In an era when many Americans dismiss the House and Senate as entities incapable of action or accomplishment, Congress actually did something this week to rebut its do-nothing image.
The legislation passed and sent to President Obama won’t name a new post office or avert another fiscal crisis. It also won’t fix major problems with the health-care law, immigration reform or the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. But the bills do address modest concerns that lawmakers hope will improve their poor public standing and help ordinary people.
On Tuesday, the Senate gave quick final approval to a measure that would divert federal funding for political conventions to help pay for pediatric cancer research — a plan that originated in the House. Two days later, the Senate put the finishing touches on a plan to revamp the National Flood Insurance Program that the House approved last week. And senators toiled away for more than two days on proposals to update federal child-care standards.
Friday marked the 73rd day of the year but only the 33rd day that either the House or the Senate had been in session. Next week will be the third week-long break of the year for Congress. Aides say lawmakers will head home to work on district and home-state concerns, but many also will be campaigning ahead of the fall midterm elections, hoping to prove their value and influence to wary voters.
That’s why Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) so eagerly sought credit for the proposed changes to the flood insurance program. They’re 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 bill, but that didn’t stop Landrieu from dominating the Senate floor debate on the measure and from publishing several pages on her Senate Web site documenting constituents’ concerns.
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 Cantor (R-Va.), who called Cassidy “a leader in the fight to ensure flood insurance remains affordable.” Rep. Michael G. 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 battle as he tries to erase a bad-boy image prompted by his angry confrontation with a reporter in January after President Obama’s State of the Union address. He called passage of the flood insurance bill “one of the proudest moments of my life.”
But it’s unclear whether voters care about statements like those coming out of Washington. Only three in 10 Americans think 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. 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 Journal poll. That seems to be feeding a renewed eagerness among Democrats and Republicans to cut deals.
Congress isn’t done with its partisan bickering. The House tried again this week 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 about whether to include the International Monetary Fund in the package sparked an angry exchange among senators Thursday.
But the fighting came only after a remarkably bipartisan week in the Senate.
“Congress Gets Something Done!!!” screamed an e-mail Cantor’s aides sent Tuesday after senators quickly approved a measure he had written. Rather than spending federal money 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. Federal funding for security operations will still be provided. 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. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.), who helped Cantor steer the measure through the Senate, said he didn’t know of any other bills languishing on either side of the 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 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 update several federal child-care standards.
The legislation was debated as part of a plan brokered by several senior senators concerned about recent partisan fights and eager to restore a sense of productivity in the Senate. Lawmakers are expected to soon discuss 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 pushed to allow the votes.
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 A. 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 during a flurry of last-minute activity.
The fast pace was proving almost too much for some senators unaccustomed to the productivity. 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.