Congress already turning to fall elections

David LightmanTribune News Service

Congress is headed home, done until late April. Then again, Congress looks like it’s all but done for the year doing anything big.

This past week underscored how the Senate and House of Representatives have largely become forums for campaign messages and little else.

The House spent much of its week debating Republican and Democratic budgets with no chance of winning passage in the Democratic-run Senate. But it allowed Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to blast opponents.

“Democrats here in Washington continue to play their usual politics,” he charged, “using their old playbook of pitting one group of Americans against another.”

The Senate’s big initiative was a fiery debate over Democratic legislation to toughen laws assuring equal pay for women and men doing comparable work. Even if it had proceeded, it wouldn’t have had a chance in the Republican-led House anyway.

But the debate gave Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the chance to ask on the Senate floor: “Are Republicans in the Senate so repulsed by equal pay for hard-working American women that they can’t even stomach the thought of debating the issue?”

In the months ahead, some legislation is expected to break through _ an energy efficiency plan, a measure to promote manufacturing innovation and probably some spending bills.

Lawmakers this year approved a two-year budget plan, a farm policy bill and a debt limit plan, all before mid-February. Since then, it’s been almost all political theater.

Congress usually doesn’t stop doing big business so soon.

Lawmakers enacted the 2010 health care law just before their Easter break. They gave President George W. Bush broad authority to use military force against Iraq the month before the 2002 election. Congress passed an assault weapons ban in late August 1994 and approved a major overhaul of the nation’s tax code in September 1986.

Nothing like any of that appears to be in the offing this year, as both parties are reluctant to tinker with strategies they regard as winners. They’re even undaunted by perpetually dismal approval ratings _ the latest Gallup Poll put the figure at 13 percent.

The parties, though, believe that the key to victory is turning out loyal voters.

“This election is going to be about keeping the base energized and motivated,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

Democrats are trying hard to convince their base that Republicans care only about the wealthy.

Republicans firmly believe that President Barack Obama’s dismal job approval ratings, widespread opposition to the new health care law and continuing worries about the economy will sweep them to big gains.

In Louisiana, for example, Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu “is being blamed for being an Obama supporter,” said Bernie Pinsonat, pollster at Baton Rouge-based Southern Media and Opinion Research.

Revving up the base explains why Congress is doing what it does.

Republicans in the House keep trying to repeal or alter the Affordable Care Act, the most recent effort coming last month. As usual, the Senate has no plans to take up the subject.

Senate Democrats have begun pushing a “Fair Shot Agenda,” a list of initiatives that Republicans have largely disdained for years, such as an increase in the minimum wage.

And even though lawmakers have approved a budget deal for the next two years, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the party’s 2012 vice presidential candidate, went ahead and offered his own 99-page budget plan.

Party loyalists loved it.

“I am proud to support a balanced budget that reins in government spending, promotes job creation and re-prioritizes our national defense,” said Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo. Republicans quickly flooded districts with press releases declaring Democratic opponents had voted against a balanced budget, even though that balance would not be achieved for 10 years.

Democrats hated the budget.

“A blueprint for economic decline,” charged Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

Members of Congress maintain that despite all this posturing and inertia, they can go home and cite achievements.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, considered one of the most vulnerable senators up for re-election, cited passage of a sweeping farm policy bill in February. He also noted Senate passage recently of extended emergency jobless benefits _ which is stalled in the House _ as an important milestone.

“When I go home, people recognize there’s stuff that’s happening,” Begich said.

Too often, though, the political noise drowns out talk of progress, said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who also faces re-election this year. After all, partisan bickering meant it took more than three weeks for Congress to approve aid to Ukraine, and by the time it did April 1, Russia’s annexation of Crimea was two weeks old.

“The world around us is fraught with crisis, stagnant job growth in our country. We have real problems and we have several bills that are bipartisan that could be brought to the floor,” Collins said.

When Congress returns later in April, more political drama is on tap. Among the first items on the Senate’s agenda is a minimum wage increase sure to spark partisan fire, and the nomination of White House Budget Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell to be secretary of health and human services is sure to spark a lengthy, partisan debate over the health care law.

Candidates such as Begich are hoping that once people hear what lawmakers have done for their state, voters will be sympathetic and separate the individual from the chaos. At least, Begich hopes so.

“I’ll find out in November,” he said.

By David Lightman
McClatchy Washington Bureau