Party seeking unity before midterm

Party seeking unity before midterm

House Democrats will return to Washington for a final time before the midterm elections, struggling to maintain party unity amid a series of political missteps and distractions.

While Democratic leaders cheered the signing of a small-business lending bill Monday, they will leave town this week without extending the George W. Bush middle-class tax cuts that are central to their fall campaign agenda.

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The party was knocked further off course by the bizarre congressional testimony of the comedian Stephen Colbert, whose appearance before a House subcommittee on Friday caused the second split between Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) in less than a week.

The protracted debate over the timing of a tax-cut vote in the House and Senate underscored a theme of the 111th Congress: legislative delay caused by unified opposition from Republicans and cracks in the Democratic ranks.

 Centrist Democrats in both chambers want a temporary extension of tax cuts for the wealthy, arguing against any tax hikes while the nation struggles to recover from the deep recession. Liberals in both chambers, along with the Obama administration, which is courting the liberal base, argue against the extension.

A spokesman for Pelosi on Monday would not rule out a vote this week, but the House is widely expected to punt the tax cuts to a lame-duck session of Congress.

With taxes now a top campaign issue, Republicans are hammering Democrats for leaving town without a vote, while Democrats charge that the GOP is holding tax cuts for the middle class “hostage” as they push for similar treatment for the wealthy. “Republicans are fighting against tax cuts for the middle class unless Lindsay Lohan gets more tax breaks,” one Democratic leadership aide said Monday.

Yet the intraparty discord for Democrats has muddled the party’s message, said Julian Zelizer, a professor of political science at Princeton University.

 “It’s been a problem. That’s one area where they wanted to be clear with their own constituents and contrast with the Republican Party,” Zelizer said. Democrats “lose some of the clarity of their message.”

For House Democrats, the Colbert appearance was a further distraction from their message, if not an outright political misstep. The Comedy Central satirist testified in character about his experience spending a day in a migrant worker’s shoes, leading to criticism that he had made a mockery of the House.

While Pelosi on Friday applauded Colbert’s appearance, Hoyer denounced it on Sunday as “inappropriate”.

Aides said Hoyer was not aware of Pelosi’s position when he spoke on “Fox News Sunday,” but the break was the second in a week for the party leaders. Pelosi and Hoyer also disagree over the timing of a tax-cut vote, with the Speaker favoring a pre-election vote in the House and Hoyer pushing to take up the issue after the Senate acts.

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Hoyer has worked carefully this year to raise his profile on policy without contradicting his party or Pelosi.

On Tuesday, he is set to deliver a major speech at the National Press Club about the House “Make it in America” manufacturing agenda, which Democrats hope can boost them at the polls this fall.

Hoyer will specifically mention legislation targeting China’s currency, which U.S. unions and manufacturers argue is killing U.S. jobs.

While the splits between Pelosi and Hoyer call attention to division in the Democratic Party, Zelizer said the tax-cut debate has once again “exposed the strength of the Republicans as a minority. They are remarkably unified.”

 Democrats insist they will pass the extension of the middle-class cuts before they expire at the end of the year, and say reports of their party’s disunity are overblown.

“What’s very clear is the Republicans are holding hostage the middle-class tax cuts so millionaires and billionaires can get theirs. Democrats are unified in support of middle class tax cuts,” a Pelosi spokesman, Nadeam Elshami, said.

 While Republicans have remain unified in Congress, the rollout of their “Pledge to America” has received mixed reviews from the party establishment, including criticism from some conservatives that it is lacking in substance.