Democrats on Hill aim to aid middle class

Health insurance for children and college loan help are priorities in Congress this fall.

While the main event on Capitol Hill this week is US policy in Iraq, Democrats are stepping up a quieter, sustained campaign on other fronts to win over more middle-class voters.

Even if Democrats can't decisively shift the course of US involvement in Iraq, they aim to build a record of solving problems that make a difference to average families.

The issues range from cutting college costs and increasing insurance coverage for children to curbing a runaway Alternative Minimum Tax, now on track to hit some 23 million taxpayers next year. Also in the pipeline: an energy bill, a farm bill, and the reauthorization of a big education funding bill.

But gridlock in the Senate and a fierce fight over the fiscal year 2008 spending bills this fall are making it difficult for any of this to make points with voters, who are giving the Democrat-controlled Congress near-record low approval ratings.

"Democrats have a good approach: The issues are terrific ones, because they resonate with people hungry for something that helps them in their daily lives," says Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

But he says it's going to be hard to keep these issues visible to the public, especially if lawmakers get into a bitter showdown with the White House over spending bills. "Even when they are doing something, the public doesn't see any of it, and that's why their approval level is as low as it is," he adds.

Last week, the House passed legislation to cut in half interest rates on student loans. That will save some 7 million students about $4,400, sponsors say.

The House bill also increases Pell Grant scholarships by more than $1,000.

"One of the things the Democrats in the Congress and our candidates said to the American people last November was that we understood that many Americans families were stretched and trying to make sure their kids could afford a college education," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

On Friday, Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, announced that his panel aims to eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax for all taxpayers. In the past, Democrats have urged maintaining the tax for the wealthiest Americans.

He says the committee will also draft legislation to expand the availability of the child-tax credit to lower-income families that do not now qualify. The fix could mean tens of billions to American families, increasingly those in the middle class, but it may not resonate politically, because these families aren't yet feeling the pinch, analysts say.

"You're giving them something that is worth a lot, but if you tell people you're going to do something that will leave them pretty much where they are today, it's not the same as helping somebody out of a hole," says Mr. Ornstein.

Another pending bill with a big payoff for middle class voters is an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). The program was launched 10 years ago to benefit low-income working families who could not afford health coverage for children. But the bills that have cleared both the House and Senate would expand that coverage to 11 million children, up from about 6 million. President Bush has threatened to veto the bill.

A new census report on Aug. 28 shows that the number of uninsured children is rising and that 8.7 million children don't have health insurance.

With the program set to expire at the end of the month, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say there's pressure to break the deadlock.

Republicans say that the original SCHIP program aimed to help families who made a little too much money to be on Medicaid, but were still below 200 percent of the poverty level. But some states expanded the program to families earning much more.

"Republicans want what we've always wanted – a sound program that covers needy kids first," said Rep. Joe Barton (R) of Texas, in a statement last week. Representative Barton held up a House vote on the SCHIP bill be demanding that it be read aloud.

"We know what constitutes a poor, sick child and we know what constitutes a voting-age adult with a $100,000 salary, and we know the difference.… We won't use welfare to buy votes," he said.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, who directed the Democrats' 2006 campaign that put Democrats back in control of the Senate, defines the party's electoral strategy as winning a majority that can govern at 60 or 65 percent.

"Our most important task is to start with average people and figure out what they really need," he writes in "Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time." "Some may say that politics should not start with pleasing the average person. I strongly disagree. Pleasing regular people if it means making government work to improve their lives is what democracy and Democrats are all about."

With the war in Iraq and must-pass FY 2008 spending bills, Democrats will be hard-pressed to get much of this agenda to the president's desk. But campaign analysts say that the move to make small gains targeting the middle class is a shift for Democrats that could pay off next fall.

"The Republicans warned when the Democrats got in the first thing they would do is raise taxes, [legalize] gay marriage, and cut the military, and instead the Democratic agenda is more modest and more targeted to the middle class," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report. "It's not the ambitious program to help the poor that the Democrats used to be known for. It's more modest which is a plus politically but a minus for some Democratic constituencies who wanted something more ambitious."

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