In Polarized Congress, Routines Are Now Tendentious

John Boehner

But there are a host of things that used to be almost routine that the 112th Congress has managed to make laborious and at times downright tedious — a departure from the traditional desires of members to pass legislation during an election year and claim accomplishments to trot out back home.

Most recently, Congress has been unable to agree on a highway bill — once a fairly simple exercise — to replace one that expires at the end of next week. Should Congress fail to act, scores of construction projects around the country could be halted.

This week, a bill to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank — a self-financing agency that helps get American goods sold overseas — failed despite bipartisan and business community backing. Without Congressional agreement by the end of May, the bank will lose its authorization and will hit its lending cap sooner. 

That legislation was wrapped up in a series of very modest jobs-related bills that passed the House overwhelmingly and were embraced by President Obama. Yet the Senate managed to drag that legislation into a weeklong fight over amendments intended to strengthen consumer protections. Once it passed, everyone left feeling more resigned than victorious.

Lawmakers blame a polarized Congress — reinforced by redistricting, which has pushed many members to the far edges of their respective parties for primaries — along with a lack of trust among party leaders and desire by both sides to rob each other of victories for combining to make it so.

“Everybody is afraid to give an inch,” said Representative Steven C. LaTourette, Republican of Ohio, who is in his ninth term. “Redistricting has added to the problem because you have people running to the right of you or if you’re a Democrat someone running to the left.”

Democrats specifically cite conservatives in the House, whose desires to shrink government go beyond what Republicans have sought in the past, as the main impediments. “It’s an ideology that believes there is no role for the federal government in providing investments to make our economy strong,” said Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

It is a theme that Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, has hit much of the year.

“As lousy the dancer as I am,” Mr. Reid said this week, “I would still rather do that than fight. But all I get are opportunities to fight. And I’ve avoided a lot of them. I’m going to continue to, as many as I can, because there are certain things we don’t need to fight over. We don’t need to fight over the highway bill, we don’t need to fight over Ex-Im Bank, and we don’t need to fight over a budget which we already have.”

Republicans counter that Senate Democrats make everything worse by trying to duck difficult votes; the chamber has not passed a budget in three years.

“I’d point to the lack of work by the Senate this whole entire year,” said Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Republican of Washington. Further, they say, easy things used to be easy because there was more money, and members were bought off with treats for their states.

“I think when it comes to things like the highway bill that used to be very bipartisan, you have to understand it was greased to be bipartisan with 6,371 earmarks,” Speaker John A. Boehner said this week, when asked why things were so gummed up. “You take the earmarks away, and guess what? All of a sudden people are beginning to look at the real policy behind it. So each one of these bills will rise or fall on their own merits.”

The transit bill has been a particularly gruesome collision. The House transportation committee passed its own version earlier this year, an ambitious five-year plan that would have ended the allotment that public transit usually receives from the highway trust fund and paid for some of the program with new money from drilling, a plan that alienated many Republicans.

Mr. Boehner then more or less committed to passing the Senate’s two-year version of the bill, which was far more modest in scope, before going on a week recess this month. When the House came back this week, that bill was suddenly no good, with Republicans citing a lack of mechanisms in the bill to pay for it.

House Republicans now want a short-term extension and Democrats are balking. Without some form of extension, the federal government will stop collecting the gas tax and the Highway Trust Fund will eventually run out of money, meaning highway projects would eventually be stopped.

The Ex-Im Bank extension is another migraine. It was last authorized in 2006, by voice vote in the House and unanimous consent in the Senate. But some conservatives now oppose the extension — although it is supported by the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups — preferring to dismantle the agency.

Even a widely popular bill that passed the Senate this week to prohibit insider trading by members of Congress, which Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, called “the most significant ethics legislation to pass Congress in years,” hit snags over amendments. Also true, with the collections of jobs bills this week. “This place has been increasingly ideologically rigid,” Mr. Lieberman said. “It makes it impossible for it to function.”

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