WASHINGTON — When Congress returns Monday from a 10-day break, it will struggle to try to meet an impatient public’s demands for it to fund, among other things, an extension of unemployment benefits that have expired, summer jobs for at-risk youth and fair fees for doctors who treat Medicare patients.

The list of things that desperately need fresh funding also includes the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and help for strapped state budgets.

However, Congress’ task is tough, because the same public that wants these things paid for also is growing increasingly uneasy over driving the federal government deeper in debt to do it, adding to a budget deficit that’s already expected to reach $1.5 trillion this year.

Usually, Congress manages to find ways to fund emergencies well before it leaves Washington for long holiday breaks.

Not this time.

Legislators went home for their Memorial Day recess May 28 without taking final action on any of these priorities, even though funding for extended unemployment benefits expired Wednesday, the summer jobs for at-risk youths program has no money, and Medicare payments to doctors were scheduled for a big cut on June 1.

Why didn’t Congress get it done? The key reason: Five months before congressional elections, moderate lawmakers — especially Democrats — are having trouble processing the mixed message they’re getting from their constituents: Take care of pressing business, but do it responsibly.

“For 10 years, Democrats and Republicans have told people we can have anything we want and didn’t have to really pay for it,” said Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Fla. “Now people realize that we do have to pay, and it’s difficult.”

“One of the number one concerns I hear about back home is deficit spending,” said Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa.

Adding to their dilemma is the public’s dim view of Congress.

“People have very, very sour views of Congress,” said Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, whose May 13-16 survey found that only 13 percent of Americans thought lawmakers were doing a good or excellent job.

People “are sending us clear signals: They want us to control spending,” said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.

The rising cry to reduce deficits conflicts with a cornerstone of Democratic thinking: When the economy is fragile, more government spending is crucial to ensuring a recovery.

The bottom line: getting even emergency spending through Congress will be hard.


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