After Unproductive 2011, Congress Faces Numerous Hot-Button Issues

Published Jan 18, 2012. By Laura Green. In The Palm Beach Post.

 — Congress is returning from a long winter's break to a procrastinator's nightmare.

Extending the payroll tax break, addressing expiring unemployment benefits and finding a way to compensate Medicare doctors - three big issues that tied up lawmakers before the holidays - are back to haunt to them.

If the tax break is not extended, 9 million Floridians will see their paychecks shrink starting in March.

That's because a temporary fix expires Feb. 29. And members of the Republican-controlled House, who returned this week ahead of the Senate, are showing no signs that they developed a bipartisan streak while they were away.

Among their first acts of business, they scheduled a symbolic vote Wednesday opposing President Obama's request to raise the nation's debt limit by $1.2 trillion. Never mind that their leaders agreed last summer to give Obama the power to increase the debt ceiling.

In a largely party-line vote of 239-176, they denied the president an increase in new borrowing authority. But the measure is certain to stall in the Senate, which Democrats control, and is opposed by Obama, who could veto it.

The nation's economic problems have raised the stakes for Congress to act on a number of deadlines in 2012, but the partisan stalemate and the upcoming presidential election make it almost impossible that it will, experts said.

Adding to the trouble, this Congress, which historians have said is the least productive in at least 100 years, put off so many big problems in 2011 that it backed itself into a year of tough decisions.

"In some ways, this is as unusual a situation as you can have," said Josh Gordon, policy director of the bipartisan Concord Coalition. "The economy is still really suffering and you have divided control of Congress, where the Democrats control the Senate and the Republicans control the House, and the president is of a different party and it's an election year."

Along with the February deadline, Congress saddled itself with a 2012 deadline to come up with another $1.2 trillion in spending cuts or face deep, automatic cuts in defense and domestic spending. Lawmakers had a shot at a long-term debt-reduction plan, but a bipartisan congressional committee with rare access to an up-or-down vote failed to so much as come up with a plan.

"The real shame is that they had two really good opportunities in 2011 to deal with some of this long-term stuff and take it off the table for the election year and they just couldn't get it done," Gordon said. "And partly that was because they were looking to the election."

Also in 2012, nearly

$4 trillion worth of tax cuts, most of which originated under the Bush administration, will expire without action from Congress. Democrats have proposed letting tax cuts for the richest Americans expire, but Republicans say such a move would backfire on the economy.

Congressional staffers are meeting to try to resolve the most immediate issues: whether and how to extend the expensive payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits, and how to avert a sharp cut in pay to Medicare doctors.

Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar who is co-authoring a book about Congress called It's Even Worse Than It Looks, predicts that Republicans will not seek another fight over the payroll tax. "They'll only pass something where not passing will cause them damage," he said. "That's why you're getting action on the payroll tax extension."

Gordon predicts Congress will package an extension of the unemployment benefits and funding to prevent a 27.4 percent cut in doctor pay along with payroll tax holiday.

"The big dispute is over how they're going to pay for them," he said.

U.S. Reps. Tom Rooney, R-Tequesta, and Allen West, R-Plantation, are among 11 Republican members of Florida's congressional delegation who support a two-year plan to stabilize doctor payments. To pay for it, they're proposing changes to Obama's health care reforms, which may irritate Democrats.

Once Congress has cleared the February deadline, Gordon and Mann predict it will put off other gripping issues, such as the Bush tax cuts and deficit spending, until after the election.

"There's actually a pretty good chance they'll wait to see who's in Congress and who's in the White House to deal with them," Gordon said.