WASHINGTON — Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts tries to sound optimistic as he ticks off bills he says have a shot at becoming law. They are hardly transformational: flood insurance subsidies and fishing industry relief efforts, both meant to please key voting blocs back home.
But even those modest efforts, despite bipartisan support, face obstacles. After lawmakers muddled through a historically unproductive year in 2013, many in Congress expect even less work will get done in this year’s session, which began this week after the holiday break. Both parties will focus instead on political strategies for the 2014 midterm elections that, some argue, have only an incidental resemblance to actual lawmaking.
“When you’re in an election year, sometimes the crazy gets crazier,” said Representative James P. McGovern of Worcester, who, like Markey, is a Democrat.
The House, for instance, is poised to pick up where it left off in 2013 and hold its 47th vote targeting aspects of President Obama’s health care law. Like the 46 votes before, the latest effort to derail the law is doomed in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, have said they will make increasing the minimum wage a major theme of 2014. Chances of passage in the GOP-held House? Virtually zero.
Election years occasionally produce big legislative deals, including a series of major tax changes under President Reagan in 1986 and a Clinton administration welfare overhaul in 1996. But the climate in today’s Congress is far different, a zone where compromise often is viewed as surrender.
Some still believe House Republicans will revive stalled efforts to overhaul the immigration system and reach a deal with the Democratic-run Senate, which approved a wide-ranging immigration bill last year. And on Tuesday an extension of jobless benefits cleared an early hurdle in the Senate 60-37, with the help of six Republicans, but faces an uncertain future in the House.
Some lawmakers hope House Speaker John Boehner’s scolding last month of outside interest groups could be a sign he will push aside the more obstructionist elements of his party to at least avoid the sort of crisis-driven showdowns that dragged congressional approval ratings to historic lows in 2013.
That optimism will be tested soon, as another debt debate looms.Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew has said he expects the nation to run out of borrowing authority again in late February or early March, setting up another potential standoff that risks a government default and substantial harm to the economy.
House Republicans are planning a two-night retreat in Maryland at the end of this month where they will discuss a range of strategic issues, including conditions for raising the debt limit. A House leadership official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal strategy, said Republicans will not agree to raise borrowing authority without setting some conditions. “But I also don’t expect any kind of market-rattling showdown,” he added.
But Obama has said he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling, meaning the possibility for impasse remains.
McGovern and other Democrats blame Tea Party Republicans for putting pressure on lawmakers to avoid compromise, and instead focus on futile efforts to repeal Obama’s health care law.
“More of the same,” predicted Representative Michael E. Capuano, a Somerville Democrat. “The same people got us where we were last year, and they’re still running the place.”
Both parties are trying to force symbolic votes to excite key voting constituencies or appeal to top donors.
Even in losing, Democrats believe they will benefit politically as they try to paint Republicans as obstructionist. Republicans argue that Democratic initiatives are simply taxing, spending, or regulatory bills designed to look appealing, while distracting voters from the health law’s failures.
“They like those headlines that say ‘Republicans block puppies’ or ‘Republicans block funds for orphans,’ ” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.
Democrats are making a strong push to galvanize middle-class women, labor unions, and liberal activists. In the Senate, where they wield the gavel, they plan to highlight income inequality by pushing an increase in the federal minimum wage. They expect to renew efforts to raise some corporate taxes and extend safety net programs. Democrats in the House have also released an agenda specifically targeting women — where they have a traditional electoral advantage — with measures to enhance family and medical leave and income equity.
Republicans in the House believe they have the stronger political hand and will focus more narrowly on measures that draw attention to what they say are the damaging effects of the health law. The party intends to use its oversight role in the House to further spotlight perceived vulnerabilities and administrative failures.
They will also court conservatives, business interests, and middle-class voters with additional measures designed to roll back other regulations.
The House has already voted 46 times to repeal or curb the health law, according to House Democrats. This week, one of the chamber’s first orders of business will be a measure to require notification for people if their privacy is compromised by HealthCare.gov. Republicans say it is a safety measure while Democrats say it’s a scare tactic. Despite the website’s bungled rollout, there have been “no successful security attacks,” according to Aaron Albright, spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Regardless, the measure has little chance of becoming law, given Democrats’ control of the Senate and the White House.
Meanwhile, the Democratic-led Senate took its first shot Tuesday morning at highlighting the gap separating the wealthy from poor and middle-class Americans. A measure to extend emergency unemployment benefits for three months unexpectedly cleared its first procedural hurdle, which needed a 60-vote majority, with the help of six Republicans, including Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Boehner said he would consider an extension as long as it was paired with other measures to improve the economy, and its future in the House remains very much in doubt.
Beyond economic issues, Markey said he believes both parties will open a broad debate on climate and energy issues. Obama has said he would use greater authority to regulate greenhouse emissions, something some Republicans have said is usurping the authority of Congress.
“The president would veto any bill that strips him and the EPA of their authority,” Markey said. “But the Republicans have said they intend to make it an issue.”
Many Democrats view the environment as a winning political issue. Markey, who is up for reelection this year but has yet to draw opposition, has used his efforts to combat global warming to build his grass-roots network and fund-raising.
But in coal-dependent states, there are clear benefits to Republicans, given the impact the industry has on their economies. McConnell faces a potentially difficult reelection campaign in Kentucky. Republicans may also use the energy debate to highlight divisions within the Democratic Party over the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed connection between the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, and refineries along the Gulf Coast.
Even if major new laws seem unlikely, many lawmakers are hoping simply to approve some of the basics that have been elusive in recent months. The more optimistic among them say they could serve as building blocks toward broader cooperation. House and Senate negotiators plan to soon unveil a new farm bill, which usually passes without significant opposition but failed last year. McGovern, who is on the conference committee, said he may not support the final version if it includes drastic cuts to food stamps. A Senate version of the bill cuts spending by $4 billion while the House reduces it by $40 billion.
Lawmakers also expect to hash out a more specific $1 trillion one-year spending bill by Jan. 15.