The Fix’s Recess Reading: The 10 most memorable moments in Congress so far in 2013

March 28, 2013

With Congress out of session until early April, The Fix thought now was the time to look back at the first three months of the year and highlight the most memorable moments that the House and Senate brought to us.


The U.S. Capitol. Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post

The extended Fix posse -- seven members strong! -- put our heads together (sort of like the Borg hive mind) and came up with the 10 moments that mattered in Congress so far this year.

Our list is below -- as well as some required reading on each moment that you should take a look at if you really want to impress your friends and vanquish your enemies. The number one moment is the single most consequential.

Enjoy!

10. Joe Biden swears in new Senators

Why it mattered: The Vice President has made no bones about his interest in running for the top job in 2016. And in swearing-in the new group of Senators -- a sort of paint-by-numbers job that falls to the VP -- Biden showcased everything people love and hate about him. He joked. He jabbed. He jibed.  It was Biden at his most Biden-esque.

Required reading: 

Swearing-in day: Joe Biden’s greatest hits
Biden: ‘Spread your legs. You’re going to be frisked

9. The Violence Against Women Act becomes law (again)

Why it mattered: The law, which provided funding for programs aimed at helping the victims of rape and domestic violence recover, had sunsetted in 2011. Subsequently it became a major talking point for Democrats in making their case that Republicans were waging a "war on women." The measure passed the GOP-controlled House with 87 Republican votes; those Republicans who voted against it did so because of the domestic violence provisions extended to gay and lesbian couples, among other reasons. It was a notable vote, marking the third time since December that House Speaker John Boehner allowed legislation to move off the floor without the support of the majority of the GOP Conference. President Obama signed the legislation into law in early March.


President Obama signs the Violence Against Women Act into law. (AP photo)

Required reading:

* House Roll Call vote on VAWA
Violence Against Women Act passed by House, sent to Obama for signature

8. The Senate's old bulls say goodbye

Why it mattered: The retirement of a handful of long-serving Senators ensured that the face of the world's greatest deliberative body would change dramatically. In short order, Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, who was first elected in 1978, as well as Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, both of whom were elected in 1984, called it quits.  Octogenarian Frank Lautenberg, who has served on and off in the Senate since 1982, retired as well.  Those departures, coupled with the deaths of Hawaii's Daniel Inouye, Massachusetts' Ted Kennedy and West Virginia's Robert Byrd  -- not to mention the defeats of Indiana's Dick Lugar and Utah's Bob Bennett -- in recent years mean the Senate is an altered institution.

Required reading:

Tom Harkin: ‘It’s somebody else’s turn’
Jay Rockefeller, likely the last of a political dynasty

7. The Ted Cruz Experience

Why it mattered: The Texas Republican freshman senator came to Washington with high expectations from the tea party crowd. And, man, did he deliver -- and then some -- on those expectations.  Cruz roughed up Chuck Hagel during the latter's confirmation fight to be Secretary of Defense, treatment that led to rebukes from some of his Republican colleagues. He hammered then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya. He clashed with California Sen. Dianne Feinstein on gun control. Cruz gave every impression of a man entirely unimpressed and unaffected by the tradition of collegiality in the Senate. And his supporters loved every minute of it.

Required reading:

Ted Cruz’s delicate balancing act
Who is Ted Cruz?

6. The Obama Charm Offensive

Why it mattered: In the immediate aftermath of his surprisingly convincing re-election victory last November, President Obama used the momentum he had gained to win legislative victories over Republicans on the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling showdowns. Those victories won, Obama began to court Senate Republicans and a handful of House GOPers -- including Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wisc.) -- through a barrage of lunches, dinners and phone calls. The aim was clear; with gun control and immigration -- not to mention the debt ceiling looming (again) this summer -- Obama wanted to extend the political olive branch in hopes of getting some of his priorities accomplished before his political clout disappeared.

