Democratic and Republican party leaders leapt into the final stretch of the congressional campaigns Thursday, using a string of public appearances to trash talk each other and remind the American people why their candidates would fight for the little guy.
Top lawmakers on Capitol Hill jockeyed for rhetorical position hours after Congress adjourned early so members could go campaign for their seats. They left Washington with major legislative business unfinished -- ranging from routine spending bills to an extension of the Bush tax cuts -- and spent the opening moments of their campaign recess continuing to point fingers over what went wrong.
Amid the sniping, the officials in charge of campaign strategy and party morale tried Thursday to define as clearly as possible what this election is about and why their party should be in charge. Democrats said Republicans have blocked progress and would drag down the economy by reverting to the policies of the Bush administration; Republicans said Democrats are killing jobs and ignoring the priorities of the American people with excess regulation and spending.
"They are not running on their legislative accomplishments because it's largely unpopular ... so they're running campaigns against the American people," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He accused Democrats of demonizing the Tea Party movement and President Obama of engaging in "class warfare" by pushing for a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans. He predicted that despite the rocky GOP primaries, Republicans would win big in November.
"I predict the stormy weather that we've seen in some of the Republican primaries will lead to a tsunami on Nov. 2," he said. "The same people who made news throughout the cycle will be making history."
Republicans need to pick up 10 seats in the Senate and 40 seats in the House to win a majority in each chambers. This would be a steep climb in ordinary years, but Republicans this year have tapped into voter frustration over the health care law, economic stimulus spending, the state of the economy and the national debt to build competitive campaigns putting dozens of seats in play across the country.
Cornyn's Democratic counterpart, though, warned voters not to buy into the promises Republicans are peddling. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said voters are "understandably impatient" about the economy but need to give the Democrats more time.
"We have been trying to undo the challenges of eight years of the Bush economic policies that cannot be turned around in 18 months," he said, speaking during a joint appearance with Cornyn at the National Press Club.
He denied the charge that Democrats have demonized the Tea Partiers, saying the Tea Party candidates, not activists, are the ones holding "extreme" views. Menendez contended that Republicans, despite their rhetoric, have worked against the interests of the American people by siding with Wall Street, health insurance companies and other corporate interests during the legislative debates of the past year and a half.
"It's pretty clear. They have stood with the special interests ... and we have been fighting for the average person," he said.
Expect to hear these arguments repeatedly in the weeks ahead.
House Minority Leader John Boehner also tried Thursday to better explain what his party would do with the majority should Republicans win it. After rolling out a GOP "pledge" to Americans to cut taxes and spending, he proposed Thursday that Congress adopt a "cut as you go" rule requiring members to cut spending elsewhere in the budget whenever they introduce a new program. During his speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he declared the House in a "state of emergency."
But Democrats argued that part of the reason Congress is so dysfunctional is that Republicans have made obstruction their modus operandi.
"The Republican strategy has been ... to create gridlock and failure," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Thursday.
Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, released a statement echoing Menendez' argument.
"No speech or pledge by Mr. Boehner is going to change the Republicans' dismal record. When the GOP was in charge, they quadrupled earmarks and legislated behind closed doors on behalf of corporate special interests," he said. "And now they want to take America back to the 'exact same' failed policies of the past that put the corporate special interests ahead of the middle class."