Liberal House Democrats are unhappy with Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) decision to coast into the November elections rather than drive through more big legislation.
Although they’re outnumbered and outranked, a number of liberals are pushing their leaders to finish the year strongly and to reject the assumption that it is safer to avoid difficult votes in the run-up to Election Day.
After the Senate healthcare bill passed, House leaders declared their heavy-lifting days over. With their top priorities either signed into law or stuck in the Senate, Pelosi and her lieutenants are clearing the deck for a stormy campaign season.
Now, some in the caucus are second-guessing that strategy.
“What we’re trying to impress on leadership is that a big part of campaigning is doing, getting something done, to be able to go back and say, ‘OK, we’re trying to push the reauthorization of elementary and secondary education, we’re trying to get real environmental protections and turn back the clock on some of the Bush policies, we’re trying, and this is the legislation we’re going to be pushing,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said there’s “plenty of fight left in the Black Caucus,” which she leads, for a summer jobs bill that would be significantly more expensive — and not offset — than the one backed by her leaders.
But Lee acknowledged that she won’t be able to pick that fight until the Senate sends a bill to the House.
“Jobs are desperately needed in our communities,” Lee said. “I just don’t know that there’s the same sense of urgency up here.”
“I think it’s counterproductive to walk the rest of the session slow,” Grijalva said. “I think we need to be seen doing things in the House, being as active as we were all this session. Because the consequences are we’ll start looking like the Senate, where we’re just sitting around.”
While not exactly sitting, the House has slowed its pace considerably since completing work on healthcare. In three of the past four weeks, the lower chamber has been in session just three days, with members arriving late Tuesday and heading back home by Thursday afternoon after scant debate and legislating.
That is by design, and isn’t likely to change, leadership aides say.
“Everything we’re doing now is with an eye on November,” one Democratic leadership aide said. “The agenda has got to be things we can sell, and that we have time to sell.”
The majority of the Democratic Caucus seems to agree with the plan.
“Members know they’ve got to be spending a lot of time in their districts,” the aide continued. “And I think they’re happy to have the time to do that.”
Leaders also know that retaining the Democratic majority depends on holding on to seats they won from Republicans in 2006 and 2008. Most of those members need to spend more time at home than others, and they are also most vulnerable to attacks on the climate and healthcare bills that passed the House.
“I’m not afraid of taking tough votes,” said freshman Rep. John Boccieri (D-Ohio), who voted for climate change legislation and for the Senate healthcare bill after opposing the House version. “But we’ve got to have a balance between our work here and our ability to explain and connect with our constituents.”
Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) stood by his leaders and brushed aside any criticism that the House is idling the remainder of the year away.
“We’re still working on legislation and hope to get it passed this year,” Waxman said. “We have reauthorization of the Toxic Substance Control Act, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, we’ll probably be working on legislation on prescription drugs and other things that may come up as a result of some of the hearings we’re having.
“But a lot of what we’ve done is sitting in the Senate,” he said. “Its nature seems to take longer and longer — longer than we all would like or expect. But that’s the way it is.”