From immigration to trade, inaction in Congress
Little more than a week after Groundhog Day, the evidence is mounting that lawmakers have all but wrapped up their most consequential work of 2014, at least until the results of the fall elections are known.
"We've got a lot of things on our plate," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said recently when asked what Congress will be busy with this year, but he predicted no breakthrough accomplishments on immigration, taxes or any other area.
"Why don't we just pack up and go home?" countered House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California after Boehner blamed President Barack Obama for lack of movement on immigration. "What we're supposed to do is legislate and not make up excuses as to why we don't."
Immigration legislation is hardly the only area where inaction is the likeliest outcome.
A Senate-passed bill has fallen into the congressional equivalent of a black hole in the House, where conservative critics cite a changing series of reasons for not wanting to take action.
Initially, they said they didn't want to vote on a bill because they oppose amnesty for immigrants living in the country illegally. Then they observed it would be a political mistake to shift focus away from their own opposition to the health care law, which unites them, and turn it onto an issue that divides them. Most recently, Boehner, who has said repeatedly he wants to pass an immigration bill, has joined others in citing a lack of trust with Obama as a reason for inaction.
If immigration legislation is moribund in the House, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has made it clear he doesn't intend to seek passage of a second Obama priority, this one a bill to facilitate passage of trade deals with Europe and Asia.
"I'm against fast track," said the man who sets the Senate's agenda, referring to the measure Obama wants. "I think everyone would be well advised just to not push this right now."
The legislation is opposed by large segments of organized labor, the very unions that Democrats will be counting on to pour money and manpower into their bid to hold control of the Senate in the November election.
Republicans need to gain six seats to win a majority. They say they increasingly are bullish about their prospects, what with the country generally pessimistic about the future, Obama's favorability ratings well below the levels of his re-election campaign and controversies afflicting the president's health law.
While Reid hasn't said so, other lawmakers and aides speculate that trade could top the agenda of any postelection session of Congress.
And an overhaul of tax laws may not be as far off as it did a year ago. While there was scant evidence of progress in 2013, a transition is occurring at the Senate Finance Committee. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the incoming chairman, announced late Friday his first priority in the job will be overhauling the nation's tax system, which he called a "dysfunctional, rotten mess." He will succeed Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who was confirmed on Thursday as ambassador to China.
Deficit reduction, the driving force of the tea party-heavy House majority, now occupies a back seat, and the projected deficit for the current budget year is the lowest since George W. Bush was in the White House.
Nor do Republicans appear likely to compromise any time soon on an increase in the minimum wage or other items on Obama's agenda.
The first bill the Democrats put on the Senate floor this year, to renew benefits for the long-term unemployed, is stalled by Republican opposition. Even an eventual compromise wouldn't be much to brag about. Congress has passed similar bills repeatedly in the wake of past economic downturns.
Not that much of significance has been done up until now.
With much fanfare, lawmakers recently completed work on a five-year farm bill — two years late.
By month's end, lawmakers are virtually certain to raise the nation's debt limit. That, too, is a relatively routine measure, even if in recent years it has passed only after considerable brinkmanship.
Another potential area for compromise is legislation to overhaul the system for reimbursing doctors who treat Medicare patients.
The bipartisan supporters of a measure along those lines have yet to agree on how to offset the cost, though.