Required reading:

Why Paul Ryan and President Obama lunched this week, and why it matters
Republicans reserve judgment on Obama’s charm offensive

5. Senate Democrats pass a budget

Why it mattered: When the Senate approved a budget proposal in the wee hours of March 23, it marked the first time in more than four years that they had done so. The Democratic budget came in response to heavy pressure from Congressional Republicans who, for the third time in as many years, passed a budget put forward by  Ryan. The budgets offered starkly different visions for the country's future. Ryan's plan would balance the federal budget in 10 years, repeal large swaths of President Obama's health care law and drastically alter Medicare. The Democratic budget included $1 billion more in revenues and avoided making any cuts to entitlement programs.


A Senate aide delivers a stack of documents bound in red tape being used as a prop during debate on the budget in the Senate. The paperwork was described as the federal regulations dealing with the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Required reading:

* The Democratic budget
* The Ryan/Republican budget

4. Rob Portman (and lots of Senate Democrats) come out in support of gay marriage

Why it mattered: Even though both state and national polling made clear that the American public was shifting quickly in favor of same-sex marriage, no high-profile Republican elected official had announced a position switch on the issue. Until Ohio Sen. Rob Portman said he was now supportive of the right of gays and lesbians to get married, citing the fact that one of his sons is gay as the reason for the change of heart. "I have come to believe that if two people are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to love and care for each other in good times and in bad, the government shouldn’t deny them the opportunity to get married," Portman wrote in an op-ed in the Columbus Dispatch.  Portman was joined in short order by a parade of Democratic Senators including Jon Tester (Mont.) and Kay Hagan (N.C.) who announced they now backed gay marriage.


This undated photo provided the office of U.S. Senator Rob Portman shows Sen. Portman, right, and his son, Will. Sen. Portman is now supporting gay marriage and says his reversal on the issue began when he learned Will is gay. (AP Photo/Office of U.S. Sen. Rob Portman) (Uncredited/AP)

Required reading:

Will Portman's op-ed on coming out
Rob Portman commentary: Gay couples also deserve chance to get married

3. Harry Reid says there are only "40 votes" for the assault weapons ban

Why it mattered: In the immediate aftermath of the murders of 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut, there was a sense in Washington that the political dynamics governing gun control might have changed. But, with each day that passed after Newtown, it became clear that the same divisions -- geographic, cultural -- remained.  Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, announced earlier this month that the gun control legislation he would put forward when Congress returned in April would include neither an assault weapons ban nor a ban on high-capacity clips.  “Using the most optimistic numbers [the assault weapons ban] has less than 40 votes," Reid said on the Senate floor. "That’s not 60."

Required reading:

* The assault weapons ban was always doomed
* The assault weapons ban is (still) doomed

2. The sequester 

Why it mattered: When the White House and Congressional Republicans agreed to the sequester -- $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade -- no one thought it might actually happen. The entire point of the sequester, after all, was an attempt by politicians to force themselves into action because the political penalties of not doing something -- across the board cuts to defense and domestic programs -- were so severe. Or not. As the March 1 deadline for averting the sequester approached, it became clear that politicians had decided it wasn't so bad after all -- a testament to the fact that Congress will, always, take the path of least resistance.

Required reading:

* How the sequester became politically inevitable 
The Sequester: Absolutely everything you could possibly need to know, in one FAQ

1. The Rand Paul filibuster

Why it mattered: It started slowly.  When Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican and son of three-time presidential candidate Ron Paul, took to the Senate floor and pledged to speak until he could speak no more in opposition to the nomination of John Brennan as CIA director, no one thought much of it. But, as Paul spoke -- and spoke -- about his objections to the possible use of drones domestically against American citizens, it became clear that something big was happening.  Paul's tea party compatriots in the Senate -- Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas -- soon joined Paul. Then Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the frontrunner for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, spoke.  Heck, even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke in support of Paul. By the time he was done talking, Paul -- and his colleagues -- had talked for nearly 13 straight hours and, in so doing, turned himself into (even more of) a cult hero for a not-insignificant chunk of the GOP.

Required reading:

7 highlights of the Paul filibuster
* Rand Paul and the principle principle

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · March 28, 2013