Vulnerable House Dems run away from their party’s record

House Democrats in tough races are running away from their party’s legislative record as they face an electorate that's skeptical of what the party has accomplished over the past two years and rates Congress at historic lows.

A Gallup tracking poll from the end of September shows that only 18 percent of voters approve of the job Congress is doing while landmark legislation like healthcare reform and the stimulus remains unpopular.

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The abysmal approval numbers come against the backdrop of a Congress that is able to boast more major legislative achievements than any Congress in decades. It's a legacy House Democrats are wrestling with ahead of Election Day and, more often than not, repudiating in close contests.

"It's not everyone's cup of tea," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who is a Republican target this fall. "Moderates and Blue Dogs in our caucus have grown increasingly antsy about that agenda and whether it was or is overly ambitious."

Connolly voted in favor of healthcare reform, the stimulus and Wall Street reform, but over the past two months the Virginia Democrat has emerged as one of the loudest Democratic voices urging the leadership to extend the George W. Bush tax cuts, even for the wealthiest Americans.

Before Congress left Washington last week, Connolly was one of 39 Democrats who voted with Republicans against adjournment on the grounds the House shouldn't leave before addressing the tax-cut issue.

The ranks of Democrats running against the litany of the party’s legislative achievements has grown over the past month as those who were already trying to stake out centrist ground ahead of November have shifted even further away from their party.

In his latest campaign ad, Rep. Bobby Bright (D-Ala.), who represents one of the most conservative districts in the country, runs a photo of himself alongside House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), claiming that he votes with the Republican leader 80 percent of the time."

Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) said late last month that he'd rather have House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) as the next Speaker if Democrats retain control of Congress. He also said the healthcare reform law should be repealed. Taylor joined Connolly and 38 other Democrats in voting against adjournment last week.

"A lot of things still need to get done, and I do think folks are frustrated," said Taylor, who described his own constituents as "mixed" on what Congress has accomplished.

"At this point, I think some of them would say, 'Stop. Don't do anything else,’ ” he said.

The irony, said Connolly, is that it's hard not to also acknowledge the historic nature of what Democrats have achieved over the past two years.

"I think this belongs in the pantheon of strong, activist reform Congresses like the 73rd under FDR and the 89th under LBJ," Connolly said of the 111th Congress, which has passed sweeping reforms to the nation's healthcare system, a major overhaul of the financial regulatory structure and a series of economic stimulus measures. The House also passed major cap-and-trade legislation, but it stalled in the Senate.

It's a weighty comparison given that during the first two years of President Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, the 73rd Congress passed a series of the most sweeping legislation in the nation's history — measures that aggressively expanded the role of the federal government in an attempt to stem the nation's fiscal crisis.

Then, between 1965 and 1967, the 89th Congress passed some of the most consequential social legislation in American history, including the Voting Rights Act and the creation of both Medicare and Medicaid, under President Johnson.

Like both of those Congresses, Connolly called the past two years one of the "very rare and typically brief" moments in history when so-called progressives had a real opportunity to push legislation friendly to their agenda.

"These are brief periods of time," he said. "And I think it's clear that the leadership and the White House decided they were going to capitalize on that brief moment in time."

It's an environment that has made it tougher for centrist Democrats like Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) to fight charges that they align with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the Democratic leadership.

"My record doesn't support any claim that I'm not independent and don't put my district first," Boucher said. He was one of 39 Democrats who voted against the healthcare bill and has a reputation for bucking his party's leadership. Still, he's fighting campaign ads that claim he votes with Pelosi 96 percent of the time.

"She doesn't vote very often, so I don't even know what that comparison is based on," said Boucher.

Before leaving town, Pelosi and members of the Democratic leadership held a news conference to tout the legislative achievements of the past two years.

"We’re very proud of the work of the Congress," Pelosi said last week. "We have worked closely, not only as a team, but as partners and leaders, to make this happen, and of course none of it would have been possible without the visionary leadership of President Barack Obama."

Another centrist Democrat, Rep. Mike McMahon (N.Y.), thinks history will be kinder to the Dems.

“I don’t think I would compare it to the level of the Congress of the ’30s or the ’60s, but I would say it’s probably in the top third quartile of active Congresses,” said McMahon, who’s also a GOP target this fall.

McMahon voted against the healthcare bill, for which he received significant blowback from labor, and has worked to separate himself a bit from the Democratic leadership.

Still, he said, he expects history to be slightly kinder to the past two years than polling on the election suggests voters will be.

"I think that history will be more kind to this Congress than maybe the public feels right now," said McMahon. "That’s for sure.”

-- This post was updated at 4:23 p.m.

--Sean J. Miller contributed to this story.