Democrats feeling angst over 2010

Vulnerable House and Senate Democrats want their leaders to skip the party’s controversial legislative agenda for next year to help save their seats in Congress.

In the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections, they don’t want to be forced to vote on climate change, immigration reform and gays in the military, which they say should be set aside so Congress can focus on jobs and the economy.

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“It’s hard; the most important issue in front of us is the economy right now, and that’s where most of us really want to stay focused, the economy and jobs, that’s what our constituency is concerned about,” said Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D), who is facing a tough race next year in Arkansas.

Rep. Bob Etheridge (D), a centrist contemplating a run for Senate in North Carolina, helped Democratic leaders in the summer by voting for climate change legislation on the House floor.

He now wants Democratic leaders to narrow their focus on jobs and the economy.

“Three things ought to be the top priority: jobs, jobs and jobs,” he said.

Lincoln said that lawmakers should focus on passing healthcare reform and wait until next year to effect financial regulatory reform and reduce unemployment.

“That’s an awful lot to bite off and chew for right now,” said Lincoln, who described herself as “not in a hurry” to tackle climate change, an issue she has some jurisdiction over as chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Sen. Evan Bayh (D), who is running for reelection in conservative-leaning Indiana, said “jobs should be our top priority and we shouldn’t do anything that detracts from that,” echoing a sentiment of many colleagues in similar positions.

Bayh said he recognizes that Congress should be able to “walk and chew gum at the same time and hopefully do more than one thing,” but that controversial issues will become especially difficult next year.

Climate change legislation would be “difficult to accomplish under the best of times and doubly so when the economy is not at all good,” Bayh said.

But he did not fault his leaders for setting such an ambitious agenda, saying that “if at the end of the day [losing reelection] is your only concern, you should probably find another line of work.”

Climate change is only one of several lightning-rod issues Democratic leaders may ask their vulnerable colleagues to vote on next year.

They must also tackle the tricky issue of extending or repealing the tax cuts passed under former President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2003. If they extend popular tax cuts, such as the marriage tax cut, the child tax credit and reductions to the estate tax, lawmakers must decide whether to pay for it with spending cuts (or other tax increases).

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Conference, still wants to take up immigration reform next year. He told reporters

Tuesday that it is still on the agenda for the 111th Congress. (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has called immigration reform his No. 3 priority after healthcare reform and global climate change legislation.)

Reid, meanwhile, has pushed for the repeal of the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which prohibits gays from serving openly in the military.

Gay-rights activists have put strong pressure on Obama and Democratic leaders to repeal the ban sooner rather than later.

Reid sent a letter to Obama last month asking him to provide recommendations on gays serving in the military, noting that Congress is considering “future legislative action.”

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he was not certain whether repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell” would be on next year’s agenda.

It looks increasingly likely that healthcare reform will spill into next year, and Democrats have made it a high priority to overhaul the nation’s financial regulatory laws before next November.

One Democratic senator facing reelection in a Republican-leaning state said he does not want to see the issue of gays in the military, immigration reform or even climate change on next year’s agenda.

The lawmaker predicted, however, that it would be very difficult to avoid a long debate over climate change legislation because a faction of liberal senators led by Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) would insist on taking it up on the floor next year. Interest groups that often have the ears of party leaders will also be pushing those issues.

Some Democrats are worried the ambitious agenda could make winning reelection that much harder.

“If it was up to me, I would figure out how to handle the war and fix the economy,” said Rep. John Tanner (Tenn.), a senior centrist Democrat who has found himself in the crosshairs of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has recruited a promising GOP challenger.

Tanner worries his party may be trying to bite off too much in the 111th Congress.

“For all of these big issues, the trick is — to use a football analogy — to go for a first down instead of an 80-yard Hail Mary,” he said. “Some of the more philosophically driven people want to do an 80-yard Hail Mary, but getting first downs is how you legislate over time.”

A group of vulnerable Democratic lawmakers see healthcare reform, climate change and immigration reform as desperation passes down the length of the political playing field. They acknowledge that healthcare reform may very well pass, but they say that climate change and immigration reform have dim prospects.

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Rep. Bobby Bright, an Alabama centrist viewed as one of the most endangered Democrats in the House, said that many Americans feel alarmed by the drastic legislative changes moving through Congress. He said leaders should consider breaking up sprawling controversial bills into smaller pieces that voters would not find so daunting in size and scope.

“Maybe this healthcare bill is going drastically too far,” he said. “If we could take it in smaller steps, we could build confidence.

“We can’t come in and change the world overnight,” he said. “We’re moving forward at a pace that average people are concerned about, and my constituents very much so.”

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