By Alexander Bolton - 02/24/11 10:55 AM EST
Democratic strategists believe their Tea Party moment has arrived.
Working with labor unions and liberal groups, they are using the Presidents Day congressional recess to organize a public backlash against billions of dollars in cuts to federal programs.
“We are targeting various House Republicans in town-hall meetings during the recess to let them know these budget cuts are beyond the pale,” said the labor source, who added that it has been difficult to mobilize supporters to public question-and-answer sessions with lawmakers because “they’ve been pretty circumspect in giving out information about the meetings.”
Justin Ruben, the executive director of MoveOn.org, a progressive advocacy group, has also encouraged members to grill lawmakers at town-hall meetings.
“Whenever we hear about a town-hall meeting we encourage them to go and ask pointed questions about what is happening,” he said.
Conservative strategists used town-hall meetings in August of 2009 to raise loud public protests against the healthcare bill Democrats were pushing through Congress.
A year and a half ago, Republicans accused President Obama of pushing an extreme, partisan agenda and not doing enough to focus on the economy.
Democrats are now leveling that same charge at Republicans.
“I urge my Republican colleagues to join us to create jobs, instead of wasting time with pointless, symbolic votes,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said earlier this month, after House Republicans voted to repeal healthcare reform.
“At this critical juncture, we certainly cannot afford an extreme step like forcing a government shutdown that could send us back into a recession and put Social Security checks, veterans' benefits and border security at risk,” Reid said.
Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who worked in the Clinton administration, said Republicans have overreached by pursuing $61 billion in spending cuts for the rest of 2011 when the economic recovery is still fragile.
“I think Republicans have made some basic mistakes,” he said. “They’re taking actions and steps that are not consistent with talking about jobs and the economy. They run the risk of not really being focused on creating jobs.”
Lehane said the lesson of the midterm elections is that voters want Republicans and Democrats to work together.
Democrats on the Hill say GOP leaders have no interest in compromise.
“Let’s be very clear about what is happening here,” Reid said Tuesday about a partisan dispute over a measure to keep the government funded. “We are proposing a short-term solution that will give us time to negotiate. Republicans are saying 'it’s our way or the highway' and threatening a shutdown that would risk sending our economy back into a recession if they do not get everything they want.”
Republicans accused Democrats in 2009 of ramming a healthcare bill through Congress with little input from Republicans.
“I sat through the mark-up on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions bill, where virtually nothing was taken from Republican ideas, and what was was changed without consulting a single senator, to wind up with the bill that was actually printed,” Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), the senior Republican on the Senate Health Committee, said in 2009.
Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist who works with liberal groups, said Democrats hope to replicate a Tea Party-like public uprising against the GOP call for steep budget cuts.
“We’ve got two models we can look at,” he said. “One is the 1995 budget fight, when Gingrich and the Republicans completely overshot and alienated people, and the other is Wisconsin right now. As people push extremist budget cuts, it’s going to provoke a backlash and we’re going to see a pushing back.”
Bill Samuel, director of government affairs at the AFL-CIO, said lawmakers who support steep cuts to food safety inspection programs, the COPS community policing program and the Head Start education program will feel pushback in their districts this week.
“We’re educating union members and activists,” Samuel said. “As members [of Congress] go home this week, they’re going to hear about it, not just from union members, but others as well.”
Tara McGuinness, director of progressive media at Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, disputed the comparison between the Tea Party backlash against healthcare reform and the brewing liberal revolt to GOP budget cuts.
She argued that Senate Democrats have endorsed a freeze in federal spending that amounts to a $41 billion cut compared to Obama’s budget plan for 2011. She said Republicans have not made any serious proposals to reform the national healthcare system.
Democratic and labor strategists have taken inspiration from the massive demonstrations of public-sector workers in Wisconsin. While those protests are in response to Gov. Scott Walker’s (R-Wis.) attempt to strip state workers of collective bargaining rights, some strategists argue the impassioned response can be used to mobilize support against the GOP agenda in Washington.
“The common thread is that in Washington and in Wisconsin you have Republicans who are basically making a budget situation worse by insisting on tax breaks for corporations and the rich, and using the excuse of a fiscal crisis to accomplish longtime and radical conservative goals,” said Ruben of MoveOn.org. "Wisconsin has had an electrifying effect on a lot of folks."
A large coalition of progressive groups announced an “emergency call to action” to organize a massive show of solidarity with workers in Wisconsin and to protest against the national Republican plan to slash vital services in the federal budget, according to a person familiar with the effort.
The groups, including MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, USAction, the Service Employees International Union and People for the American Way, plan to hold “Save the American Dream” rallies in 50 state capitals on Saturday.
“Instead of creating jobs, Republicans are giving tax breaks to corporations and the very rich and then cutting funding for education, police, emergency response and vital human services,” the groups declared in their call to action. “The right to organize is on the chopping block. The American Dream is slipping out of reach for more and more Americans, and we have to fight back.”
MoveOn.org has also organized a day of "speak-outs" at congressional offices around the country on Feb. 24. Activists plan to gather at district offices to show their opposition to steep federal budget cuts.
The spending measure House Republicans passed last week for the rest of 2011 included a $3 billion funding cut to the Environmental Protection Agency and a rider that would eliminate funding for the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and refineries.
A group called Health Care without Harm began running radio ads this week targeting House Republicans who voted “to ransack the Environmental Protection Agency.”
The ad ran in the districts of Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) and Dennis Rehberg (R-Mont.).
The Natural Resources Defense Council has commissioned polling in the districts of Upton and Republican Reps. Mary Bono Mack (Calif.), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), Charlie Bass (N.H.), and Leonard Lance (N.J.), showing strong majorities of voters support the proposition that “Congress should let the EPA do its job.”
“When the Tea Parties were happening, we looked at that and said part of this is about opposition,” said Ruben of MoveOn.org. “It’s always easier to mobilize people in opposition.”
MoveOn.org received an overwhelming response to a recent petition protesting GOP cuts to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports NPR and PBS, Ruben said.
“That was the strongest response we’ve seen in a long time and NPR is the appetizer for these guys — they’re coming for the EPA and food safety inspections,” Ruben said of Republicans in Congress.