WASHINGTON — The “do nothing” Congress is preparing to do even less.
Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, is quietly playing down expectations for any major legislative achievements in the final year of the 113th Congress, which passed fewer laws in its first year — 65 — than any single session on record. The calendar, drawn up to maximize campaign time ahead of midterm elections in November, is bare bones, with the House in session just 97 days before Election Day, the last on Oct. 2, and 112 days in all.
In 2013, the House was in session 118 days before November and 135 in all.
House leaders are warning rank-and-file Republicans that the passage in December of the first comprehensive budget in years is unlikely to herald a return to even the once-routine task of passing all 12 of the spending bills that Congress is supposed to approve each year. And in a noted departure from previous end-of-session breaks, Republican leaders held no conference calls or large meetings in the long hiatus between adjourning on Dec. 13 and preparing to return Tuesday.
“Things are slow for sure,” said one House Republican close to the party leadership.
Expectations for the session are so low that lawmakers say early action on White House priorities like raising the minimum wage, restoring unemployment benefits that expired, and a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws are likely to go nowhere. Instead, Congress is likely to focus on more prosaic tasks: Finishing negotiations on a farm bill that has languished for two years, reaching agreement on a law authorizing water projects, passing a spending bill for the current fiscal year and raising the debt ceiling by March. Only then might lawmakers move on to modest, piecemeal immigration measures.
The chances are “relatively low in terms of the probability that truly substantive legislation will be advanced through the House,” said Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., a critic of Congress’ work pace.
That is a stark departure from the last three years, each of which dawned with high expectations from Republicans for balancing the federal budget, shrinking government dramatically and repealing the president’s health care law.
In a memo to House Republicans on Friday that was decidedly modest on legislative intent, Cantor promised “to exercise our constitutional duty of oversight of Obamacare” and to schedule a vote on a bill requiring “prompt notification” in the event of a data breach on the federal Healthcare.gov website. Under the “appropriations” heading, he wrote, “This spring, we can expect a robust season of oversight and continued emphasis on spending reforms.”
The House’s slack pace and narrow agenda have angered a few members, cheered others who face tough re-election fights and yielded some support from lawmakers burned by the lofty conservative goals of recent years. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said the only real achievement of 2013 came when Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., lowered their sights and struck a budget deal that reversed some across-the-board spending cuts and nudged down the deficit over 10 years.
“Big thinking has more often gotten us into trouble then led us to success,” he said.
Congress reopens Monday with a set of issues it must address early in the session. On Jan. 15, much of the government will once again run out of money unless lawmakers can pass a $1 trillion spending measure that fleshes out the instructions in the Ryan-Murray budget deal. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew says that by March he will no longer be able to borrow money to finance the government unless the statutory borrowing limit is raised. And in the coming weeks, much of the nation’s farm program will expire without a breakthrough in talks.
Addressing those issues without a major breakdown could create enough good will for lawmakers to at least begin consideration of more ambitious endeavors.
“If these things don’t go well, other things don’t happen, simple as that,” Cole said.
By playing it safe, House leaders hope to keep their rank and file from leading Congress into a conflagration like the 16-day government shutdown in October. Republican political prospects have roared back since then on a wave of anger at the troubled rollout of the federal insurance exchange website under the Affordable Care Act, and Republican leaders are loathe to jeopardize that momentum.
“It’s pretty clear to me in the House, we don’t want to make ourselves the issue,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa. “What happened in the fall with the shutdown, that was an act of political malpractice. We will be very careful not to make those kinds of unforced errors again.”
But Democrats insist they will not let doing nothing be an option. On Monday, the Senate Democratic leadership has scheduled the first legislative vote of the year, to cut off a threatened filibuster on restoring unemployment benefits, which ended last month for 1.3 million Americans. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama will meet with some of the long-term unemployed now cut off from the federal lifeline.
A push to raise the minimum wage will follow the unemployment showdown. And Democrats are working aggressively to neutralize the political costs of the president’s health care law — or even to turn it into an asset by publicizing the millions of Americans now insured through it.
“We’re not going to let them get away with that,” Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said of the “do-nothing” strategy. “One of the reasons the economy isn’t as strong as it should be is the Republicans’ avowed economic theory is to do nothing and we intend to make that a central theme for 2014.”
The problem for Democrats is that Republicans simply do not fear their agenda. The nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report rates only 28 Republican House seats in play; 207 Republican seats are considered safe. Even Republicans in nominally swing districts, such as Rigell and Dent, evince little concern for the Democratic push on minimum wage and unemployment.
Dent said he might consider both measures but only if they were tied to priorities Republicans say would create jobs, such as building the Keystone XL oil pipeline, repealing the health care law’s tax on medical devices, or changing the law’s definition of a part-time worker.