When House Democrats gathered on Friday for their end-of-the week caucus meeting in the basement of the Capitol, caucus chairman John Larson (D-Conn.) told the group he wanted them to hear first from Rep. Michael Capuano, who'd just returned from a primary campaign for the Senate seat in Massachusetts vacated by the death of Ted Kennedy.
Larson asked Capuano, who finished in second place, to share the wisdom he learned on the campaign trail.
Capuano took to the microphone, looked out at his colleagues and condensed what he'd learned into two words. "You're screwed," he told his friends in the House, according to one attendee. The room's silence was broken only by soft, nervous laughter.
Capuano confirmed the gist of the message -- "I'm not sure of the exact wording," he told HuffPost, chuckling -- and said that he doubted his wisdom was anything they didn't already know.
"I think I was just confirming stuff they already knew," he said. "I focused on two things: the war in Afghanistan and jobs."
Everywhere Capuano went in his state, he said, he was bombarded with demands that the government do more to create jobs. He was also greeted by deep skepticism about Obama's escalation of the eight-year-old war in Afghanistan.
Capuano said he told the caucus that opponents of the war need to be given a chance to vote against funding for it on the House floor.
"If we do anything [on the war], we need to have a separate vote on it. People who can vote for it, can vote for it. But those of us who want to vote against it, [should] be given that opportunity, too," he said. "But I focused mostly on jobs. People are tired of the promises of jobs. They need them now."
He said voters were less interested in tax credits than they were in direct money for jobs. He asked one crowd if it thought that a town could start hiring people within a month if it was given a million dollars on the condition it begin employing people -- the crowd was certain it could.
After the event, a top finance official from the town approached him. "Not only could I do it in 30 days, I could do it in a week," she said.
Democratic leadership in the House is still working on a jobs bill. Larson told a handful of reporters on Monday that it would likely include roughly $70 billion and focus on infrastructure, aid to state and local governments, and extending unemployment and COBRA health insurance subsidies for the jobless.
The bill, however, is likely to be tied to a defense appropriations bill that is scheduled to be taken up before year's end. "That's the last train leaving Clarksville" said Larson, reasoning that attaching it to money for war was the only way to get it done before the end of the year.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, told reporters Tuesday that short-term extensions of unemployment and COBRA will be attached to the defense bill.
In effect, that requires members of Congress to back a war they oppose in order to get funding for jobs, a bargain many are loath to make, but one they've made over and over since Democrats rook control of Congress following the 2006 midterm elections -- which were decided largely by voters fed up with the war in Iraq.
Miller said that the larger jobs package will be decoupled from the war bill and voted on before the House recesses on Wednesday. No figure for the total spending has been finalized, he said. It'll then be sent to the Senate. "Obviously, we believe it has to be addressed. It'll be there. They can take it up. I hope they will," he said. "Speculating on the Senate is a very bad profession."
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), in an interview with two reporters in his office late last week, argued that Democrats were better prepared to withstand a Republican wave than they were in 1994, because they see this one coming.
"Unlike '94, nobody's having anything sneak up on them. Nobody in this House believes this next election is a slam dunk, which means they're out raising money, they're out in their districts -- working hard, communicating on jobs and getting the economy moving," he said. "And all of that, in my opinion, augurs well for a Democratic Party."
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