Primaries, general election spooks lawmakers on spending; budget, big price tags shelved

WASHINGTON (AP) — The 2010 elections have changed the direction of government only half way through the primary season, with voter anger and economic jitters causing lawmakers to balk at their most basic duties as well as key elements of President Barack Obama's agenda.

After betting their political future on a government-mandated expansion of health care to include millions more Americans, Democrats appear to have little appetite for more legislative showdowns given voter rebellion against government spending amid trillion dollar-plus annual deficits.

The solution in some cases is to simply not vote. Immigration reform is too politically toxic. Key bills with massive price tags are getting shelved.

Congress' core duty, exercising its power of the purse by passing a budget? Negative. A vote for it could be seen as a vote for deficit spending. There's no sign of the 12 annual spending bills that typically come up in June.

Five months out from the midterm elections, Democrats and Republicans say they have no choice but to draw lessons from the nominating contests and their own, increasingly vocal constituents.

"We are hearing from the public, 'You're adding to the deficit, you're adding to the deficit,'" said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, a member of the conservative Blue Dogs who have held together against many proposals that require even more borrowing by the Treasury to pay for them.

Obama himself gave his party cover for dropping any real plans to pass comprehensive immigration reform, which he'd promised to address in his first presidential year. He acknowledged that lawmakers have little urge for polarizing legislation on the heels of the massive health care overhaul, an economic stimulus package and several industry bailouts.

"I don't want us to do something just for the sake of politics that doesn't solve the problem," Obama told reporters Wednesday night aboard Air Force One.

In March, Congress sent Obama a modest $38 billion jobs bill exempting employers who hire laid off workers from the 6.2 percent Social Security tax through the rest of the year and providing about $20 billion for highway and transit programs. Employers also can get a $1,000 tax credit if new hires stay on their payroll a full year.

The bill was supposed to be only the first of many election-year measures to hammer home the "jobs, jobs, jobs" rallying cry that Democrats hoped would persuade voters to stay with them in November.

But Democratic moderates were reluctant to borrow more money for the additional jobs and recession safety net measures. That's forced the party to abandon some and trim back others.

Obama's proposed $250 bonus payment to Social Security recipients was killed by the Senate. Also gone: an $80 billion-plus Senate plan that promised money to build roads and schools; help local governments keep teachers on the payroll; and stimulate hiring in the home improvement industry.

Just last month, deficit concerns killed $24 billion in fiscal relief to prevent state workers from being furloughed. It was a measure that earlier had won initial votes in both the House and Senate.

The battle over extending jobless benefits for as many as 99 weeks for the unemployed typifies how the Democrats' jobs agenda has foundered. What originally was a $200 billion measure combining the jobless benefits with the renewal of popular business and family tax breaks was cut to $115 billion by House leaders. The reason: vulnerable moderate Democrats refused to support it.

Among the losers were laid-off workers. They will now see subsidies covering two-thirds of their health insurance premiums disappear.

The bill, which still includes assistance — for doctors facing lower Medicare payments, a summer jobs program sought by minority lawmakers and settlements to lawsuits against the government from black farmers and American Indians — still faces an uncertain fate this week in the Senate.

Other legislation too has foundered for the same reasons. Congress probably won't take up a reauthorization of the huge highway-transit bill, for example, because lawmakers don't want to consider raising gasoline taxes to pay for it.