This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON – Hopes were high when the new Congress convened in January and President Barack Obama started his second term, with progress predicted on issues that included immigration reform, gun control and perhaps even a long-term budget deal to avert a sequester.
With Congress about to start its August recess, most of those hopes have been either dashed or dampened. Partisan bickering -- not to mention some disagreements within party factions – have blocked significant progress on many of Obama’s major goals, including gun legislation.
“He’s frustrated,” said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who spent a day traveling with Obama in Missouri and Illinois on her birthday last week. “It is so hard to find a willing [Republican] partner to try to move some of these pieces of legislation that have really strong, bipartisan support in the Senate.”
“I think he is willing to work within the parameters of some of the demands that some of the Republican leadership might have,” McCaskill told reporters this week. “But they are just not coming with any ideas of things they really want, other than defund Obamacare – which, of course, is not going to happen.”
Indeed, blocking the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has emerged as the primary obsession of the GOP-led House – which has voted nearly three dozen times to dismantle Obama’s major achievement – and is now the subject of a struggle between tea party-aligned Republican senators and the party’s establishment leaders.
U.S. Sen. Roy Bunt, R-Mo., the fifth-ranking Senate GOP leader, has been caught in the midst of that party debate, as a Red-state senator who denounces Obamacare but who also opposes the current tactic of his party’s libertarian faction – including U.S. Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rand Paul , R-Ky – to oppose a continuing resolution to keep open the government if it includes any ACA spending.
Many Republican lawmakers see strenuous opposition to Obamacare as a political winner when they head home for August meetings in home states or districts. But Bunt takes issue with a tactic that he says could lead to a government shutdown on Oct. 1 while not hitting the mark on the ACA.
“It’s not really about the end goal; it’s about strategy and tactics,” Blunt said of his opposition to linking ACA defunding to the stopgap spending measure. While he agree that Obamacare is “a bad law,” Blunt said, “there are more effective approaches than tying it to a government shutdown.“
For her part, McCaskill views the dissension among the Senate GOP factions as a symptom of a wider problem: Obama’s inability to find GOP leaders in Congress who want to achieve compromise on big legislative issues, rather than simply score political points.
“As [Obama} said in one of his speeches last week: ‘It feels iike they want to shut down the government just because I want to keep it open.’ “
Asked if the president should try harder to work with congressional Republicans, McCaskill said she doesn’t think the problem is at the White House end.
“I think he tries really hard. He talks to Republicans all the time,” said McCaskill. “I think many Republicans are worried about the politics. He is cognizant of the fact that it may not do great things for Red-state Republicans for it to be known that he is talking to them or they are going to the White House, or whatever.
“I would say to any Republican: If they don’t think the president won’t talk to them, then call him. He will talk to them. He wants someone to work with.”
Blunt: Republicans want progress
Blunt rejects the notion that GOP lawmakers are unwilling to compromise with Obama. As an example, he cites the president’s “grand bargain“ proposal this week to pair a corporate tax overhaul with new domestic spending. In his Midwest talks last week, the president said he would agree to overhaul business taxes if more revenue could be found to help improve roads and other infrastructure.
“There are some problems with that [but] I’d like to see that discussion move forward,” Blunt said “I’ll be interested to see the president put more specifics” on the table. He added: “There is every reason to have a discussion there. If the president is really serious about having a discussion, I am serious about being part of that or listening to the discussion.”
The main GOP concern, Blunt said, is that revamping only corporate taxes would cause “a disparity between what corporate taxes are and what individual business taxes are, if people have chosen not to incorporate.“
But many observers on Capitol Hill view the prospects for serious tax reform this year as dim. And the achievements of Congress in general have been few and far between. "The disappointment category is easier to come up with than the achievement category,” Blunt said.
As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Blunt said, “My biggest disappointment is that once again we’re failing to do the fundamental work of prioritizing and appropriating“ federal spending.
Operating the government “by continuing to spend money the way you spent it last year is not a good formula” because priorities change, he said. “The Congress needs to do its work, and the Senate needs to do its work. “
A few bright spots
Some work has indeed been accomplished at the Capitol this spring and summer. The Senate approved what would be a landmark immigration bill – but it is in the process of being split into pieces by the GOP-led House. The Senate passed a farm bill, but the House removed its food-stamp provisions, leading to harsh exchanges between Democrats and Republicans
With the Senate averting a filibuster-blocking “nuclear option” that could have stopped all cooperation, McCaskill says she has seen some bipartisan progress in the Senate on a few issues.
“It feels a bit more like it did when I first got here In 2007, when there was a group of Republicans and Democrats that were talking all the time and working together,” she said. “I’ve been working with Republican colleagues on a long list of things for the last few months.”
Citing as an example U.S. Sen. and former GOP presidential nominee John McCain, R-Az., McCaskill said: “There are some senior members of the Republican caucus in the Senate who understand that just being against everything is not a sound political strategy. If, in fact, politics is what this is about – which it appears to be.
“And there are a lot of members that truly miss legislating. Many of us came here because we like public policy and understanding policy details and figuring out ways to make it better. It’s really hard when it is all about political posturing to be able to get at that work.
But McCaskill decried the GOP members who focus on quixotic efforts to dismantle existing programs like the ACA, while failing to focus on more important – and achievable -- issues.
“I think there is a group of Republicans, that appear to be firmly in control, that are very serious” about using a government shutdown threat to try to de-fund Obamacare.
“The new norm is: How do we blow things up?” she said. “But slowly but surely there appear to be some over there that are more interested in building things.”
Blunt, for one, says he would be interesting in building effective legislation, but he does not see many effective proposals emerging from the White House or from Democratic congressional leaders.
Blunt said there are a few bright spots. “I’ve seen some areas where senators are trying to find solutions in some limited ways. We’ll see how that goes," he said. "The Senate passed a farm bill [and] the House passed a farm bill that allows us, I believe, to get into conference and write a farm bill would be good."
One problem, Blunt said, is that Obama often claims that he does not have much impact on some federal matters, even though the president could have more infuence if he set his mind to it.
“People at the White House say, well the government is really too big for the president to manage," Bunt said. "If that’s the case, I don’t know who is supposed to manage it if the president can’t.”
Blunt said he was unhappy with the lack of congressional progress on many issues, but he cited recent progress in revising the student loan program in a way that makes future subsidized loans more predictable in the long term.
“I think it was a good conclusion,” said Blunt, asserting that the compromise bill “works for both students and taxpayers.”