The 111th Congress: Some memorable bills, some botched basics

WASHINGTON–As he walked to the Senate floor to cast his final votes this week, retiring Sen. Chris Dodd remarked that bills that he’d been pushing unsuccessfully for years were suddenly flying through to final passage in the waning days of this Congress.

A food allergy measure. A child abuse prevention bill. A low-income housing proposal. All are now headed to the White House for the president’s signature.

“It’s been a remarkable 26 months-nothing quite like it in my 30 years,” Dodd said, reflecting on the 111th Congress and the preceeding economic meltdown that set the stage for two straight years of sweeping legislative action.

Across the Capitol, Rep. Joe Courtney, too, was taking stock of the 111th Congress’s accomplishments, while also on pins-and-needles about what comes next.

Because of a long, chaotic, and productive lame-duck session, lawmakers like Courtney will have little time to recover from the dizzying blur of legislative activity before gearing up for a fresh round of political battles.

In just the last few weeks, Congress has approved, among other things, an $858 billion tax cut package, a nuclear arms treaty, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and a health care bill for first responders who helped with rescue and recovery after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“It’s a lot of stuff that’s coming fast and furious,” Courtney said in an interview Wednesday morning, before the House reconvened for one last vote.

“In terms of the scope of issues-education, health care, financial reform–in many respects I think [this Congress] is as sweeping as the Great Society Congress,” Courtney said. “The difference is that we are in the midst of a terrible recession and that kind of casts a big shadow on the work that took place here.”

There’s little question that the 111th Congress is one of the productive in recent memory. And the Connecticut congressional delegation had a strong hand in the litany of legislative achievements–big and small alike.

Dodd, for example, has already gotten a heap of attention for his role in the back-to-back Democratic victories on enacting health care reform and a Wall Street overhaul.

On Monday, Dodd went to the White House for one final photo-op with President Barack Obama, who signed into law a bill he sponsored to bolster federal efforts to treat and prevent child abuse.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, made his own trip to the White House on Wednesday, when Obama signed legislation overturning Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the military’s ban on gays serving openly in the armed forces.

Courtney helped champion the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which dramatically increased the federal investment in annual Pell Grant scholarships and revamped the federal loan programs by cutting subsidies to private banks and making students loans cheaper.

“If you look at a state like Connecticut, enrollment in higher education has shattered all records,” Courtney said. “And I believe very strongly that the boost to Pell grants, combined with the reduction in [the cost of federal] student loans, has really fueled this spike in enrollment.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, helped eke out 11th-hour victories in this Congress on a sweeping food safety bill and a major child nutrition bill.

This session, DeLauro said, is remarkable not just for the number of bills passed, but for the breadth of those measures.

The health care bill is remaking one of the biggest sectors of the American economy. The Wall Street reform measure will bring sweeping changes to the financial services industry. And the various stimulus measures passed in this Congress pumped more than $1.6 trillion into the U.S. economy.

“These are big blockbusters,” DeLauro said.

Still, there were some significant omissions and failures. Congress stumbled in carrying out its most basic duty: approving a budget and spending bills to keep the government running.

Instead, in the closing hours of the lame-duck session, lawmakers passed a short-term funding bill that will keep federal spending essentially flat, at 2010 levels, until March 4.

That punts key spending decisions to the next Congress, when Republicans will control the House and have a stronger hand in the Senate. And in the meantime, it creates uncertainly at the state and local level, in Connecticut and elsewhere, about what to expect from Washington.

“There’s a lot of programs in defense and non-defense that are going to be in a holding pattern,” said Courtney.

During a recent meeting about a brownfield site in his district, Courtney recalled, the Environmental Protection Agency’s top official for New England said the agency could take little action until they got clearer funding signals from Congress.  “It kind of immobilizes them,” Courtney said of short-term funding bill.

Lieberman said the biggest disappointment was the stalemate over climate change legislation. And at least for now, he said, the moment is passed for a broad bill tackling greenhouse emissions.

“The problems of climate change and energy dependence get worse every day, but the reality is the composition of Congress has changed,” Lieberman said. “Nothing as comprehensive as the American Power Act… has any chance in the next two years, so we’ve got to go back and clear the table.”

He said a slimmed down energy measure, along with deficit reduction and cyber-security measures, would be his top priorities in the next Congress.

Lieberman also said that, in the wake of his work on DADT repeal, he would make a more aggressive push to pass legislation banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment and providing domestic partner benefits to gay and lesbian federal employees.

But he and others acknowledged that there’s a significant degree of uncertainty about how the 112th Congress will unfold. With Republicans in control of the House and gaining seats in the Senate, it’s unclear if the blitz of bipartisanship seen in recent days will spill over into the next Congress, or evaporate as the 2012 presidential election heats up.

Courtney said his priorities for the next Congress would be pushing an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind education law and pressing Congress to preserve its commitment to fund two Virginia-class submarines in 2011.

But on other issues, he expects to be on the defensive, whether it’s protecting health reform or shielding the student aid bill. And he’s worried he might lose his seat on the House Education and Labor Committee, as newly empowered House Republicans move to slim down that panel and others.

DeLauro said she anticipates political fireworks next year over federal spending.

“The battle ground will be in the appropriations bills,” said DeLauro, who chairs a key House Appropriations subcommittee. She said GOP plans to slash domestic spending “will create real problems for the states” and could lead to higher unemployment and more economic turmoil.

“Depending on what the cuts are, Democrats will fight back,” she vowed.

Dodd, for his part, seemed relieved not to be gearing up for another round. But with the crush of lame-duck legislation, he said he hadn’t had time to figure out what he’ll do next.

“It’s a little like groundhog day around here,” he quipped. “It never seems to end.”