2013 a Lost Year for Democrats?

2013 a Lost Year for Democrats?

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - December 23, 2013

For Congressional Democrats, the 2013 legislative year began with much promise.

Fresh off President Obama's decisive re-election and Democratic Party gains in the House and Senate, including in some Republican “red” states, lawmakers averted the so-called fiscal cliff while fulfilling their campaign pledge to raise taxes on the well-off.

Long-elusive legislation on gun control and immigration reform appeared passable, having garnered public and political support after (in the former case) unimaginable tragedy. Obama spoke optimistically about altering the status quo on these issues during his February State of the Union Address. The president also outlined an ambitious second-term agenda that included action on education policy, climate change, job creation, infrastructure, tax reform, and raising the minimum wage.

But Congress ended the year without any of those initiatives signed into law. And given the caution and partisan positioning that typify midterm election years, the 2014 legislative calendar doesn’t hold much promise for liberal reformers. Moreover, the head of the Democratic Party ended the year with the lowest approval ratings of his presidency and mounting credibility questions.

The most significant victory of the session came last week with the passage of a budget --one of the most basic tasks of governing. It will avert a government shutdown for the next two years and ease some of the sequester cuts the president had described in that February speech as a bad way to achieve spending reductions and manage the nation’s business.

When asked at his end-of-the-year news conference Friday whether 2013 was “the worst year” of his presidency, the president demurred, albeit with a knowing smile. "If I look at this past year, there are areas where there have obviously been some frustrations, where I wish Congress had moved more aggressively," he said. But he also implied that much was lost in 2013, adding that “2014 needs to be a year of action.”

That’s an ambitious -- and probably unrealistic -- goal, given that this Congress has been described as the least productive in history. It’s especially elusive for Capitol Hill Democrats, who won’t begin the next year the way they did the last: with a popular president and political capital to spend. While some lawmakers still hold out hope for immigration reform and other big-ticket items in 2014, legislation will typically be designed to draw contrasts between the two parties.

Ask Democrats in Congress whether 2013 was a lost year for them, and most answer the way the president does: The party controls the Senate, but has an unwilling partner in a House GOP often overcome by its pesky right flank. Failed negotiations between the president and House Speaker John Boehner have created some ill will between the two parties, and Democrats know anything with the president’s fingerprints is destined to fail in the lower chamber.

“I think we’ve had major accomplishments on things we can do here,” Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who won re-election in 2012 in a swing state, told RCP. Brown hopes items left on the table, such as extending long-term unemployment benefits and raising the minimum wage, will get done next year, and he also hopes the president will use his bully pulpit to help. “It’s discouraging we haven’t done those yet, but we’ve got no cooperation from the other side to do it,” he said.

A comprehensive immigration reform bill that included a pathway to citizenship for millions living here illegally passed the Senate with bipartisan support -- and brought together members of the business community, evangelicals, and big labor. The Senate also passed the Employee Non-Discrimination Act with the help of some Republicans who had voted against the gay rights bill in the past. And Democrats also saw strides made on gun control, with some bipartisan support for an expanded background check measure, even if the bill didn’t pass the Senate and had no chance in the House. (It did, however, earn a key endorsement from West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who three years earlier literally turned his rifle on the cap-and-trade energy bill.) But the House didn’t take up any of these.

Still, “there’s no way you can look back at this year and call it lost,” says Lanae Erickson Hatalsky of the center-left think tank Third Way “There were seeds of progress and we still need to see if we can carry them through.”

“We view 2013 as a huge foundational year for a progressive legislative strategy even if it wasn’t the best year for the presidents’ legislative agenda,” adds Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which helped elect lawmakers such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (who led the charge to derail Obama’s first choice for Federal Reserve chair, Larry Summers). “We’re thinking beyond President Obama, and trying to lay the foundation for big picture populist ideas.” Progressives would also count as a positive the fact that lawmakers made no cuts to entitlement benefits through the budgeting process.

Another factor in the stalling of Democratic legislative ambitions was periodic interruptions from developments beyond their control. Lawmakers came back early from a summer recess with calls from the president to approve a military strike on Syria after evidence showed the Assad regime used chemical weapons on its own people. The issue divided Democrats -- especially Congressional Black Caucus members otherwise supportive of the president.

The strike was put on hold when Syria accepted a Russian-brokered plan to destroy its chemical weapons, and the politics subsided when the debate shifted once again to funding the government and raising the debt ceiling. In October, the government shut down for the first time in 20 years after Republicans insisted on defunding or delaying the health care law. The GOP took a major hit in the polls as a result, and Democrats had seemingly found their top midterm line of attack.

But political opportunity quickly shifted with the bungled rollout of Obamacare. In the wake of Americans getting pushed off their health insurance plans after being told that wouldn’t happen, even loyal defenders of the law called for the president to make adjustments that, to some extent, would undermine it. While sign-up glitches have diminished and enrollment numbers are increasing, the issue remains a difficult one for Democrats.

Republicans were also united by what they viewed as heavy-handed tactics by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Though the year ended with a budget deal that produced a glimmer of hope for productivity next year, the last weeks of the legislative session were marked by turbulence in the upper chamber. Shortly before the Thanksgiving recess, Reid engineered a change in filibuster rules to require only a simple majority to confirm executive nominees. (The confirmation of dozens of appointees had been stalled for many months.) That action, however, fired up Republicans, who led the chamber into other late-night stalling sessions in the final weeks of the year.

“I hope that one of the majority leader's New Year’s resolutions is going to be to operate the Senate in a quite different manner,” said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is running for re-election next year with challenges on both his right and left. “It's going to be hard to get the Senate back to normal.”

Reid, who was hospitalized briefly last week for what doctors determined was exhaustion, said he will begin the year with efforts to extend the unemployment benefits, though there is little appetite for that issue among Republicans. Democrats are also working on minimum wage legislation, which he said will be a top priority.

“I hope what we do is get back to doing legislation bill by bill,” Reid said. “That's what we've done in the past. We haven't done it in the last few years because there's been too much obstruction. Otherwise . . . if the Republicans continue this, we're just shoveling to the executive branch ever more power.” 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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