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Legislative Pace About to Get Even More Glacial

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has spent the first three months of this Congress clearing the decks of a handful of relatively noncontroversial measures.

Last week the House passed its own version of the FAA legislation, setting up a House-Senate conference — but it has yet to tackle the patent overhaul. And with the exception of a few unsuccessful votes on amendments mirroring House-passed bills that GOP Senators have forced, much of the legislation that the House has sent to the Senate has similarly been untouched by the Democratic majority.

Congress has sent President Barack Obama just six bills so far this year — including two continuing resolutions that cut federal spending. All of the bills signed into law this year have been extensions of current programs. That’s a marked contrast to the first three months of the last Congress, when Democrats held significant majorities in both the House and Senate and twice as many bills — including major initiatives such as the stimulus, an omnibus appropriations bill, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program reauthorization and a massive public lands bill — were enacted.

“It’s been treading water, and part of it is because the only way legislatively you’re going to get anything passed is if it has true bipartisan support,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said.

Senators on both sides of the aisle said the debate over how to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year and the looming clash over raising the debt ceiling have poisoned the well for House-Senate negotiations on other legislative items. They suggested that after those issues have been resolved there could be a better chance for cross-Dome compromise.

“Then we sit down and do more regular order and start working on stuff,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said.

The debt limit vote is expected later this spring, and after that, lawmakers could turn their attention to the fiscal 2012 spending bills.

But with Democrats anxious to stave off further GOP gains and retain control of the White House in 2012, political pressures are likely to continue to make any efforts at House-Senate compromise a hard slog.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin called on House Republicans to pass some of the bills that the Senate had sent their way.

“I do believe the House can walk and chew gum — can consider our deficit issue and, at the same time, pass critical legislation,” the Illinois Democrat said.

But many Republicans argue that they are only providing the check on Democrats’ power that voters called for on Nov. 2.

“When the presidency and both the House and Senate are controlled by the same party, naturally you’re going to get more things passed,” Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said. “If you’re from that party, that’s a real good thing. If you’re not, it’s probably a bad thing. The requirement that the two bodies get together generally results in legislation that reflects both their points of view and so that’s a better thing right now.”

Freshman Rep. Trey Gowdy, meanwhile, said he isn’t concerned by the lack of bills that have become law and doesn’t think his constituents will punish him at the ballot box.

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