7:34am

Sat August 2, 2014
It's All Politics

As Congress Breaks, Inaction Remains Most Notable Action

Originally published on Mon August 25, 2014 10:48 am

Congress begins a five-week summer recess Saturday after a somewhat tumultuous exit.

The Republican-led House stuck around an extra day trying to overcome conservative opposition to an emergency spending bill dealing with the surge of under-age immigrants from Central America. While that chamber finally eked out a bill last night, it's likely going nowhere. The Senate had already left town after Republicans there blocked a similar funding effort.

Out on the House floor on Friday, Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern offered his sympathies to those who try to follow Congress' antics.

"In case any, Americans are still watching, they can be forgiven for being a little confused about what happened this week," McGovern said.

What happened was a Republican bill providing far less money for border control and refugee processing than what President Obama requested got yanked from the House floor on Thursday right before it was to be voted on.

Instead, House Speaker John Boehner hastily issued a statement saying there were steps Obama could take to secure the border that would not require Congressional action. Speaking at the White House on Friday, Obama sounded baffled.

"Just a few days earlier, they voted to sue me for acting on my own," Obama said. "And then when they couldn't pass a bill yesterday, they put out a statement suggesting I should act on my own."

And the reason they couldn't get that bill passed, Obama said, was House GOP leaders could not get their own troops in line. "So that's not a disagreement between me and the House Republicans, that's a disagreement between the House Republicans and the House Republicans."

University of Maryland congressional expert Frances Lee says this is not the first time this has happened. "This is actually sort of a pattern in recent years," Lee says.

Boehner's ongoing problem, she says, is that with an already slim majority, he keeps trying to push through partisan bills that are not conservative enough to win over his entire caucus.

"The 20 to 30 thereabout members who consistently hold out against the leadership are enough, when Democrats refuse to participate, to keep the leadership from being able to act," she says.

Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said it's no wonder he and his fellow party members refuse to vote for the GOP's bills.

"I will tell the American people, Mr. Speaker, none of the leaders of the Republican Party have reached across to say, 'How can we do this in a bipartisan way?'" Hoyer said on the House floor.

As a result, little gets done in this Congress. Oklahoma House Republican Tom Cole says next fall's midterm elections are causing a risk aversion that's on full view in the Democratic-led Senate.

"You've got Sen. Reid with his majority at risk, he's trying to keep his side from casting any tough votes at all," Cole says. "So you know, we don't have a broken Congress, we have a broken Senate, in my view."

But Charlie Dent, a moderate House Republican from Pennsylvania, says there's plenty of blame to go around.

"The Republican conference can't stand up and complain every day about the Senate doing nothing and then on the other hand use as an excuse not to govern that we're afraid the Senate will do something," Dent says.

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, for his part, puts the blame for inaction squarely on the GOP.

"Republicans are spending their time talking about impeachment and suing the president," Reid says. "This is a degree higher than absurdity, and I don't know what that is. I don't have a word for it."

Some Republicans actually seem proud of how little Congress has done this session.

"When we don't act, we act. That is an act," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. "It's a decision, as sure as if we'd passed a law."

And yet that inaction is what Obama says forces him to use his executive powers, including with the border crisis.

"I'm gonna have to act alone, because we don't have have enough resources. We've already been very clear, we've run out of money," he said.

And apparently patience, as well.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The U.S. Congress begins a five-week summer recess today after a kind of tumultuous exit. The Republican-led House of Representatives stuck around an extra day and managed to overcome opposition to an emergency spending bill. It deals with the surge of underage immigrants from Central America. And while the chamber finally eked out a bill last night, it's likely going to go nowhere. The Senate had already left town after Republicans there blocked a similar funding effort. As NPR's David Welna reports, election-year anxieties seem to be making an increasingly dysfunctional Congress appear even more so.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Out on the House floor yesterday, Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern offered his sympathies to those who try to follow Congress's antics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REPRESENTATIVE JIM MCGOVERN: In case any Americans are still watching, they can be forgiven for being a little confused about what happened this week.

WELNA: What happened on Thursday was a Republican bill providing far less money for border control and refugee processing than what President Obama requested got yanked from the House floor right before it was to be voted on. Instead, House Speaker John Boehner hastily issued a statement saying there were steps Obama could take to secure the border that would not require congressional action. Speaking at the White House yesterday, Obama sounded baffled.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Just a few days earlier, they voted to sue me for acting on my own. And then, when they couldn't pass a bill yesterday, they put out a statement suggesting I should act on my own because they couldn't pass a bill.

WELNA: And the reason they couldn't get that bill passed, Obama said, was House GOP leaders could not get their own troops in line.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: So that's not a disagreement between me and the House of Republicans. That's a disagreement between the House Republicans and the House Republicans.

FRANCES LEE: This is not the first time that this has happened. This has actually been sort of a pattern in recent years.

WELNA: That's University of Maryland congressional expert Frances Lee. Speaker Boehner's ongoing problem, she says, is that with an already slim majority, he keeps trying to push through partisan bills that are not conservative enough to win over his entire caucus.

LEE: The 20 to 30 thereabout members who consistently hold out against the leadership are enough, when Democrats refuse to participate, to keep the leadership from being able to act.

WELNA: And Steny Hoyer, the number two House Democrat, says it's no wonder he and his fellow party members refuse to vote for the GOP's bills.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REPRESENTATIVE STENY HOYER: I will tell the American people, Mr. Speaker, none of the leaders of the Republican Party have reached across to say, how can we do this in a bipartisan way?

WELNA: As a result, little gets done in this Congress. Oklahoma House Republican Tom Cole says next fall's midterm elections are causing a risk aversion that's on full view in the Democratic-led Senate.

REPRESENTATIVE TOM COLE: You've got Senator Reid with his majority at risk. He's trying to keep his side from casting any tough votes at all. So, you know, we don't have a broken Congress; we have a broken Senate, in my view.

WELNA: But Charlie Dent, a moderate House Republican from Pennsylvania, says there's plenty of blame to go around.

REPRESENTATIVE CHARLIE DENT: The Republican conference, on the one hand, can't stand up and complain every day about the Senate doing nothing then, on the other hand, use as an excuse not to govern, that we're afraid the Senate will something.

WELNA: Senate majority leader Harry Reid, for his part, puts the blame for an action squarely on the GOP.

HARRY REID: Republicans are spending their time talking about impeachment and suing the president. This is a degree higher than absurdity, and I don't know what that is. I don't have a word for.

WELNA: Some Republicans actually seem proud of how little Congress has done this session. Jeff Sessions is a senator from Alabama.

SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS: When we don't act, we act. That is an act. It's a decision as sure as if we'd passed a law.

WELNA: And yet that inaction is what Obama says forced him to use his executive power, including with the border crisis.

OBAMA: I'm going to have to act alone because we don't have enough resources. We've already been very clearly, we run out of money.

WELNA: And, apparently, patience as well. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.