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August 2, 2013

Congress: Divided, discourteous and taking a five-week break

WASHINGTON — The accomplishments are few, the chaos plentiful in the 113th Congress, a discourteous model of divided government now beginning a five-week break.

“Have senators sit down and shut up, OK?” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blurted out on Thursday as lawmakers milled about noisily at a time Sen. Susan Collins was trying to speak.

There was political calculation even in that. Democrats knew the Maine Republican was about to rip into her own party’s leadership, and wanted to make sure her indictment could be heard.

Across the Capitol, unsteady bookends tell the story of the House’s first seven months in this two-year term. Internal dissent among Republicans nearly toppled Speaker John Boehner when lawmakers first convened in January. And leadership’s grip is no surer now: A routine spending bill was pulled from the floor this week, two days before the monthlong August break, for fear it would fall in a crossfire between opposing GOP factions.

A few weeks earlier, Boehner suggested a new standard for Congress. “We should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws that we repeal,” he said as Republicans voted for the 38th and 39th time since 2011 to repeal or otherwise neuter the health care law known as Obamacare.

Reaching for a round number, they did it for a 40th time on Friday, although the legislation stands no chance in the Democratic Senate and the GOP has yet to offer the replacement that it pledged three years ago to produce.

House Democrats claimed to hate all of this, yet couldn’t get enough.

After attacking virtually every move Republicans made for months, they demanded the GOP cancel summer vacation so Congress could stay in session. The break, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said, “shows shocking disregard for the American people and our economy.”

To be sure, there have been accomplishments since Congress convened last winter, although two of the more prominent ones merely avoided a meltdown rather than advancing the public’s preferred agenda.

A closed-door session helped produce compromise over President Barack Obama’s stalled nominations to administration posts and important boards — avoiding a blow-up that Republicans said would follow if Democrats changed the Senate’s filibuster rules unilaterally.

Months earlier, at the urging of their leaders, House Republicans agreed to raise the government’s debt limit rather than push the Treasury to the brink of a first-ever national default.

Legislation linking interest rates on student loans to the marketplace passed, and, too, a bill to strengthen the government’s response to crimes against women. Two more measures sent recovery funds to the victims of Superstorm Sandy.

Among the 18 other measures signed into law so far: one named a new span over the Mississippi River as the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge, after the late baseball legend. Another renamed a section of the tax code after former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.

A third clarified the size of metal blanks to be used by the Baseball Hall of Fame in minting gold and silver commemoratives: a diameter of .85 inches in the case of $5 gold coins, and 1.5 inches for $1 silvers.

The Senate passed sweeping immigration legislation to spend billions securing the nation’s borders against illegal entry and creating a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants currently in the country unlawfully. The vote was 68-32, with all Democrats and about one-third of Republicans in favor.

But House Republicans, many of whom oppose granting citizenship to anyone living in the country illegally, deemed the bill a non-starter. They intend to have alternative legislation this fall. If it succeeds, that will give the two houses about a year to somehow compromise before Congress’ term expires.

The Senate approved a bipartisan farm bill that followed customary lines in providing funding simultaneously for growers and for government programs to feed the hungry.

But a revolt by tea party conservatives blocked passage of a combined bill in the House, which then approved a measure to aid farmers. The leadership promises one for nutrition programs this fall, and an attempt will be made to find common ground with the Senate.

So far, Congress’ classic two-house compromises have been elusive.

Both houses have approved budgets.

But some Senate Republicans have blocked Democratic attempts to begin compromise talks, saying they will relent only if there is agreement in advance not to raise the federal debt limit as part of any deal.

“Let me be clear, I don’t trust the Republicans,” said GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, a tea party-backed first-term lawmaker from Texas. “I don’t trust the Democrats, and I think a whole lot of Americans likewise don’t trust the Republicans or the Democrats because it is leadership in both parties that has got us into this mess.”

Indeed, most opinion polls over the past six months put public approval for Congress in the mid-teens, with disapproval generally over 70 percent.

And yet, says Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., “Congress does reflect the American people and the American people are divided.”

Sen. Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican who took office in January, said gridlock “is not as bad as I expected,” and seems exaggerated by the frenzied 24-hour-a-day news cycle. She said she has been able to agree with several Democrats on amendments to bills in committee.

On a larger scale, though, even prior agreements are endangered. One example:

Under legislation already in effect, spending for one category of federal programs is supposed to total $967 billion for the fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1, with a portion set aside for defense and another share for domestic accounts.

In the House, Republicans approved a budget that adheres to the $967 billion figure but puts more into defense and less into domestic programs than is mandated.

In the Senate, Democrats opted for $1.058 trillion, far in excess of the agreed-upon total.

The difference, about $92 billion, must be reconciled before lawmakers can approve legislation to keep the government in operation after Sept. 30.

Further complicating matters, some tea party-backed Republicans say they will vote for such legislation only if it cancels all funding for the health care law that Congress passed three years ago — a condition Democrats and Obama vehemently reject.

The alternative to compromise is a partial government shutdown, an outcome leaders in both parties say they can avoid.

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