Van Hollen says Dems will harness economy as an issue in early 2010

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairman Chris Van Hollen pledged Wednesday that his party will take command of the economy issue early in 2010 and use it to its advantage in November’s election.
 
Van Hollen (Md.) predicted that unemployment would begin to drop in the first half of the year and said Democrats would begin a concerted effort to convince voters that the party will reduce the deficit.
 

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“You do need to send a very strong signal,” Van Hollen said at a press conference. “Very early in the year … we will be pushing very hard for deficit reduction measures that will kick in in a predictable way over a period of time.
 
“To the extent that there were some concerns, even on the Democratic side, on that [healthcare] vote, was because of a desire to make sure we send that signal.”
 
Van Hollen’s comments came a day after Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declared herself to be in “campaign mode” — a suggestion that House Democrats’ agenda in 2010 might be more manageable for vulnerable members who have sometimes sided with Republicans on key issues.
 
Van Hollen also spoke the day after the House passed a $174 billion jobs bill by a 217-212 vote. No Republicans voted for the bill, and 38 Democrats voted against it because of worries about deficit spending. Also on Wednesday, the House passed a short-term increase of the debt limit, which sets the stage for a February showdown on deficit spending. It was a close vote, 218-214, with no Republicans voting for the measure.
 
The two votes came as Democrats in tough reelection fights found themselves trying to determine if voters are angrier about 10 percent unemployment or trillions in deficits.
 
Van Hollen acknowledged that, with unemployment in double digits and an economically pessimistic electorate, the party in power has suffered some in recent polling.
 
But he said he expects that will begin to change, and he emphasized repeatedly that Republicans will then be on the hook to explain why they didn’t do more to solve the country’s woes.
 
Democrats have recently begun a shift away from calling Republicans the “Party of No,” and are instead preparing to hit the GOP for not offering alternatives. To do so, though, will require some concrete progress on Democratic legislation that has passed.
 
“We’re not going to be satisfied until we see positive job growth,” Van Hollen said. “As we turn the corner, the question will be, ‘Who was on your side during this difficult period of time?’ ”
 
Republicans responded Thursday in a memo from the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) said Pelosi and the Democratic leadership have already done too much damage to save many of their members.
 
“With trillions of new debt, devastating unemployment numbers, a failed stimulus and massive new spending bills stalled with congressional inaction, Democrats have officially sacrificed their control of the majority in order to force a reckless and unpopular agenda on American families,” Sessions said.
 
Van Hollen called the press conference in the midst of a series of retirements from Democratic members in vulnerable districts. He sought to reassure the media that the party would not be weathering an inordinate number of retirements in the coming months.
 
He said the committee has averaged about 14 retirements over the last seven elections. So far, 11 Democrats are vacating their seats, but the last four were all targeted members who aren’t running for another office. Republicans have 12 open seats, but all of their departing members are seeking another office.
 
The prospect of other Democrats heading for the exits could put a severe dent in the party’s 2010 coffers, as well as its odds of keeping a large majority.
 
Democrats said that many of those seen as most likely to retire have said they will run for reelection. But that was what Rep. Bart Gordon’s (D-Tenn.) office said earlier this month, before he announced his retirement on Monday.
 
When asked how concrete the members’ assurances have been, Van Hollen said he has no choice but to believe what they say.
 
“We only know what our members tell us, and I think if you look at the public statements that have been made in the last 48 hours … many have very clearly said that they’re running for reelection,” Van Hollen said. “And I take that at face value.”
 
However, on Wednesday, Pelosi told reporters that Rep. Brian Baird's (D-Wash.) retirement announcement caught her unaware and joked that he failed to give her the "72 hours’ notice" he'd demanded on the healthcare bill.
 
Van Hollen was also doubtful that Republicans can compete for as many Democratic seats as they have claimed.
 
He said the idea that Republicans would pursue 70 Democratic seats is “way, way, way off,” and noted that, even if they pursue 40, they would only have about $100,000 to spend on each race at this point. (Democrats hold a three-to-one edge in cash on hand.)
 
Van Hollen also said Republicans would be hampered by infighting, as they were in a recent special election in New York.
 
He took the opportunity to poke fun at the NRCC’s claim that it has more than 70 good candidates. Many of them face primaries, and some face primaries with other leading recruits.
 
“They say they have 70 candidates, but 70 candidates in one district is not a good thing,” Van Hollen joked.
 
Mike Soraghan and Jared Allen contributed to this article