WASHINGTON — When Congress returns Monday from a 10-day break, it will struggle to try to meet an impatient public’s demands for it to fund, among other things, an extension of unemployment benefits that have expired, summer jobs for at-risk youth and fair fees for doctors who treat Medicare patients.
The list of things that desperately need fresh funding also includes the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and help for strapped state budgets.
However, Congress’ task is tough, because the same public that wants these things paid for also is growing increasingly uneasy over driving the federal government deeper in debt to do it, adding to a budget deficit that’s already expected to reach $1.5 trillion this year.
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Usually, Congress manages to find ways to fund emergencies well before it leaves Washington for long holiday breaks.
Not this time.
Legislators went home for their Memorial Day recess last Friday without taking final action on any of these priorities, even though funding for extended unemployment benefits expired Wednesday, the highly regarded summer jobs for at-risk youths program has no money and Medicare payments to doctors were scheduled for a big cut on June 1.
Why didn’t Congress get it done? The key reason: Five months before congressional elections, moderate lawmakers — especially Democrats — are having trouble processing the mixed message they’re getting from their constituents: Take care of pressing business, but do it responsibly.
“For 10 years, Democrats and Republicans have told people we can have anything we want and didn’t have to really pay for it,” said Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Fla., a moderate. “Now people realize that we do have to pay, and it’s difficult.”
“One of the number one concerns I hear about back home is deficit spending,” said Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., another centrist.
Adding to their dilemma is the public’s dim view of Congress.
“People have very, very sour, very negative views of Congress,” said Carroll Doherty, an associate director at the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Its May 13-16 survey found that only 13 percent of the American people thought that U.S. lawmakers were doing a good or excellent job.
When it returns, Congress is expected to consider two basic budget measures.
One would help pay for the wars and help people affected by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and recent natural disasters. The Senate passed a $58.8 billion version last month, but discomfort was evident; a Republican-led effort to require spending cuts to pay for the bill failed by only eight votes, as five Democrats backed the offsets.
Democrats in the House of Representatives are weighing an even more expensive version that would include $24.7 billion to help state and local governments pay the salaries of teachers, police and firefighters who otherwise could be laid off.
Also moving through Congress is a second package with money for domestic priorities such as the expired jobless benefits and summer jobs. The House narrowly approved two bills last month with those benefits that would add $54 billion to the deficit over 10 years.
Senate Republicans have blocked similar legislation twice this year, citing deficit spending, and have signaled that they’re ready to do so again.
“If Congress continues to borrow money we don’t have, we are going to experience a Greek-like collapse, but worse. Unlike Greece, no one will bail out America,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a leader of spending-cut forces.
Two problems dog the bills: general apprehension about the deficit and concerns about individual items.
For years, said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, constituents expressed only mild worry about the deficit, but recently it’s been on their minds.
“They ask, ‘How can we keep doing this?’ ” he said.
A Republican anti-deficit campaign is helping to stoke the public concern. Last month, House Republicans launched a “YouCut” website that invites readers to vote on what federal spending should be cut.
In its first three weeks, the site has attracted more than 650,000 votes. This week’s consensus was that mortgage-finance titans Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should have their funding slashed.
People “are sending us clear signals: They want us to control spending,” said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a liberal.
The rising cry to reduce deficits conflicts with a cornerstone of Democratic thinking: When the economy is fragile, more government spending is crucial to ensuring a recovery, particularly when influential constituents, such as labor unions, demand more help.
“Right now, jobs matter more than deficits,” said Gerald McEntee, the international president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a government employees’ union with close Democratic ties. “Imagine what will happen if thousands more Americans lose their jobs. They’ll need more government services.”
The emergency bills also are hamstrung by individual lawmakers’ agendas.
Physicians are pushing hard for the “doc fix,” which would end a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments scheduled to take effect June 1 but delayed pending Congress’ action. The American Medical Association launched a multi-million-dollar ad campaign Thursday urging Congress to act.
Governors want help with Medicaid, the joint state-federal program that provides health benefits to the poor, some elderly and people with disabilities.
In addition, states want help paying teachers’ salaries, a view that House Democrats find appealing but that House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., does not.
“This administration has pushed for one bailout after another. The latest is a $23 billion bailout (for teachers) that makes states even more dependent on the federal government while doing nothing to address statewide budget shortfalls,” he said.
The bottom line: getting even emergency spending through Congress will be hard.
“You have this clump of 50 or 60 conservative Democrats who are finding it tough to explain more spending,” said Burdett Loomis, a congressional expert at the University of Kansas. “They’re trying to make a political calculation whether there’s more harm in voting for the spending.”