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Jobs Agenda May Be Tough Sell

House Democrats are heading home for six weeks to deliver the message that the economy remains their top priority. But given that Congress hasn’t passed a major jobs package this year, some Members are concerned about how to bridge the gap between legislative reality and the “jobs, jobs, jobs” rhetoric of Capitol Hill.

Democratic leaders promised in January that they would keep up a steady drumbeat on jobs this year. “We’re going to have a jobs agenda. We’re going to do more than one thing,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) said in January.

And Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) has taken every opportunity to echo the “jobs, jobs, jobs” mantra since the year began.

But the grand jobs agenda envisioned by party leaders hit a wall in the Senate. The House passed wave after wave of emergency spending and tax bills, including a major catchall package in December and a tax extenders package, but most of the spending items failed in the Senate, with a few exceptions such as an extension of unemployment benefits and a small tax package aimed at businesses hiring workers.

But beyond that, Democratic leaders were also focusing their attention on a number of other big-ticket items: health care, financial reform, energy legislation and immigration reform.

“We keep getting distracted by other things,” one freshman Democrat said. “Wall Street reform is important. The BP oil spill is important. But those aren’t jobs, jobs, jobs.”

This Democrat warned that “the public is not irrational” and understands the difference between rhetoric and action. What makes it worse, this Member said, is the fact that “job performance is anemic, despite every effort known to man.”

“We talk about more than jobs bills, so oftentimes our message gets muddled because we’re talking about jobs and we’re talking about those other things that are important. … We muddle our message on a fairly regular basis,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, who attends Democratic leadership meetings on behalf of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition.

The Californian said he plans to show his constituents that he has been fighting for jobs by giving out copies of more than 300 jobs bills that he voted for that have stalled in the Senate; he said he will urge them to call GOP Senators to complain.

A major priority for Democratic leaders, particularly in the House, has been to aid states so they don’t put another drag on the economy by laying off hundreds of thousands of teachers, firefighters and police officers. But the Senate was unable to pass the funding. Democrats, to some degree, have themselves to blame: They failed to pass a budget resolution, which could have allowed them to pass a major jobs package using filibuster-busting reconciliation instructions.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Democratic leaders could have done more to move the jobs agenda and at least brought major bills to a vote on the floor to show they tried. “There’s plenty of blame to go around, and some of it falls on the administration, and some of it falls on the fact that we’re so tentative we never really put a bill together,” the Arizona Democrat said. “We don’t have an item that we can say we fought for.”

Grijalva said he expected liberal Democrats to distance themselves from President Barack Obama and Democratic leadership over the August recess to show that they have been pushing for aggressive jobs packages that leadership didn’t throw their weight behind.

Talk like that is positive news for Republicans, who have been bashing Democrats over their handling of the economy for the bulk of this Congress. “Their signature jobs accomplishment is unemployment insurance. Talk about irony,” one Senate GOP operative said.

The source pushed back on claims of GOP obstructionism by accusing Reid of alienating GOP moderates such as Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) over the last year. “When you’ve got 59 seats and you can’t get Olympia Snowe on your side, that’s legislative malpractice,” the source said.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said he plans to be among those who “principally focus on the Obama administration” in his criticisms of how the jobs message has been carried out. He called it “a massive failure” by the White House, which he said was due to the administration’s “obsession with Wall Street.”

The Congressional Black Caucus has been pushing hard for sweeping jobs initiatives this year, namely because minorities are disproportionately hurt by unemployment. Caucus Chairwoman Barbara Lee called it “a shame and a disgrace” that the Senate last week cut a $1 billion summer jobs program out of the war supplemental, and the California Democrat questioned why Democratic leaders would not designate that provision as an emergency, particularly when they and the administration have made jobs their No. 1 priority.

“They didn’t designate it as an emergency. We’ve been trying to figure that out. We’ve asked,” Lee said. “The White House says it’s Congress’ job; Congress says it’s the White House. Nobody would declare it.”

She said her message to her constituents over the August break would be that “We’re here fighting for you” and that she will continue to push back against GOP obstructionism. “It’s a political fight,” Lee said. “My constituents care about the political reality. When I show them that we voted for jobs, they get it.”

One freshman Democrat speculated that his party will have one big advantage when it comes to talking about jobs over the recess: New polling shows the public by and large still blames former President George W. Bush for the economic crisis.

“You watch. You’re going to start to see a lot of Democratic rhetoric about the Bush recession,” this lawmaker said. “Ask the Republicans trying to avoid calling it the Bush tax cuts all of a sudden. They get what we’re suddenly seeing in polling data: It’s still radioactive.”

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