After Bruising Session, Congress Faces New Battles

The 111th Congress ended as it began two years ago, with a burst of legislative productivity, as Democrats forced through a historic social change by lifting the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military and a major foreign policy achievement in approving the New Start arms control treaty with Russia.

Dennis Flaherty | Photographer's Choice RF | Getty Images

Along the way, they enacted a landmark health care law and a sweeping overhaul of Wall Street rules, bookended by a $787 billion economic stimulus package at the start of 2009 and an $858 billion tax-cut package at the end of 2010.

It was a dizzying, maddening, agonizing, exhilarating, arduous, bruising and, for scores of Democrats, ultimately career-ending journey from the stimulus to Start — and the party paid a devastating price for its accomplishments, losing control of the House and six Senate seats.

It is a period that will no doubt be pored over by historians for years.

But it is already clear that much of the next two years will be spent fighting over what was done in the past two.

“They have been enormously successful in one sense in passing their legislative agenda,” Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said of Democrats. “The problem is the country just doesn’t like it very much.”

The Democrats’ biggest victories were secured on party-line or near-party-line votes, and some lawmakers predicted partisan animosity would spill over into the 112th Congress, raising a question of whether it would be characterized by deal-making or deadlock.

As many Democrats cast their last votes on Wednesday, top lawmakers said that most of them considered their defeat well worth the price considering the legislative victories they wrote into the history books, accomplishments that have prompted comparisons to the progressive glory days of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.

"You’re president of the United States and you get two women on the Supreme Court? Bang, bang. That’s historic." -Democrat of Washington, Senator Maria Cantwell

“Almost every member who lost, without fail, has said, ‘I am proud of the work,’ ” said Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader. “They say, ‘If it cost me my election, I can point to the fact that I was a member of the productive Congress that did health care, did credit cards, did student loan reform, just go through the entire list.’ ”

Democrats also disputed that the election results were a repudiation of their agenda and pointed instead at the hard times many Americans are suffering through. “The economy has been awful all over the country,” said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader. “The economy is the reason you had the uproar from the Tea Party. That’s all it was.”

At a news conference on Wednesday, just as the House and Senate were wrapping up, President Obama — the catalyst for much of what happened, substantively and politically — called the 111th Congress the most productive in generations and said the postelection legislative blitz proved that the two parties could work together.

“If there’s any lesson to draw from these past few weeks, it’s that we are not doomed to endless gridlock,” Mr. Obama said. “We’ve shown in the wake of the November elections that we have the capacity not only to make progress, but to make progress together.”

The ability of Congressional Democrats, in concert with Mr. Obama, to push through a string of major initiatives in some sense conflicted with the notion that Congress is broken and dysfunctional.

But the advent of divided government next month will test the ability of Congress anew. Even Democrats happy with the outcome of the past two years say the process was often ugly and allowed Republicans to cast much of the legislation as flawed.

Measures that have almost become afterthoughts — pay equity for women and the new power of the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco, for instance — could have been signature achievements in other Congresses. And the Senate confirmed two of Mr. Obama’s nominees to the Supreme Court — both women, one Hispanic.

“You’re president of the United States and you get two women on the Supreme Court? Bang, bang,” said Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington. “That’s historic.”

But the fights over the stimulus, health care, financial regulation and, most recently, tax policy, dominated the landscape and obscured how Congress failed in other respects.

Because of the time those fights consumed — and the eagerness of lawmakers to avoid tough votes in a charged partisan atmosphere — the Congressional spending and budget process completely collapsed this year for the first time in a quarter-century and Congress did not fulfill its most basic responsibility, allocating money to federal agencies.

That lapse sets up a spending fight early in the next Congress over financing the government for the remainder of the fiscal year while House Republicans try to carry out their plan to cut $100 billion in domestic spending.

Returning for the lame-duck, Democrats put an exclamation point on the session, squeezing through a raft of priorities despite concerted Republican resistance, particularly in the Senate where Democrats were forced to thread the procedural needle time after time.

Republican leaders discovered that the power of the minority only extended so far if Democrats were tenacious and were able — as with the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the Start treaty — to lure decisive numbers of Republicans away from the leadership’s opposition.

Many Republicans complained bitterly in recent days that Democrats were ignoring their rejection in the election and abusing their last weeks of Congressional control to jam through a final flurry of expensive, intrusive programs. And they said efforts by Democrats to score political points by forcing a vote on an immigration measure they knew would fail had angered Republicans and diminished their interest in a major immigration overhaul in the next Congress.

“I think it has hurt,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina.

Republicans did score some some victories of their own in the final days. The compromise that extended Bush-era tax cuts even on the highest incomes and provided a generous exemption for the estates of affluent families was embraced by wide Republican majorities. And they managed to derail a giant $1.2 trillion spending plan that was stuffed with tens of millions of dollars of pet spending projects, delaying crucial spending decisions until early next year when they will run the House and have more clout in the Senate.

At the same time, House and Senate Republicans have pledged to work to repeal the health care law and deny financing for other newly passed initiatives, like the tighter financial regulation.

But Republicans also say the new dynamic on Capitol Hill will put them in a much stronger position to take the offensive and challenge Mr. Obama and Senate Democrats by initiating conservative bills in the House and pushing for Senate floor votes. Even if they fail on some bills, Republicans say, they will make the case to expand their control from the House to the Senate and the White House in 2012.

“The big part is showing America what we stand for,” said Senator Jim DeMint, the conservative South Carolina Republican.

Even as he celebrated the successes, Mr. Obama acknowledged the obstacles ahead. “I’m not naïve,” he said. “I know there will be tough fights.”