WASHINGTON—The spring break firmly behind them, lawmakers are heading into what some predict may be a historic session of Congress. Past experience, however, has left some analysts skeptical about how much can be achieved.
President Barack Obama has a number of important issues on his agenda—gun control laws, immigration reform and the 2014 budget—which may determine America’s trajectory for the next three years, and his legacy.
For Congress, especially Republicans, how they address those issues, particularly immigration, will set the tone for the 2014 congressional elections.
Some are hopeful that, after the gridlock of previous years, lawmakers may be more open to compromise in the 113th Congress, but Professor James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, is doubtful.
The new Congress lacks a middle ground, making deals virtually impossible, he said at a briefing in the capital last month.
“We’ve got CRs, continuing resolutions, not only on the budget but we’ve got it on 176 programs in the federal government right now, continuing resolutions. It’s shameful,” he said of the short-term deals made to fund government agencies when there is no agreement on long-term bills. “It is deadlocked because we have divided party government.”
In an effort to break the impasse over deficit reduction, Obama said last week that he will include cuts to Social Security and Medicare in his own budget plan due for release April 10.
The budget will reduce the deficit by around $2 trillion, Obama said in his weekly address and noted that alongside cuts to entitlements there was also “commonsense tax reform that includes closing wasteful tax loopholes.”
The plan was not ideal but was a compromise he would make in order to “move beyond a cycle of short-term, crisis-driven decision making,” he said. “It includes ideas many Republicans have said they could accept as well. It’s a way we can make progress together.”
Compromise may be a bridge too far, both for the right and the left. Obama’s proposals to cut entitlements angered his base, and his budget raised concerns from Republicans about tax increases.
House speaker John Boehner released a statement April 5 deriding the proposal.
“When the president visited the Capitol last month, House Republicans stated a desire to find common ground and urged him not to make savings we agree upon conditional on another round of tax increases,” Boehner said in response. “If reports are accurate, the president has not heeded that call.”
Although gun control was not initially part of Obama’s second term agenda, it has become so following the tragic school shootings in Newtown.
Obama has moved swiftly on the issue, but lawmakers are already losing momentum. The Senate removed an assault weapons from the gun control package due to be debated as early as this week, and a ban on high capacity magazines is also unlikely.
Even universal background checks, which 90 percent of Americans say they support, may be threatened, leaving only new gun trafficking penalties and school safety provisions with a chance. This could reduce the whole gun control package to what many are describing as mere “window dressing,” said Dr. John Hudak, political analyst with the Washington-based think tank, the Brookings Institution.
The “policy window” on gun control is closing quickly, he said. “If they don’t get any movement in the next week or two, the gun laws are not going to happen. Get to May and there is no movement, they may as well stop trying.”
On April 8 Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would join a group of Republican senators threatening a filibuster on the package, a move that could completely derail the push for gun legislation.
On immigration it seems likely there will be consensus, said Thurber. “We will get an immigration bill.”
What form it takes remains to be seen, but it will be an important achievement for both Obama’s legacy and for Congress.
The popularity rating for Congress is at low ebb, garnering around 12 percent support, says Thurber, who quipped that he has never met a member of that minority.
“I’m sure they’re out there, but I haven’t met them,” he said.
Achieving an immigration reform bill may ease some of the frustration with Congress among the public, but for Republicans it will be critical, says Hudak.
Obama won over 70 percent of the vote from both Hispanic and Asian Americans in the last election. The attitudes of lawmakers and the language they use during floor debates will determine how the Republican Party positions itself on immigration.
“The sound bite that comes out of that are going to be used to help or hurt senators and representatives, first in the primaries and then in the general election campaign,” Hudak said.