With Republicans poised to reclaim the House and possibly the Senate, Congress returned to Washington Tuesday for a frenetic four-week session before members depart again for the final weeks of campaigning. Concern about the looming November election and how it would once again change the power equation on Capitol Hill permeated the rhetoric and the mood of the returning lawmakers.
While the downcast Democrats still control the legislative calendar, many of the returning Republican leaders attempted to set the agenda yesterday by vowing to challenge President Obama and the Democratic leadership on tax policy, spending, the deficit and job creation. Democrats have all but given up hope for any dramatic improvement in the economy and unemployment figures before the election, but the White House and some congressional leaders believe they can reduce their losses in part by holding fast to Obama’s approach to the expiring income tax cuts.
"There's no doubt about it that, over the summer, we faced a big — what I would call — political energy deficit," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said on MSNBC. "But I think that is closing very rapidly."
Senate Democrats are promising a vote before the Nov. 2 election on their plan to extend the cuts to all but the wealthiest 2 percent of taxpayers, while Republicans say this is no time to increase taxes on anyone, including those with the highest incomes. “What we ought not to be doing is raising taxes on anybody during a recession,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Members of both parties say that whoever wins the message argument around jobs and the economy will hold control of Congress come next year.
"[Jobs are] the issue, and everything that we ought to talk about is to convince people that Democrats are the best party to handle the job creation issue, and not only in the short term but in the longer term," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut who is retiring at the end of the year.
Obama and the Democrats face a difficult reality: The country's anti-Washington mood has been aimed mostly at their policies, such as last year’s $814 billion economic stimulus and this year’s health care reform law. With most national polling and political handicapping pointing to a Republican takeover of the House and possibly the Senate, some Democratic lawmakers yesterday seemed anxious to get back on the campaign trail and to avoid votes on taxes that may be hard to explain to their constituents.
"We can't claim that we've succeeded in getting out of the ditch when we're still in a deep recession," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. "You can't run on that. So what you end up running on is a contrast [between the parties]."
A decidedly upbeat Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that "We have I think the best political environment we could have hoped for and we have the best candidates we could have dreamed of," which should greatly enhance the GOP's fundraising clout in the final two months of the campaign.
Asked if the Republicans were euphoric about their party's prospects for taking back control of the House and possibly the Senate, Cornyn replied cagily: "We're trying to be not engaging in any irrational exuberance."
'Totally absurd' vs. 'Idiotic'
Tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush will expire at the end of the year unless Congress acts. President Obama and Democratic leaders have long called for extending the cuts except for those on households making more than $250,000 a year. "When you have a $13 trillion national debt and the gap between the very rich and everybody else is growing wider, I think it is totally absurd to extend those tax breaks," said Sen. Bernard Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats.
While House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, signaled over the weekend that he would support extending the tax cuts to the middle class if there were no way to extend them to wealthy Americans as well, other Republicans disagree. "It seems to me you just don’t increase taxes during a recession, and this is a deep recession," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "It's just idiotic to argue that."
Democrats are seeking to portray themselves as true populists and force Republicans to vote against the breaks for middle-class taxpayers. "No matter what you think of President Bush's tax breaks for millionaires and above, we can all see that the middle class could use some help," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told reporters yesterday. "But as everyone knows, my Republican colleagues are promising to hold hostage the economic security of the middle class. They're threatening — and I think proudly so — to raise taxes on the vast majority of Americans."
On the Republican side, Cornyn said that the Republicans are playing a much stronger political hand than the Democrats by insisting on extending the Bush era tax cuts to every American. A handful of Democrats agree, at least on a short-term extension of all the cuts.
Political forecasters say the argument will be a struggle for Democrats. One expert predicts Democrats will lose 47 House seats, more than the 39 needed to take control of the chamber. Others say that Senate Democrats have 11 seats rated as toss-ups or going to the GOP, while Republicans have only four rated toss-up and none leaning to the Democrats. "If the election were tomorrow, we'd have a good day," McConnell told MSNBC.
Some Democratic candidates, such as Robin Carnahan, seeking an open Senate seat in Missouri, are explicitly running against some of President Obama's economic plans. A New York Times study of political ads also showed Democrats on the defensive: It said that Republicans were far more likely than Democrats to talk about health care and jobs. More than a third of Democratic ads on health care criticized the new law, one of the party's signature achievements.
And several Democratic senators said that almost no one in their states was talking about the Bush tax cuts over Congress's summer break, suggesting that a bitter war over them this month won't do much to move voters. Asked about the mood among Democrats, Dodd summarized by saying "Let's get home. Let's go home."
Levin also said it was not too late to turn the tide, pointing to a small business lending bill that cleared a key Senate hurdle with almost all Republicans opposed. "Take a look at what we did on the floor of the Senate today," he said. "How many votes did we get on a jobs bill? Who is for and who is against that? And who's filibustering it?"
In addition to addressing the tax cuts and small business bill, which the Senate is likely to pass this week, Congress must enact stopgap legislation to keep the government running beyond the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year, because none of the 12 annual spending bills have been enacted. Other than that, Dodd said the short time frame means that not much will get done.
"I think it's hard," Dodd said. "I think you'll have this tax debate you've got to have, but other than that I think it's going to be difficult."