In Session

Will this be the week congressional Democrats reverse their fortunes?

Rep. Connie Mack looks over the health-care bill. Its number of pages has become a GOP target.
Rep. Connie Mack looks over the health-care bill. Its number of pages has become a GOP target. (Harry Hamburg/associated Press)
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By Perry Bacon Jr.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Will this week be the start of a political comeback for congressional Democrats?

Less than two weeks ago, the woes of the majority party evoked comparisons to the Republicans of 2006, complete with a powerful figure enmeshed in an ethics scandal (Rep. Charles B. Rangel/Rep. Tom DeLay), another lawmaker embroiled in a sex scandal (Rep. Eric Massa/Rep. Mark Foley) and a stalled major policy initiative (health care/Social Security). Republicans, you may recall, were voted out of power that fall.

But by Sunday, Democrats could not only have passed a health-care bill, but with it have pushed through the House of Representatives long-delayed legislation that would increase funding for Pell Grants, which help low-income students pay for college. They also could send to President Obama a $17 billion measure designed to create jobs.

The collection of measures could reverse poll numbers that have Congress at one of its lowest rates of public approval since 1994.

"You can go from an abysmally low, low poll rating to just a low approval rating," said Norman Ornstein, a nonpartisan congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "It will take the edge off. When you have a story line where the news is they are passing significant pieces of legislation, it will go against the notion -- that I think is fairly widespread -- that it's a 'do-nothing' Congress."

Republicans, of course, predict that passing the health-care legislation, in particular, will not help Democrats.

"It'll define every Democratic congressional race in November," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.). "And it will be a political wipeout for the Democratic Party."

Pages by the thousands

As the House prepares to vote this week on the health-care bill, the measure is being attacked not just for its substance but for its size. At 2,409 pages, plus a 383-page amendment that was passed around the same time, the bill ranks as one of the longest pieces of legislation in recent history.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) used the legislation as a visual prop at last month's health-care summit, stacking the pages until they stood nearly a foot high.

And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, "Americans aren't in any rush to pass this or any other 2,700-page bill that poses as a reform but which raises the costs of health care."

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) calls the page-count argument a "propaganda line." He and other Democrats say it illustrates a deep disagreement on policy: Republicans are proposing a more modest approach to overhauling health care. House Republicans' health-care bill, only 219 pages long, would cover 3 million uninsured people, compared with the Democrats' 30 million.

"There were a lot of issues that had to be decided, and it's much better to be precise rather than general, because otherwise you'll have a lot of lawsuits" over interpretations of the legislation, said Waxman, who as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee was one of the primary authors of the House version of the legislation.

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