House Democrats are worried about jobs — both for the country and themselves. And they blame President Barack Obama.
Congressional Democrats started the year believing that once health care reform passed, they would quickly pivot to an agenda flush with job creation bills they could tout back home in the lead-up to the midterm elections. But action on that front is being drowned out by other issues — the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the botched terrorist attack in New York City, financial reform, climate change, immigration reform — and House Democrats are accusing Obama of failing to throw his muscle behind efforts to spur significant job growth.
"We were told we would focus like a laser after December. Well, we haven't exactly been focused like a laser on jobs and I have seen no movement, particularly on the part of the Obama administration, on the transportation bill," Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said.
DeFazio blasted the president for not lending a push to the stalled transportation authorization bill, which alone could create millions of infrastructure jobs. But Obama, DeFazio argued, is focusing instead on investing stimulus dollars into areas with less of an impact, such as health care information technology and energy-related jobs.
"Those are fantasy jobs. Those aren't real jobs. They just need to put a cork in it and realize that some things that have been around for a while are still relevant like a good transportation network that isn't falling apart," DeFazio said.
The House passed a $150 billion jobs package in December, but it stalled in the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is committed to passing a series of smaller, targeted measures. Congress has delivered just one jobs bill to the president this year: a $17.5 billion package of tax cuts and business tax credits.
Many Democrats say they are worried that, in the absence of a sweeping jobs package this year, they will take heat back home from an electorate expecting the economy to be their priority issue this year. "I think what makes us look bad is that we don't have anything to take out there and show people," Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said.
Others wondered if Obama is letting his own re-election hopes get in the way of investing stimulus dollars sooner. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) accused the president of slow-walking stimulus investments until 2011, the year before he runs for re-election, in an effort to look effective during his campaign.
"They want to spend it in 2011, because 2012 is there. Well hell, we want to spend it right now because we are in the bubble. We've got $400 billion in that stimulus money out there and we could do something," Hastings said.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs defended the pace at which the administration is spending the stimulus money.
"The amount of money that's been dispersed as part of the Recovery Act is ahead of where even those that constructed the Recovery Act thought it would be," Gibbs said Friday. He cited Friday's jobs numbers — 290,000 new jobs were added in April — as proof that "the Recovery Act is working."
In a show that the president is keeping jobs on his radar, despite the recent spate of emergencies, he is scheduled to visit Buffalo, N.Y., on Thursday to talk about the economy. Gibbs noted that Obama has shown he can multitask.
"The president has to be able to walk, chew gum, juggle, and ride a unicycle all at the same time. You don't have the luxury of just doing or focusing on one thing. And that's what the president has had to do, quite frankly, throughout the whole of his administration," he said Thursday.
But Congressional Democratic leaders, who kicked off the year with a resounding "jobs, jobs, jobs" mantra, are still trying to figure out how to stay true to their message without a clear jobs plan to rally around. The result has been leaders calling just about every measure that comes across the floor a "jobs bill."
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last week called the climate change bill a jobs package. House Democratic leaders treated their recently passed energy retrofitting measure as a jobs bill. And coming up this week in the House is a tax extenders package, which Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is already referring to as a jobs proposal.
"It is all about jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs," Pelosi said Thursday in her weekly press briefing.
One liberal House Democrat laughed when asked if he thought of the climate change package as a jobs bill. He described "a desperation" by leadership: "They tell the Caucus, We need to talk about jobs, talk about the economy,' and we're all going, What the f--- are you telling us?'" the lawmaker said.
A House Democratic leadership aide acknowledged that many Members are frustrated about not knowing how to proceed on the issue since there isn't a single bill to rally around.
Job creation is a priority to everyone, but "there is not agreement on how to make that a reality," the aide said.