Anxiety Shows as House Democrats Meet

Posted January 13, 2010 at 6:39pm

Gripes rippled through the House Democratic Caucus on Wednesday over what staffers described as a chaotic runup to the House Democratic jobs summit, highlighting election-year anxiety about the dragging health care negotiations as vulnerable lawmakers itch to change the subject to the economy.

The complaints, from aides to leaders and rank-and-file Members alike, centered on what they called a lack of clarity about the agenda for the three-day confab. The meetings kicked off Wednesday with a political briefing at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee followed by an address from Google CEO Eric Schmidt at the Library of Congress.

“Nobody has a clue what’s going on,— one senior Democratic aide said, adding that details of panel discussions and speakers largely remained a mystery Wednesday.

Grumbling staffers directed their criticism at the office of House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.), who is charged with organizing the event. But one senior Democratic aide said Larson staff have been providing rundowns of the agenda “every day this week.— The aide dismissed the hand-wringing as the result of unfamiliarity with holding the conference in the Capitol complex, as opposed to the Virginia spa where Democrats gathered for the past five years.

The criticism reveals a growing unease with the ongoing dominance of health care talks at a time when many Democrats are eager to wrap up work on the issue and move on. The location of the meeting itself amounts to a nod to the state of the economy. Leaders scrapped a return visit to the Kingsmill Resort & Spa in Williamsburg, Va., in favor of a scaled-back issues conference focused on job creation that will unfold primarily in the Capitol Visitor Center.

[IMGCAP(1)]House Democrats crammed to pass a $150 billion jobs package before recessing for the holidays last year, partly in the hopes that swift action would force slow-walking Senators to follow suit.

At the time, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) publicly pressed the Senate to move on the bill early this year, before President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address. That now looks highly unlikely, and even a final health care compromise before that speech remains in doubt. The result for House Democrats straining to demonstrate their commitment to addressing economic woes is a sense of legislative whiplash.

“Members came back and they were expecting that we would dive right into a laser-like focus on jobs and the economy,— one Democratic leadership aide said. “With health care hanging over our heads, they feel that the attention that they wanted to be paying to keeping the economy moving forward and doing things on jobs is being diverted.—

The majority is in a precarious place. With the public mood souring, political forecasters are increasing their predications for Democratic losses in the midterm elections. Four veteran House Democrats from swing districts brought the threat home to leadership late last year when, in quick succession, they announced they would not run for re-election.

And Democratic leaders themselves are adjusting their expectations for how the party will perform at the ballot box, with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) telling CNBC last week that Democrats would consider it an electoral success to simply hang on to the majority.

“A lot of people have that concern,— Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) said about the ongoing debate. “We’ve been talking about this for a long time. We’re at the finish line now.—

In a Wednesday roundtable with reporters, Larson acknowledged the tension between moving quickly and crafting the best deal. “At any varying degree or time, that creates a great deal of angst within our Caucus one way or the other. It’s like a ‘tastes great, less filling’ argument,— he said. “We want to do this in as timely a fashion as we possibly can, we understand the fierce urgency of now, but we don’t want to so hurry that we don’t get it right.—

And Pelosi — who last month described herself as “in campaign mode— — appears intent on wrapping the health care debate as quickly as possible. Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.) said he approached her on the floor Wednesday to discuss some outstanding issues that he has with the package. Her response, according to Hill: “We need to move this bill.—