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Democrats on Hill aim to aid middle class

Health insurance for children and college loan help are priorities in Congress this fall.

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While the main event on Capitol Hill this week is US policy in Iraq, Democrats are stepping up a quieter, sustained campaign on other fronts to win over more middle-class voters.

Even if Democrats can't decisively shift the course of US involvement in Iraq, they aim to build a record of solving problems that make a difference to average families.

The issues range from cutting college costs and increasing insurance coverage for children to curbing a runaway Alternative Minimum Tax, now on track to hit some 23 million taxpayers next year. Also in the pipeline: an energy bill, a farm bill, and the reauthorization of a big education funding bill.

But gridlock in the Senate and a fierce fight over the fiscal year 2008 spending bills this fall are making it difficult for any of this to make points with voters, who are giving the Democrat-controlled Congress near-record low approval ratings.

"Democrats have a good approach: The issues are terrific ones, because they resonate with people hungry for something that helps them in their daily lives," says Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

But he says it's going to be hard to keep these issues visible to the public, especially if lawmakers get into a bitter showdown with the White House over spending bills. "Even when they are doing something, the public doesn't see any of it, and that's why their approval level is as low as it is," he adds.

Last week, the House passed legislation to cut in half interest rates on student loans. That will save some 7 million students about $4,400, sponsors say.

The House bill also increases Pell Grant scholarships by more than $1,000.

"One of the things the Democrats in the Congress and our candidates said to the American people last November was that we understood that many Americans families were stretched and trying to make sure their kids could afford a college education," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.


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