With Midterm Elections Looming, Summer's No Break

The House of Representatives begins its summer recess this weekend, but they'll still be busy over the next several weeks. What they do and say will have a lot to do with their electoral fate in November. Host Liane Hansen talks with NPR White House Correspondent Ari Shapiro and NPR Congressional Correspondent Andrea Seabrook.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The House of Representatives begins its summer recess this weekend, and members will not be back in Washington until after Labor Day. But they will be busy over the next several weeks, and what they do and say will have a lot to do with their electoral fate in November.

Democrats in swing districts are under fire for supporting the agenda of President Obama, who will be traveling a good bit himself in the coming weeks, raising money and rallying his political base.

Here with us now is NPR's congressional correspondent, Andrea Seabrook, and NPR's White House correspondent, Ari Shapiro. Welcome to the program, both of you.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning, Liane.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Hi.

HANSEN: Andrea, I want to start with you. I mean, by normal standards, this has been one the most productive sessions of Congress ever - the stimulus plan, health care, financial regulations. The House passed other big bills the Senate hasn't even taken up, like energy and climate bill. Do these representatives see any political capital in all of this?

SEABROOK: You know, Liane, not the ones that are really worried about their seats. The ones that are most vulnerable right now are the people who have been elected in the last session or two. They are moderate Democrats, for the large part, in swing districts. And these people took really hard political stances by voting for or against the energy and climate bill - because when you're in a swing district, you can't please everybody.

And so, there are all kinds of other big, important legislation that they took hard votes on - the stimulus package - things that did pass - health care, financial regulations - and then all these other things that got stopped up in the Senate. And so they're back in their districts, focusing a lot more on really localized stuff than the national stories right now. National mood: not good for a moderate Democrat. The local stories: much better.

HANSEN: So if I understand what you're saying, the average member of Congress may be talking more about what been done for the district rather than what Congress has done for the country?

SEABROOK: Exactly. I mean, for example, they might be talking about a new section of a highway that was built because of the stimulus act. They're not saying, I voted for the stimulus; they're saying, I brought you this new section of highway. Or they might say, for example, Frank Kratovil, a moderate Democrat out on Chesapeake Bay area in Maryland, will talk about the estuaries bill that he got through Congress. Not at all talking about health care or these other things that he actually voted against, but talking about the really localized things. It's much better for those people.

And some of the congressional leadership, especially Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, will be out there working with those moderate Democrats, trying to get some real punch in this next month.

HANSEN: To Ari Shapiro now. An awful lot of what Democrats have to defend has to do with the programs that the president wanted, as Andrea was talking about. And there's a sense that at times, the White House has taken them for granted. Do you think that's the case?

SHAPIRO: Well, I think Democrats feel as though they have walked the plank for the White House, and the White House is trying to help them out in return and pay them back - literally pay them back, by raising money for them. We have seen President Obama do a lot of high-profile public events, but what we haven't heard as much about is the private fundraisers that are often paired with those events.

So for example, last week he was in New Jersey to do an economic event. Well, then he went to New York for a private fundraiser that was $30,000 a ticket. On Monday, he's going to be in Atlanta for an event where he's speaking to disabled American veterans, and talking about the upcoming troop withdrawals from Iraq. Then, he has a DNC fundraiser in Georgia. Same thing in Texas: an economic event coming up, paired with a fundraiser.

And these are not big, high-profile campaign appearances 'cause he's not popular enough for that. Instead, it's small, not open to the public - but raising a lot of money.

HANSEN: Okay. He's raising a lot of money. But how does a president go about improving the climate for his party when economic growth is still weak?

SHAPIRO: Well, he's trying to talk about what his administration has done in the last year and a half. But he acknowledges that as long as the unemployment rate is high and his popularity is low, his being out there with congressional Democrats is not necessarily going to help those congressional Democrats.

I mean, in Georgia, when President Obama arrives, he's going to be greeted by the Republican governor, Sonny Perdue. But the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Roy Barnes, is in a different part of the state and will not be photographed with him at all.

HANSEN: All right. So you're saying that even though the president is a big draw in some places there, quite a few members don't - would just as soon the president didn't come to their towns. So Andrea, then, who are the crowd-pleasers members are looking to for help this August?

SEABROOK: Well, I'll tell you another person they aren't looking to, and that is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She is as big a symbol - if not a bigger symbol -than the president of some of these - so-called liberal agenda in Congress that these moderate Democrats are trying to distance themselves from. So then you'll get people like Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who is much closer to the blue dogs, the conservative Democrats.

You'll see many more of those types of Democrats out and about, raising money, campaigning, talking - you know, going in and saying, we're the leadership and we think this guy is great - helping these people out in the next month.

SHAPIRO: Don't forget Bill Clinton.

SEABROOK: Oh yeah, don't forget as well as Bill Clinton, who is, you know, whose approval numbers are a lot higher than the current president's.

HANSEN: So Ari, the president will be getting some vacation time this month. Where does he plan to spend it?

SHAPIRO: Well, first he and the first family are going to the Gulf Coast of Florida, which he was under some pressure to do because this area has suffered so much from lost tourism since the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. That's going to be a very short trip. And then the first family, as they did last summer, is going to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. After that, when he doesn't have any public events scheduled, then were likely not see the first family for the time that they're there.

HANSEN: But the pressure to go down to the Gulf Coast - political angles to everything, even time off. Ari Shapiro is NPR's White House correspondent; Andrea Seabrook is NPR's congressional correspondent. Thank you both.

SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you.

SEABROOK: Thanks, Liane.

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