- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 30, 2013

Don’t look now, but Congress might actually be working.

Bills are being written in committees before hitting the floor, Republicans and Democrats are working together to try to strike deals on big topics such as immigration, the farm bill and tax reform, and — most shocking of all — lawmakers are pursuing bipartisan investigations into administration malfeasance.

After four years of crippling partisan gridlock, which intensified in 2011 when the GOP took control of the House and the Senate remained in Democratic hands, both parties have finally found areas of common ground.

“It’s working better than it has in the last four or five years,” said Michael McKenna, a lobbyist and Republican strategist. “Part of it is driven by the fact that this pretty lengthy period of toxic presidents seems to be closing. The other part of it is members of Congress are starting to go through the same conversations that voters have gone through for three or four years now about immigration, about the big issues the country is facing.”

The biggest shift has been in the Senate. Despite some high-profile battles over budget negotiations and nominations to a federal appeals court in Washington, the chamber has cleared several major bills by overwhelming bipartisan votes, has written a budget for the first time in years, and held an open debate on gun legislation — even though that bill couldn’t pass the chamber.

Next up is immigration, for which a massive overhaul of current law cleared the key committee on a bipartisan 13-5 tally that involved votes on more than 140 amendments. Senators are now preparing for a freewheeling floor debate that could harken back to the major debates of years past, when the Senate would act on dozens of amendments without knowing how the votes would turn out.

The Judiciary Committee action, led by Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, won praise from all sides as a sign that the calcification might be breaking.

“For years now we’ve been hearing about dysfunction in the Congress. We’ve all suffered in our public opinion polling and what people think of this place, and I think this process we’ve gone through in the last couple of days, last couple of weeks, are a real antidote to that,” Sen. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, told his colleagues after they finished a fifth day of votes in the committee.

Immigration up next

Immigration could also be a breakthrough issue in the House, where another bipartisan group is working on an immigration bill, and the official committees are preparing to churn out several pieces of legislation.

One border security bill has already cleared the House Homeland Security Committee on a bipartisan voice vote that both sides point to as the beginning of progress.

If Congress is doing better, the public isn’t convinced. Gallup’s monthly polling showed just 16 percent of the public approved of the way Congress is handling its job. That’s better than the 13 percent Congress won in March, but it’s been two years since Capitol Hill cracked 20 percent, and eight years since it sniffed the 40 percent mark.

Jim Manley, who spent years as a top aide to Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and Harry Reid and is now a senior director at QGA Public Affairs, said not to get excited about the progress so far this year. He said the big fights are all still to come, and particularly on the spending battles the same stalemate exists.

Spending fight unsettled

Already, the broad budget outline that set the goals for the 12 spending bills has proved to be contentious.

For the first time in years, the House and Senate passed versions of the budget — but since then the GOP has refused to appoint a conference committee to work out differences between the two chambers.

It’s turned into a major battle on the Senate floor, where Mr. Reid, the majority leader, has tried to appoint negotiators and some Republicans have objected — sparking an internal GOP fight.

“What do we on my side of the aisle keep doing?” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, after rank-and-file Republicans blocked Democrats‘ request to appoint negotiators to hammer out a final deal.

GOP leaders who control the House have also been reluctant to name negotiators, saying they want the key lawmakers to hammer out an informal framework for a deal first. That framework has proved elusive, since Democrats say the budget cannot be solved without tax increases, while Republicans say spending cuts are sufficient.

Mr. Manley, the former senior Senate aide, said the budget battle is a “stalking horse for a larger debate” going on in the GOP — over whether to legislate at all. Mr. Manley said that dispute is likely to stymie major progress on big issues this year, just as it did for much of the last Congress.

“On tax and spending issues, despite recent efforts to jump-start the process, the parties still have wildly divergent stances,” he said.

Results take time

Indeed, the numbers suggest that the promising legislative signs haven’t yet translated into real results.

Through the first four months of the session, Congress was slightly behind the pace of the last Congress on The Washington Times’ legislative futility index, which measures yardsticks such as time spent in session, bills debated and votes taken. In that Congress, the Senate set an all-time record for futility, while the House scored in the middle of the pack.

The Senate this year has improved on some measures and fallen on others, but the House has dropped nearly across the board.

The biggest House accomplishments so far this year have been to pass a Senate-written bill on domestic violence and to pass the bill that allowed across-the-board tax increases. Both of those passed on the strength of Democratic votes.

Some analysts suggested that House Republicans’ biggest success has probably been to not pass something — in this case, meaning to let the automatic budget sequester cuts take effect, which have combined with tax increases to dramatically improve the federal government’s fiscal situation.

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