Divided Congress settles for below-the-radar bills

By Joan Lowy

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, March 25 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this March 22, 2012, file photo House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., center, speaks at a Capitol Hill news conference in Washington with Rep. Nick Rahall II, D-W.Va., and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., right. Pelosi urged the Republican leadership to take up the bipartisan Senate transportation bill. The Washington divide, hardened by election-year politics, has stifled the agendas of both parties, and is jeopardizing a bill to keep federal highway and transit aid flowing to states just as the spring construction season opens.

J. Scott Applewhite, File, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — 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 Democratic-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 Jim 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 Boehner, R-Ohio, 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.

Tea partyers — as well as the anti-tax Club for Growth — said $260 billion was too much money. Republicans from urban areas were upset by its treatment of transit funding. Some moderates opposed paying for the House plan with expanded oil drilling.

The transit proposal has been dropped, but GOP leaders have still been unable to line up enough votes for passage. The House ban on earmarks has also hindered the effort to win over Republicans. Few, if any, Democrats are expected to support the bill because they weren't consulted as it was drafted, and because they say it penalizes union workers and undermines environmental protections.

Looming is a March 31 expiration date when the government's authority to spend money from the trust fund that pays for transportation programs, as well as its power to levy the federal gasoline and diesel taxes that feed the fund, runs out.

House conservatives remain undeterred in pushing to shift responsibility for transportation programs to state and local governments.

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