Grid­lock stymies goals in Congress

Law­mak­ers fo­cus on mod­est bills

The Washington Times Daily - - Politics - BY DONNA CAS­SATA AND

Congress is find­ing it hard to do what used to be easy.

The Washington di­vide, hard­ened by elec­tion-year pol­i­tics, has sti­fled the agen­das of both par­ties, lim­it­ing law­mak­ers to be­low-the-radar bills and mod­est am­bi­tions.

Congress has fol­lowed one of its least pro­duc­tive years with a just hand­ful of mea­sures, among them aid for trade-dis­placed work­ers and patent re­form. These bills hardly com­pare to the wel­fare over­haul, hike in the min­i­mum wage and ex­panded ac­cess to health care that the last Demo­cratic pres­i­dent, Bill Clin­ton, and a Re­pub­li­can Congress ac­com­plished in 1996.

Com­pli­cat­ing the leg­isla­tive process are em­bold­ened con­ser­va­tives, their ranks bol­stered by the in­flux of tea par­ty­ers in 2010, who are de­ter­mined to de­volve power to the states. It’s a di­rect chal­lenge to the role of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

“I be­lieve there is a broad range of pro­grams from Med­i­caid to ed­u­ca­tion to trans­porta­tion that would be bet­ter and more ef­fec­tively ad­min­is­tered at the state level,” Rep. Mike Pence, an In­di­ana Re­pub­li­can run­ning for gov­er­nor, said in an in­ter­view.

Mean­while, the old way of win­ning votes from re­cal­ci­trant law­mak­ers by fund­ing pet projects in their home dis­tricts is largely gone, scut­tled by soar­ing deficits and a ban on such “ear­marks.”

This new leg­isla­tive re­al­ity jeop­ar­dizes a bill to keep fed­eral high­way and tran­sit aid flow­ing to states just as the spring con­struc­tion sea­son opens.

The Demo­crat-con­trolled Se­nate ear­lier this month over­whelm­ingly ap­proved a $109 bil­lion, two-year bill to fund roads, bridges, bike paths and sub­way sys­tems while cre­at­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of jobs.

The burst of bi­par­ti­san­ship was a throw­back. Trans­porta­tion bills in the past have en­joyed strong, bi­par­ti­san back­ing — im­prov­ing roads was po­lit­i­cally pop­u­lar and the bills were usu­ally laden with pro­vi­sions that di­rectly aided law­mak­ers’ pet projects, swelling sup­port. The vote was 74-22.

“I am very hum­bled by that be­cause Lord knows it’s hard to find those mo­ments when we come to­gether,” Sen. Bar­bara Boxer said of the comity. From the start, the lib­eral Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat had worked closely on the leg­is­la­tion with Ok­la­homa con­ser­va­tive James M. In­hofe, who ac­knowl­edged that the two were on “op­po­site ex­tremes on many is­sues.”

But in the Gop-led House, Repub­li­cans have been un­able to muster ma­jor­ity sup­port for their own five-year, $260 bil­lion trans­porta­tion bill. Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Re­pub­li­can, fac­ing a re­volt by the rank and file, had to pull the Gop-crafted leg­is­la­tion just be­fore it was to come up on the floor in mid-fe­bru­ary.

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