One day, Democrats staged a walkout of the House chamber. On another, a Republican held a committee hearing to study his committee hearings.
And then — on the last afternoon of the last workday — they managed to complete the work that had been hanging in the balance the whole time. They saved student borrowers and their parents from an increase in college-loan interest rates and saved states from running out of highway funding.
That was accomplished with the last-minute appearance of a 596-page bill that several lawmakers hinted they had not read.
“No wonder our approval rating is 10 percent. Nobody knows what we’re voting on,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said Friday afternoon as a few dozen somber tourists looked down from the Senate gallery.
The past two weeks represented a final chance for lawmakers to pass substantive legislation before the fall election, and a look inside the Capitol over the days before the Fourth of July recess reveals that this Congress, with its reputation for acrimony and gridlock, may be finally learning how to do its business.
But only after it has done everything else.
Monday, June 18. Two weeks to go.
“They face difficult decisions and difficult times,” said House Chaplain Patrick Conroy
He was praying mainly for legislators who weren’t there. Most wouldn’t return from their districts for hours, following a congressional tradition that the workweek starts around dinnertime on Monday.
These were difficult times, but familiar. Congress had tiptoed to the edge of disaster before — in spring of last year when the House’s deficit-averse GOP majority demanded substantial cuts to federal spending and almost forced a government shutdown to get them, and then again last summer when the United States faced a default on its loan obligations because Congress could not reach a deal on increasing the federal government’s borrowing limit.
But here they were again.
Failing to pass a student-loan bill would suddenly and sharply increase payments for about 7 million people. Failing to pass a highway bill could put many people — perhaps millions — out of work. Not the same as a national default or a government shutdown, but potentially catastrophic for the millions of Americans involved.
Both sides had delayed a solution by proposing options intended only to score political points.
Republicans wanted to pay for student loans by raiding a fund from President Obama’s health-care law. Democrats wanted to do it by cutting tax breaks
for business executives making more than $250,000 per year.
“Lord,” Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black
intoned in his own near-empty chamber that day, “lead them from the path of disunity.”