After six weeks in session and 139 roll call votes in a House and Senate that feature some of the largest Republican majorities in generations, one of the most telling statistics from the new Congress is this: President Obama’s veto threats outnumber the bills Congress has been able to send him.
When Republicans swept into power last November, they promised a new era of productivity and discipline that would break four years of gridlock. “America’s New Congress,” they called it.
But far from striking a bold contrast with the last two terms of stalemate, congressional Republicans have quickly run into familiar obstacles, including partisan paralysis and party infighting.
Friday, as members of Congress rushed to leave town on a bitterly cold morning, Republicans celebrated their most visible accomplishment to date: sending the Keystone XL pipeline bill to Obama’s desk for his expected veto.
“To the president I would say this: Do the right thing, sign this bill and help us create more jobs,” House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said in brief remarks before affixing his signature to the legislation.
But as members of Congress go home for their first extended break since Republicans took control Jan. 6, they have few other achievements.
Only two bills have become law — one a leftover from last year that funds a terrorism insurance program important to real estate developers, the other a noncontroversial measure to address mental health problems among veterans.
That compares with six new laws at this point in 2007, when Democrats came to power in both chambers for the final two years of President George W. Bush’s tenure.
The new Republican majority, said one lawmaker granted anonymity to speak openly about their work, is like the dog that caught the car — still figuring out what to do next. Rather than begin the year with an agreed-upon strategy or comprehensive agenda for the party in power, the 114th Congress opened last month with a loosely defined set of legislative priorities.
Even the Keystone bill was passed only after an exhaustive process in the Senate. During the course of the debate, more amendments were discussed and dispensed with than in the entire previous year when Democrats were in charge.
In the meantime, however, gas prices plummeted, leaving some analysts to question whether the pipeline project would still pencil out.
“Is it the most important piece of legislation facing the nation? No. But it is an opportunity for us to prove that we’re able to work with each other and govern, and it is a good test of whether or not the president is interested in doing that as well,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.). “We have to learn how to crawl before we can walk, and walk before we can run.”
They’ll have to walk quickly. When lawmakers return to Washington in a little more than a week, they’ll once again face something Republicans had hoped to leave behind them — the possibility of a partial government shutdown.
The shutdown threat stems from a legislative trap Republicans set for themselves last December after Obama moved to shield up to 5 million people in the country illegally from the possibility of deportation. At the behest of conservatives eager to undo the new policy, lawmakers agreed not to fund the Department of Homeland Security, which handl