After Senate budget vote, few hopes for a productive 2014


Both sides say the budget will probably be one of the last major bills to pass the 113th Congress as midterm elections loom. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
December 15, 2013

The bipartisan budget compromise that passed the House by a wide margin last week has inspired House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to blast outside conservative groups that he said were using Republican members of Congress for their own gain. It has inspired kind words between the two legislators — Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — who hammered out the deal. And it has inspired hope that, after years of governing by crisis, Congress may begin returning to something resembling regular order.

But that hope masks a deeply divided Senate, where ill will over recent rule changes has heightened a bitter partisan divide. As the Senate prepares to take up the budget deal this week, both sides say it is likely to be one of the final pieces of significant legislation to pass the 113th Congress as midterm elections loom.

Even the deal’s chief Democratic negotiator conceded Sunday that her relationship with Ryan is no sign of things to come.

“I think the grand bargain, you know, that puts everything in a whole lot of tough votes on the table is impossible to find at this point,” Murray said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Despite the broad bipartisan vote to pass the budget deal in the House, Democrats are still trying to come up with the 60 votes necessary to break a GOP-led filibuster in the Senate. On Friday, several key Republicans signaled that they would vote to end debate. That list included Sens. John McCain (Ariz), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Richard Burr (N.C.). Several others, including Sens. Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Bob Corker (Tenn.), have indicated that they may vote for cloture. McCain said Sunday he would support the final measure.

“The struggle is still on in the United States Senate; we will need about eight Republicans to come our way. I feel we’ll have a good, strong showing from the Democratic side. But we need bipartisan support to pass it,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

The Senate is expected to vote to end debate Tuesday morning, followed by a vote on final passage by Wednesday evening. The chamber is scheduled to end its legislative business for the year on Friday, though aides in both parties suggested that it may adjourn Wednesday or Thursday.

After the Senate reconvenes in January, observers say, the coming year is unlikely to yield significant legislative action. Democrats will probably advance measures intended to draw political contrasts with Republicans — including a proposal to raise the minimum wage and a number of smaller bills that they say would boost jobs and strengthen the economy. None of those measures are likely to win Republican votes or spur action in the GOP-controlled House.

“Senate Democrats have the opportunity over the next year to work with us to make job creation easier rather than pushing job-killing tax hikes; they have the opportunity to work with us to protect consumers from the consequences of Obamacare; and they have the opportunity to undo the damage they’ve done to the legislative process. Sadly, all signs point to more of the same political legislation designed to fail,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement. “The American people have given us divided government. The administration needs to accept it.”

Congress won’t be completely dormant: House and Senate negotiators are nearing a final deal on the farm bill, and the two chambers are working on a ­water-resources agreement. Democratic and Republican negotiators will also have to strike a deal to raise the debt ceiling, probably by mid-February.

Immigration reform, a major priority for President Obama, is stuck in the House; Boehner has said the chamber won’t take up the Senate-passed version of the legislation.

The Senate is likely to take action on a proposal from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to make changes to the military’s handling of sexual assault cases, and to consider a new package of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

But in an election year in the sixth year of a presidency, there is little precedent for major bipartisan agreements. John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a former top staffer at the Republican National Committee, pointed to a tax reform bill that passed in 1986. But Congress had been working on that measure for months, and there is no such significant deal being discussed on Capitol Hill today.

“Even aside from increased partisan polarization, it is hard to see how lawmakers could pull off anything comparable in the remaining months of the 113th Congress,” Pitney said.

And while Ryan and Murray have been highly complimentary of each other, relations between the parties in the Senate have been rubbed raw by a package of filibuster rule changes that Democrats forced through the chamber last month.

The Ryan-Murray compromise “is not a sea change in terms of how the bodies work,” said Jeff Bjornstad, a lobbyist and former Murray chief of staff. “The dynamics of the filibuster change will just reentrench the small ball.”

Paul Kane and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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