WASHINGTON — Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., has a hard time going home to Bay St. Louis and explaining why Congress wants to boost federal spending for the rest of this fiscal year by 8 percent.
"The police in my hometown make $10, $11 an hour" he said (although they actually make $12 to $13 an hour, according to the city). "How do I explain what we're doing here?"
A lot of Democratic lawmakers from all over the country have similar qualms, even as most vote for historic spending bills aimed at reviving the staggering economy.
So far, there hasn't been enough Democratic opposition to scuttle the $787 billion stimulus package, which President Barack Obama signed into law last month, or the $410 billion fiscal 2009 spending plan, which the Senate approved on Tuesday evening after voting 62-35 to end debate.
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In that vote, the key test of the bill's strength, three Democrats — Indiana's Evan Bayh, Wisconsin's Russell Feingold and Missouri's Claire McCaskill — voted no. However, eight Republicans voted yes, clearing the way for Democrats to send the measure to Obama's desk.
Warning signs are everywhere, however, that restless constituents could give Democrats in Congress second thoughts about expensive future legislation backed by Obama and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill:
_ Current year spending legislation. "People don't understand it," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., emphasizing that the fiscal 2009 bill's purpose is simply to keep most government agencies running until Sept. 30, the end of fiscal 2009.
The public instead sees headlines saying that the bill has an 8 percent increase over last year's spending — and an 11 percent boost for Congress's spending on itself — and that's causing concern.
Two prominent Democratic senators said early in the budget debate that they opposed the package because it costs too much, and 20 Democrats in the House of Representatives voted no. Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., called the measure "bloated" and protested that it "requires sacrifice from no one, least of all the government." Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., objected to the thousands of earmarks, or local projects inserted by lawmakers.
Obama has vowed to overhaul the earmark process, and boasted that the stimulus plan had no earmarks, but he plans to sign the 2009 bill despite the earmarks, saying it's last year's business, since most of the measure was written then.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., had inserted nearly 100 earmarks worth more than $78 million in the spending bill, but supported an amendment offered by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would've stripped all earmarks out of the bill. Cantwell was expected to support the bill on final passage. She offered no explanation and declined to comment.
Feinstein acknowledges that's hard for people to understand.
"They think the bill is another stimulus, and to some degree it is," she said. "But that's not its intent."
_ Stimulus. Some Democrats in Congress find that their constituents don't understand why the stimulus hasn't had more impact on the economy.
"I try to tell folks we didn't get to this point in the economy overnight, and we can't fix it overnight," said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., "but they are very emotional about this issue, and the naysayers get them stirred up."
Like many fiscally conservative Democrats, Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., concluded that the bill didn't have enough in it to prod the economy quickly. The measure, he said, "simply contained entirely too much spending in areas that will not provide an immediate stimulative effect to our nation's economy."
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that only about 23 percent of the stimulus would be spent by Sept. 30, increasing to 74 percent by the end of fiscal 2010 a year later.
- Future budgets. Congressional budget committee chairmen in both houses have questioned the impact on constituents of key spending proposals in the White House's fiscal 2010 fiscal plan.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., has noted that "20 percent of the farmers in my state, under this budget plan, would suffer some significant reductions." He and Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., want a closer look at spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
"This is a work in progress," Spratt said of Obama's plan — meaning he intends to change it.
Pollster John Zogby found that even during the 2008 campaign, most Americans wanted elected officials to repair the economy, but there's little consensus on how.
"There was a mandate to do something without any clarity," Zogby said.
Looking ahead, the uneasiness suggests that Democrats in Congress will face problems on several fronts. The House plans to vote on Obama's $3.6 trillion fiscal 2010 budget the week of March 30, with the Senate likely to follow shortly after.
Then lawmakers are expected to tackle health care and climate change legislation, issues that have long split the Democratic caucus along regional and philosophical lines — as well as over how the government would pay for the programs.
In addition, leaders of Congress' tax committees have sharply criticized Obama's plan to curb itemized income tax deductions for wealthy taxpayers to help pay for his health care plan.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., called health care and energy "a heavy lift," but he and other party leaders argued that Democrats will succeed, because Republicans have lost credibility with the public.
"We really have operating here two different visions for the future of this country," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., contrasting the parties, "and we believe that when the private sector is collapsing, as it is right now, that the government has an opportunity to step in and do what it can through fiscal policy."
Other Democrats disagree, and some warn that voters are watching with a skeptical eye.
"People may not understand all the nuances of this legislative process," said Mississippi's Taylor. "But they understand they're still hurting."
(Les Blumenthal contributed to this article.)
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