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‘Middle-Class Squeeze’ Vs. ‘Missed Opportunities’

House Democrats and Republicans sent their Members home for the Thanksgiving recess with vastly different messages about the effectiveness and accomplishments of Congress so far this year — and about which party has the best interests of middle America at heart.

Democrats headed back to their districts preparing to highlight how a “middle-class squeeze” is impacting moderate-income Americans. The overarching message includes drawing attention to increasing gas prices and home heating costs, the subprime mortgage crisis, rising college costs and the effort to provide tax relief by closing a loophole in the alternative minimum tax.

Republicans, meanwhile, are concentrating their efforts on showcasing what they say are the missed opportunities of the new Democratic majority — including the failure to enact much of any substantial legislation and the glacial pace of the appropriations process.

Both parties encouraged their Members to use the two-week recess to plan as many publicity events and town hall meetings as possible to get the messages out.

“We’ve urged Members to make the most of their time in the district,” GOP Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) said last week.

Putnam acknowledged that there continues to be an anti-incumbent atmosphere and that Republicans must work hard in their districts while they are home to highlight the “missed opportunities of the new majority.”

Meanwhile, in a letter accompanying the GOP recess packet distributed to Members before they left for home, Putnam wrote that Democrats had relinquished any upper hand they may have had when it comes to addressing the needs of the middle class.

“The extent to which Democrats have grown tone deaf to the needs of middle America is appalling,” Putnam wrote. “The worst kind of leaders, whether they run a repair shop or a Fortune 500 company, are the isolated kind; they spend so much time trying to please all comers, they end up plucking the important decisions out of thin air and hoping they stick.”

As a retort to the “do-nothing” Congress moniker, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office issued a news release Friday detailing the legislative progress the House has made so far this year, including — the release said — passing 119 key measures, nearly 70 percent of which with significant bipartisan support.

Democrats argue that while the House has passed important measures, Republicans, led by President Bush, have stood in the way of further progress by vetoing five important bills and issuing veto threats for 43 more House-passed measures.

And though the Iraq War dominated much of the discourse over the Democrats’ first 11 months in office, the party’s message heading into the holidays is squarely focused on highlighting current economic woes.

Speaking at a luncheon with reporters on Friday, Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) asserted that while Iraq remains a key issue to voters, views on that issue have largely solidified while the economy remains an increasingly prominent source of unease.

“What really has changed is their concern about the economy,” he said.

Referring to discussions he has held recently with members of the business and financial sectors, as well as the Federal Reserve, Emanuel said of recession: “The ‘R’ word is more frequently used and people’s fear of it is heightened.”

He later added: “There is more concern expressed by all those individuals than optimism.”

Emanuel denied that the economy as an issue has overshadowed the Iraq War, asserting that Members will tailor their recess messages to a variety of issues including those topics, as well as immigration. “They’re going to reflect the concerns of their constituents.”

But he added: “The economy is a fundamental piece of what Democrats are talking about.”

To back that up, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is planning a coordinated media campaign while Members are at home, consisting of targeted e-mails, phone calls, Web videos, opinion pieces and letters to the editor tailored to the middle-class squeeze message.

“Millions of Americans worry that the American Dream is no longer within reach and they are demanding a New Direction for their economic security,” DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said. “Americans are working longer and harder but millions are living paycheck-to-paycheck, struggling to make ends meet as they go deeper into debt and the value of their home drops.”

Pelosi began an all-hands-on-deck message push at the end of October urging Members to step up efforts to communicate with constituents. As of late last week, Democratic Members had a total of 912 district events planned over November and December.

The National Republican Congressional Committee will be launching a counter effort over the recess to highlight legislative choices that vulnerable Democrats have made and the upcoming spending decisions they face in the ongoing appropriations battle.

“We plan to be very aggressive on the spending front,” NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said. “With the current spending fight we certainly see an opportunity.”

With the approval ratings of Congress now mired in historic lows, neither party has room to take face time with constituents for granted heading into next year.

“If anti-incumbency is to be the order of the day in the year ahead, there is no guarantee that it will only fall on one party’s shoulders, especially now when we have as divided a government as we have had since 1995,” Putnam wrote to his GOP colleagues. “Just because the majority is doing so poorly does not mean we won’t be counted among them — when they ask whether you approve of the job Congress is doing, they don’t specify, Democrat Congress or Republican Congress. It’s up to us to make the distinction.”

Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.

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