WASHINGTON — The tempestuous 113th Congress has limped out of Washington for the last time, capping two years of modest and infrequent legislating that was overshadowed by partisan clashes, gridlock and investigations.
“Thank God it’s over,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said as he left the Capitol late Tuesday.
How’s this for a legacy? Just over 200 bills became law during the past two years, according to congressional data. That was the fewest since at least 1947 and 1948, when what President Harry Truman dubbed “the do-nothing Congress” enacted over 900 laws.
This Congress did less than the do-nothing one.
Efforts to revamp the immigration system, tighten gun buyers’ background checks and force work on the Keystone XL oil pipeline all foundered as the Republican-run House and Democratic-led Senate check-mated each other’s priorities. Across-the-board spending cuts designed to be so painful that they would force the two parties to negotiate deficit reduction took effect anyway, attempts to overhaul the tax code went nowhere, and each chamber passed a budget that the other ignored.
The partisan impasse was complicated by conservative tea party lawmakers whom GOP leaders often found unmanageable. That helped spark a 16-day partial government shutdown that was hated by voters and became one of this Congress’ hallmarks.
On the last day, the Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed a dozen of President Barack Obama’s judicial appointees and sent the White House legislation extending tax breaks for working-class people and special interests alike. An 11th-hour attempt to renew a program obliging the government to cover part of the cost of terrorism-caused losses was sidetracked by retiring Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who said it was a giveaway to the private insurance industry.
Through two years, the bar for accomplishments dipped so low that routine functions like averting a federal default and keeping government agencies open seemed like crowning achievements.
As if to underscore the turmoil around him, Senate Chaplain Barry Black opened one session last year by praying, “Rise up, O God, and save us from ourselves.”
Republicans led congressional investigations of the IRS’ mistreatment of conservative groups and the deadly 2012 attacks on Americans in Benghazi, Libya. Both parties decried poor medical care by the Veterans’ Affairs Department.
Democrats unilaterally weakened filibusters, the Senate’s century-old rule that helps the minority party block action it opposes. Unimpeded, Democrats then confirmed a pile of Obama’s stalled judiciary and executive branch nominees.
Before leaving, Congress approved legislation financing federal agencies through September, but not without revolts in both parties. Conservatives bolted because the bill didn’t halt Obama’s executive actions deferring deportations of millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally, while liberals rebelled against its eased restrictions on banks and big political donors.
Other accomplishments included a modest budget deal that capped spending and rolled back some government-wide cuts. Lawmakers provided $60 billion for victims of Hurricane Sandy, passed a farm bill and eased flood insurance costs for homeowners.
They provided billions to improve veterans’ medical care, linked student loan interest rates to market prices and voted to arm and train Syrian rebels. They renewed curbs on undetectable guns, but didn’t tighten them.
Each party accused the other of scuttling bills for political purposes in the November midterm elections, which gave Republicans firm House and Senate control next year.
“We have a president who was facing a headwind, Republicans opposing him in Congress and a decline in popularity,” said the No. 2 Senate Democratic leader, Richard Durbin of Illinois. “Republicans saw no reason to give us any legislative help.”
Republicans cited more than 40 House-passed bills that the Senate ignored — measures the GOP said would create jobs and prod energy production but Democrats mocked as gifts to special interests.
“The Senate has been where legislation goes to die,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.
The House voted more than 50 times to kill or weaken Obama’s 2010 health care law, perhaps his proudest achievement. It voted to block the administration from curbing carbon emissions from coal-fired plants and protecting streams and wetlands from pollution, to deport many immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally and to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
None of these bills cleared the Senate.
The Senate voted on bills raising the federal minimum wage, pressing employers to pay women the same as men, letting students refinance college loans and extending jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.
Manchin began the term trying to broker a compromise gun bill after the shootings of 26 children and adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. He ended it by voting against a surgeon general nominee, Vivek Murthy, who supported gun control and was opposed by the National Rifle Association.
Sometimes, disputes within parties proved decisive.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., snubbed Obama’s bid for legislation speeding Congress’ work on trade treaties, refusing to bring it up in the face of union opposition.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, never staged debate on a sweeping tax overhaul by retiring Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., because it would have erased popular tax breaks to pay for lower rates.
“Blah, blah, blah, blah,” Boehner told reporters questioning him on the issue.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was a repeated source of headaches for GOP leaders. The tea party freshman kept the Senate in session overnight in September 2013, saying Republicans should demand repeal of Obama’s health care law as the price for averting a government shutdown — an ultimatum GOP leaders opposed. Conservatives agreed with Cruz, and most federal agencies closed. It took 16 days for Republicans to relent.
In Congress’ final days, Cruz rebelled again, forcing a vote opposing Obama’s immigrant actions. Cruz lost this one, in a gambit that gave Senate Democrats time to confirm more Obama nominees.
ALAN FRAM, Associated Press