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House faces issues from last year again

New session may postpone hard decisions due to elections

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The House formally opened the second session of the 112th Congress on Tuesday with a sense of deja vu, as lawmakers faced several issues they've already dealt with — albeit temporarily — in the latter months of 2011.

After an initial winter flurry of legislative housekeeping, such as extending an expiring payroll-tax cut, the bulk of this presidential-election year portends to be as testy, partisan and gridlocked as last year.

The year's first significant order of business, a symbolic vote Wednesday on a Republican resolution disapproving of President Obama raising the debt limit this year by $1.2 trillion, is the latest example of partisan gamesmanship, said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer.

"The only thing that we have on this week's agenda is a charade, a pretense, an abdication of responsibility," the Maryland Democrat told reporters Tuesday. "It's not whether you are for or against debt, it is simply whether you are for or against America remaining a responsible payer of its obligations."

If the resolution passes the Republican-controlled House, it would face almost no chance of survival in the Democrat-run Senate. And if somehow it cleared both chambers, it would face a certain veto by Mr. Obama.

Republicans say the vote is necessary because Democratic spending has pushed the federal debt to a dangerously high level.

"The debt-limit vote is a result of the reckless, irresponsible spending binge from the Obama administration," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

With the Senate not returning to work until Monday, members of a bipartisan, bicameral conference committee set up to hammer out an extension of the payroll-tax holiday, which expires after Feb. 29, still hasn't met in person.

The debate isn't expected to go much smoother than it did at the end of 2011, when House Republican leaders caved to Senate demands and approved the upper chamber's two-month tax-cut bill that benefits 160 million American wage earners.

The pending tax-cut package likely would include a provision to extend employment benefits for the long-term jobless yet again, as well as grant full payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients. Under the terms of a 1997 budget deal, those doctor payments were scheduled to be cut 27 percent.

Another early-session chore is the extension of Federal Aviation Administration funding, which expires at the end of January. The pending measure sets up another fight like a partisan FAA funding battle last summer that forced the agency to temporarily halt more than 200 airport construction projects nationwide.

The current aviation deal, brokered in September, includes a provision that continues funding federally assisted highway and transit programs through the end of March. Failure to extend funding could risk bankrupting the highway trust fund.

But by spring, with the presidential campaigning in full swing and lawmakers fearful of voting on anything that could be used against them in November re-election bids, Congress is expected to have little on its calendar for the remainder of the year.

"Second sessions tend to be less productive than first sessions historically," Mr. Hoyer said. "My hope is that because of the seriousness of the challenges that confront us, particularly as it relates to fiscal challenges, that we will have the ability to come together."

But the Maryland lawmaker, who said 2011 was "as unproductive a session as I have served in since I came to Congress 30 years ago," added he isn't convinced lawmakers will overcome the temptation to use the coming session for political plays intended to influence the November elections.

"If all we do is allow ourselves to be caught up purely in spin and presidential politics, then it won't be very productive," he said. "America needs a productive session."

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