Analysis

Poor Economic Numbers Mar Lawmakers' Vacation

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The 4th of July weekend began a week-long recess for members of Congress. Many are back in their districts with an eye on November's elections. As they headed out of the capital, lawmakers had bad economic news in their sails: bleak job numbers show a weak economic recovery.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, Im Mary Louise Kelly.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

The Fourth of July weekend began a weeklong recess for Congress. Many are back in their districts with an eye on November's elections. As they headed out of the Capitol, lawmakers had bad economic news in their sails - bleak job numbers showing a weak economic recovery.

NPR's Cokie Roberts is here to talk about it. And welcome back.

COKIE ROBERTS: Thank you, Renee. Good to be back with you.

MONTAGNE: Even, Cokie, with those bad economic numbers, Democrats were not able to pass a bill extending unemployment benefits before they left Washington. What exactly happened?

ROBERTS: Well, there's this ongoing debate about spending to get us out of the economic doldrums versus the deficit, which of course is at record highs. And it's a debate thats going on in the world economy; we talked about that a lot with the G-20, but it's also going on within the Obama administration and within the political parties.

Now, some of it really is a genuine ideological debate. Some of it is even an ideological debate within the Democratic Party, where House Democrats are saying to the White House, it's not just whether to cut but what to cut. They, for instance, cut his education program, The Race to the Top. And thats, you know, sort of an odd thing to be cutting when you see that the unemployment numbers are very high for uneducated people, but only at 4.4 percent among the people who are college educated. So you would think education would where they'd be willing to spend some money, but they're having fights with the administration about that program.

But mostly - look, we're just looking at Republicans who see an opportunity to embarrass the Obama administration by not passing the extended unemployment benefits. And it's working. At the moment, the Republicans are not letting the bill through the Senate and they dont seem to think that they're going to pay a political price for it.

MONTAGNE: Although Republicans, at the same time, are having problems of their own. Their national chairman, Michael Steele, has once again stirred up controversy.

ROBERTS: Well, he does do that, and he did it again this time, saying that the Afghan War was a war of Obama's choosing and that it might not winnable. That got some Republican senators very upset, including some very high level Republican senators. Arizona's John McCain stopped just short of calling on Steele to resign yesterday, when he spoke on ABC's "This Week."

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I think that Mr. Steele is going to have assess as to whether he can still lead the Republican Party as chairman of the Republican National Committee, and make an appropriate decision.

ROBERTS: The Republicans dont basically want the distraction of Michael steel at a time when they think they're doing well in going into the election. And, of course, thats something they're going to be testing when they're home with the voters this week.

ROBERTS: And, Cokie, about those members of Congress back home, they can boast - at least the Democrats can boast of certain accomplishments when they greet their constituents: The health care bill, financial regulation, and the Campaign Finance Law recently passed by the House. Will any of this help incumbents in November?

ROBERTS: Not if the economy is the way it is right now. Now health care, of course, remains highly controversial, although people are liking it better now that the argument is over, according to the polls - although people still say they're confused about it.

Democrats are able to tout that they have reined in the financial services industry. But this election is about the economy and those anemic job numbers are the big problem. And now, states are having a terrible time struggling with their budgets, and having to have sharp cutbacks. So there's no real sense that any of that is going to get better any time soon.

MONTAGNE: Well, Congress will be back. It'll have just a few months to go before the election. Whats on their plate?

ROBERTS: Well, they are likely to do something about those unemployment benefits. There'll be a push to pass energy legislation in the Senate, but I think thats very difficult. And campaign finance reform passed in the House of Representatives, there'll be a push on that in the Senate, as well, but thats a dont hold your breath with an election coming up.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much, NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts.

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