates on the trail.
“The issues that are in the agenda really speak to what I'm hearing in town hall meetings,” said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who is in a competitive race for re-election.
Begich said he will push one of the student loan measures in the agenda that he said would lower interest rates to 4 percent. And he touted a poll showing that 69 percent of Alaskans favor raising the minimum wage.
“These issues do resonate,” said Begich.