If you blinked, you probably missed it. Along with an unseasonal thaw and an early explosion of cherry blossoms, March brought an unexpected burst of bipartisan productivity in Washington.
The president invited leaders of both parties to the White House for lunch, Republicans and Democrats passed a package of jobs bills, and the Senate approved a transportation bill spearheaded by political odd couple Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Jim Inhofe (R-OK).
But the soft air of semi-moderation ended with a thud Thursday after House Republicans spiked the Senate's bipartisan transportation bill and, for good measure, passed a partial repeal of President Obama’s health-care law. On the heels of Republican opposition to renewing the Violence Against Women Act in the Senate and Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget-slashing proposal that invited a barrage of Democratic ridicule, Congress was back this week to polarizing business as usual.
Wasn’t it nice while it lasted?
For anyone keeping hope alive for a longer détente, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put those thoughts to rest Thursday morning when he ripped the House GOP as “a big, dark hole” for scuttling the Senate’s two-year renewal of the transportation bill, which funds road and bridge projects and expires this month after eight extensions.
“They are so disorganized, in such a state of disrepair, the House of Representatives, that they can’t even extend the highway bill. I don’t know what’s in their minds,” Reid said. “Over in the big, dark hole we now refer to as the Tea Party-dominated House of Representatives, we couldn’t do it. Republicans in the House are talking as if it’s some socialist program that was developed at Harvard or some other radically liberal place. I can’t imagine what their mindset is.”
Majority Leader Eric Cantor made the House GOP mindset very clear later in the day, saying that America is just plain broke.
“We are in very, very difficult economic times,” Cantor said. “We have never faced the kind of problems that we face today as a country from a fiscal standpoint. And unfortunately, transportation funding is no different. We’re just out of money.”
But Senate Republicans did not feel the same way last week and joined Democrats on a 74-22 vote for the transportation bill, setting up a familiar dynamic with the White House, Democrats, and Senate Republicans on one side of an issue and House Republicans on the other. That same scenario led to gridlock last year during the debt-ceiling debate, but set up the swift passage of the payroll-tax-cut extension just last month, handing Obama a major victory.
“The only reason that got done was after some really rough bruising of House Republicans. They were completely isolated,” said a House Democratic-leadership aide. “The president, Democrats, and Senate Republicans all wanted it, so they had to change their position. The transportation bill the same thing. They are isolated once again. It’s a re-do.”
Boxer hammered House Republicans and Speaker John Boehner Thursday, pointing out that if she and Inhofe could work out a deal, anybody could.
“The Republican leadership is so extreme that they don’t want to even reach their hands out to Democrats,” she said. “It’s all over but the shouting.”
But Boehner defended his House Republicans, even as he pushed them to support a separate version of the bill to at least get the measure to a conference committee. The Senate bill “was greased to be bipartisan with 6,371 earmarks,” he said. “You take the earmarks away and guess what? All of the sudden people start to look at the real policy behind it.”
Aides in both parties agreed that the scuffle over the transportation bill is just a prelude to larger fights looming in the spring and summer, as both sides look to position themselves for November.
“It’s an election year,” said a GOP Senate aide. “There is zero sense that anything else is going to happen.”
A senior Democratic official agreed. “Tax reform seems to be dead. Maybe they’ll do postal reform? There doesn’t seem to be a lot of hope for anything else.”
Not only are few bills likely to pass this year, two of the most high-profile pieces of legislation in the last two years could be on the verge of unwinding in the months ahead, sparking partisan battles all over again.
Next week, the Supreme Court will take up a challenge to Obamacare. Although it will be up to the justices to decide if the law, or parts of it, are unconstitutional, congressional Democrats and Republicans have planned press conferences, radio call-ins, and an all-out media blitz to push their agendas while the media are focused on the Court.
“We knew what we were doing when we passed this bill,” Pelosi told reporters at a press conference called to celebrate the anniversary of the bill. “It is iron-clad constitutionally, but what happens in the courts is another matter."
For his part, Boehner said Republicans will move to undo a bill they agreed to last year that automatically triggers massive cuts at the Pentagon, which Democrats and Republicans approved as a part of a bloody budget battle.
And he fired one last shot across the bow. “We’re over here in the House actually working on a budget and going through the real work that it takes to get a grip on our fiscal problems,” Boehner said. “The Senate has done nothing.”