Conservative Democrats sour on spending

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2010; A15

BUTLER, PA. -- Two years ago, Kathy Dahlkemper,, a mother of five from Erie, Pa., won a seat in Congress on a pledge to do something about the national debt. Then she went to Washington -- and immediately voted to increase borrowing by nearly $1 trillion.

Back home, Dahlkemper, a Democrat, has no trouble defending her support for the stimulus package, which economists say probably saved the nation from disaster. "I didn't think I could live with myself if we had gone into a depression," she said over iced Pepsi at the Eat'n Park diner. "We were on the right side of history with that vote."

Now, however, the recession is over and people want the borrowing to stop. Although the jobless rate tops 10 percent in parts of this sprawling district of farmers and blue-collar workers north of Pittsburgh, Dahlkemper said there's no more sense of emergency about the economy. "The sense of emergency, at this point, is focused on the debt," she said.

As President Obama presses for more spending to prevent a relapse into recession, Dahlkemper is one of dozens of moderate Democrats who are frustrating that effort, forcing Obama to downsize some proposals, pay for others and ditch some altogether. Although Obama blames Republicans for blocking legislation to extend emergency jobless benefits and other stimulus programs, conservatives in his own party were among the first to balk.

Like Dahlkemper, many are new to Washington, part of a wave of more than 50 Democrats elected to Congress from conservative and swing districts since 2006. Swept into office on a tide of disillusionment with President George W. Bush, they have become ripe targets for by supporting Obama's economic policies, drawing criticism from Republicans who paint the president as a free-spending, big-government liberal out of touch with heartland values.

Stimulus unpopular

Obama's $862 billion stimulus package is particularly unpopular. In a National Public Radio poll in June of 60 battleground districts held by Democrats, 57 percent of people surveyed said the stimulus ran up record deficits but did little to save jobs. Just 37 percent said the legislation averted a crisis and laid the foundation for recovery.

"The question on the part of voters in districts like Dahlkemper's is 'Where did the stimulus money go?' " said David Wasserman, House analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "In these working-class districts, voters hired Obama for one reason: to turn around the economy. To the extent that hasn't happened, his numbers have tanked."

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said disgust with the stimulus and anxiety about the deficit are "really a metaphor for wasteful government spending." From the perspective of many voters, "a lot of their money has gone out the door to bail out big banks and big corporations while their jobs have been lost."

Mellman counsels Democrats to do what it takes to spur job growth -- "Nobody's going to lose an election because of the deficit," he said -- and to talk about "investing" in job creation while cutting "wasteful" programs.

Many moderates are skeptical, however. Some come from districts in the Midwest and the Washington region, where the jobless rate is well below the national average of 9.5 percent. "It's not politics. It's the economics. We're in a different place right now," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D), who said his Northern Virginia district has a jobless rate of about 5 percent. Connolly said job creation is "less important" to his constituents than the "Sophie's choice" of a double-dip recession or higher deficits.

Other districts have been ravaged by layoffs but retain a conservative sensibility that views deficit spending as a quick route to higher taxes. They also see little personal benefit in Democratic proposals to preserve the well-paid union jobs of teachers, firefighters and other government workers.

Concerns about jobs

In the rolling hills of northwestern Pennsylvania, a stronghold of European immigrants who support gun rights and oppose abortion, people also tend to be suspicious of those who go long stretches without working for a living.

"The system is broke. It helps the lazy people, but the people that want to work get nothing," said Jeremy Boitnott, 30, who was laid off last year by a natural gas drilling company. After six months on unemployment, he took a job in West Virginia that keeps him away from his two young sons for 14 days at a stretch. Boitnott doesn't mind the government providing 99 weeks of unemployment benefits, but says he would rather see a plan to "keep jobs in PA."

Boitnott and his sons were working the dunking booth at the Mercer County Grange Fair this month when Dahlkemper came through. A political novice who ousted a seven-term Republican with 52 percent of the vote in 2008, she is the first woman to represent the district, and the first Democrat in more than 30 years.

That history ranks her among the most vulnerable incumbents in all-important Pennsylvania, a closely watched bellwether state where at least 10 House members face serious challenges this fall and analysts expect an epic battle to replace Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter in the Senate. In November, Dahlkemper will face Republican Mike Kelly, a wealthy Butler car dealer who is challenging her antiabortion credentials and her "high-spending record."

"It really is the spending. People can't understand it," Kelly said in an interview. "She went there as a fiscal conservative, then one of the first things she votes for is to increase the deficit so dramatically? Most people look around and say, 'This is not the same person we knew when she went to Washington, D.C.' "

Political analysts give Dahlkemper a slight edge over Kelly, a burly former athlete more comfortable reminiscing about football championships than discussing economic policy. After a bruising six-way primary, Kelly is also struggling to unite a GOP fractured by "tea party" groups. Still, Dahlkemper can't afford to take chances. So over the Fourth of July recess, she was in Butler and neighboring Mercer County, traversing sweltering fairgrounds and chatting with retirees.

Questions about spending

Everywhere, people asked when Congress would get spending under control. At the Shenango Valley YMCA, Keith Berlin, 77, a retired retail manager and exercise instructor who described himself as an independent voter, denounced the stimulus package.

"The stimulus didn't do anything but make a few fat cats," he said. "It's just another way for government to spend money." Extended jobless benefits are "fostering a deadbeat society," he said. Meanwhile, employers are "afraid to hire because they don't know what the taxes are going to be to support the debt."

Dahlkemper took similar questions from a retired farmer at a Butler YWCA reception. Even some of her supporters are nervous.

Angelo DiMichele, president of AMS Electronics in Butler, said he is slowly hiring back workers after cutting his 47-member staff to 30. But the nation's new health-care law will "cost me a mint," he said, because he will either have to provide coverage or pay a stiff fine. As for the economy, "you want them to spend money on job creation, but how much debt can we take on?" DiMichele said. "Eventually, the money's got to come from somewhere."

As Gov. Edward G. Rendell and Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., both Democrats, push aggressively for more state aid and more generous benefits for Pennsylvania's 600,000 jobless workers, Dahlkemper is steering a more cautious course. Earlier this month, she voted to revive emergency jobless benefits, which expired last month, but she also voted to advance an unsuccessful GOP proposal to pay for it. This week, congressional Democrats expect to finally overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate and send the $34 billion measure to the White House.

Meanwhile, Dahlkemper says Washington should not give Rendell and other governors more money unless there's a plan to repay the cash. And she has flatly rejected Casey's pet cause, a plan to revive COBRA health insurance subsidies for the unemployed.

"Although I feel very bad for those people who lost their job and don't have health care, I have people who don't have health care who still have a job," she said, noting that only about half of small businesses in the state offer workers coverage. "How can we say it's okay for us to continue to provide health care for this person who is unemployed but not for this other person who is working?"

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