House Democrats will hinge their entire 2010 legislative agenda on creating jobs and reducing the deficit to avoid significant mid-term losses.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said those issues are the most important to political Independents, whose votes will be crucial to Democrats in 2010.
“American's have got a lot of angst, a lot of anger and a lot of fear,” Hoyer told a small group of reporters on Thursday. “Whether you're a Democrat, Republican or an Independent, all the polls reflect that the economy is the major issue.”
With unemployment at 10.2 percent and a new report due Thursday, Hoyer said it is crucial for Democrats to see positive news on the economy.
“If jobs don't get into positive numbers, I think the people are going to continue to be concerned,” he said. “And when they're concerned they look for somebody new, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat.”
Two polls released this week highlighted the difficult battleground for Democrats.
A survey by Democratic strategists James Carville and Stanley Greenberg’s Democracy Corps showed Republicans maintaining a 10 point lead on Democrats among likely Independent voters. A separate poll by Research 2000 found 56 percent of Democratic respondents said they would definitely or probably vote in 2010, compared to 81 percent of Republican respondents.
The economy and polls have given the GOP a boost of confidence.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, heartily agreed with Hoyer that the midterm elections will be about jobs and the judgments of independent voters.
But Sessions, flipping through chart after chart of grim employment trends, said things are only going to get worse for Democrats.
“What we're seeing is that this party has virtually made this country unemployable,
Sessions said. “Their policies are on trial, and the results are already in.”
A strategy of focusing on jobs and the deficit could put controversial issues like immigration reform on the back burner along with other priorities that liberal Democrats say will bring out the Democratic base. But House Democrats appear to have calculated that their first priority must be to stave off massive defections of Independents.
“In terms of initiatives, I think you're going to see us focused on jobs and fiscal balance and fiscal discipline,” Hoyer said. “The independents are very concerned about the deficits, but they think we ought to invest in job creation. Why? Because they just think we've got two problems: We don't have jobs, and we've got too high a deficit.”
“They're right on both points,” he said.
Hoyer admitted that those two objectives are “contradictory” in the short term, but said that Democrats will continue to put faith in voters' ability to understand “that you've got to invest in order to get jobs.”
To show their fiscal discipline, House Democrats will look for ways to force a reluctant Senate to enact a “pay as you go” budgeting law that would require increased spending to be offset with other spending cuts or tax increases.
Hoyer also said conservative Democrats will continue to fight for a fiscal reform commission tasked with coming up with proposals for closing the gap between projected Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security liabilities and projected revenues, despite opposition from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and senior chairmen.
A jobs bill, though, will come first.
"Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs," Pelosi said Thursday, upping her familiar refrain of "jobs, jobs, jobs" in an apparent declaration of how much more important the issue has become since last month, when unemployment broke the 10 percent barrier more quickly than expected.
Democrats are eyeing major investments in infrastructure projects and proposals to help small businesses get loans. But Hoyer said the House will hit its December 18 adjournment date, meaning a major jobs bill isn't likely until January at the earliest. Initially the House had looked to conclude work on a jobs bill in December.
“I think we will take some action on jobs but I don't know that we'll have a complete jobs package [by the end of December],” Hoyer said. “We may well do some things between now and the 18th of December, but I think that we will also be doing things in January.”
While House leaders believe that their ability to maintain a majority is inextricably linked to a economic turnaround on "Main Street," curbing spending may be prove to be more important to Democrats representing districts with large swaths of swing voters. Members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition have been cool to the idea of any additional deficit spending, even for a jobs bill.
On Thursday, Pelosi endorsed the idea of funding a jobs bill with money that has been allocated for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the $700 billion fund Congress created last year to avoid a total collapse of the nation's biggest banks.
"We want it -- the investments we [make] in jobs -- to be paid for by TARP funds," Pelosi said.
That would prevent the use of TARP funds for deficit reduction, but could go a long way toward rebuilding what Hoyer said was the “understandable” erosion of public confidence in Congress' ability to responsibly pull the country out of recession.
“We've made very substantial progress,” Hoyer said. “But progress is not success. We've got to get into positive [job] numbers.”
Hoyer brushed aside any suggestion that Democrats will lose control of Congress next year.
“I don't think we're going to lose the majority,” said Hoyer, who correctly predicted Democrats would gain 30 House seats in 2006.
“I'm pretty confident about that because, again, our members are not sleeping at this point in time. In 1994, we'd been in power for 40 years and I think we became enamored with the theory that that was a given. No one's enamored with that theory."
But without being asked, Hoyer said he would not predict how many losses Democrats could face in 2010.
“I don't have a number and I'm not going to give a number," Hoyer said.