By Ginger Gibson
The newest exhibit in the Democrats' case to voters that they are better stewards of the economy: the ongoing battle over what to do about the budget.
In closed-door caucus meetings, Washington Sen. Patty Murray, who recently served as the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has been advising fellow Democrats that talking about the budget with constituents is a winning strategy.
As lawmakers continue to quibble about conferences and unanimous consent agreements, Democrats are trying to shape the debate in a way that casts them as the fiscally responsible ones.
Their message is simple: Democrats are the ones trying to pass a budget through compromise and regular order, and Republicans are holding them up. Democrats are fighting to end the sequester. Republicans want the status quo.
"What has been their turf and their cry has been dealing with the debt and deficit with dramatic cuts," Murray told POLITICO. "We're willing to work together to find common ground. Where we are today is the Republicans don't want to talk about the budget is because all they're saying is, "We don't want to talk about it.'"
That refusal to talk, Democrats are arguing to voters, is all the evidence needed to charge Republicans with holding up any chance of progress in Washington.
For years, it's been Republicans touting the budget -- or lack thereof -- as a central talking point.
But now, it's Democrats who are going home to blast Republicans for not agreeing to a budget, or at least an attempt at compromise, carrying their own posters about the number of days the GOP has held up an attempt at a House-Senate conference.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) is fully embracing the budget message. During the Memorial Day recess, Kaine held events around the state with the budget as the primary focus, telling voters a budget conference could end the sequester, save jobs and help the state.
Kaine said the case that voters care about the budget played out in his Senate campaign last year.
"I heard so many times when I was running for the Senate, "Hey, why can't the Senate pass a budget?'" Kaine told POLITICO.
For years, House Republicans have used that argument to bludgeon Senate Democrats. But after four years, the upper chamber passed a budget in March and is moving to go to conference with the House GOP, which is resisting on the grounds that the two chambers are miles apart on the substance. But even some Senate Republicans say their own party looks foolish for not going to conference.
"The Republican infighting is catnip to observers inside the bubble, and we certainly couldn't have scripted this mini-civil war any better ourselves," a senior Democratic aide said. "Senators will talk about it differently back in the states, but it resonates there, too -- doing a budget is something every family can relate to, and it's a platform for the broader economic message we won on in 2012: creating jobs for the middle class while asking the wealthiest Americans to contribute their fair share."
It has certainly handed Murray, the budget's author, a political issue.
Kaine said the argument that the Senate hadn't passed a budget for four years was fair, adding that he researched the Budget Control Act and concluded that the budget hadn't been done in regular order. Now that Democrats have delivered, he said, they should be talking about it.
Kaine is making an effort to talk to fellow members about the positive results he's getting from his budget talk. Murray and others in leadership are also encouraging the Virginia Democrat to talk publicly about what his voters are telling him, he said.
"I don't think Virginians are that different from anyone else, although I only know Virginia voters, I would have to believe that other Americans feel the same way," Kaine said.
In a purple state like Virginia, Kaine can tout unlikely allies like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has taken to the Senate floor on four occasions to assail his own party for holding up the process.
It's not just Senate Democrats trying to capitalize on a budget message that Republicans are obstructing the process to the detriment of the country.
"I think you're finding a lot of our members back home talking about the budget -- they're talking about it in the terms that they should be, focused on jobs and the economy," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Budget Committee.
But words like "conference" and "unanimous consent" can be so wonky that they turn off those outside the Beltway. And attract little attention from those who are inclined to follow Washington closely.
Democrats are trying to make the fight about obstruction and sequestration instead.
"I'm here in my state and everywhere I've gone people are talking to me about sequestration," Murray said in an interview heading to events in Washington state. "It's not just the words of "conference,' it's we need to get together solve this problem of sequestration. Sequestration is the problem they see."
In turn, Democrats are telling voters that the two issues are tied together and that passage of a budget would solve their sequestration woes.
Kaine explains that it's not just about the budget, but about the way the Founding Fathers intended a bicameral chamber to create agreement.
"Before it's really a battle about the budget, it's a battle to block compromise and that's a really dangerous thing," Kaine said.
Van Hollen said House members are talking about infrastructure in making the case that voters should listen to them in the budget debate.
"Part of our economic plan, our jobs plan is major investment in our roads, bridges and modernizing our infrastructure," Van Hollen told POLITICO. "A lot of people have been focused on that aspect of our budget and that's part of the president's budget as well."
And it's driving home the Democratic talking point that Republicans can only manage by crisis.
"They're tired of this crisis management," Murray said. "People want stability, they want to know what the path forward is."
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said he is still pushing the idea that the House Republican budget isn't going to work.
"There is a bit of fatigue, people would like us to have this behind us," Warner said. "I still think we're going to get this fixed."
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said in speaking with constituents that the budget has become a common topic and people are receptive to the approach Democrats have outlined.
"People want a budget," Schatz said. "There is anxiety because we've been on a [continuing resolution] for so long and sequester is hurting our local economy."