Gridlock Returns to Congress in 2008

Polarization and a slim Senate majority will keep Congress tied up again.

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The gridlock that characterized Congress in 2007 is likely to mark this year's legislative session, political experts say. With polarization between the parties, the slim majority in the Senate, and the president's unwillingness to build legislative coalitions, prospects for much of the Democrats' agenda from last year, like deadlines for Iraq troop withdrawals, remain dim. "I don't expect any real breakthroughs," says Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar with the Brookings Institution.

Yet Democrats say they will pursue all avenues to break the impasse on major bills as Congress returns from recess this week. Some House lawmakers have even called on their Senate colleagues to change some of their chamber's rules and procedures in order to usher in a new era of majority rule.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has criticized the Senate cloture rule, which requires 60 votes to override a Republican filibuster and pass major legislation. With the slim 51-to-49 Democratic majority in the Senate, Democrats have had a hard time getting any reforms passed after their initial success passing minimum-wage and ethics legislation early last year. Senate Republicans used the cloture rule a record 62 times in 2007.

Other House members have been looking into using so-called budget reconciliation procedures, a technical maneuver that allows legislation to pass with a simple majority under strict time limits, according to congressional aides.

But Senate leaders have no intention of altering any rules, and a change would require an unlikely two-thirds majority vote. Instead, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid says he plans to redouble his efforts to reach out to Republicans to find common ground. "Reid is going to look for more opportunities to work with Republicans," says Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, "but there are fundamental differences that we have with the president and the Bush Republicans that we are going to have to continue to highlight."

Whether they get any major bills passed, one thing is clear: It's an election year, and Congress will have even less time than in 2007 to get things done. The House and Senate are expected to adjourn for the campaign season around July 4, then all attention will turn to choosing Bush's successor and a new Congress.

Democrats will use the legislative process on key issues like healthcare, education, and taxes to frame issues for the 2008 political campaigns. "They'll say the only way to move forward is to get a Democrat in the White House and more Democrats in Congress," says Mann. But that tactic could backfire if Republicans are successful in convincing voters that Democrats were responsible for the lack of progress. "The good news is for Republicans," said Trent Lott right after he departed from the Senate last month, "the Democrats are in charge."

What we can expect from Congress in coming months:

ECONOMIC STIMULUS: With experts warning of an impending recession, jump-starting the economy will top the agenda in Congress. Democrats and the White House are now drafting separate economic stimulus plans. Bush's proposal is expected to focus on business tax breaks, while Democrats are likely to extend home-heating subsidies, food stamps, and unemployment benefits. Both plans will probably be revealed in coming weeks.

CLIMATE CHANGE: Reaching a compromise on legislation addressing global warming could be a possibility, says Manley. In December, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a global warming bill that would set up a system of tradable emission credits that is expected to cut greenhouse gases by 70 percent by 2050. The Senate has yet to vote on the compromise bill, but many lawmakers say addressing climate change will top their agenda in '08. The bill has the support of key Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia. "We may have differences of opinion on the state of the science, and on the approach to address this problem," says Warner. "But the time has come to resolve our differences."

NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND: Congress is expected to debate the reauthorization of the president's signature education program, the No Child Left Behind Act. Lawmakers failed to reach a deal in 2007, and many Republicans and Democrats want the law overhauled, calling it an "unfunded mandate." Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, chair of the Senate education committee, plans to introduce revamped legislation in the spring. But it's too early to predict whether it will garner enough support for passage.