Election results chill moderate Democrats in Congress

Already-skittish moderate Democrats in Congress got fresh reasons Wednesday to worry about their votes on economic and health care legislation from the election results in Virginia and New Jersey.

Democrats from the left, right and center saw a warning in Tuesday’s results, which saw independents ? who had backed Democrats in the 2006 congressional elections and President Barack Obama last year ? switch their votes to help elect Republican governors in both states.

Democrats from swing states feel new pressure not to be perceived as too liberal. That may impede Democratic leaders’ efforts to pass a sweeping health care overhaul, especially one that includes a new government-run insurance plan, or climate change emissions-control legislation.

“The House leadership needs to pay attention to what happened in Virginia,” said Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., one of 52 conservative Democrats, or Blue Dogs, in the House of Representatives.

Last year, swing voters helped Democrats to their biggest congressional majorities since the mid-1990s. Once Tuesday’s two House winners are sworn in, Democrats will have 258 House members and control 60 of the 100 Senate seats.

Next year, all 435 House seats will be contested, as well as 36 Senate seats, 18 now held by each party.

Tuesday’s elections “will probably cause pause for some people,” said Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, a Blue Dog.

Some moderate Democratic senators voiced similar thoughts, saying that the public’s perception is often that Washington is too unresponsive to voters and too eager to increase the size and cost of government.

“The American people get it. They know we’re on an unsustainable fiscal course,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

Many of these concerns are hardly new to conservative and moderate Democrats; Tuesday’s election results simply underscored their importance as they weigh their votes on pending bills.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said, “I’ve always had pause” about health care overhauls and ramped-up government spending. Like most centrists, he represents an area where hard-to-predict independents often determine an election’s outcome.

In some of those states, Obama hasn’t been overwhelmingly popular. He won 41 percent of the Nebraska vote last year, and got 44 percent in North Dakota.

His Virginia victory was the first by a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, aided by 49 percent backing from independents. Tuesday, though, Republican Bob McDonnell won the gubernatorial race by taking two-thirds of those voters, who made up about 30 percent of the electorate, according to exit polls.

In New Jersey, Obama won 51 percent of the independents last year. Tuesday, Gov.-elect Chris Christie, a Republican, took 60 percent of them.

Exit polls indicated that economic concerns often motivated these voters, the same qualms that swing-state moderate Democrats in Congress have warned about all year. The centrists were wary of February’s $787 billion economic stimulus, and their worries have stalled health care legislation for months.

In the House, where leaders once hoped to pass a health care bill by midsummer, debate and a final vote are expected Saturday. The Senate timetable is uncertain. Democratic leaders have had trouble assembling their fragile coalition, thanks to concerns about abortion, immigration, cost and expanding government.

Any legislation that’s seen as too expensive and expansive could cause trouble back home, moderates said, particularly if the economy continues to lag.

Remember, said another Blue Dog, Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida, “the party in control always gets blamed.”

Democratic leaders point to the economic stimulus as their key antidote, arguing that it’s helped revive the economy. Unemployment remains high at almost 10 percent, however, and a lot of lawmakers are growing increasingly concerned that their constituents don’t see the stimulus helping and view the health care bill as a government boondoggle.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., criticized “the clumsy political way this (health care) has been handled,” while Nelson warned that “people are saying, ‘Go slow and make sure this doesn’t add to the deficit.’ “

The more Republicans see a chance to topple Democrats next fall, the more energized they get, warned Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., a co-chairman of the House Progressive Caucus.

“Tuesday’s elections were about a base that wasn’t motivated, the Democrats, versus a Republican base that was,” he said. “There’s a level of unmet expectations among a lot of Democrats.”

On the other hand, some liberals argued that Tuesday’s election results will prod Congress to act more quickly on the Democrats’ agenda.

“People are going to be more determined to get something done,” said Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., “because they realize that by doing nothing, we’ll have more to answer for when we go home.”

(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.