Democrats uncertain about approach to midterms

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2010; A01

The Democrats passed the stimulus package. They passed health-care and Wall Street overhauls and revamped the financing system for higher education. Their other main priorities, on immigration and energy, appear to be headed nowhere.

So, what will they do next?

It's a question that has left congressional Democrats, who have spent the past two years mocking Republicans for lacking an agenda, without a clear plan of their own to promote in the final 80 days of the 2010 campaign.

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House Democratic leaders issued lawmakers three sets of talking points that included one package of new legislation, a collection of modest bills designed to revive the manufacturing sector. Senate Democrats have not exactly jumped to embrace those proposals, instead suggesting that between now and Election Day a more detailed agenda might be forthcoming.

"I think we're working towards it. To my way of thinking -- jobs, the economy and helping the middle class stretch their paycheck -- but there are other issues out there. We have to fill in the details," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Thursday.

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Schumer spoke after a special 30-minute session in which lawmakers approved a $600 million border security bill, probably the last piece of significant legislation to pass before November.

It's a far cry from the heady days of early 2009, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) began trumpeting the "four pillars" of what was the most ambitious Capitol Hill agenda since President Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society" of the 1960s. With Obama's sweeping 2008 victory and the largest congressional majorities in three decades, Democrats passed the $862 billion stimulus in less than a month before moving on to health care and other major issues.

The problem for Democrats is that voters have given them virtually no credit for these ambitious projects. The 111th Congress has the lowest average approval rating (19 percent) of any Congress heading into a midterm election since Gallup started tracking the measure in 1974. On key agenda items, Obama receives failing grades, with 38 percent of voters approving of his handling of the economy and 40 percent approving of his health-care approach, according to Gallup.

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"They have the same problem as Republicans, which is, we're just trying to make it about Democrats," GOP pollster David Winston said. "And the public is saying, 'When is someone going to tell me what they're going to do?' The onus on both parties is: What is their plan to grow the economy and create jobs?"

Republicans have said they will not have a plan until late September, when they hope to unveil an agenda tentatively called a "Commitment With America."

Some endangered Democrats are thankful that there is no broad national agenda to answer for, preferring to run on local issues.

"We actually don't sit around talking about the national agenda," said Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (Ariz.), a second-term lawmaker whose election could turn almost entirely on the issue of border security. "A lot of the messaging that takes place in Washington doesn't make it 2,000 miles to Arizona."

Most Democrats want to focus the rest of this year and next on the economy, setting aside other issues, such as immigration reform, until job creation rebounds.

"Other major initiatives are in second place, need to stay on the sideline, until we get the economy back fully in gear," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But Democrats find themselves in a box. Soaring annual deficits have made it fiscally and politically treacherous to propose another huge stimulus, leaving limited options for job creation.

So House Democrats are proposing less-ambitious proposals: a "Make It in America" plan, which closes tax benefits for businesses shipping jobs overseas and provides new hiring credits to local small businesses, and a proposal that would impose penalties on China for currency manipulation, the sort of measure that has often fallen flat in the free-trading Senate.

Obama and some Democrats also want to end the Bush-era tax cuts for the top 2 percent of income earners, which would save more than $600 billion over 10 years. But some senior Democrats, led by the Budget Committee chairman, Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.), argue against raising any taxes while the economy is teetering on the brink of a double-dip recession. And the Democrats' plan to extend the middle-class portion of those tax cuts would increase deficits by around $3 trillion over the next decade.

There's one clear area of unity: attacking Republicans. If the three sets of talking points issued to House Democrats are any measure, the majority expects to run a fall campaign that is about two-thirds negative and one-third positive.

One talking point carried a theme of "we can't go back," a reference to the Bush White House's stewardship of the economy, and another dealt with "protecting Social Security."

Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.) cited a proposal by Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to turn to private accounts as a way of shoring up Social Security in the decades ahead. "That is very scary to senior citizens," Klein said Wednesday in a conference call arranged by party leaders.

Ryan, the top Republican on the House Budget Committee, has drawn just 13 co-sponsors for his plan. Although GOP leaders hail it as a strong, philosophically conservative document, they have given no indication of pushing for privatizing Social Security after their effort to do so in 2005 failed.

Some Democrats said that, ultimately, Obama is in charge of coming up with the "What next?" agenda, and that it could be another six months before they know what that is.

"Beyond this Congress, the president hasn't articulated that yet," Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), elected in 2006 when Democrats offered a "Six for '06" agenda of proposals. "You have to wait till the State of the Union [address, in late January]. It's a little too early to speculate on that."

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