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At year's end: Washington starts, end 2013 working on budget matters

By NICOLE DEBEVEC, United Press International   |   Dec. 22, 2013 at 3:30 AM
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From the get-go, 2013 was turbulent in Washington. Crises rolled over the nation's capital like thunderheads after President Obama took his second oath of office on a crisp January day.

A conservative minority bloc of Republicans nearly pulled off a political coup against U.S. House Speaker John Boehner when he stood for re-election as the chamber's leader.

The dozen dissidents fell just five votes shy in their bid to force a second vote on electing Boehner as House speaker for the 113th Congress and possibly replace the Ohio Republican.

And it didn't stop there. Several times during the session House leadership had to pull legislation because it didn't have enough votes on the Republican side of the aisle.

Starting the year off, the House of Representatives passed a measure Jan. 1 that avoided sending the U.S. economy over the so-called fiscal cliff -- a deal that raised taxes on upper-income households.

Budget cuts deemed so onerous that there was no way in Hades Congress would allow them to occur really did occur, courtesy of the sequestration -- $85 billion in across-the-board cuts that played no favorites -- that went into effect March 1. The cuts fomented predictions of dire consequences, presented photo ops of veterans storming barricaded war memorials and disappointed people who couldn't tour the White House or hike along a national park trail. The only agency for which lawmakers found funds post-sequestration was the Federal Aviation Administration, handily passing legislation to end sequester-related flight delays by restoring funding for air traffic controllers.

In October no one blinked in a game of chicken, resulting in a 16-day partial federal government shutdown, largely blamed on Republicans because of their demand to tie defunding the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) to funding government.

With the national debt topping $17 trillion, House and Senate negotiators led by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., hammered out a bipartisan resolution to give the United States its first budget since 2009. It passed both houses handily a week before Christmas.

Take your pick of buzz-worthy issues: a House delay on approving relief for the victims of Hurricane Sandy that drew scorn from within the Republican party, the government shutdown in October, the House poo-pooing a bipartisan immigration reform that cleared the Senate, a true dislike by Republicans for the Affordable Care Act, budget woes, a poor rollout of healthcare.gov, the federal portal for consumers to enroll in health plans, scandals and hearings on scandals.

Just months after 20 children and six adults were gunned down in an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., gun enthusiasts once again fought off an attempt to pass gun-control legislation prompted by the December 2012 slaughter.

In April, the Senate voted 54-46 -- six votes shy of the required 60 -- in favor of the bipartisan amendment from Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that would have expanded background checks to all online and gun-show sales.

"But make no mistake: This debate is not over," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said during floor debate. "This is not the end of the fight. Republicans are in an unsustainable position -- crosswise with nine out of 10 Americans."

As the year wound down, poll after poll released after the federal government partially closed in October because the money ran out were variations on a theme: Republicans took a hit. A big hit.

President Obama and Democrats were tarnished, but not as much as the GOP because the conservative element tried to link keeping the government operating to the repeal of the healthcare law, Obama's signature domestic policy.

After government reopened, however, Obama took it on the chin with the less-than-stellar rollout of healthcare.gov, which happened to launch on the day the government partially closed its doors.

Soon after the impacts of the shutdown and the rollout were polled and re-polled, political prognosticators said seven Senate seats now in Republicans hands could be worrisome for the incumbents in the party primaries.

A primary defeat of any of a group of pragmatic Republicans -- which includes Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Michael Enzi of Wyoming and Thad Cochran of Mississippi -- would give the Tea Party movement a lot of juice and create a wider schism within the party, non-partisan political handicapper Stuart Rothenberg said in a Roll Call commentary.

The de facto congressional leader of the Tea Party movement, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, led the drive to defund Obamacare as a condition of funding the government and House conservatives followed his lead, despite grumblings from moderates. He even took to the Senate floor filibuster-style, reading bedtime stories to his children, engaging in discussions with colleagues and otherwise holding up votes to get his point across.

But while Americans may have held congressional Republicans responsible for the partial government shutdown, in the "what have you done for me lately" milieu that is Washington, it's too soon to tell if anger in October 2013 will transfer to angst in November 2014.

Taking a longer view to 2014 or 2016, the pressure "to guard the party's national reputation to win elections is felt by a small number of House Republicans in competitive races. The rub is this minority will determine which party has the majority," Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs said in October.

"At the moment, the policy purists and their acolytes rule the roost and the electoral threat is seen as distant -- and therefore secondary," Jacobs said.

It's enough to wonder what will happen in 2014 after voters opted for the status quo in 2012. And it's never too early to begin arm-chair quarterbacking for the midterms.

Retirements by some political heavyweights could throw a couple of monkey wrenches into party challenges.

Among senators who already announced their plans to retire at the end of their terms were Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., Mike Johanns, R-Neb., Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Carl Levin, D-Mich.,

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., announced his retirement but died before the end of his term. Newark Mayor Cory Booker was elected to the unexpired term.

The House, too, was hit as Bachus, R-Ala., Howard Coble, R-N.C., Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. -- dogged by investigations into alleged campaign finance irregularities in 2012 when she sought the GOP presidential nomination -- were among those announcing retirement plans.

The House was jolted with another spate of retirements in December, including Rep. Jim Matheson, the lone Democrat in Utah's congressional delegation. Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, also announced his decision not to seek re-election as did Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.

A political elder statesman, former House Speaker Tom Foley, died in October at age 84. Foley was elected to the House in 1964 from Washington's 5th Congressional District and during 15 terms, became chairman of the Agriculture Committee, majority whip, majority leader and in 1989, the 57th speaker of the House. "Big Tom" also was U.S. ambassador to Japan, a presidential adviser on foreign policy, a principal at a high-powered Washington, D.C., law firm and a member of many boards.

One thing the first year of the 113th Congress will be remembered for is the paucity of legislation that became law.

A Washington Post review of congressional records indicated fewer than 60 public laws were enacted in the first 11 months of 2013, prompting officials to declare this first session the least productive ever.

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