WASHINGTON -- With memories of last year's bitter town hall meetings still fresh, Democrats vowed on Wednesday to go on the offensive during the August congressional recess and aggressively link Republicans with the conservative tea party movement.
Democratic leaders said the Republican Party has moved out of the mainstream to adopt tea party goals like privatizing the Social Security retirement program, extending tax breaks for the rich and abolishing some federal agencies.
They promised to paint November's election as a stark choice between moving ahead with a healthcare overhaul and tougher regulations on Wall Street, or backing a Republican Party that wants to repeal those initiatives.
"The Republican Party agenda has become the tea party agenda, and vice versa," Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine told reporters.
Democrats face potential heavy losses and are battling to keep control of Congress in November's election, when all 435 seats in the House and 10 Senate seats are up for grabs.
The Democrats have launched a website and advertisement detailing the "Republican Tea Party Contract on America," in a mock tribute to the "Contract with America" that helped Republicans sweep to power in Congress in 1994.
Republicans counter that President Barack Obama's sinking approval ratings and low approval ratings for Congress are signs that voters are angry with Democratic-sponsored bailouts of private industry and a rising budget deficit.
"As they attempt to re-brand and re-calibrate their election-year strategy yet again, Democrats forget that the problem isn't their message — it's their big government policies," said Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee.
Most Republicans have backed repeal of the new healthcare and financial regulation laws as well as extending the tax cuts. But many of the other positions cited by Democrats, such as abolishing the Education and Energy departments, have received a more mixed reception in the party.
The Democratic offensive comes as House members begin a lengthy August recess on Friday — the Senate leaves next week — that will be a prime time to campaign and hold town hall meetings with voters.
Those town hall meetings last August blindsided Democrats with the rising power of the tea party movement. Conservative activists loudly disrupted many meetings to protest against the healthcare overhaul and Obama's agenda.
The loosely organized and conservative tea party has gained more prominence this year as its candidates have knocked off establishment Republicans in several state primaries and many other Republican candidates have moved to the right to blunt tea party criticism.
During this August break, Democrats said, they are more prepared to contrast their agenda with Republicans at the town hall meetings and deal with potential disruptions.
"I think there were some lessons learned last year," said Democratic Rep. Charles Gonzalez. "One, don't believe there will be a good-faith debate taking place in any of these forums."
Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said House members had discussed their message for the August break but were not worried about more town hall difficulties.
"There actually wasn't any angst expressed in caucus meetings over that happening again," she said of the disruptions. "We've learned how to not let those who would drown out or desire to talk to our constituents from taking over a meeting."
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