Just four months ago, House Republican leaders, bruised and beaten from the payroll tax debate, said they wanted to avoid legislative fights with President Barack Obama.
Now, the lower chamber looks like WrestleMania.
The effort to renew the widely popular Violence Against Women Act has turned into a brawl over whether gays, illegal immigrants and Native Americans should be protected from domestic abuse.
The cost to keep student loan rates from doubling? Republicans want to empty a preventative health care fund that helps lower-income Americans — something Democrats have rejected. Not to mention, they’d prefer to scrap the temporary loan program all together in favor of a longer-term fix.
The highway bill — which languished for months — is now in marathon negotiations with the Senate. The reason? Republicans couldn’t get a long-term bill together that their own side could back — much less Democrats.
So as Obama hopscotches around the country pitching jobs bills and looking to paint Republicans as obstructionists, the skirmishes in the Capitol over process and minor amendments make it look like Congress can do little more than posture.
Republicans insist that they’re not just there to block Obama’s agenda — they genuinely disagree with him on the particulars of policy. They typically move quickly on popular proposals.
“We were hoping to avoid fights,” Ohio GOP Rep. Steve Stivers said. “Sometimes you don’t get to control when you’re in a fight. You get slugged, and you’re in a fight.”
But the messy legislative process — and the hard line Republicans take on otherwise popular bills — inadvertently play right into Obama’s narrative that Congress is broken and it’s the Republicans’ fault.
Now, the debate over the dual issues of student loans and domestic violence has all the makings of the payroll tax debate, which was a clear win for the president. The GOP actually agrees with the president that the legislation needs to pass, but disagrees on how. In order to pass the student loan bill, it needs to take money from Obama’s health care law.
Republicans say they’ll remind voters they passed a bill but disagree about “pay-fors” and “offsets.” During an election year, the president’s argument is more simplistic: Republicans are obstructing. It allows the president to kick them in the face for months during the heat of an election year.
Even in the Senate — where one legislator can stop the institution in its tracks — the process is smoother. The women’s violence bill passed with unanimous support from women senators in the chamber. And the highway bill saw wide support from both parties in the Senate. The student loan bill stalled in the Senate Tuesday.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), speaking in the Capitol Tuesday, several times repeated the same refrain about the House Republican majority’s governing stance.
“Our Republican friends continue to want to choose confrontation over compromise which is so, I think, frustrating to the American people,” he said.
The White House is trying to take advantage of the gridlock in the House. On Tuesday, the president went to Albany, N.Y., laying out even more things for Congress to do in this election year, including tax breaks for companies that bring jobs back to the U.S. and helping homeowners refinance loans. Republican leaders sounded initially cool to the proposals.
The political downside also reaches the presidential campaign. Democrats have been constantly reminding Republicans that Mitt Romney favors a plan to keep student loan rates from jumping to 6.8 percent from 3.4 percent.
Still, most pressing are the student loan bill and the domestic violence legislation. On those twin issues, Republicans have heard complaints from their own members.
Women in the House have griped to each other — and to their leadership — about being slow to consider the Violence Against Women Act. They believe it made them look unprepared, according to sources familiar with the talks.
Some lawmakers say they’d like to see their party handle the smaller issues with a little less drama.
“I ran for Congress in 2010 to get the fiscal house in order and get people back to work,” said Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, a Republican from the Philadelphia suburbs. “I understand there are many issues, and they’re all important in the nation’s capital, that’s why I say, we immediately reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, fund it with robust funding for the protection of women and children in my district and across the country. Take it back to the economic issues people want us to focus on.”
He added that the two efforts Republicans are working on are “important,” but “we need to get it done, and get back to the work people sent us here for.”
Lawmakers and aides in Republican leadership downplay the idea that they’re stuck on these issues and insist they’ll pass the legislation eventually.
And they still think Democrats are bluffing. Obama, GOP aides say privately, will cut deeper into his health care program to keep student loan rates from jumping — he’s cut from the fund once before. The differences on the Violence Against Women Act are so minuscule, they say, they’ll find common ground.
Many Republicans say the prolonged debates won’t hurt the party.
“[Democrats] may see some short-term gain, and by that I mean very short-term gain, but people aren’t going to be led around in this country being made to believe they’re part of some political chess set,” Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said.
Plus, some of them say, most voters simply don’t care.
“His message is getting old,” Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) said, referring to the president. “People are getting tired of hearing all this divisive stuff, and people are getting tired about hearing about student loans and some of the other stuff he’s doing. They want to be hearing about how he is going to turn around the economy and jobs.”
Rep. Jack Kingston, a longtime Georgia Republican, said the debate “might not be bad for the base and the parties.”
“There’s opportunities for both sides,” he said, adding that the party should be happy to fight on these issues.
“Despite him going to Ohio State, North Carolina, oh, dear me, dear me,” Kingston said, with mock fright. “What about the statistic of 53 percent of college graduates are unemployed or underemployed. You can take your [3.4] percent loan rate, we’ll go with the 53 percent unemployed, and we’ll take that issue.”
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