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A Lot of Symbolism, A Little Substance from 112th Congress

Jan 09, 2012

By Kent Allen, CQ Staff

In a divided Congress, with one chamber’s majority in basic agreement with White House policy and the other vehemently opposed, Congress assumed a split personality on many pivotal votes in the first session of the 112th Congress. With only the most critical and immediate concerns resulting in legislative compromise, much House floor time was devoted to emphasizing the Republicans’ agenda and differentiating themselves from President Obama. In the Senate, Republicans were rarely able to muster enough support to push those same issues into the debate, so the Democratic majority held its ground in backing the president.

The result was that many votes in 2011 carried only symbolic weight. Often, the House and Senate staged roll call votes as a way to send each other messages about where sentiment stood in their respective chambers. The new Republican majority in the House, for example, voted early in 2011 to repeal the health care overhaul that had been enacted with zero Republican support the previous year. No dice, the Senate responded as it shut down a GOP attempt to attach the repeal language to other legislation. The repeal effort went nowhere as a result, but both chambers’ votes were key because they allowed members to put themselves on the record as to where they stood on the new law.

So it went for much of the year, over such issues as abortion, global warming and financial and environmental regulation. One chamber would register its opinion on the issue, and the other would respond in kind — usually the opposite way. Congress ended the year at a standstill on many of those policy issues, with both sides showing little inclination for compromise.

The most dramatic testimony to the discord occurred in the final days of the session, when lawmakers took up legislation that would extend the two percentage-point Social Security personal payroll tax cut into 2012. The payroll holiday was first enacted at the urging of President Obama in the final days of the 2010 session, and he and Democrats had advocated a one-year extension.

With the question of how to pay for the cut unresolved, the Senate opted for a two-month extension, with the goal of a longer-term solution early in 2012. The vote was bipartisan. But in the House, GOP conservatives balked, saying they were intent on a more permanent fix from the outset. Instead of putting forth a vote on the bill itself, which could have placed conservatives in the uncomfortable position of going on record against a tax cut, leaders devised a vote that disapproved of the Senate’s action while calling for a conference with the Senate to resolve differences. After a couple of days of public and bipartisan Senate criticism of the House’s stubbornness, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) relented and essentially accepted the Senate version. But no recorded vote was taken on Boehner’s capitulation, leaving conservatives able to say that, in voting against the president and Democrats, they had stood firm for a yearlong solution.

Struggles over Spending

While impasse was the prevailing trend, there were votes that amounted to significant action on several policy issues. Patent law was overhauled after months of negotiation, and Congress extended several provisions in the anti-terrorism law know as the Patriot Act that national security experts deemed critical for continued vigilance against possible attacks in the United States and elsewhere.

In a separate breakthrough that had as much to do with geography as partisanship, free traders and those representing regions hard hit by global economic turmoil came to agreement on a series of trade pacts with Colombia, South Korea and Panama. They were accompanied by a generous extension of aid to domestic workers displaced by the success of cheaper imports in the United States.

But the most substantial battles for votes concerned the government’s budget policy, the defining issue of the year. Emboldened by their success throughout the country in the 2010 elections, House Republicans — in particular the dozens of freshmen closely linked to the tea party movement — sought immediate curbs on federal spending. Many of these votes left Congress as a whole looking divided, indecisive and unproductive, but they also reflected honest differences among members about the size and role of government.

The debate was joined in earnest in the spring, when lawmakers bargained over appropriations for the balance of fiscal 2011. That decision had been deferred by the outgoing, Democrat-controlled 111th Congress in late 2010 as Republicans waited in the wings to take over the House and sharply narrow the Democratic majority in the Senate.

Government shutdowns were temporarily averted twice when legislators were able to locate $10 billion in unspent funding in other programs to pay for cuts that conservatives insisted on making. A longer-term bill that funded the government through September was eventually worked out, though House GOP leaders needed the support of more than 30 Democrats to stave off defections from the most conservative in Republican ranks.

Yet barely overcoming those impasses was just a mild precursor to the summertime showdown over raising the government’s debt limit to more than $15 trillion.

While not routine, such raises in the debt ceiling in the past have always won the support of a sufficient number of lawmakers concerned about the possible negative economic effects of a government default on its obligations. But in 2011, House conservatives sought spending cuts and other concessions in return for their support, and they held Boehner’s feet to the fire. The brinkmanship lasted for weeks, and only in the final days did the president and Republicans come to agreement on a plan that raised the ceiling to allow government borrowing past the 2012 elections, which the president favored. It also triggered automatic spending cuts to begin in 2013 if no other way could be found to bring about savings, as Republicans had been pushing all year.

Getting to 60, or Not

In a key vote that reflected an odd alliance of anti-war liberals and fiscal conservatives, the House early in the year effectively shut off spending for an alternative engine for a next-generation jet fighter, representing about the only big-ticket item in the federal budget that the outer flanks of both parties could agree to eliminate.

Less successful was a House GOP bid, tied to the debt limit agreement, to advance a constitutional amendment for a balanced budget. Although the amendment had majority support, backers fell a couple of dozen votes short of the two-thirds majority requirement.

In the Senate, minority Republicans were unable to draw enough Democrats to pass significant legislation, but their 47-seat caucus showed its strength by blocking many measures. That power came to the fore most notably when Democrats could not obtain 60 votes to choke debate on a number of presidential nominations, including that of Caitlin J. Halligan to the second-most powerful federal bench, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

A prime example of the stalemate over policy not directly related to spending and taxes was the environment. The House GOP easily passed legislation to bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating the greenhouse gases that experts believe contribute to global warming, while their counterparts in the Senate couldn’t even draw a majority to support similar legislation in that chamber.

Congressional Quarterly’s editors chose 26 votes — 14 from the House and 12 from the Senate — as the key votes for 2011. A 2011 Legislative Summary is available here

Contributing to this package were Susan Benkelman, Emily Cadei, John Cranford, John M. Donnelly, Stephen Gettinger, David Hawkings, Geof Koss, Paul M. Krawzak, Scott Montgomery, Alan K. Ota, Keith Perine, Emily Pierce, Joseph J. Schatz, Megan Scully, Tim Starks and Kathryn A. Wolfe.

Source: CQ Weekly

The definitive source for news about Congress.

© 2012 CQ Roll Call All Rights Reserved.

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