What the next two months will tell us about Congress

January 17, 2013

President Obama's decision to press forward with a comprehensive set of legislative proposals aimed at curbing gun violence adds a volatile element to what is already shaping up to be a decidedly unstable next few months in Congress.


The U.S. Capitol

Between now and mid-to-late March, Congress -- and the White House -- will be called on to deal with the following matters:

1. Raising (or not) the debt ceiling

2. Averting across-the-board automatic cuts (aka sequestration) on all federal spending

3. Passing (or not) a continuing resolution to keep the government operating

4. Acting (or not) on some (or all) of President Obama's gun control proposals

In a normal year with a functioning Congress, any two of the issues above would be enough to test the men and women of the House and Senate. All four would be something close to a cataclysm even with a legislative body that was humming at (or near) maximum efficiency.

A Congress that works as the founders imagined, of course, is not what we have at the moment. As the last several years have made abundantly clear, Congress seems incapable of doing the sort of "big" things that its members all pledge they want to do.  Grand bargains devolve into partisan shouting matches. Republicans are at war with themselves. We lurch from crisis to crisis. Bipartisanship seems as antiquated as a VHS tape.

Given all that, it's hard to imagine a worse time for this perfect storm of high-profile, controversial and deeply impactful issues to be staring down Congress.

If recent past is prologue, there's little reason to believe that we are headed toward anything short of a legislative and political Armageddon by the end of March. The stakes in the debt ceiling fight are far higher than those of the fiscal cliff. The National Rifle Association is already pledging that the coming debate over gun legislation will be the "fight of the century." And the prospect of the government simply shutting down remains very real.

Of course, Congress could choose another path -- one outlined by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) upon his reelection to that post earlier this month.

Said Boehner:

"Public service was never meant to be an easy living. Extraordinary challenges demand extraordinary leadership. ... And for the 113th Congress, it is a time to rise. When the day is over and the verdict is read, maybe it's said that we well and faithfully did our duty to ensure freedom and that freedom will endure and prevail, so help us God."

The next two months will show the country what Congress is made of. Will those "extraordinary leaders" find a way to solve what seems to be a close-to-impossible set of challenges? And, if not, then what?

Fixbits:

Obama noted Wednesday that, in 1994, Ronald Reagan supported an assault weapons ban. But the head of the Gun Owners of America suggests Reagan's age, 83, might have led him to say something he might not otherwise have said.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) sounds leery of Obama's gun proposals.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) doesn't like them either.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is still pushing for tax reform.

Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.), who may challenge Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) in a primary, goes after Chambliss.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) will soon meet with top conservatives in the important presidential primary state of South Carolina.

Former congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) has signed on as an analyst for Fox News.

new poll from Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling shows Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) with a 33 percent approval rating and 57 percent disapproval.

Scott, meanwhile, is backing off a bill he signed shortening the period for early voting in Florida, amidst pressure from black lawmakers. "It was not my bill," Scott said. "We've got to make changes, I agree. … The Legislature passed it. I didn't have anything to do with passing it."

Must-reads:

"Earmarks: The Reluctant Case for Ending the Ban" -- Brendan Greeley, Bloomberg Businessweek

"The Men Who Would Stop Gun Control" -- Dave Weigel, Slate

"'Hastert Rule' Takes Body Blows With Sandy, Cliff Votes" -- Daniel Newhauser, Roll Call

"Obama Presses Senate to Confirm A.T.F. Director" -- Michael S. Schmidt, New York Times

"Obama invokes Constitution in arguing for gun control" -- Scott Wilson, Washington Post

"NRA’s lobbying bags big legislative wins in states over the past two decades" -- Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger, Washington Post

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Sean Sullivan | January 16, 2013