Little is trendier in Washington than talking about how broken Congress is. This won’t be the year Congress does anything to change that.
The parties’ 2012 agendas share little but a relentless electoral focus. Republicans and Democrats will use the House and Senate floors mostly to advance so-called jobs bills that will not see the light of day in the other chamber but aim to boost their respective parties’ electoral prospects.
Plans by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to work with the White House on an agenda to prompt GOP obstruction, which Democrats will link to its likely presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, highlight how focused congressional leaders are on influencing the presidential race.
This means 2012 will look a lot like last fall, when Democrats pushed President Obama’s jobs proposal, in whole and then pieces, and attacked Republicans for filibustering it. Remaining provisions, like helping states hire and retain teachers and first responders and a plan to boost infrastructure spending, could return to the Senate floor.
However, Democrats don’t seem intent on actually passing those measures, as Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who heads Senate Democrats’ policy and messaging shop, insists they will propose funding those bills with surtaxes on incomes of more than $1 million. That ensures Republican opposition—and an opportunity to bash Republicans for “protecting millionaires at the expense of the middle class.”
An immigration-policy overhaul bill—designed to force Romney to oppose something independents, Latinos, and business groups likely will support—could be on tap. Democrats are also eyeing renewable-energy-related legislation, which Democratic aides say is popular and could be effective politically if gas prices skyrocket this summer.
Although the year will probably produce few actual laws, Congress will likely start with a relative burst of legislative activity. Senate Democrats on Friday announced a long-awaited agreement to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. The deal paves the way for finalization of an FAA bill years in the making.
A deal to extend the payroll-tax holiday for another nine or 10 months is expected ahead of next month’s expiration. GOP leaders signaled they will not pick a major fight on this issue, which they see as a political loser. Rank-and-file Republicans, battered in last month’s debate, may be more amenable to their leaders’ wishes this time. Congress could also pass a Transportation Department bill ahead of the March 1 deadline.
Led by Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, House Republicans will focus on presenting a more unified front—eventually in concert with the GOP nominee—to push back and attack Obama’s policies.
“If you look at this election that’s coming up, it’s pretty clear it’s going to be a referendum on the president’s policies regarding our economy,” Boehner said on Friday at an issues retreat in Baltimore. Boehner said he will push his committee chairs to aggressively scrutinize the Obama administration, particularly on the regulatory front. As for the Democratic-led Senate, “maybe, just maybe, they can get out of the way,” Boehner said, pointing out that the House has passed more than 30 jobs-related bills that the Senate hasn’t considered.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia told his colleagues in Baltimore that 2011 showed “progress must be more incremental than some of us would have liked. To implement our policies, we have a lot of work to do. To win this election, to implement our agenda, we’ve got to lay out our vision in a way that people understand.”
Such efforts to go on the offensive will begin as early as Wednesday morning, the day after the State of the Union address, when the House Energy and Commerce Committee hears testimony from a State Department official regarding the president’s denial of a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline project.
ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT
Dems on Defensive
Republicans have no intention of relenting on the Keystone issue until they run out of options or force Obama to approve the pipeline project.
“We are absolutely committed—as a Republican team—to keep the Keystone XL pipeline on the front burner,” House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said from Baltimore on Friday.
Incensed at Obama’s Keystone rejection, Republicans are mulling legislative ways to take power away from the executive branch and give it to either the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or Congress, even though President George W. Bush gave that authority to the State Department in a 2004 executive order. Republicans may again try to attach such measures to the payroll-tax package.
Democrats will also play defense with Environmental Protection Agency regulations that Republicans have vowed to roll back. Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., said he will file a disapproval resolution as soon as the Senate returns this week that would nullify a new EPA standard for power plants. Unlikely to pass, it will put vulnerable incumbents seeking reelection—such as Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass.—in awkward positions. The House already voted to significantly delay that rule.