U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan sat around a picnic table with three single moms, chatting about how President Joe Biden’s economic stimulus bill could ease some of the stress of raising children during a pandemic, and beyond.
“I’m first and foremost a mom,” Houlahan, a Chester County Democrat, told them Monday at a park in Kennett Square. “There’s quite a lot in the legislation that’s helping people be able to afford the cost of children. … These issues are not women’s issues, they’re human issues.”
Three days later in Wilkes-Barre, U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright highlighted how the $1.9 trillion legislation will boost funding for social services agencies.
“All of us have been through a lot over this ugly, nasty COVID-19 pandemic,” Cartwright, a Lackawanna County Democrat, said Thursday at the Children’s Service Center, a behavioral and mental health provider. “A key goal of the American Rescue Plan is helping this entire country get over tough times.”
In their first recess from Washington since passing the sweeping coronavirus relief measure last month, Democrats across the country, including in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, are crisscrossing their districts for a hybrid celebration-education tour. Their mission: Ensure constituents know how the package can help them, and make clear that Democrats were responsible for the legislation, which passed without any Republican support.
“Lots of people are aware in very broad strokes what’s in the plan, but they don’t necessarily know about some of the specifics,” said U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, of Allentown. “A lot of people still don’t understand what a refundable tax credit is. We’re going to need to do a big educational push to make sure people who might not otherwise even file taxes do.”
There were more than 90 events around the country on Wednesday alone, House Democrats said. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the party held the blitz “so that the public would know … what is in the bill and how they can benefit from it directly.”
For many Democrats, the effort is born out of harsh lessons from the Obama administration. They say they failed to sell voters on their economic rescue package and the Affordable Care Act, and suffered severe political consequences.
“If you move on from a major piece of legislation like that and you don’t highlight what’s in it, people may not remember why it was passed, what was in it,” Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) said in March, just before Biden came to Delaware County to promote the measure. “It’s important to really lay down a marker about this bill.”
President Barack Obama’s stimulus and his signature health-care law became prime targets for the GOP. They helped sink Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans won the House and severely limited the remaining six years of Obama’s presidency.
“There was actually a big tax cut ... and it didn’t seem that people were aware that that tax cut came from that recovery bill,” Casey said. “One of the jobs of being a party that’s implementing good policy is you’ve got to communicate.”
The new American Rescue Plan is widely popular to begin with, with 70% of Americans in favor and 29% opposed, according to a Pew Research Center survey in March. Even 4 out of 10 Republicans supported it, including a majority of low-income Republicans, said Carroll Doherty, a Pew pollster.
“That’s significant,” Doherty said. “Even in a polarized environment you still get 41% of Republicans favoring it, which compared to other things we’ve seen in recent years is pretty high.”
A key question, though, is whether those initially high numbers endure if attention shifts to other topics. And rather than counter the Democratic publicity blitz, Republicans are trying to turn attention elsewhere — namely immigration, an animating issue for the GOP.
While Democrats were promoting the stimulus last week, U.S. Rep. Fred Keller (R., Pa.) was planning to join Republican colleagues on a trip to the southern border. It was one of roughly 10 trips that groups of GOP lawmakers have organized to examine and emphasize the growing immigration surge and the Biden administration’s struggle to manage it, according to a Republican aide.
“I’m convinced that they’re talking about [the stimulus bill] because they don’t want to talk about the mess at the southern border,” Keller said in a telephone interview.
When House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) issued a statement Thursday responding to Biden’s executive actions on gun control, much of it centered on the border.
Only 24% of Americans approve of how Biden has handled the surge of unaccompanied children arriving at the border, while 40% disapprove, according to an Associated Press poll released last week.
Asked whether Republicans face a risk by effectively ceding the stimulus debate to Democrats, Keller said: “If it were really that great, quite frankly, people would realize it and you wouldn’t have to go out and tell them.”
The GOP has struggled, though, to define the stimulus bill on its terms.
The party largely abandoned its traditional criticism of government spending and deficits as it racked up both during the Trump years. Even as the stimulus bill raced through Congress, Republicans never settled on a consistent criticism, and the resistance was relatively muted, especially considering the size and scope of the measure. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) was a notable exception, arguing that the plan spends far more than needed at a time when the economy is already recovering.
Democrats, meanwhile, held a flurry of appearances last week. U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans posed for pictures with the head of Philadelphia International Airport, who said increased Paycheck Protection Program loans saved jobs there.
New Jersey Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker emphasized the plan’s $1.8 billion to help the state’s schools reopen, $130 million for New Jersey community health centers to help expand vaccine access, and $132 million for housing and rental assistance.
And Wild toured the Allentown YMCA, where a $1.6 million grant is paying for headphones and other technology to help kids attend school remotely. She also held a virtual town hall to answer questions about the bill.
“We appropriated a lot of money and I want to make sure that my district sees the benefits of it,” Wild said.
Guillermina Rios, one of the moms who met with Houlahan in Chester County, had a series of questions about the expanded child tax credits, including how she could apply (through tax filings), when she would see the benefit (likely July), and when the benefit would expire (after a year unless it’s renewed).
“I’m sorry for all the questions,” Rios said, stopping herself.
“No problem, no problem. You’re asking really important, specific questions,” Houlahan said, calling the bill “ginormous.”
For Democrats looking toward the midterm elections next year, the bill is an early campaigning prize. And they hope it will have legs as expanded aid reaches voters’ wallets in the coming months.
Cartwright and Wild are likely to face competitive races, and are clearly attaching themselves to the bill. Houlahan is mulling a Senate run. It’s a sharp change from 2010, when vulnerable Democrats approached the Affordable Care Act warily in campaign season.
Biden’s next major ambition, a pair of sweeping proposals that include massive infrastructure spending, efforts to combat racial inequality, spur social programs, and steer the country toward clean energy, could add more than $3 trillion to the Democratic efforts to reshape the economy. But it also risks a backlash.
The past two presidents saw their first big bills become talking points for the opposition. Republicans campaigned heavily against Obama’s stimulus and health-care law, while Democrats attacked President Donald Trump’s tax cuts.
Democrats hope Biden’s stimulus is an exception that can help them defy the long history of midterm losses for the party in power.
“This is a historically Republican county,” Houlahan said after a tour of To-Jo Mushrooms, a Kennett Squarefarm where she pulled on a hairnet and aimed a flashlight at baby portabellas.
“And this particular part of it is probably one of the brightest red parts,” she said, “so demonstrating and explaining to people why [the bill] matters is important.”
In Wilkes-Barre, Cartwright bristled at the notion that the pitches are political.
“It’s about being grown-up, making adult decisions, stepping into the breach when there is a national emergency, and doing the sensible, responsible things that need to be done,” he said.
Casey said the policy benefits do come with political upside. He noted that all Republicans voted against the aid Democrats are emphasizing.
“We can say now that not a single Republican voted for more vaccination money, not a single Republican voted for money for schools,” Casey said. “Not a single Republican voted to cut child poverty in half, not a single Republican voted to provide aid to state and local county governments.”