The Washington Post

5 reasons gridlock will seize Congress again

As the 113th Congress was sworn in Thursday, the page was officially turned on a divided, historically unproductive 112th Congress that was defined by gridlock and viewed overwhelmingly negatively by the American people.

But while some of the names and faces changed (about one-fifth, to be precise), there are few obvious reasons to believe that -- in the short term at least -- the deep divisions that characterized the last Congress will suddenly disappear in the new one.

In fact, there are strong arguments to be made that the way the new Congress goes about its business will closely resemble the way it has for the past two years.

(Mark Gong/The Washington Post)

Below are five reasons the 113th Congress could be as deadlocked and disappointing as the preceding one:

1. The debt ceiling battle: There is no honeymoon ahead. Republicans who were long adamant about not raising tax rates eventually caved during the fiscal cliff negotiations, handing President Obama a political win and fulfillment of his campaign promise to raise taxes on the wealthy while holding middle-class rates steady. Republicans believe the concession handed them new leverage in the debt debate to demand the spending cuts they want (and were punted away during the "fiscal cliff" debate) in exchange for increasing in the federal borrowing limit. On the other side stand Democrats, led by Obama, who has warned that he will not negotiate with Republicans over the $16.4 trillion limit. It’s not difficult to see the emerging game of political chicken that could well end with leaders finding themselves in the familiar position of hastily slapping together a deal as a deadline nears. And that deadline is just two months away.

2. Other tough votes in the pipeline: Obama has identified immigration reform and new gun control measures as the early legislative priorities of his second term. But Congress hasn't passed immigration or gun control bills in years for a reason. Even Republicans have been talking up the urgent need to reform immigration laws, and a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed a strong majority of Americans support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But a similar majority in a separate poll stood in favor of raising taxes on the wealthy during the fiscal cliff debate, and that didn’t stop the issue from holding up a deal. When it comes to gun control, a recent Gallup poll illustrates why passing new regulations could be difficult and divisive, even in the wake of the mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., school. While a significant majority of Americans say they support new gun measures, those same people can’t seem to come to an agreement about specific laws -- beyond further background checks.

3. Thursday’s speaker vote: House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was reelected on Thursday, but he also came closer to failing to secure a win on the first ballot than any speaker since an embattled Newt Gingrich in 1997. Twelve Republicans voted against Boehner, just a couple of weeks after the Ohio Republican failed to win sufficient support from his conference for his “Plan B” proposal on the "fiscal cliff." As both instances showed, there isn’t a shortage of House Republicans willing to adopt a stern posture and make a statement. And that’s bad news for compromise.

4. Threat of primaries looms large: Over 85 percent of the 113th Congress won with better than 55 percent of the vote in 2012, and majorities of winners in both parties claimed between 60 and 70 percent of the vote. Not to sound like a broken record here, but that’s not an ingredient for compromise. For the members who won comfortably, the threat of attracting a formidable opponent from the same party is much more serious than losing in the general election. The most common way for incumbents to stave off intra-party challenges is to adhere to conservative or liberal voting patterns that prevent potential opponents from questioning their credentials with the party base.

5. Cabinet fights: Senate Republicans haven’t been shy about expressing their displeasure with prospective Obama Administration cabinet nominees they don’t care for. The resistance United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice faced in meetings with Republican lawmakers prompted her to remove her name from consideration for secretary of state. And the prospect of former Nebraska Republican senator Chuck Hagel becoming the next secretary of defense triggered pushback from some Senate Republicans saying he’d have a tough time getting confirmed. Rest assured: More spats over cabinet confirmations will only fuel partisan divisions. 


The Club for Growth is pushing House Republicans to use their leverage in the looming debt ceiling negotiations.

David Brooks, though, says the GOP doesn't have as much leverage as it might think.

Filibuster reform advocates say Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has 51 votes to pass a bill.

Vice President Biden had himself some fun at Thursday's swearing-in ceremonies. A recap from Slate's Dave Weigel.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) is joining GOP leadership as one of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) two counsels. The other is Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) pushes for gay marriage in Illinois

Mark Sanford: Frontrunner?

Former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) will meet with the families of the victims in Newtown.


"The 113th Congress is the most diverse in history" -- Rosalind S. Helderman, Washington Post

"White House seems poised to retool deportation laws" -- David Nakamura and Tara Bahrampour, Washington Post

"Liked but Not Feared, Boehner Keeps a Job Some Might Ask Why He Wants" -- Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times

"Chris Christie May Be the Smartest Man in Politics" -- Ron Fournier, National Journal



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Sean Sullivan · January 3, 2013

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