Will Democrats Be Victims Of Their Own Successes in Congress? The Democratic Party has used its control of Congress to pass sweeping overhauls of the financial system and health care -- but those changes may come at a steep price. Only a few Republicans were involved -- and anti-incumbent sentiment is running high as mid-term elections approach.
NPR logo

Victories In Congress May Cost Democrats At Polls

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128649195/128661721" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Victories In Congress May Cost Democrats At Polls

Victories In Congress May Cost Democrats At Polls

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128649195/128661721" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


President Obama, accompanied by members of Congress, signs into law today a sweeping package of new regulations for the financial industry. It's a big win for Democrats, who can now claim a year and a half of legislative wins that rivals any Congress in the past half-century - but it has come at a price.

Democrats have taken a pummeling from Republicans, and polls show Democrats have largely fallen out of favor with independent voters. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.

ANDREA SEABROOK: I'm going to ask you to put aside your opinions for a moment; whatever you think of the health care bill, the new financial regulations, the economic stimulus package and student loans - when you step back and just look, the simple volume of legislation this Congress has passed is pretty impressive.

Analyst Norm Ornstein at the American Enterprise Institute says it's the scope and sweep of the work.

Mr. NORM ORNSTEIN (American Enterprise Institute): The reach that it will have on people's lives in areas from health to education to finance - it's really quite remarkable, and of course made even more remarkable by the fact that it's being done in a poisonous, rancorous, partisan and ideological environment.

SEABROOK: To give you a sense of just how rancorous, listen to this tape from the House floor on the day the health care bill passed.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Representative LOUISE SLAUGHTER (Democrat, New York): What we will do today is pass the bill, which will then be sent to the president and become law. We will this afternoon pass the...

Representative DAVID DREIER (Republican, California): I'd like to reclaim my time. The gentlewoman has just stated that the...

Rep. SLAUGHTER: Please let me answer.

Rep. DREIER: ...(unintelligible) very clearly now.

Rep. SLAUGHTER: Please let me answer.

SEABROOK: And it only gets worse.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Rep. DREIER: We now know with absolute certainty that the only thing that we are guaranteed...

Rep. SLAUGHTER: No, you don't.

Unidentified Man: Mr. Speaker...

Rep. DREIER: ...guaranteed is...

Rep. SLAUGHTER: No, you don't.

SEABROOK: And that's not a couple of hot under the collar freshmen - that's New York Democrat Louise Slaughter and California Republican David Dreier, the chairwoman and ranking member of the House Rules Committee. They've worked together for years.

By the end of that day, Democrats accomplished what some had called impossible - they passed a massive restructuring of America's health care system. Problem is, they did it alone.

Representative BARON HILL (Democrat, Indiana): We have done a lot - there's no question about that. And some of it is politically very difficult to try to defend back home though.

SEABROOK: Congressman Baron Hill represents southeastern Indiana. He's a staunch Blue Dog - one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress. He says party leaders should've focused more on what moderates of both parties wanted rather than get everything they could with the Democratic majorities and one or two Republicans.

Another conservative Democrat, Jim Marshall of Georgia, says the relatively large margins Democrats have in both chambers caused party leaders to overreach. And the backlash, says Marshall, will hurt everyone.

Representative JIM MARSHALL (Democrat, Georgia): It's very inappropriate for government to make a decision to head in one direction and then all of a sudden things switch and you're heading in the opposite direction. Business can't rely on that. People interested in making investments cannot rely on that. The American public can't rely on it. We need a steady course. And it's very difficult to find a steady course as we flip to extremes when one side or the other takes over.

SEABROOK: Democrats blame the acrimony and therefore the backlash on the Republicans, who began almost unanimous opposition to President Obama's legislative initiatives just three weeks into his presidency.

Whichever side you blame, Democrats are paying a political price. Congressional approval ratings hit a record low. Incumbents faced or will face strong primary challenges - and as Democrat Alvin Greene proved in the South Carolina Senate primary, a guy no one's heard of can beat the party's choice to be the candidate.

It sure makes Congressman Chris Van Hollen's job difficult. He's the guy in charge of getting Democrats reelected to the House. Van Hollen doesn't buy the argument that Democrats took change farther than voters wanted. He says it's something else that's bothering them - the economy, and Democrats are working on that, he says.

Representative CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (Democrat, Maryland): But we're not out of the woods. You know, we haven't gotten out of the really tough economy that was inherited, and that's why the American people, understandably, are anxious about the future.

SEABROOK: There are some signs Democrats have stopped the bleeding. A new Gallup poll this week asked the generic question: If the election were today, which party's candidate would you vote for? Forty-nine percent of respondents said the Democrats, compared with the Republicans' 43 percent.

A Pew Research Center poll showed most respondents believe the stimulus helped state and local governments avoid budget cuts - and helped keep unemployment from getting worse.

But no one thinks, says analyst Ornstein, that Democrats aren't going to take a hit in November. And so if you thought Congress was nasty this year - just you wait, says Ornstein.

Mr. ORNSTEIN: There's going to be much more rancor and division inside Congress.

SEABROOK: Democrats will likely lose some of their more conservative members -pushing the party to the left. Republicans are riding a wave of Tea Party enthusiasm, pushing the GOP to the right.

So while this has been an incredibly productive Congress, says Ornstein, for the next one he predicts gridlock.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.