WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Political survival will be high on lawmakers’ minds when the Democratic-led U.S. Congress returns to work on Tuesday amid widespread voter dissatisfaction with its performance.
While the debates over healthcare reform, global warming and banking legislation and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will dominate the airwaves, many incumbents, both Democrats and Republicans, are beginning to worry about holding on to their seats in November 2010 elections.
Polls show only about one-third of Americans approve of how lawmakers are doing, less than a year after President Barack Obama led Democrats to big gains in Congress.
Surveys find voters have a dim view of both parties, but history suggests Obama’s Democrats face greater risks because they control Congress and the White House.
“There’s a lot of discontent out there and when that’s the case the party in power pretty inevitably gets the blame,” said Dean Debnam of Public Policy Polling, a private firm.
Democrats now are expected to lose seats in the House of Representatives in 2010, though not enough to surrender control, analysts say. Democrats currently have 256 seats in the House versus 178 for the Republicans with one independent.
Democrats had been expected to increase their majority in the U.S. Senate but may lose a few seats. Democrats reached 60 this year, giving them the number needed to override Republican procedural hurdles.
Their political fortunes next year are likely to hinge on whether the U.S. economy, in its longest and deepest recession since the Great Depression, improves and if Congress passes a significant healthcare reform bill.
Former Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean warned Democrats they must pass a major healthcare bill for the nation’s good as well as their own.
“We have very big majorities in the House and the Senate. My experience in politics is if you don’t use your majorities, you lose your majorities,” Dean said on “Fox News Sunday.”
BLUE DOG HEADACHES
A group of more than 50 fiscally conservative Democrats, known as Blue Dogs, have been particularly problematic for Obama on a number of issues, including healthcare reform.
They are generally from conservative districts that may frown upon a radical overhaul of the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare system, especially if it includes a provision to set up a government-run insurance program.
Obama will seek to boost sinking support for the overhaul with a major speech to Congress on Wednesday, a day after the House and Senate reconvene after an August recess.
“We’re going to get something substantial. (But there’s) going to be an awful lot of screaming and hollering before we get there,” said Vice President Joe Biden, a former senator.
Besides healthcare, lawmakers also must deal with spending bills that are essential to keep the federal government functioning, all of which carry potential political pitfalls.
In addition, they will wrestle over legislation to stem global warming and increase oversight of the troubled U.S. regulatory system. An intensified debate on whether to increase U.S. troop levels for the war in Afghanistan, which has some liberal Democrats uneasy, also is expected.
“It’s an unbelievable agenda and a lot of pressure to do it in a limited time,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.
“There is a lot of anger on the left, and there is a lot of anger on the right,” Ornstein said.
A recent survey Public Policy Polling underscored the anti-incumbent mood.
It found that only 47 percent of voters say they would vote to reelect their member of Congress. Incumbents have long received upward of 60 percent of the vote.
The poor poll figures frustrate Democrats who have touted the major legislation they passed with Obama’s help.
Democrats have pushed through expansion of a health insurance program for children; a $787 billion economic stimulus package; a credit card bill of rights, and given the Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco, the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.
But Ethan Siegal of The Washington Exchange, a private firm that tracks Congress for institutional investors, said financial matters, by far, top voters’ concerns.
“Until the economy turns around, Congress’s ratings are going to be in the dumpster,” Siegal said.