Congressmen squeezed between calls for stimulus, austerity

WASHINGTON – During a recent meeting with labor leaders, Rep. Chris Murphy was pressed by the head of an influental teachers’ union to support a $23 billion education rescue package pending in Congress. The message was reiterated in radio ads aired in Murphy’s district warning of shuttered schools, closed libraries and laid-off teachers if the bill doesn’t pass.

Murphy was sympathetic to the teachers’ concerns, but he didn’t make any promises. After all, he’s also under pressure from another constituency: voters in his 5th District who are worried about runaway federal spending and spiraling deficits.

“I’ve got cities in my district about to lay off 135 teachers-New Britain, for example-and class sizes could balloon to 40 kids per class,” Murphy said in an interview Wednesday. “At the same time, I represent a very fiscally conservative district, and I’m reluctant to support additional funding that’s not paid for.”

The school funding issue is just one example in a series of tough choices lawmakers face in Washington right now. And Murphy is hardly the only Democrat in a tight spot.  With the election looming, Democrats are walking a tightrope between voters who want more legislative action to revive the economy–and especially to combat high unemployment–and those who are increasingly anxious, even angry, about big government getting bigger.

Murphy and Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, were among the 34 House Democrats who voted “no” last month on a tax cut and spending package that would, among other things, extend unemployment benefits and renew some business tax breaks. That bill passed the House, along with a measure to reverse cuts in Medicare payments to doctors; together they would add more than $50 billion to the deficit.

“It had a huge slug of unpaid-for spending,” Himes said of the tax and benefits package, which came up just before Congress’s Memorial Day recess. “That was not emergency spending.”

Murphy and Himes are promoting the idea of a 1 percent cut in the federal budget, which they said would send a signal that Congress is serious about reining in spending.

“There’s a growing concern among fiscally-conservative, moderate Democrats to start paying back some of the loans we’ve taken out,” Murphy said. “I don’t buy the argument that we can’t find offsets to pay for some of this programming.”

But many other Democrats say the recovery is still too tepid and too tenuous for Washington to pivot from stimulus to savings.

“The package we voted on before Memorial Day-that is a tried-and-true, counter-cyclical recession-fighting strategy used in every economic downturn,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District. “It’s 9 percent unemployment out there. We cannot expect people to find work in this economy.”

Similar tensions pitting economic stimulus against budget trimming are bubbling up in Senate. This week, Democrats are wrangling over their own $140 billion version of the tax extenders and benefits bill, and it’s unclear whether they will be able to muster enough votes to pass it. That measure includes aid to states for Medicaid, the nation’s health insurance program for the poor, and leaders are also hoping to add funding to help laid-off workers keep their health insurance.

But moderate Republicans are wary of the price tag, as are some moderate Democrats. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, is among those on the fence.

“Senator Lieberman is evaluating the legislation closely and wants to make certain that it does not impede the nation’s economic health by further aggravating our national debt,” his communications director, Marshall Wittmann, said in a statement.

In the House, lawmakers will likely consider the $23 billion education package in the coming weeks.  Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., has agreed to include the education money in the supplemental spending bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Courtney and others say the education funding should be no-brainer, citing a current raft of teacher layoffs and pending school closures in Norwich and Enfield. He noted that state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan recently warned of significant layoffs if Congress does not approve the funding.

“I’m worried about the deficit, but laying off 2,000 teachers is not going to help the deficit,” Courtney said. He said that would just mean another 2,000 people collecting unemployment benefits and needing health insurance. The way to keep the economy moving, he said, is more federal assistance, not less.

But Courtney said Democrats face an uphill battle with the measure, because of anxiety within their own party and resistance among Republicans. Both Murphy and Himes said they are eager to help schools through this fiscal crunch, and they see education money as more critical to economic prosperity than other types of spending. But they are not going to commit until they see whether and how it’s paid for.

“Education is the seed corn of our economy,” said Himes. “But we need to be much more rigorous in looking for” offsets to new spending. Similarly, Murphy said he would “use my vote to press for the least amount of borrowing possible” as lawmakers fund needed programs like education.

Given those concerns, teachers’ union officials said they felt the need to weigh in, even if that meant putting fresh pressure on Democratic lawmakers in what is already a tough election year. Part of the pressure was the radio ad funded by the American Federation of Teachers that ran in Murphy’s district and about two dozen other markets around the country. The ad didn’t run in Himes’s district, a union spokeswoman said, but they did try to generate emails and phone calls to his office on the issue.

“A lot of Democrats and moderate Republicans have indicated that they are concerned about resources and the deficit and paying for this,” said John Ost, a director in the political department of the AFT. “What we’re trying to do here is make sure folks who are on the fence for schools realize this is an important matter…. We understand folks are getting a lot of pressure from all directions and we want to make sure our points are understood.”

Asked about whether this puts Democrats like Murphy in a tough spot in an election year, Ost said: “We’re not trying to affect an election. We’re trying to affect this particular vote and get this passed.”