Reversal of fortunes may be at hand for Democrats

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; 2:01 PM

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.) piled a copy of the legislation on the table at last month's health-care summit, drawing a rebuke from Obama, who considered the foot-high stack of documents a political prop. Cantor's office later denied that the bill was for show, saying he brought a well-tabbed copy so that Republicans could respond if specific provisions came up for discussion.

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.

Congressional experts say the length reflects not just the complexity of the issue and the Democrats' ambition but also an increasing tendency from lawmakers on both sides to insert huge numbers of provisions into one bill. The GOP also wrote massive bills when it controlled Congress, including a 1,042-page Medicare law in 2003.

"They tend to combine issues into bigger bills as a way of getting them through the process," Senate historian Donald Ritchie said. "The more you have in, the more people you can get on board usually."

To say it more clearly

The House is likely to approve this week the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which would mandate each federal agency appoint a senior official in charge of making sure documents use "writing that the intended audience can readily understand and use because that writing is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices of plain writing."

The legislation, written by Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), could be popular. But if something is still a bit murky, it's not clear how an average American can force agencies to abide by the law.

"No provision of this Act shall be construed to create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable by any administrative or judicial action," the eight-page bill says.

In, well, plainer English, you can't sue the government for not writing clearly enough.

Another round on jobs bill

Liberal lawmakers in the House say the jobs bill before the Senate won't do enough to reduce unemployment, arguing it is too small.

They have started to push both fellow members of Congress and the Obama administration to back a $100 billion package that would include more direct government hiring, sending money to either local nonprofit groups or city governments who would then employ people.

The Congressional Black Caucus, one of the key players in the initiative, is planning a five-city campaign for more jobs funding that will start Wednesday with an informal hearing on "Addressing the Crisis of the Chronically Unemployed."

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