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Washington Week: In Election Year, Congress Unlikely to Tackle Tough Issues

  • Michael Bowman

The U.S. Congress gets back to work Monday after a weeklong break. Despite recent action to pass a federal budget and raise the nation’s debt ceiling, expectations are low that the politically-divided legislature will tackle momentous - and contentious - legislation to reform America’s immigration system and facilitate new international trade pacts.

In last month’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama once again urged Congress to enact immigration reform.

“Immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades. And for good reason: when people come here to fulfill their dreams - to study, invent, and contribute to our culture - they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everyone. So let us get immigration reform done this year,” said Obama.

Many Republican lawmakers remain opposed to any bill that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. Others, like House Speaker John Boehner, say the Obama administration cannot be trusted to enforce the law.

“The American people, including many of my [House Republican] members, do not trust that the reform we are talking about will be implemented as it was intended to be,” said the speaker.

On the other hand, Boehner is urging bipartisan backing to boost the administration’s ability to negotiate free trade agreements across the globe.

“The president says he wants to make this a year of action. That sounds good, but if he wants to make it a year of action, let us work together to pass Trade Promotion Authority that would expand exports and create more jobs in America,” said Boehner.

Under TPA, trade pacts would be subject to an up-or-down vote in Congress without amendment. President Obama has endorsed expanding trade, but has not named TPA as a top economic priority.

“We need to work together on tools like bipartisan trade promotion authority to protect our workers, protect our environment, and open new markets to new goods stamped ‘Made in the USA.’ China and Europe are not standing on the sidelines. Neither should we.”

Many congressional Democrats say free trade will ship American jobs overseas. In the Democratic-led Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid says TPA is unlikely to get a vote. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says opposition runs high in her caucus.

"I do not think that [TPA] would have very many votes among Democrats in the House."

Instead, Pelosi is urging Congress to raise the U.S. minimum wage and to extend jobless benefits for the unemployed, which most Republicans oppose.

All House seats and one-third of the Senate will be contested in midterm elections in November. During an election year, Congress usually shies away from politically-contentious votes, a tendency that could be repeated in 2014.