With sweeping overhauls of health care and financial regulation, along with a $787 billion emergency stimulus package, the 111th Congress ranks among the most productive Congresses ever – on big-ticket items.
And though senators chalked up a few more accomplishments in the hours leading up to their August recess, they still left town with some 350 bills passed by the House awaiting their attention. For most, action will never come – a reality that has some House members grinding their teeth more than usual this election year.
The tension is perennial between two bodies with very different rules and precedents: The House gives strong powers to the majority; Senate procedures protect minority rights. House members routinely refer to the Senate as the place where bills go to die. But House Democrats who lately voted for controversial measures – among them a broad climate change bill and campaign finance reform to require disclosure of now-unlimited corporate spending – worry they could pay a price for those votes in midterm elections. Many members see them as wasted votes, because the bills were never taken up in the Senate.
“The tension between this House and Senate is enormous,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “There is a sense in the House that they have delivered almost everything this president has asked for, including votes that are extremely controversial.”
That's not to say senators are a group of slackers. Leading up to its August recess, the Senate confirmed US Solicitor General Elena Kagan to a seat on the Supreme Court and approved a $26 billion measure to protect thousands of teachers and state workers from imminent layoffs. In a surprise move, Senate Democrats also mustered enough Republican votes to pass a $600 million emergency spending bill to enhance border security.
But counted among the Senate's unfinished business (besides the measures already enumerated) are half a dozen bills to help small businesses create jobs, a media shield law, food safety legislation, housing reform, and subpoena power for the commission investigating the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Moving big-ticket items such as health-care reform required enormous political capital, which further polarized the Senate and made it tougher to act on other items on the majority’s agenda. “Come November, House Democrats will pay the price for Senate obstruction and gridlock, not the senators,” says Princeton's Professor Zelizer.
Much of the tension between House and Senate Democratic leaders is below the radar, in the interest of solidarity. Senate majority leader Harry Reid also faces a tough reelection bid in Nevada, and House Democrats are toning down public criticism directed at him.
But Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made it clear that the House will no longer be first to act on pending controversial measures, such as immigration reform or whether to extend the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, which expire in December. (The Senate plans to debate the latter in September.)
After struggling to find Republican partners and to solidify support among Senate Democrats, majority leader Reid gave up on moving even a scaled-down climate/energy bill before the August break.
“I can count votes,” he said, and there simply aren’t 60 for the cap-and-trade provisions on carbon emissions contained in the House bill – or, for now, even for a bill limited to pricing carbon for utilities.
Meanwhile, the case Democrats are taking to voters this summer is that a vote for Republicans is a vote for the "failed" policies of the previous Bush administration.
“Every day, congressional Republicans side with special interests over the public interest, and pledge to take us back to the ‘exact same agenda’ that got us into this mess in the first place,” said Speaker Pelosi in a statement. “Democrats are standing up for a New Direction. We are fighting for our middle class. We are not going back to the same failed Bush policies that cost us millions of jobs.”
But with the economy struggling, it’s a tough sell for the party in control of both the White House and Congress.
“The administration and Congress are having a difficult time selling the idea that there is [economic] progress,” says pollster John Zogby, president and CEO of Zogby International, who released a poll on Aug. 4 that puts Republicans ahead of Democrats by eight percentage points on the question of which party’s candidates for Congress voters say they are more likely to support in November. Republicans now lead Democrats 46 percent to 38 percent, with President Obama’s approval rating at 43 percent.
“By significant margins, independent voters disapprove of the job Obama is doing and say they will vote for Republicans in November. Congressional Republicans also get very low ratings from voters; but GOP candidates represent change and are in position to gain seats,” he adds.