Congress’ leaders fight on, amid 7 years of grudges

As approval ratings drop to historic lows, one thing that hasn’t changed is the people in charge.

BLOOMBERG NEWSJanuary 13, 2014 

WASHINGTON — John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell last week began their eighth year as the leaders running Congress. That’s longer than any other foursome has worked together since the Senate formalized its leadership structure in the 1920s.

As Congress this year tries to avoid a government shutdown, avert a debt default and break a cycle of dysfunction, the quartet carries the residue of past conflicts: the financial system rescue in 2008, trips to the brink of default in 2011 and 2013 and last-minute deals to extend tax cuts in 2010 and 2012.

“It’s the old cliche — how do porcupines make love?” said former Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas. “And the answer to that is very carefully. So they have to be able to work together.”

LITTLE COMPROMISE

Complicating matters further, the four leaders will each be angling to keep power in their own parties and expand their ranks in the November election, when the entire House and one-third of the Senate will be on the ballot. That means the leaders will try to score political points and negotiate bipartisan solutions at the same time.

Pelosi is again trying to take Boehner’s job and reclaim the House speakership she lost in 2010. McConnell has primary and general-election opponents and also wants to help Republicans across the country so they can take control of the Senate from Reid. And Boehner and Reid are blaming each other for being unwilling to compromise.

“I can’t imagine it’s going to be better because of basically the overreach we’ve seen occur recently and the president’s intransigence on trying to do things about things that really count like spending and the debt,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, who is also seeking re-election this year.

Since the four — Boehner, R-Ohio; Reid, D-Nev.; Pelosi, D-Calif.; and McConnell, R-Ky. — took over as a group in 2007, public approval ratings for Congress have slid.

In January 2007, 35 percent of voters approved of Congress’s performance, with the rating peaking at 39 percent in March 2009, according to Gallup. The monthly figure has been below 20 percent for 30 of the past 31 months. It hit a record low of 9 percent in November 2013, after a 16-day partial government shutdown in October.

Obama signed 72 laws passed by Congress in 2013, the lowest on record for any year since at least the 1940s.

Those ratings and figures are partly a reflection of divided government with voters rejecting Congress because of the other party’s actions. Congress was under complete Democratic control in 2009 and 2010 with higher approval ratings. Since then, even basic functions of government have become difficult.

STAYING POWER

Boehner, 64, of Ohio, became his party’s leader in January 2007. He succeeded Dennis Hastert, who left leadership after Republicans lost the House majority in the 2006 midterm election.

That same month, McConnell of Kentucky, now 71, became the Senate Republican leader after Bill Frist of Tennessee didn’t seek re-election.

Pelosi, 73, of California, is the longest-serving leader, taking over after the 2002 election from Richard Gephardt of Missouri.

Reid, a 74-year-old from Nevada, rose to the top spot in the Senate when his predecessor, Tom Daschle, lost his 2004 re-election contest.

The four leaders haven’t suffered major health scares or scandals and none of the four caucuses in Congress has been compelled to make a change at the top.

“It’s going to take something pretty extraordinary, if you have a leader in place that wants to stay in place, for a party to in effect divide itself bitterly to force a change,” said Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market group in Washington.

ONGOING ARGUMENTS

Every major congressional issue of the past seven years has been handled by this group, sometimes smoothly and often not.

A failed vote on the first version of the 2008 financial system rescue turned bitter as Pelosi blamed Republicans for not delivering the votes they had promised and they faulted her for what they described as an inflammatory pre-vote speech.

In late 2012, Boehner shouted an obscenity at Reid in the White House, after Reid had given a speech saying the speaker was running the House like a “dictatorship.”

McConnell and Reid have been engaged in an escalating fight over the chamber’s rules. Reid routinely accuses McConnell of obstruction and McConnell responds by complaining that Reid fails to allow Republicans chances to amend bills. McConnell suggested last year that Reid would go down in Senate history as the worst-ever majority leader.

That dynamic is visible now in the debate over whether to revive expanded unemployment benefits.

“Over the past several years the Senate seems more like a campaign studio than a serious legislative body,” McConnell said on the floor in a speech calling for “restoring” the Senate. “Both sides will have to work to get us back to where we should be. It won’t happen overnight. We’re all out of practice.”

Frost said he saw the start of a detente in the bipartisan budget agreement enacted in December, in part because Boehner was repudiating the no-concessions tactics of some members.

“It appears right now that you’re at a point where both the two House leaders and the two Senate leaders understand that government has to function,” said Frost, who unsuccessfully challenged Pelosi to be the top House Democrat in 2002. He is now a lobbyist at Polsinelli PC in Washington.

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