- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2014

Don’t look now, but Congress is actually doing things. A flurry of bipartisanship has lawmakers on an early path to their most active year in nearly two decades.

A Washington Times analysis of legislative data shows Congress cleared, and President Obama signed, five bills in January — tying for the most since 1996 and showing some will to legislate.

But lawmakers warn that the fast start could fade. Having passed a massive spending bill, an increase in the debt limit and a farm bill, Congress has cleared the decks of unfinished business from 2013, and both Democrats and Republicans say they may have exhausted areas of agreement.

With a top budget number that lasts through October 2015 and a debt increase that will carry the federal government through March 2015, few crucial bills remain in the pipeline.

Congress finished 2013 with one of the worst records of legislative accomplishments. Lawmakers passed fewer bills than at any other time in the six decades the legislative clerks have been tallying the data, according to The Washington Times Legislative Futility Index. The year ranked even worse than 2011, which held the record.

But 2014 got off to a huge start, with Mr. Obama signing five bills from Congress in what is usually a slow month. That tied with 2008 for the most bills enacted into law in January since an 11-bill spurt in 1996.

“What we’ve seen over the last several months is a welcome return to regular order,” White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters last week. “We saw Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill get together, broker a budget agreement in which both sides had to compromise. Neither side got every single thing that they wanted, but we saw that piece of legislation passed with bipartisan majorities.”

This week, the House and Senate return from recesses — the Senate after 11 days and the House after nearly two weeks.

Even if they are well-rested, there is little evidence that they will continue January’s pace.

Senate Democrats plan to return to a series of votes on presidential nominees and then to a veterans policy bill that could face a Republican filibuster.

In the House, Republican leaders have set up votes to roll back more administration policies, including the Internal Revenue Service’s proposed regulations cracking down on political activities of nonprofits.

House Republicans talk openly of accomplishing little more the rest of the year, partly because they capitulated on a debt-limit increase to avoid divisiveness that could detract from their message against Obamacare.

“House Republicans have essentially declared legislative business over for the balance of the year because they are too concerned with establishing party unity to worry about the priorities of the American people,” said one email from the office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, recounting issues that Republicans are balking at bringing to the floor.

Among those are extended unemployment benefits, a hike in the minimum wage and a broad bill that would legalize most of the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.

Democrats in the House and the Senate have all but ruled out trying to tackle Mr. Obama’s call for fast-track trade authority, which likely dooms that initiative for the time being.

The White House said last week that it won’t put any major entitlement changes on the table when Mr. Obama submits his budget to Congress next week.

Indeed, the president is withdrawing his offer from last year to cut Social Security cost-of-living increases — a sign that he is finished trying to negotiate with Republicans on debt and deficits.

His budget will promote another round of stimulus spending that he hopes will improve the stagnant job numbers.

“What the president is saying in his budget — we need to get America back to work,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

But Republicans said Mr. Obama’s plan to increase spending in an effort to reduce unemployment is misguided when the country is facing a large and growing debt burden.

“It’s really disappointing that the president hasn’t stepped up really to lead this effort of a grand deal,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican.

She dismissed reports describing the president’s budget as a call for an “end to the age of austerity.”

“Since the president has been in office, we’ve added $6 trillion more to the debt,” she said. “There hasn’t been an ‘age of austerity.’”

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