BIRNBAUM: Congress will have a busy 2014

Both parties signal they want to kick stalemate to the curb

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President Obama spent a large part of his State of the Union address telling the members of Congress seated in front of him that he didn’t care what they thought or what they did. He said he would act alone whenever he could.

The lawmakers’ reaction was relief and, surprisingly, optimism.

For a change this year, Congress is likely to accomplish a lot. The reason is that the president doesn’t intend to interfere very much. The less he gets involved with Congress, the more work it can get done.

Mr. Obama offered a spectacular storyline when he promised not to stand still in the face of a gridlocked Congress. The threat was calculated to re-elect as many Democrats as possible this year by distancing the party from the dysfunctional legislature.

The sometimes harsh, anti-Washington tone of the speech obscured the actual state of play on Capitol Hill. Last year was one of the least productive congressional sessions in history. However, 2014 is well on its way to being an active year filled with federal legislation.

The reason is twofold. First, both parties are sick and tired of doing nothing. The government shutdown was the ultimate embarrassment and neither party wants a replay. Incumbents of all stripes would be endangered if government failed so completely again.

Second, the president and the most conservative wing of the Republican Party have been weakened. The rolling disaster of Obamacare has crushed the president’s job approval rating. Conservatives have been chastened by the political backlash from the shutdown.

Conservatives no longer have the clout — or the stomach — to demand much more pain. The president’s partial withdrawal from the arena frees both mainstream Republicans and Democratic lawmakers to do what they came to Washington to do — get things done. Mr. Obama has been so polarizing that his silence will actually spur the Congress to act.

A handful of “must pass” bills are on the way. These include, the “doc fix,” which blocks an onerous cut scheduled for physician reimbursements, the debt-ceiling hike, which could be a vehicle for a minor rider or two and the package of so-called tax extenders, which would reinstate popular tax breaks that would otherwise expire.

The House Republicans’ embrace of immigration reform principles also raises the prospect that a few immigration-related bills could get to the president’s desk. Congress already passed the farm bill, and the president signed it on Friday.

More to the point, for the first time in almost a decade, a series of appropriations bills will move through both chambers. Last year’s two-year budget agreement cleared the way for as many as a dozen separate spending bills. These will be magnets for programmatic changes and are likely to be signed into law.

These measures will be packed with major and minor fixes to long-time problems. Interests of many kinds have pent up demand that this “regular-order” appropriations process will finally start to address.

The hearing process for these spending bills will begin soon and the legislation will start to being voted on in late May. Partisan disagreements on these measures will be kept to a minimum because the top-line spending totals have already been agreed to in last year’s budget deal.

Some disagreements about specific allocations are still possible, indeed likely. But the stalemate that has become standard practice in Washington is about to change. Organizations and corporations that care about federal policy will need to increase their vigilance and monitoring.

This new state of play is ironic given Mr. Obama’s decision to use his annual speech to Congress to say he was determined to work around lawmaker’s inactivity.

He was correct that the Republican-led House won’t pass his major initiatives, such as an increase in the federal minimum wage. Beyond such mega-issues, though, expect Congress to accomplish plenty.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Washington Times contributor, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.

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