POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jun 09, 2012
WASHINGTON » They are the sort of bills that, once upon a time in Washington, passed easily: money for highways and students, protection for battered women.
But in this congressional climate, it seems unlikely that all or even any of these stalled measures will be enacted before the July 4 recess — an ominous sign for the much harder work of preventing an entire fiscal unraveling at the end of the year. Crisis looms, because crisis is all Washington can do these days.
Members of Congress are increasingly worried about the lame-duck session after the election, one replete with expiring tax provisions and onerous budget cuts that are increasingly becoming known as the "fiscal cliff." But there is also a policy precipice at the end of June, when two important programs will expire if Republicans and Democrats cannot find a way to compromise on them.
"There is frustration among a bipartisan group," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. "There are an awful lot of red states that need transportation funding, too."
Even more remarkably, the two parties are at an impasse on a formerly benign measure that has routinely passed with near unanimous bipartisan support, one that protects women from domestic violence.
With both chambers set to recess for a Fourth of July holiday, on top of the House being out all of next week and senators once again racing for the region's airports on Thursday afternoon, it is becoming hard to see how a spate of deals will be done.
Absent such action, come July 1, millions of college students will see the interest rates on their federally subsidized loans double to 6.8 percent, and highway funding will again be in jeopardy. The measure that helps protect women would leave uncertainty about future funding for its programs.
The mood on Capitol Hill was sizzling with partisan rancor this week, particularly after an article in Politico suggested that Rep. Eric Cantor, the Virginia Republican and majority leader, had declared 2012 legislation more or less finished.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, took to the Senate floor to berate Cantor, although there was no actual quotation in the article to point to, for saying "out loud what every Republican on Capitol Hill has been thinking all along — they care more about winning elections than creating jobs."
Over in the House, a spokeswoman for Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican whip, said on Twitter that the House would be voting "well after Harry Reid's bedtime." And Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, hinted Thursday that the highway bill would remain unresolved, and that a six-month extension might be in the offing.
The failure of Congress to reach agreement has serious implications for road projects, families with college-age children and women who use shelters and other legal services.
"This is a major concern for us and our students," said Diane Stemper, the director of student financial aid at Ohio State University, where 57 percent of the undergraduates have federal student loans. "Our students on average are graduating with $20,000 in debt."
In New Hampshire, sections of an expansion of Interstate 93 have already been delayed because the state waited to issue bonds because of uncertainty over a clear revenue stream from Washington, said Cliff Sinnott, the executive director of the Rockingham Planning Commission.
The summer impasse also presages tough days ahead for both parties charged with resolving far more controversial tax and spending matters before the end of the year.
"These things should be pretty easy," said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo. "I think it all depends now on what happens with the election. And I hate to say that because the fact is we have the responsibility to get our work done and we need to get it done, and I would hope that everyone acts like adults and we do the work we need to do."
In the case of each piece of legislation, members of both parties agree on the essential details. With the exception of a handful of very conservative Republicans in both chambers, a majority of members agree that student loan rates should not increase, but the parties are tied in knots over how to cover the $6 billion price tag for doing so.
Republicans and Democrats have volleyed some different ideas back and forth over the last week — late Thursday, Reid proposed two ways to shore up private pensions and generate more tax revenues as a means to pay for the loan rate extension. While there seemed to be some signs of movement, no deal seemed in the immediate offing.
While the Senate has passed a bipartisan transportation bill, the House has rejected it, because it does not offer the streamlining and program consolidation Republicans seek. The House bill has provisions for the next phase of the Keystone XL pipeline and a measure concerning coal ash. The two sides appear at loggerheads. "The Tea Party is holding up a major transportation bill," Shaheen said.
Similarly, the Senate passed a Violence Against Women Act, and the House has its own version that removes Senate provisions like those that would subject non-Indian suspects of domestic violence to prosecution before tribal courts for crimes allegedly committed on reservations and expand the number of temporary visas for illegal immigrant victims of domestic violence. The bill, which once passed by voice vote, seems hopelessly stalled.
"It's always frustrating, "said Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., "that's part of the legislative life up here — always has been. This is an election year, and not many things happen in an election year."