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 â€” something Democrats have rejected. Not to mention, theyâ€™d prefer to scrap the temporary loan program all together in favor of a longer-term fix.
The highway bill â€” which languished for months â€” is now in marathon negotiations with the Senate. The reason? Republicans couldnâ€™t get a long-term bill together that their own side could back â€” 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 theyâ€™re not just there to block Obamaâ€™s agenda â€” they genuinely disagree with him on the particulars of policy. They typically move quickly on popular proposals.
â€śWe were hoping to avoid fights,â€ť Ohio GOP Rep. Steve Stivers said. â€śSometimes you donâ€™t get to control when youâ€™re in a fight. You get slugged, and youâ€™re in a fight.â€ť
But the messy legislative process â€” and the hard line Republicans take on otherwise popular bills â€” inadvertently play right into Obamaâ€™s narrative that Congress is broken and itâ€™s the Republicansâ€™ 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 Obamaâ€™s health care law.
Republicans say theyâ€™ll remind voters they passed a bill but disagree about â€śpay-forsâ€ť and â€śoffsets.â€ť During an election year, the presidentâ€™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 â€” where one legislator can stop the institution in its tracks â€” the process is smoother. The womenâ€™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 majorityâ€™s governing stance.
â€śOur Republican friends continue to want to choose confrontation over compromise which is so, I think, frustrating to the American people,â€ť 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 â€” and to their leadership â€” 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 theyâ€™d like to see their party handle the smaller issues with a little less drama.
â€śI ran for Congress in 2010 to get the fiscal house in order and get people back to work,â€ť said Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, a Republican from the Philadelphia suburbs. â€śI understand there are many issues, and theyâ€™re all important in the nationâ€™s capital, thatâ€™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.â€ť
He added that the two efforts Republicans are working on are â€śimportant,â€ť but â€śwe need to get it done, and get back to the work people sent us here for.â€ť
Lawmakers and aides in Republican leadership downplay the idea that theyâ€™re stuck on these issues and insist theyâ€™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 â€” heâ€™s cut from the fund once before. The differences on the Violence Against Women Act are so minuscule, they say, theyâ€™ll find common ground.
Many Republicans say the prolonged debates wonâ€™t hurt the party.
â€ś[Democrats] may see some short-term gain, and by that I mean very short-term gain, but people arenâ€™t going to be led around in this country being made to believe theyâ€™re part of some political chess set,â€ť Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said.
Plus, some of them say, most voters simply donâ€™t care.
â€śHis message is getting old,â€ť Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) said, referring to the president. â€śPeople 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 heâ€™s doing. They want to be hearing about how he is going to turn around the economy and jobs.â€ť
Rep. Jack Kingston, a longtime Georgia Republican, said the debate â€śmight not be bad for the base and the parties.â€ť
â€śThereâ€™s opportunities for both sides,â€ť he said, adding that the party should be happy to fight on these issues.
â€śDespite him going to Ohio State, North Carolina, oh, dear me, dear me,â€ť Kingston said, with mock fright. â€śWhat about the statistic of 53 percent of college graduates are unemployed or underemployed. You can take your [3.4] percent loan rate, weâ€™ll go with the 53 percent unemployed, and weâ€™ll take that issue.â€ť
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