Congress looks ahead to a year of pre-election battles

WASHINGTON — Congress comes back to session this week with leaders of both parties planning a war of words in 2014 — dueling agendas that promise little substantive legislation but lots of messages aimed at establishing clear contrasts for voters heading toward the midterm election.

After they dispatch a few must-pass fiscal measures early in the year, legislators seem unlikely to put together major accomplishments. Rather, the Republican-led House and the Democratic-controlled Senate will essentially become something like sound stages for the advertising wars that will unfold in the handful of states and districts that could decide partisan control of the next Congress.

The agendas reflect a basic reality of the modern Congress — much of what lawmakers do does not include actually making laws.


“They are going to start off with some fairly consequential actions, but after that they probably are going to end up with arguments that fit into 30-second attack ads,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide in the Senate who is now a Democratic strategist.

For Republicans the focus will be a singular one: attacking President Obama’s healthcare law. Their campaign aims to convince voters, especially sought-after independents, that the law’s troubled launch proves Democrats cannot be trusted to run the government.

“Obamacare, Obamacare, Obamacare,” said Andrea Bozek, communications director for the House GOP’s campaign arm. “That theme really works in the races — from the Northeast to the South to the Midwest to the West.”

Democrats will counter by trying to turn attention to pocketbook issues. They plan to begin Monday with a test vote in the Senate on a measure to extend unemployment insurance. About 1.3 million jobless Americans lost their benefits Dec. 28 because Congress declined to continue the federal aid.

After that, Democrats plan to vote on raising the minimum wage.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) laid out the Democrats’ theme Sunday in a television interview.

“Let’s start focusing on helping the middle class,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “I have nothing against rich people. But the rich are getting richer; the poor are getting poorer; the middle class is being squeezed out of existence.”

Neither of the Democratic proposals has much support so far in the Republican-controlled House.

To be sure, Congress cannot simply do nothing. Several pieces of legislation must be approved to maintain basic operations of government.

Congress has a Jan. 15 deadline to pass a money bill to fund government agencies. Conservative groups are rallying opposition to the bill, which stems from the year-end budget accord struck by Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). But it seems likely to pass because Republican leaders are wary of igniting another government shutdown like the 16-day one in October that sent congressional approval ratings into free fall.

In February, lawmakers will need to consider extending the nation’s borrowing limit. Borrowing authority expires Feb. 7, but the Treasury Department has said it has enough money to pay the bills for a few additional weeks, shifting the deadline until early March.

Republicans are expected to again use the threat of a federal debt default to try to extract political concessions from the Obama administration. But as with the budget bill, Republican leaders don’t seem inclined to force a major confrontation.

After that, the appetite for bipartisan cooperation is likely to fade.

The possible exception would be if House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) decides to take up legislation to overhaul immigration laws, as the Senate has already done. Boehner has given some signals that he will try to push immigration bills this spring, after most of his members are no longer at risk of losing a primary to an opponent who might use the issue against them.

There’s also a chance both chambers could come to agreement on a long-disputed farm bill.

For Boehner, a major challenge in 2014 will be to persuade tea party members on the right to stick to the GOP’s preferred themes and avoid the flashier brinkmanship that led the party into dangerous waters in the fall. If they avoid unpopular moves like another shutdown, the Republican Party could capitalize on the vacuum left by Obama’s high disapproval ratings, party strategists hope.

Voters are hungry for alternatives, and being the option to an unpopular president is “an ideal position for a political party to be in,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster who has close ties to Boehner’s leadership team. “The challenge,” he said, is deciding what sorts of alternatives to present.

“What the American electorate wants to hear is, ‘How are you going to get the economy back on track?’” Winston said. “That’s the challenge for Republicans going into 2014.”

Republicans are divided over whether they should chart an ambitious agenda or simply try to make the election a referendum on Democratic policies.

House Republicans will huddle in a private retreat this month to try to decide what issues to push. Among the possibilities under discussion are efforts to increase trade and to make online colleges more affordable.

Democrats are unlikely to accept any of those GOP proposals, just as Republicans have shown little interest in extended unemployment benefits or raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, as Democrats propose. Republican aides acknowledge, however, that voting against either proposal could be politically difficult in at least parts of the country, and one GOP senator, Dean Heller of Nevada, has co-sponsored an extension of unemployment benefits.

Other Republicans have said they might support an extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed if certain conditions were met. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said Sunday he could support a three-month extension if Democrats agreed to cuts in other programs to offset the $6-billion cost.

Paul, however, repeated his previous doubts about the value of long-term benefits for the unemployed. “I do think, though, that the longer you have it, that it does provide some disincentive to work,” he said on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.”

As Sunday’s televised exchanges made clear, both sides have opened their message war. Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, recently cited Pope Francis in making the case for legislation that stems economic inequality.

“There are people who got up and went to work today and will go to work tomorrow and work every single day, very hard, and despite their best efforts, they’re not making enough money to live to the next paycheck,” Durbin said.

Republicans invoked another newsmaker — Target — in announcing an Obamacare-related vote to be held Friday.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said the chamber would consider legislation that seeks to protect consumers shopping for health insurance on the Obamacare websites from possible security breaches, as befell millions of holiday shoppers at the giant retailer.

“American families have enough to worry about as we enter the new year without having to wonder if they can trust the government to inform them when their personal information — entered into a government-mandated website — has been compromised,” Cantor wrote in a Thursday memo to House Republicans.