The final days of the 113th Congress featured familiar displays of partisan fervor: A liberal rebellion in the House nearly blew up a bipartisan spending bill to keep the government open, followed by a conservative revolt in the Senate that played out like a roller-coaster ride over several late nights.
In the frenzied last hours Tuesday night, the Senate confirmed a series of obscure executive and judicial branch posts and renewed some lapsed tax breaks for narrow special interests.
But maybe most telling is that the government stayed open, almost fully funded for the rest of the fiscal year. While it did appear ugly, the House and Senate avoided the worst excesses of 2013, when Congress couldn’t even keep the lights on as the federal government shut down for 16 days.
Building off that very modest success, some believe that President Obama’s last two years in office can be more productive than his past two years have been.
“There are a lot of trends here that suggest a more productive Congress, and one that earns the respect of the American people,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a perennial optimist and determined dealmaker, said Tuesday. He pointed to the bipartisan votes for the $1.1 trillion spending bill, as well as a collection of new, incoming Republican lawmakers who hail from the more mainstream wing of conservative Republicans.
Of course, not everyone is so bullish.
Democrats, who will be in the minority in both houses next year, point to last weekend’s revolt led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) as the sign of things to come. The next Congress, they say, will have to deal with the higher expectations of conservative activists who have been disappointed by the last four years of governance, when only the House was in Republican hands.
Now, the demand for results from conservative activists could overwhelm House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and the incoming Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
“The Republicans are completely divided. Ted Cruz, in one fell swoop, has taken away all the hard work of Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, trying to show that they can govern,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.
Still others, including those that caused some of the biggest headaches in recent years, suggested that the new normal will still involve moments of brinkmanship but that key lessons have been learned and the hardest edges blunted.
“These crescendos are sort of what we operate on,” said Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), a second-term lawmaker who went from leading rabble rouser one year to team player the next. Once tossed off his committees for often undermining Boehner’s leadership team, Schweikert said he has undergone “the education of David” and is learning to advance his conservative goals from within the accepted legislative system.
“If you really want to move policy, that’s where you do it. You don’t necessarily do it on your evening hit on CNN,” Schweikert said in an interview last week as the House concluded its business for the year.
Looking toward the 114th Congress next year, a sharp divide emerges between the realists who are just hoping for small but steady progress, and the wide-eyed optimists who hope for so much more.
“We’re going to start next year with the Keystone pipeline bill, and it’s going to be open for business, open for amendments. That’s an area where there’s bipartisan support,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a member of McConnell’s leadership team. He said that the goals would be straightforward in the first few months, putting the oil pipeline legislation on the floor and following that up with other bills that already have bipartisan support but have been bottled up recently.
Another early piece of legislation that is certain to hit the floor is the Iran sanctions bill, which has broad Democratic support but has been opposed by Obama’s top advisers as they negotiate a nuclear treaty with the Middle East nation.
While many conservatives are pushing for a repeal of the president’s health-care law, Barrasso said that any legislation along those lines is likely to be vetoed and that instead the best opportunity for rewriting those laws would be if the Supreme Court, which is taking up another lawsuit involving the legislation, invalidates a key part of the law.
“The thing, the precipitating thing that is coming this year, in 2015, that would really force the president’s hand is the Supreme Court ruling that shows that they’ve been operating in a lawless way,” he said.
There are still those who believe that big things can happen. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the outgoing chairman of the Finance Committee, pointed to the massive overhaul of the veterans hospitals as proof that Congress can still act, and he held out hope that this meant a massive overhaul of the tax code would be possible.
“You never underestimate the challenge of big economic issues,” he said, but he noted that the tax legislation passed last week merely dealt with this year’s tax code and left the broader issue unresolved. “It’s going to highlight how broken the tax system is and provide opportunity to go to the next level.”
Then there are the many simmering issues that could upend Republican plans to try to build some slow-but-steady governing momentum, particularly on foreign affairs. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the incoming chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, wants time on the Senate floor to debate a full war resolution to tackle the Islamic State forces.
But for a Congress that has had trouble passing bipartisan legislation, debating the parameters of war or rewriting the entire corporate tax code would be an incredible leap.
There’s no question that this particular two-year session of Congress was one for the ages.
It began with a failed coup attempt against Boehner in January 2013 by disaffected conservatives who opposed the bipartisan deals he allowed to pass in his first two years as speaker, and it ended this month with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a liberal firebrand, in a failed bid to sink a bipartisan bill that included a provision sought by Wall Street banks to ease restrictions on trades.
In between, the Congress was one of the least productive ever. It has passed 297 measures, the second lowest tally in recorded history, according to GovTrack, with the preceding Congress in 2011 and 2012 the only one that produced fewer public laws.
For all the edge-of-the-cliff moments in 2011 and 2012, those years produced a pair of fiscal deals that could reduce future deficits by nearly $3 trillion.
During this most recent Congress, big issues simply languished in one body or the other. The Senate passed a sweeping rewrite of border and immigration laws, but the House could not even debate the issue, particularly after the sitting majority leader, Eric Cantor (R-Va.), lost his June 2014 primary amid assertions from tea party activists that he supported “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.
The House failed to pass a farm bill — traditionally one of the most bipartisan pieces of legislation in Congress. It took a few months before passing the bill and only after dividing it into several smaller bills. Despite the worst massacre of schoolchildren in the nation’s history, in December 2012, the Senate choked on a modest proposal to increase background checks and beef up mental health funding.
Frustrated Senate Democrats blew up chamber rules on filibusters through a unilateral vote that allowed them to more easily confirm the president’s nominees but which left the chamber in a state of permanent partisan tension.
Despite all that, Alexander sees opportunity in the year ahead. There’s a clutch of Republicans up for reelection in 2016 from states that voted twice for Obama, so they cannot afford to be viewed as partisan obstructionists, and there are a bunch of Democrats who are looking for their own results, particularly a cluster who represent conservative states and face reelection in 2018, a midterm year that is not likely to be favorable for them.
That combination gives Alexander hope. Is he too optimistic?
“Maybe,” he said, “but why serve here if you’re not?”