On Capitol Hill, a focus on the middle class
Democrats tackle issues from college tuition to healthcare.
In a significant shift, Democrats are targeting new government programs to include a higher range of incomes – and ease leading middle-class fears: losing a home, losing health coverage, losing a job, and losing educational opportunity.Skip to next paragraph
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If successful, this bid to win back middle-class voters could secure a majority in the November elections to last at least a generation, say leading Democratic strategists.
In response, the GOP is rallying around the campaign theme that what Democrats give in new government programs for the middle class they will more than take back in tax increases, set to kick in when the Bush tax cuts expire in 2010.
"Underneath us tectonic political plates are shifting: Democrats are trying to join a big government agenda to the upper-middle class," says Michael Franc of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "If Democrats win this cohort of voters and keep them with them, they can hold the majority for a long time."
Most Americans say they haven't moved ahead in the past five years – or have fallen behind. It's the most negative assessment of personal progress in nearly a half century of polling, according to a new survey by Pew Research Center and the Gallup Organization, "Inside the Middle Class: Bad Times Hit the Good Life."
Citing this report, Reps. Anthony Weiner (D) of New York and Steven LaTourette (R) of Ohio launched the Congressional Caucus on the Middle Class last week. "It's becoming more and more difficult for middle-class families like the one I grew up in to make it," says Representative Weiner.
This week, the House Financial Services Committee continues its markup of a bill that extends federal relief to families with mortgages up to $730,000 – a provision in this year's stimulus package that is set to expire at the end of 2008.
Last week, the panel approved a $15 billion package to help states and localities buy up foreclosed properties.
Another priority for Democrats is helping middle-class constituents access loans for college. Senate Democrats aim to pass legislation expanding the scope of federally backed student loans – a bid to help families that earn too much to qualify for financial aid but are increasingly shut out of private loans in the current credit squeeze. On April 17, the House Democrats voted unanimously to allow students to borrow up to $57,500 in federal loans to pay for college. (Students still dependent on their parents could borrow $31,000, an increase of $8,000 over current limits.) All but 27 Republicans supported the bipartisan vote.
But for many Democrats, the leading appeal to middle-class voters otherwise inclined to vote for Republicans is healthcare. In February, they fell short in a bid to expand eligibility for the State Children's Health Insurance Program to middle-class families earning up to 400 percent above the rate of poverty. Last year, the Bush administration prohibited states from extending Medicaid to children in families with incomes above 250 percent of the federal poverty limit. The Medicaid regulation required that states first show that 95 percent of poor families currently eligible have been enrolled. On Feb. 5, House Republicans blocked Democrats' bid to override President Bush's veto of this bill – an issue already figuring in Democratic campaign ads.