With voter anger about the federal deficit intensifying in this election year, Democrats in Congress are edging away from one of their long-held articles of faith — government spending on social programs such as education and relief for the jobless. The painful tradeoff comes to center stage this week, when the Senate tries again to pass an extension of unemployment benefits — this time a $54-billion measure that marks an abrupt retreat from a $200-billion bill that Democratic leaders had proposed before the Memorial Day recess. The stripped-down bill is just one sign of how budget anxieties are beginning to impinge on Democrats' legislative ambitions and traditional commitments.
A White House-backed proposal to spend $23 billion to save as many as 300,000 teachers' jobs has been stymied by deficit concerns. Similarly, the House, usually a bastion of liberalism, bowed to fiscal conservatives and dropped health insurance subsidies for the unemployed. "There is a very changed climate," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- San Francisco) recently told reporters, referring to anti-deficit pressures she faces within her own party. Though polls for years have shown high levels of public concern about the deficit, rarely has it outstripped most other issues. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in mid-May found a notable increase in recent months in those who believe cutting the deficit and spending should be the government's highest priority. According to the poll, 20% of those surveyed wanted the deficit and government spending to be the top priority, an issue second to the 35% concerned about job creation and economic growth. (In a January poll, 13% cited the deficit and government spending.) "There's no question that people are almost as concerned about the deficit and government spending as about jobs," said Mark Mellman, a pollster who works closely with congressional Democrats. "It is not just about the actual dollars — it is a metaphor for wasted money and lack of discipline and long-term economic decline." Even Friday's report that private-sector job growth had slowed to a crawl in May is not expected to offset the Democrats' new reluctance to add to the deficit for unemployment benefits. Republicans scoff at the suggestion that Democrats are getting more serious about the deficit — now projected to reach $1.5 trillion this year. The GOP's attack on the run-up in government spending during the Obama administration is an increasingly prominent element in their midterm campaign. Nonpartisan budget analysts say the signs of Democrats' restraint are noteworthy but they are not yet close to the commitment to reduced spending that is needed to make a serious dent in the deficit. "What we are seeing now is a heightened political sensitivity to deficits, which I think is a good thing," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group. "But Congress hasn't yet figured out what to do about it." Still, Democratic leaders are expecting to face more resistance from within their own party to the spending bills that will pack the agenda in the months leading up to election day — jobs bills, war funding and routine appropriations for the entire federal government. "What worked a year ago is not going to work now," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), one of the 34 Democrats who voted against the jobless benefits bill before Memorial Day. "There is a fiscal standard that is more rigorous than a year ago. That's as it should be: A year ago we were in a recession. Today we are managing a recovery." If, as expected, the latest extension of unemployment benefits passes the Senate this week, it may well be the last. "To continue to extend, in an unprecedented fashion, unemployment benefits — indefinitely, without any kind of decision as to how this would end — I think is a mistake," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), an ally of President Obama. That is a striking change of tone from just three months ago, when McCaskill denounced Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) for mounting a one-man filibuster against a jobless benefit extension because it added to the deficit. Even fellow Republicans shunned Bunning like a political leper for what was seen as green-eyeshade heartlessness. But in the trade-off between spending and the deficit, the political balance is beginning to tip — especially among those from regions where the unemployment rate has dropped below the national average. Some Democrats have even raised questions about whether the availability of government benefits has discouraged people from looking for jobs — a classic conservative argument rarely heard in Democratic quarters. Pelosi said she also had to contend with opposition to extending health insurance subsidies. Two senators are trying to include the money needed to avert 300,000 teacher layoffs — $23 billion — in the bill funding the Afghanistan war. But Sen. Tom Harkin (D- Iowa) and House Appropriations Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) have met resistance from within their own party as well as from Republicans. That battle was one reason why Obey announced he was retiring from Congress at the end of this year. He said at a news conference that he had grown tired of "begging Blue Dogs to do what they ought to do by rote."