By CHARLES BABINGTON
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Congressional Democrats are turning to more populist, economic themes like mortgage foreclosures and big oil companies' profits now that military progress in Iraq is generating mixed political reviews.
Even when they talk about the war, Democrats often highlight its drain on the economy. One top senator called the new emphasis 'a turning point in our argument against this war.'
Polls find Americans increasingly worried about the economy and their grip on middle-class privileges such as home ownership. Meanwhile, the issue that galvanized the Democratic base in 2006 and much of 2007 -- the Iraq war -- has grown so muddied that Republicans seem equally happy to discuss it, a turnabout that caught Senate Democrats off guard this week.
Often using populist rhetoric, Democratic lawmakers are focusing on voters' anxieties and resentments, such as drivers' anger over paying high gasoline prices while oil companies make huge profits. The House this week approved $18 billion in new taxes on the five biggest oil companies despite protests from the Bush administration.
'We are at a time when Big Oil has record, historic profits,' Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters. 'And yet the administration opposes removing subsidies to Big Oil, subsidies that we want to use to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, grow our economy and create green paying jobs in our economy.'
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, focused on Americans' fears of declining real estate values and the possibility of losing their homes to foreclosure. They ripped Republicans for blocking action Thursday on a package that would provide $4 billion to help communities buy and rehabilitate foreclosed homes. It also would let bankruptcy judges ease the obligations of borrowers unable to pay their mortgages.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., citing GOP objections to the housing package's cost, told reporters, 'there is a direct relationship' between the Iraq war's costs 'and our inability to have a focus on investing in middle class America here at home.'
In political terms, the bills are meant to force Republican lawmakers into a difficult choice. They can side with Bush in arguing for fiscal responsibility and greater faith in free-market principles, or they can back new government initiatives meant to help struggling families keep their homes while shifting some of the costs to oil companies.
'The president is choosing bankers over middle-class families,' Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said Friday, in a typical Democratic jab.
Republicans are pushing back, offering alternative plans on housing and energy that they say are more responsible, affordable and effective.
'As Republicans, we support helping families suffering now,' Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said this week as he helped unveil a GOP economic package. It called for $10 billion for state and local bonds to refinance troubled subprime mortgages. It also would grant $15,000 in tax credits over three years for those buying houses in foreclosure or nearing foreclosure.
Republicans said the Democrats' plan would encourage bankruptcies and drive interest rates higher because lenders would need to recoup losses from contracts that were rewritten. But the GOP plan also proposes long-standing goals that Democrats say are unacceptable. They include cutting an array of taxes without compensating spending cuts, and protecting businesses from lawsuits.
The disagreements led to a Senate standoff this week. With leaders of both parties feeling pressure to respond to the mortgage crisis, some lawmakers predict an eventual compromise, which might involve Democrats' dropping their bid to expand bankruptcy protections for borrowers in default.
Democrats appear determined to keep hammering on the energy and Iraq fronts, meanwhile, even though Bush's veto powers give them little chance of enacting their main policies.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, held a hearing this week in which he touted a book, 'The Three Trillion Dollar War.' After saluting the troops killed and wounded in Iraq, he said, 'by continuing to spend huge amounts in Iraq we are prevented from spending on important goals and vital needs here at home.'
Schumer, who also chairs the Democrats' Senate campaign committee, called the fiscal analysis 'a turning point in our argument against this war.'
Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., focused on energy in the Democrats' weekly radio address, to be aired Saturday.
'Like many Americans across the nation, the people of northern Indiana have felt the negative effects of an energy policy that favored Big Oil companies at the expense of working families and businesses,' he said in prepared remarks. The Democratic bill passed by the House this week, he said, would 'help ensure that our tax code is equitable.'
Republicans refuse to be painted as friends only of the rich.
'Middle-class families and small businesses are feeling the squeeze from rising costs for gasoline, food, and other costs of living,' House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said this week. 'Unfortunately, the Democrats' 'no energy' bill will only make matters worse by raising taxes and setting the table for even higher prices at the pump.'