Don't Look Now But Congress Is Actually ... Working!

Harry Reid Mitch McConnellAPSenate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Leader Harry Reid

It’s been a long couple of years of Congressional gridlock and self-inflicted crises.

Recently, we’ve set the bar for Congress so low that we are just hoping they keep the government open and prevent us from defaulting.

Last year, they (ahem Republicans) couldn’t even do that.

With the start of the New Year, expectations weren’t much higher. The goal once again was for Congress to avoid a government shutdown and to pay our bills.

Well, with the chances of a shutdown behind us and Republicans ready to surrender on the debt ceiling, a new feeling of calm is settling over Washington. Congress seems to be actually…working!

In fact, Democrats and Republicans are making small, but important progress on a number of issues.

Yesterday, the House passed the Farm Bill, which no one is particularly happy with, but it cleared the lower chamber easily. The Senate is likely to pass it later this week. The bill took two years to work out and many legislators are voting for it just to get it over with. But nevertheless, Congress got it done.

Extending emergency unemployment benefits got swallowed up in a partisan bickering match over procedural rules two weeks ago, ending in a Republican filibuster. But now, there seems to be movement there as well. Democrats have proposed a new way to pay for a three-month extension and Republicans are listening. Yesterday morning Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said that the “reality is, we’re pretty close.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is expected to bring the bill up again next week. It could easily fall apart, but at least for the moment, there’s hope.

Even the anger over amendments, which was one of the reasons Republicans filibustered the original unemployment insurance bill, seems to be dissipating a bit. The Senate took up a flood insurance bill yesterday and Reid allowed votes on three amendments on it with more expected to come today.

Finally, there has even been progress on immigration reform. House Republicans are likely to release a list of “immigration principles” after their retreat this week. The principles will include a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants that will be contingent on certain security benchmarks being met. Yesterday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) explained that before those benchmarks are hit, undocumented immigrants could apply for a probationary status which allows them to legally work.

The Republican principles do not include a pathway to citizenship, something many Democrats have demanded. However, as Greg Sargent notes, these ideas demonstrate that Republicans are looking for ways to compromise. There is a long way to go for it to become law, but once again, there’s progress.

None of this means Congress will suddenly pass numerous bipartisan bills. The parties are still polarised and Obama’s agenda is still unlikely to go anywhere.

But for a Congress that supposedly can’t do anything, it’s actually making progress on a few issues. That doesn’t make the likelihood of actually accomplishing anything that much higher, but it is at least a break from the constant state of crisis Washington has been in for the past few years.

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