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With Economy in Shambles, Congress Turns Focus to Middle Class

December 26, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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As the economy continues in a downward spiral, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are concentrating on serving the needs of the middle class. Kwame Holman speaks to legislators preparing to tackle the economic crisis.

KWAME HOLMAN: When the new president takes the oath of office here next month, Democrats will control the White House and both chambers of Congress for the first time in 14 years. Republicans will hold fewer House and Senate seats than at any time since the early 1990s.

Legislators will be sworn in in the midst of a major recession, as Americans are losing their jobs, their homes, their retirement savings, and their health care coverage.

In that sobering atmosphere, Democrats and Republicans alike are taking stock not only of themselves and their philosophies, but how they’ll go about tackling those massive domestic issues.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), Missouri: If we begin thinking that the country has chosen us because they really think we’re so much better, we’re going to be in for a rude awakening. I think they chose us because they really didn’t like the other guys.

KWAME HOLMAN: In 2006, Democrat Claire McCaskill became the first woman elected to the Senate from Missouri, a state that has a mix of urban centers and rural areas, and an electorate evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans that reflects the country as a whole.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL: You know, they really don’t trust any of us. And that’s why we have to be careful not to strut and not to take this as some kind of mandate. This is, in fact, a time that we’ve got to find the middle and be pragmatic.

KWAME HOLMAN: McCaskill says her advice to Democrats is to follow policies that help the middle class.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL: I haven’t been here long enough to not see very clearly how screwed up this place is. And one of the challenges is that we have people who come here and work very hard to influence us on issues.

There is no one here who’s lobbying for that family who has a combined earned income of about $80,000 grand a year, and who has three children, and who is trying to figure out how to make it all come out even.

So the challenge is, you know, kind of like shutting down the noise, listening and learning about all these different issues, but then, when we make the decisions, that we stay focused on those families, and making sure that we have a middle class that survives in this country.

Republican principles

KWAME HOLMAN: Republicans want to attract middle-class support, too, even though their party's free-market principles traditionally have been perceived as being more favorable to wealthy Americans.

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions is a staunch fiscal conservative.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: Republicans need to start talking about the middle class. They need to quit worrying about big business on Wall Street. I'm tired of hearing about their problems. I'm worried about the average American's problems. And until we get there, I think we'll be a bit adrift.

KWAME HOLMAN: Sessions says Republicans have ignored the wishes of mainstream Americans on a number of major issues, such as immigration reform, the $700 billion financial bailout, and Congress's attempted rescue of the U.S. auto industry.

He says the solution to the problem is simple: Put the principles of the party above politics.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: What we need to do is understand fundamentally we're here to serve this country, to make this country better. And I believe the basic principles of the Republican Party are valuable and good for the long-term interest of America.

So I think we should articulate those basic values, resist the temptation -- I'll be telling my leaders, let's don't play political games in the short term. Let's stay out there and let's advocate what's right for America, and maybe people will reward us one day.

New GOP policy ideas

KWAME HOLMAN: Across the Capitol, a group of dynamic House Republicans, dubbed the "Young Guns," aims to use fresh policy ideas to return the GOP to power. Wisconsin's Paul Ryan is one of them.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), Wisconsin: What I care about are ideas. Do we have good ideas or bad ideas? Is government embracing the best ideas?

Are we practicing the ideal policy for education, for the economy, for health care, for all of those things? Are we tackling the biggest challenges confronting the country or not? That's what matters to me.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ryan says, while it's important for Republicans to try to connect with all Americans, the GOP must hold true to its free-market principles, even in the throes of a financial crisis and a damaged economy in freefall.

REP. PAUL RYAN: We need to be able to say why our ideas and our agenda matters to people. And I don't like this notion of dividing people up into classes. I don't like this notion of dividing people up into the low-income class, the middle class, and the upper class, because you know what? I want everybody moving up.

I want everybody moving up to the higher ranks of the class. What I think we should talk about is, how do we make America an opportunity society, where every single person at every rung of the economic ladder can scale that ladder and can reach their potential and their destiny?

Remembering the poor

KWAME HOLMAN: That opportunity, says California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, may not always be available to everyone. Waters, a progressive Democrat who has represented the Los Angeles area for almost 18 years, cautions that Democrats should not forget about the poor while they contend with Republicans for the middle class.

REP. MAXINE WATERS (D), California: I'm asking my party to take advantage of this time, when even the largest of businesses that were supposed to be well managed cannot manage, and have some compassion for poor people who have little or nothing to manage and to talk about how we create opportunities for a decent quality of life for the least of these.

KWAME HOLMAN: Waters says, even with the myriad challenges facing the new Congress, she expects the core philosophies of both parties to remain intact.

REP. MAXINE WATERS: Certainly, this country benefits from having these opposing views. And we must learn to argue and fight, and try to get our position, the position that's adopted, which won't always happen.

But, no, you're not going to have a blending of the philosophies and the parties. You will always have these opposing points of view. But that's not to say you can't get something done.

KWAME HOLMAN: The first test of principles for Democrats and Republicans in the 111th Congress will come in January when it undertakes a monumental economic stimulus package.