Pelosi faces tense caucus as Nov. looms

House Democratic leaders will face a tense caucus on Tuesday as lawmakers return to Capitol Hill amid an electoral climate that deteriorated rapidly while they were away from Washington.

Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), possibly confronting the final months of her tenure as Speaker, will have to grapple with the competing agendas of anxious members as the House wraps up its final legislative session before the midterm elections.

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While some liberals want Democrats to take an aggressive course on tax cuts and other measures to tout on the campaign trail, the caucus’s vulnerable lawmakers want the leadership to hold required votes and then quickly send them back to their districts.

“The mood is going to be tense,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said, citing the party’s political difficulties and the recognition by many Democrats that there is little they can do in Washington to improve their reelection chances.

“There’s going to be a lot of pressure on the House leadership to get us out of there as soon as possible,” Connolly said.

“People want to be back in their districts.”

House leaders are considering reducing the four-week schedule for the pre-election session to three weeks, which would give lawmakers the entire month of October to campaign. A Democratic aide said no decisions have been made about a change to the schedule even though the leadership would like to release lawmakers early.

“We’ll have to see how quickly things get done,” the aide said.

 Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas) is one Democrat pushing for a shorter session. “It’s not definite yet, but I’m hearing three weeks,” he said.

Democrats are returning to Washington under a cloud of doom-and-gloom predictions from Beltway prognosticators who say Republicans are likely to pick up enough seats in November to win back the House.

The lackluster economic recovery, greater enthusiasm among conservatives and lingering dissatisfaction with the Democratic agenda have shifted the pre-election momentum to the GOP, frustrating Democratic Party leaders who insist their candidates are well-positioned for the fall.

“What members of the Washington, D.C., press corps will find is that our members are much more upbeat than the predictions of pundits would have you believe,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), said in an interview.

Democrats have fought back against predictions of a “GOP wave” by releasing polls showing leads for some of their most endangered members, such as Reps. Bobby Bright (Ala.), Michael Arcuri (N.Y.), Larry Kissell (N.C.) and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (S.D.). The DCCC has also touted its cash advantage over the GOP and announced that House Democrats held more than 2,000 constituent events during the August recess.

With the House in session, attention will turn back to Pelosi, the powerful Speaker who kept a low public profile during the August recess even as speculation swirled that her grip on the gavel may be slipping.

“We need her leadership now more than ever,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said. “I think she needs to move the caucus to do something while we’re there.”

Unlike his more conservative Democratic colleagues, Grijalva is pushing for an active legislative session to give lawmakers more achievements to campaign on in October. “Hiding under the tall grass is not going to help us right now,” he said.

While Democrats predicted a tense atmosphere when the party holds its initial caucus meeting on Tuesday night, some lawmakers and aides said the doomsday predictions would make for a “scrappier” caucus. “People are going to expect Democrats to be panicking and running around like chickens with their heads cut off,” said one Democratic leadership aide, who predicted that lawmakers instead would be “focused on the job at hand.”

The party’s top priority for the brief session, Van Hollen said, is to give final approval to a small-business lending bill the Senate is expected to pass this week. The House will also take up several manufacturing bills as part of Democrats’ campaign-oriented “Make It in America” agenda, as well as long-stalled legislation to provide $11 billion in healthcare and compensation to ailing workers who toiled at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Republicans blocked the Ground Zero compensation measure when it came up for a vote in July under suspension rules requiring a two-thirds majority to pass. It is expected to pass under a simple majority rule later this month.

The only must-pass piece of legislation will be a continuing resolution to fund the government after Sept. 30. Because that deadline is just three weeks away, Democrats may be free to adjourn directly after its passage.

House leaders say they will wait for the Senate to act on extending the Bush tax cuts that are set to expire at the end of the year. While House GOP leader John Boehner (Ohio) said on Sunday that he would be willing to extend tax cuts for the middle class without simultaneously extending them for the top income bracket, Van Hollen indicated House leaders would not force a vote because of opposition in the Senate.

 “Senate Republicans have not said anything of the kind,” Van Hollen said. “We hope [Boehner] will prevail upon his Senate Republican colleagues.”

Many House Democrats are not eager to vote first after nearly two years of taking the lead on controversial items only to see them languish in the upper chamber. “Why do we want to do it again?” asked Connolly, who opposes letting taxes increase for Americans making more than $250,000 a year.

Cuellar said he expects Pelosi to take a “Let’s do what we need to do” attitude, scheduling votes on the most important pieces of legislation. “Everything else is just poetry.”

As for the tax cuts, Cuellar said: “If we can wait for another time, I wouldn’t mind waiting.”