WASHINGTON-The 112th United States Congress' first six months has ended. The early part of a congressional session is often when big legislation happens-before lawmakers begin casting at least one eye on upcoming elections. So how has this Congress done? Big conservative victories like House votes to repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood are mostly withering on the vine in the Democratic-controlled Senate. "Welcome to divided government," said House Speaker John Boehner. WORLD's Washington bureau looks at the high and low points of a period in which the congressional focus may be best summed up in two words: federal spending.
HIGH Taking control of the Medicare debate: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi recently explained her three-part strategy for regaining control of the chamber to The Washington Post: "Medicare, Medicare, and Medicare." Democrats' recent victory in a special election for a House seat in a solidly Republican district in New York bolstered Pelosi's confidence in her strategy-the Democratic candidate there charged that Republicans were ending Medicare under House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's new budget proposal.
The Ryan budget does not end Medicare, but it does change the program that is one of the largest drivers of the deficit. Medicare would become a voucher system for those under 55 now, so when they retire they would receive subsidies to buy private insurance. Ryan acknowledged before Republicans voted on his budget that they were walking into a "political buzzsaw," and the GOP seemed unable to counter the Democrats' message in a way that resonated. Ryan argues forcefully that Medicare on its current path would become insolvent. But so far, that simple point hasn't caught on with the public. A recent Bloomberg poll shows that 57 percent of Americans believe they would be worse off under the Republican Medicare plan.
LOW Ethics scandals: Finding the low point for Democrats so far isn't difficult: the protracted, embarrassing two weeks when Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., lied about his online behavior before admitting to posting explicit photos of himself online, refused to resign, and then finally resigned. But Weiner's case is just one in a series of recent ethical lapses among House Democrats. Last year Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., was censured after having broken a number of congressional ethics rules. An ethics investigation into Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., which is ongoing, alleges that she arranged a federal bailout for a bank in which her husband owned stock. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., has found himself facing a sexual harassment lawsuit. A female staffer said Hastings had made unwanted sexual advances and touched her inappropriately over a two-year period. Hastings denied the allegations, saying, "I have never sexually harassed anyone."
WHAT'S NEXT Doing something in the Senate: House Republicans take headlines, but that's because the Democratic Senate hasn't done anything-not even the basic work of confirming many presidential nominees. If any legislation regarding the debt ceiling, the budget, and the economy is to make it to President Obama's desk, the Senate has to start passing bills. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has to put forward bills that at least some Republicans will sign onto if he wants to overcome a filibuster-which may be one reason that President Obama has been meeting with Senate Minority Leader McConnell on the debt ceiling deal.
HIGH Forcing Congress to corral spending: Capitol Hill tradition says that freshman lawmakers should be seen but not heard. This new crop of lawmakers has not received that message: "I was sent here to run to the mountaintop and yell for all the world to hear," was how new Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., phrased it. The mantra of the freshman class-with 84 new GOP members-has been that they are here to do the right thing regardless of what that means for their reelection prospects. And this attitude has helped change Washington's mindset on spending. Lawmakers are no longer debating whether they should cut but what they should cut. This culminated in mid-April when the House passed a 2012 budget blueprint that cuts nearly $6 trillion in federal spending over the next decade and takes the bold but necessary move of reforming entitlement spending. The Democratic-controlled Senate hasn't passed a budget in more than two years.
LOW Not going far enough: The Washington spending paradigm may have changed, but the deal that averted a government shutdown in April showed how hard it is to tighten the federal government's belt. Republicans were only able to cut less than $40 billion from the ongoing 2011 budget. Conservatives complained that this bite is too small, and 59 House Republicans voted against the bill. "I'd be the first to admit it's flawed," said Boehner. "This is the best we could get."
As it turns out, the best they could get really translated to a measly $352 million in actual reduced federal outlays, according to the Congressional Budget Office. For many the sound and fury of the spring debate ended up signifying nothing. "We had an opportunity this week to rise to the occasion of this historic moment," said Rep. Walsh, "and we blinked."
WHAT'S NEXT Seizing the debt ceiling opportunity: Republicans have a chance to try it again with another spending showdown. This time the debate is over raising the federal debt limit. Democrats are pushing Republicans to agree to tax increases as part of the deal to increase the nation's borrowing power past its current $14.3 trillion. So far, the GOP is resisting. "It's time Washington take the hit," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., "not the taxpayers."
A group of conservatives, including a significant bloc of 10 Republican senators, has pledged to prevent a debt ceiling increase unless it includes measures to cut and cap federal spending. The goal is to find $2.4 trillion in 10-year savings to offset a similar projected increase in the debt ceiling, an ambitious number that would almost certainly include some sort of entitlement reform.