Congress returns to Washington – and to partisan angling

The U.S. Capitol where Congress has returned for a lame duck session
The U.S. Capitol where Congress has returned for a lame duck session McClatchy

A week after voters signaled they wanted change in Washington, Congress came back to town Wednesday and gave them more of the same.

Leaders from both parties in the House of Representatives and the Senate pledged bipartisan cooperation, but they quickly returned to the partisan sniping that’s been the trademark of the two-year session of Congress that runs to the end of the year.

A key point of contention: President Barack Obama’s promise to act on his own to help millions of undocumented immigrants if Congress doesn’t pass an overhaul. Democrats urged Obama to go ahead; Republicans said that would defy the will of the people at the ballot box in the recent elections.

This of course was the old Congress, in which Democrats still have majority control of the Senate, which they will lose when the new Senate takes over in January. And the cross-current of partisan politics bridged the two Wednesday, with Congress suddenly headed toward voting to approve the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, a bargaining chip in the Nov. 4 elections.

Obama has postponed approval of the pipeline, which would carry Canadian oil to Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has blocked a Senate vote pushing the pipeline lest it pass and embarrass the president. But the pipeline is popular in Louisiana and is an issue in a Senate runoff between Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu and Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy.

On Wednesday, House Republican leaders signaled the House will vote Thursday on a pro-pipeline bill pushed by Cassidy, which would give him fresh bragging rights. Landrieu pressed anew for Reid to allow a Senate vote as well, and Senate Democratic aides said late Wednesday that Democratic senators wouldn’t block a vote on the pipeline.

As lawmakers made their way back to Washington, party leaders spoke of cooperation on other issues, while restating their conflicts.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., likely to be elected Thursday to be the new Senate majority leader come January, warned Obama he’d be making a “big mistake” if he acted unilaterally on immigration.

“Last week the American people sent a strong message to Washington,” McConnell said. “They voted for a new direction. They called for a change in the way we do things here in the Senate.”

On the other side of the Capitol, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, escalated his criticism of Obama, accusing him of being unwilling to work with Republicans.

“Instead of acknowledging that the American people want a course correction, he’s vowed to change nothing,” the speaker’s office said in a statement. “He’s doubling down on his plans to grant amnesty by executive action, impose federal regulation on the Internet, and eliminate affordable, reliable energy.”

While Republicans warned against White House action on immigration, some Democrats pleaded for the president to take executive action.

“What the president needs to do is give immediate and significant relief to those families that are being wrenched apart and living in fear,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

Democrats had other gripes. Reid was briefly cordial as he opened the Senate’s first formal session since September, congratulating McConnell’s likely ascension to majority leader next year. Republicans currently have 45 seats in the Senate. They’ll have at least 53 next year; the Louisiana seat will be decided Dec. 6.

Reid insisted that he is “able to strike compromise with my Republican colleagues and I’m ready to do it again.”

“Regardless of how you may interpret last week’s election results,” he said, “it’s clear that the American people want us to join together to get things done for the middle class and all Americans.”

He quickly went to Democratic themes, citing how voters in four “very red states” approved minimum wage increases last week.

“Republicans outside this building don’t object to giving American workers a livable wage,” Reid said. He then listed other issues where the two parties have disagreed, including pay equity legislation and student debt relief.

Just before the session, Reid and other Democratic leaders discussed their agenda with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough at the Capitol.

“Obviously (we) underscored our interest in getting an omnibus (spending bill),” McDonough told reporters. “We really want to make sure that we get our nominations so that we can undertake all the important efforts that we’re leading, really, across the globe.”

While Republicans swept the elections last week, the party still does not have an overwhelming vote of confidence from the American public – and that could affect how Congress works both in the lame-duck session and next year.

A Pew Research Center survey released Wednesday found 48 percent of Americans pleased Republicans won control of the Senate, but 38 percent unhappy.

“There was much greater public enthusiasm after the Democrats gained control of Congress in 2006, and after the GOP swept to victory in both the House and Senate in the 1994 midterm election,” Pew reported.

Related stories from McClatchy DC