House Democrats turn focus to economy

House Democrats shift their focus to the economy this week with President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and Google CEO Eric Schmidt addressing the caucus.

The emphasis on job creation comes as the unemployment rate languishes at 10 percent, Obama faces falling poll numbers on his handling of the economy, and Democrats prepare for the 2010 election.

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The leaders are addressing the Democratic Caucus retreat in what’s being billed as a "jobs summit."

Obama will speak to the Democrats in the Capitol on Thursday and Clinton will speak Friday. The conference begins Wednesday night with Schmidt’s address at the Library of Congress.

Democratic leaders sounded eager to wrap up the healthcare bill and move to the issue that will be crucial for voters in November.

"Look, as important as healthcare is, and as front and center as it is in the Beltway, when I go home to Augie and Ray's in East Hartford, they care about healthcare, but they're focused on jobs," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.).

House Democrats passed last month a $154 billion jobs bill that includes new infrastructure investments, further fiscal relief for struggling states and local governments hoping to avoid public worker layoffs, and extensions of benefits for jobless Americans.

Larson and Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), the Democratic Caucus's vice chairman, suggested that more jobs-focused legislation is coming.

"If we kept you busy in '09, you ain't seen nothing yet," Becerra said.

Democrats will look at passing Rep. Jim Oberstar's (D-Minn.) six-year, $500 billion reauthorization bill for road, rail and transit projects and other bills focused on innovation to help spur private-sector hiring, Larson said.

Republicans have called on Democrats to stop passing costly legislation after having passed a $787 billion stimulus early last year. In response to the most recent jobs data that showed the jobless rate still in double digits, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) attacked Democrats for saddling the economy with "higher taxes, job-killing policies and wasteful Washington spending."

Larson and Becerra dismissed suggestions that Democrats must choose between reducing the deficit, which hit a record $1.4 trillion last year, and creating more jobs. They said that balancing the budget will only come when more Americans are working.

"You don't collect revenues if folks aren't working," Becerra said.

The Congressional Budget Office has projected a $390 billion deficit for the last quarter, a 16 percent increase over the deficit for the same period in the previous year. The increase is due largely to an 11 percent decrease in tax revenue since federal spending has been relatively level, the independent budget office said.

Larson suggested the Democrats can deal with both the jobs deficit and the fiscal deficit, noting Clinton did it in the 1990s. Larson said it was fitting that Clinton would end the conference.

"Here's someone who understands firsthand that you can both put people back to work, balance the budget and get rid of the deficit," Larson said.