Lawmakers will return to Washington on Tuesday to begin an election-year work session with low expectations for any significant legislative action, while also receiving low approval ratings for themselves.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows a new high — 84 percent of Americans — disapproving of the job Congress is doing, with almost two-thirds saying they “disapprove strongly.” Just 13 percent of Americans approve of how things are going after the 112th Congress’s first year of action, solidifying an unprecedented level of public disgust that has both sides worried about their positions less than 10 months before voters decide their fates.
It has been nearly four years since even 30 percent expressed approval of Congress, according to the Post-ABC survey, and support hasn’t recovered from the historic low it reached last fall.
In the face of the public dismay, House Republicans and Senate Democrats are fashioning less far-reaching agendas for the year ahead, in part to avoid the bitter political showdowns of 2011 and also to best position themselves for the fall elections.
Because of reelection politics, the second session for any Congress is traditionally less ambitious than the first because lawmakers are campaigning and therefore generally spend less time in Washington. This year’s legislative business, however, will take place in the shadow of $5 trillion in deficit reduction achieved through tax increases and spending cuts that are scheduled to take effect next Jan. 1 . The move was triggered by an unsuccessful effort by a congressional “supercommittee” last fall to reach a compromise on the federal deficit and expiring George W. Bush-era tax cuts.
The expectation is that fiscal issues will again be the central battleground in the presidential and congressional elections. If voters clearly embrace one party’s position over the other’s, it could tilt negotiations on a broader tax-and-spending deal in a lame-duck session after the elections or in early 2013.
In the meantime, with the House reconvening on Tuesday and the Senate returning next week, Congress is poised to resume a series of smaller skirmishes on provisions that were temporarily extended into the new year.
Most prominent among them is President Obama’s proposal to extend a payroll tax holiday for workers through this year, an issue that hamstrung House Republicans before the holidays.
Rather than agreeing on a full-year extension, Congress reached accord only on enough offsetting spending cuts to extend the tax holiday until Feb. 29. Democrats say that puts them in the driver’s seat at the start of the new session by allowing them to resume a debate that divided Republicans, many of whom opposed the provision. Senate Democrats also hope to repeatedly push smaller-bore items focusing narrowly on particular sectors, such as highway and school construction, that would either lead to bipartisan deals or demonstrate Republican obstruction to their agenda.
“The issues that are most salient in 2012 — jobs, helping the middle class, income inequality — are much better for Democrats than last year. Overall, this is going to be a much better year for us,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the No. 3 Democratic leader.
Much of last year’s agenda focused on slashing spending ahead of critical deadlines, with the looming possibility of government shutdowns or default. Now, the government is funded for the rest of the year and the Treasury has enough borrowing authority to go into 2013, avoiding do-or-die drama in this year’s debates.
Republicans have expressed little desire to relive the fractured finale to December’s payroll-tax negotiations, which ended with the Senate approving a two-month extension of the holiday and the House initially rejecting that, before Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) forced his boisterous conference to accept the deal.
Boehner’s agenda will focus on promoting energy production and trying to ease regulations for oil and gas exploration, then funneling projected increased revenue from that growth into highway and infrastructure projects.
House Republicans are anticipating objections from Senate Democrats and Obama, hoping at least to highlight the contrasts with voters before the elections.
“In short, the House will be relentlessly focused on the issue of jobs in 2012 — with or without the cooperation of Washington Democrats,” said Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman.
The payroll-holiday showdown, the last of a round of 2011 brinksmanship, ended with congressional Democrats in a stronger position, at least among their own supporters. This month, 67 percent of liberal Democrats approve of the way congressional Democrats are doing their jobs.
Congressional Republicans continue to struggle to win support from their base: Just 48 percent of conservative Republicans approve of the job their party’s representatives are doing.
With the Feb. 29 deadline approaching on the payroll tax holiday, Democrats and Republicans are less than $70 billion apart in agreeing on spending reductions or revenue increases for a full-year extension. The package also will include continuing unemployment benefits and preventing cuts in Medicare payments to doctors. According to aides in both parties, Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) would like to include about $30 billion in extensions for popular tax breaks, including the research and development credit, into the package including the payroll tax holiday.