In an era when most Americans have dismissed the House and Senate as do-nothing bodies, Congress actually did something this week.
The legislation passed and sent to President Obama won’t name a new post office or help Washington avoid another fiscal deadline. It also won’t fix significant problems with the health-care law, immigration or the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. But the bills do address modest concerns that lawmakers hope voters can appreciate and understand.
Friday marked the 73rd day of the year but only the 33rd day that either the House or Senate had been in session. Next week is the third week-long break of the year for Congress. Aides insist that lawmakers are heading home to work on district and home state concerns, but many also have to campaign and prove their staying power to wary voters.
That’s why Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) so eagerly sought credit Thursday for final passage of a bill making changes to the National Flood Insurance Program.
Landrieu and Cassidy are expected to face off in one of the most competitive Senate races this year in a state still rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. Neither of them sits on the committees that wrote the flood insurance bill, but that didn’t stop Landrieu from dominating Senate floor debate on the measure and from publishing several sleekly-produced pages on her Senate Web site documenting the concerns of her constituents.
And it didn't stop Cassidy, either. After the bill passed the Senate 72 to 22, he issued a press release with laudatory statements from House Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.), who called Cassidy "a leader in the fight to ensure flood insurance remains affordable." Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), a lead sponsor of the bill, was more explicit: "Bill Cassidy literally wrote the bill with me," he said, calling his colleague "probably one of the most knowledgeable members of Congress on flood insurance."
Grimm, whose Staten Island district was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, also could face a difficult reelection this year as he tries to erase a bad-boy image prompted by his angry confrontation with a reporter after the State of the Union. He called passage of the flood insurance bill "one of the proudest moments of my life."
But it's unclear whether those types of statements matter any more to voters. Only three in 10 Americans believe their lawmakers deserve another term and more than half of voters are looking to elect someone else, according to a national poll released this week. Fifty-four percent of Americans want to replace every member of Congress. But more than 80 percent of Americans are willing to support lawmakers who compromise and work with the other party, according to the NBC News/Wall Street poll. The drop in public opinion has sparked a renewed eagerness among Democrats and Republicans to cut deals.
To be sure, Congress isn't done with its partisan bickering. The House this week tried again to delay the individual mandate in the new health-care law and passed a bill that would make it easier for lawmakers to sue Obama if he doesn't fully enforce federal laws. When they return to Washington, there will be fresh fights over extending unemployment insurance and raising the minimum wage. And lawmakers are expected to approve billions of dollars in assistance to Ukraine, but disagreements over whether to include the International Monetary Fund in the package sparked an angry exchange among senators Thursday afternoon.
But the fighting came only after a remarkably bipartisan week in the Senate.
"Congress Gets Something Done!!!" screamed the e-mail sent by Cantor's aides Tuesday morning after senators quickly approved a measure he had written. Rather than spending federal dollars to help Democrats and Republicans hold their presidential nominating conventions every four years, Congress agreed to divert about $126 million over the next decade to pediatric medical research. The House passed the bill in December along a mostly party-line vote and senators approved it unanimously, without debate.
“It's a great example of what we can accomplish when members are willing to work together on behalf of the American people," House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said later.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who helped Cantor steer the bill through the Senate, said he didn't know of any other bills languishing on either side of the U.S. Capitol that could be approved so quickly and without much drama. "But we ought to look," he said. "It’s in both sides’ interest to do stuff rather than not do stuff.”
Later in the week, senators debated and approved the reauthorization of federally subsidized child care. About 1.6 million children in low-income families benefit from the program, and lawmakers have been eager to make several changes to update federal standards for care.
The bill was debated as part of a plan carefully orchestrated by several senior senators concerned about recent partisan fights and eager to restore a sense of productivity in the Senate. In addition to reauthorizing the child-care funding, debate is expected soon on bipartisan proposals related to federal sentencing reform, assistance for the manufacturing sector and ways to promote energy efficiency.
“They’re not in the top five in terms of what must pass or should pass this year, but they’re important bills,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who helped broker the plan.
As part of the agreement, the bill's Democratic and Republican sponsors get to lead debate on the bill. So for most of the week, Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) called votes on dozens of amendments from members of both parties. Burr served as emcee, providing frequent updates on the vote schedule, while Mikulski served as cheerleader.
"This has been really very good," she said at one point. “This is the way the Senate ought to work. There were differences, but differences doesn’t mean that it has to be filled with rancor all the time. After all is said and done, people want us to get more things done and less things said."
The bill easily passed 96 to 2 Thursday afternoon during a flurry of last-minute activity.
The fast pace was proving almost too much for some senators unaccustomed to all of the action. After racing between her office and the Senate floor several times, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) joked with reporters that she shouldn’t have worn heels.
Paul Kane contributed to this report.