Congress’ sophisticated message machines roar into action this weekend, as lawmakers head home eager to mobilize constituents and gain momentum for budget and immigration battles to come.
Chances are, their efforts will sputter.
Republicans are split over how to tackle federal spending. Democrats stand more unified on economic issues, but they have other troubles. Senators from swing states face difficult re-election challenges next year, making it risky for them to follow party orthodoxy on a host of controversial topics, led by gun control and health care. At the same time, ordinary Americans, regardless of their political leanings, often feel no sense of urgency or think their voices even matter.
Polls consistently find that big majorities disapprove of the job Congress is doing, and that no single compelling issue figures to dominate political dialogue. Most subjects have a familiar hue: Another government shutdown over the budget? Another battle over the debt ceiling? Impasses over health care, guns and immigration?
“There’s not going to be one big anvil hanging over the heads of members of Congress when they come back,” said Brad Coker, the managing director at Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which surveys voters in several states.
Congressional leaders, as well as interest groups, still see value in trying to organize and prod constituents. Still fresh are not-long-ago days when the August recess, which this year began Friday and is scheduled to run through Sept. 9, made a difference. In 2009, for instance, anger over the Democrats’ health care initiative exploded at town hall meetings, solidifying Republican opposition that remains strong to this day.
Today, lawmakers get fewer surprises when they return home. Social media give constituents the ability to make their views known instantly, even constantly, and have allowed special interest groups to mount campaigns within hours, all of which makes a shocking eruption over a single issue unlikely.
But if it does happen, immigration has the potential to create that kind of summer heat. There’s a clear split between those who insist on secure borders while being wary of a path to citizenship and those who see the two proceeding almost simultaneously.
The Senate passed the comprehensive approach in June, but leaders in the House of Representatives are pursuing a piecemeal approach that features border security first. They remain reluctant to back any path to citizenship for most of the nation’s 11 million immigrants who are here illegally.
Both sides have plotted an active August, full of protests and participation in town hall meetings. But there’s a big difference between immigration this year and health care four years ago.
In 2009, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, so the opposition was more motivated to make itself heard through grass-roots efforts. This year, Republicans control the House, and they hardly need reminders to slow the push for overhauling the immigration system.
“The feeling in 2009 was that there was this gigantic train moving down the tracks. There was a sense of urgency and magnitude,” said Roy Beck, the founder of NumbersUSA, an immigration reduction organization. “I don’t think that feeling is there now on immigration.”
That leaves concern over federal spending as the summer’s other big topic. Congress left with lawmakers sniping at each other over a fiscal 2014 budget. If they don’t act before the year begins Oct. 1, most government services would shut down.
Republicans are torn. Some want to stick to austere spending levels and use budget legislation to defund the health care law.
“I have a position that I think is consistent: Obamacare is bad for the country. I have to take every advantage I can to defeat it,” said Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee .
Others branded such talk ridiculous.
“To lay down the gauntlet that we are not going to fund government unless Obamacare is completely repealed is a totally unrealistic policy when the Senate is controlled by Democrats and President Obama is still in the White House,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Collins and Grassley are emblematic of a Republican Party that’s tugging in two directions: one center-right, the other staunchly conservative.
Democrats have their own internal turmoil. The five Senate seats that are considered toss-ups are all held by Democrats and are all in states where conservatives have prospered: Alaska, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina and Arkansas.
Republicans are eagerly telling voters in those states of the Democratic Party’s embrace of gun control, the new health care law and other issues that are unpopular in more conservative circles. And they’re reminding voters that Democrats have been solidly behind Obama, whose McClatchy-Marist job approval numbers last month slipped to their lowest level in nearly two years.
To help find intraparty consensus, both parties’ House caucuses sent lawmakers home with thick briefing packets of guidelines.
On immigration, for instance, House Democratic leaders advise members to “hold a town hall or round table with law enforcement, faith leaders, business leaders and local elected officials.” Or “participate in the naturalization ceremonies for new citizens.”
Another idea: “Host meet-and-greets with successful immigrant entrepreneurs from the district or the state. Have them tell their inspirational story and speak about immigration reform.”
Republicans plan initiatives on several fronts, including a sample opinion article that explains how “Washington is out of control, but every day I serve in Congress, I work to fight Washington.”
Republicans want a health care offensive. “Identify a local doctor or hospital administrator to host” a forum, they urged. “The member should make introductory remarks, but the majority of the session should be driven by Q and A and discussion.”
After the forum, the package says, “release a statement, including a photo, praising the engaging and productive discussion.”
Few independent analysts, though, think these efforts will make a big difference when Congress returns. What people most want to hear, polls find, is that lawmakers are ready to work together. There’s not a lot of that in the packets, and there’s a sense that people will be reinforcing where they already stand.
“Ninety-five percent of these guys,” Coker said, “have already decided how they’ll vote.”