Cooperation scarce in 'year of action'

Cooperation scarce in 'year of action'
© Greg Nash

It has been nearly three weeks since President Obama used his State of the Union address to say 2014 should be a "year of action," but there are already plenty of signs that the year will be much more about staking out election positions, and much less about finding compromise.

Cooperation and concessions have been part of the major bills Congress has managed to move over the last year, such as the debt ceiling, spending, the farm bill and student loans. But there seems to be little chance of generating that same momentum on the other issues that are lingering in the background.

In January, House GOP leaders wrote a letter to Obama suggesting a focus on legislation in those few policy areas where they believed there was a credible chance of agreement.

Republicans have boasted of passing more than 200 bills that the Senate has ignored, but in their letter they highlighted just four areas where the parties could potentially work together. Those issues are reforming federal job training programs; making it easier to build natural gas infrastructure; giving workers time off to attend to sick family members; and funding research into pediatric diseases.

But the White House has not responded, more than two weeks later. A House GOP aide said White House officials have said several times that they have not had a chance to review the letter, which the aide said is a missed opportunity.

"It's impossible to do the big when we can't do the small," he said, adding that starting work on areas of agreement would "build up that trust and confidence" needed to do other things.

The House has also put together a "to-do" list for Senate Democrats, which lists House-passed bills that passed with a clear majority and some Democratic support. The GOP says many of these are jobs bills, such as legislation to help veterans find jobs, ending barriers to foreign direct investment, and the SKILLS Act, which is aimed at making it easier for people to use federal job training programs.

Others deal with energy, such as the gas pipeline bill, and encouraging the generation of hydroelectric power on federal lands. And while there are dozens of other examples of more partisan or less important House bills, the House aide noted that the Senate is sitting on virtually all of the House proposals, even simple legislation to name post offices around the country.

Many Democrats counter that that the House is ignoring Senate-passed legislation. On top of the Democratic charge sheet is the inaction on the immigration bill, which Republicans have said they oppose and won't consider.

The GOP had suggested that smaller immigration bills may be coming but, more recently, party leaders have claimed they cannot trust Obama to enforce immigration laws, which makes them hesitant to push for reform on any scale.

The Senate has also passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill aimed at ensuring equal treatment for gay people in the workplace, and the Marketplace Fairness Act, which would let states collect taxes from online purchases made by their residents.

The other major bill from the Senate in the last year concerns flood insurance. House GOP leaders say they will take up that measure later this month.

Republicans insist their track record is better in dealing with Senate bills, in part because the Senate has passed so few bills over the last year or so.

"They're not sending us anything," the House aide said. "We're not sitting on a bunch of Senate bills because they're not sending us anything."

Still, both the House and Senate are frequently focused on issues that seem unlikely to move in the other chamber, in large part because there does not seem to be any mechanism for working cooperatively on them.

For example, just hours after last week's debt-ceiling vote, Democrats were already talking about raising the minimum wage, an issue Republicans are unlikely to move.

Last week, the House passed a bill to restructure the Consumer Financial Protection Board, something Democrats saw as an attack on the Dodd-Frank law.

In the coming weeks, Republicans are expected to try again to tweak ObamaCare, by eliminating language on the 30-hour workweek that they say creates a disincentive to work. But most Democrats have recoiled at any attempt — big or small — to legislate changes to the 2010 healthcare law.

Much of the GOP's frustration seems derived from their natural disadvantage in Washington: Republicans require cooperation from Democrats to get anything done, while Obama can at least claim some smaller victories through the use of executive actions.

On Friday, Obama again warned Congress that he does not need Congress to cooperate, a warning that is likely to draw Republican complaints and make cooperation even more difficult.

"I want to work with Congress," he told Democrats at their retreat in Maryland. "But, I'm not going to wait, because there's too much to do. And America does not believe in standing still."