The heretofore “do-nothing” Congress is on the cusp of becoming a “did-something” Congress, and Capitol Hill couldn’t more pleased with itself.
As Congress prepared to leave Washington for a two-week Easter break, lawmakers celebrated a bipartisan deal that would end the dreaded yearly ritual known as the “doc fix” while extending popular federal health-care programs for low-income families.
The cheering was especially pronounced from Republicans, who control both houses of Congress for the first time since 2006 and are eager to prove their governing chops — and hope to keep the momentum rolling as they face a host of other thorny issues.
”It’s the way the legislative process is supposed to work,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Thursday, moments after Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi stood at the same podium to “salute the bipartisanship” seen in the health-care deal.
And Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said the deal “gives me reason for optimism that we can take a step forward on other big issues.”
Despite the high hopes, there are reasons to be wary.
For one, as eager as lawmakers were to praise the permanent “doc fix,” it is not yet a done deal.
The Senate, after a marathon budget session that wrapped up after 3 a.m. Friday morning, did not take action on the House bill before departing for a two-week recess. That means that payment rates Medicare pays to health-care providers will technically be cut, although Capitol Hill aides expect Obama administration officials to delay claims processing until the fix is final.
Some objections from Senate Democrats appeared to ease late last week — particularly concerning abortion restrictions for community health centers — but there was lingering unhappiness about the fact that the deal struck in the House would reauthorize the State Children’s Health Insurance Program for two years instead of four.
”I don’t know how we walk out of here knowing we’ve fixed it for doctors permanently and given children only two years,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said earlier in the week.
But President Obama said he would sign the bill as forged in the House, and Senate Democratic aides said they did not anticipate any serious roadblocks to swift approval of the bill once lawmakers get back to work on April 13.
But many people recognize that the grand health-care bargain is something of a legislative unicorn.
Few congressional rituals have become quite as surreal as the yearly Medicare rate-hike vote — which, despite its $200 billion long-term price tag, has become routine. Without the “fix,” it is feared that steep cuts could cause many doctors to stop treating Medicare patients.
”I think that, by last year, a big chunk of the members of Congress understood that SGR was a fraud. . . . It just didn’t past the smell test,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, referring to the Sustainable Growth Rate, the technical name for the formula governing Medicare payments.
Last year, the House’s most fiscally hard-line Republicans criticized party leaders for ramming through the yearly fix on a voice vote rather than risk a roll call that might have failed — a spectacle Boehner and his deputies are not inclined to repeat.
Democratic House leaders, meanwhile, were eager to see health programs for the poor extended without Republican tinkering with funding levels or policy provisions that would be likely were the legislation to move separately.
That compromise — overlaid with the genuinely bipartisan frustration with the yearly Medicare ritual — paved the way for an overwhelming House vote, 392 to 37.
The strong tally, Ryan said moments after the vote Thursday, “tells me that there is a formula here for getting things done, and we’re going to try to perfect that formula.”
Ryan suggested that a similar deal could be made in assembling the first comprehensive reform of the federal tax code in nearly 30 years. Other large-bore issues loom where some bipartisan accord will be necessary, include fast-track trade authority, highway funding authorization, reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank and a debt ceiling increase.
But Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University and a Brookings Institution fellow, said the health deal reflected a rare alignment of interests between the two parties and that further deals will be harder to forge.
”It’s a template, but how often does it fit?” she asked.
Put simply, Binder said, Republicans and Democrats happen to agree that the yearly “doc fix” charade is a problem in need of fixing. Issues like government spending and corporate taxation tend not to generate similar accord.
”There is seemingly a small kernel of issues where the parties seem to see things in the same way,” she said. “It’s just a higher threshold if the leaders or the base or some constellation of activists in the party don’t see this issue as a problem.”
On trade, for instance, many liberal Democrats don’t agree that a lapse in presidential “fast-track” negotiating authority is a bad thing. And when it comes to the federal debt, history has shown, the most fiscally conservative Republicans are unwilling to take any vote allowing for additional borrowing.
But for now, Congress is enjoying its moment of good feelings.
”Whenever you can get big important stuff done, it starts chipping away at the sense that Washington can’t run a two-car parade, let alone doing anything big,” said Wyden, who is personally negotiating the trade bill with top Republicans and is a key player in tax reform talks. “You get something big done, and of course, it does start it does start chipping away at this legitimate frustration about all the gridlock.”
Boehner was flip when asked about future areas of potential bipartisan cooperation — “if I see one, I’ll let you know,” he told reporters — but Ryan said he did not think the health care deal is sui generis.
”There’s a bunch of weird unicorns around here,” he said, “so we’ll see.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Sen. Ron Wyden’s role on the Senate Finance Committee.