WASHINGTON — Congress is starting its summer vacation, and lawmakers plan to offer constituents two starkly different messages.
Democrats will tout that they've approved more spending and more taxes on the rich — and try to convince voters that things would be much worse if they hadn't.
Republicans will say that Democrats are on an irresponsible spending spree that hasn't reignited the economy and has put it in danger of falling back into recession.
It's unclear which mantra will register with a fed-up electorate. The Senate has adjourned until Sept. 13; the House of Representatives will reconvene Monday and Tuesday to pass a $26 billion bill to save the jobs of teachers and other state and local government employees, then it too will adjourn until next month.
These summer days are crucial times for politicians to press their cases in a congressional election year that remains volatile and unpredictable, with only one thing certain: "Voters are sour on everybody," said Peter Brown, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Since Democrats control 59 of the 100 Senate seats and 255 of the House's 435 seats, they face the most political peril.
"The weight of evidence in politics is that an economy in which the country does not have confidence will impact the party in power, and overwhelmingly so," said former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, the director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University.
Although the 111th Congress has passed historic legislation overhauling the nation's health care and financial regulatory systems, as well as last year's $862 billion economic stimulus, lawmakers are talking more about what Congress hasn't done lately:
_ Despite the April 20 oil well explosion that killed 11 people and sent more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the Senate failed to pass legislation that would subject companies to unlimited liability in such disasters.
_ Despite the nation's highest unemployment rate since the early 1980s, Congress was unable for nearly seven weeks to extend jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, though it finally did so.
_ Despite threats from governors and labor unions that massive public employee layoffs are imminent, Senate Republicans blocked aid for weeks until the two from Maine joined Democrats this week in voting for help. Now it will take next week's extraordinary session of the House — which will reconvene from its summer recess, which began last Friday — to provide the funding to avert such firings.
_ Despite record budget deficits, Congress hasn't considered a formal budget plan for the next fiscal year, and it hasn't given final approval to a single fiscal 2011 spending bill. Fiscal 2011 starts Oct. 1.
In the weeks ahead, the Democrats will blame the Republicans for this mess and say that electing GOP lawmakers will mean a return to what Democrats view as the dismal days when George W. Bush was president.
"Republicans had the wheel, they had the keys and they took this country and drove it into the ditch. ... They don't know how to drive," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.
The Democrats' other argument is that because it takes 60 votes to cut off debate in the Senate, 41 Republicans can hold up anything — and have.
"The public is starting to understand this. The media is mentioning this now in its opening paragraphs," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
Some analysts warn that neither procedural arguments nor invoking Bush is likely to resonate.
"Bush isn't on the ballot this year," Quinnipiac's Brown said.
The GOP strategy has its own risks. The party's chief argument is that last year's stimulus hasn't been a big job creator and has helped boost the nation's record debt.
"It's not the kind of stimulus the country was hoping for," said Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill. "It did little to create stability, certainly among investors, and we still have one of the highest unemployment rates (ever) in the construction industry."
The nation's unemployment rate was 7.7 percent in January 2009, when Obama and the current Congress took office. It was 9.5 percent last month. Construction industry unemployment was 17.3 percent in July, down from 18.2 percent a year earlier.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that in the first three months of this year, the 2009 stimulus measure had lowered the overall jobless rate by 0.7 to 1.5 percentage points from what it would've been and increased the number of people employed by 1.2 million to 2.8 million.
A report last week by Alan Blinder, a Princeton University economist and former Federal Reserve vice chairman, and economist Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics, concluded that, "The effects of the fiscal stimulus alone appear very substantial, raising 2010 real GDP by about 3.4 percent, holding the unemployment rate about 1.5 percentage points lower and adding almost 2.7 million jobs to U.S. payrolls."
It's unclear what the GOP would do differently, though Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky promises, "You'll hear more from us on that at the end of September."
Lawmakers from both parties agree on this much: The public is tired of the sniping and is shopping for answers and candidates.
Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said that incumbents faced a tough sales job. "It's a very bad year for incumbents, particularly the party in power," he said. "People don't trust anybody in Washington."
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