WASHINGTON — Congress is finding it hard to do what used to be easy.
The Washington divide, hardened by election-year politics, has stifled the agendas of both parties, limiting lawmakers to below-the-radar bills and modest ambitions.
Congress has followed one of its least productive years with a just handful of measures, among them aid for trade-displaced workers and patent reform. These bills hardly compare to the welfare overhaul, hike in the minimum wage and expanded access to health care that the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and a Republican Congress accomplished in 1996.
Complicating the legislative process are emboldened conservatives, their ranks bolstered by the influx of tea partyers in 2010, who are determined to devolve power to the states. It's a direct challenge to the role of the federal government.
"I believe there is a broad range of programs from Medicaid to education to transportation that would be better and more effectively administered at the state level," Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican running for governor, said in an interview.
Meanwhile, the old way of winning votes from recalcitrant lawmakers by funding pet projects in their home districts is largely gone, scuttled by soaring deficits and a ban on such "earmarks."
This new legislative reality jeopardizes a bill to keep federal highway and transit aid flowing to states just as the spring construction season opens.
The Democratic-controlled Senate earlier this month overwhelmingly approved a $109 billion, two-year bill to fund roads, bridges, bike paths and subway systems while creating hundreds of thousands of jobs.
The burst of bipartisanship was a throwback. Transportation bills in the past have enjoyed strong, bipartisan backing – improving roads was politically popular and the bills were usually laden with provisions that directly aided lawmakers' pet projects, swelling support. The vote was 74-22.
"I am very humbled by that because Lord knows it's hard to find those moments when we come together," Sen. Barbara Boxer said of the comity. From the start, the liberal California Democrat had worked closely on the legislation with Oklahoma conservative Jim Inhofe, who acknowledged that the two were on "opposite extremes on many issues."
But in the GOP-led House, Republicans have been unable to muster majority support for their own five-year, $260 billion transportation bill. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, facing a revolt by the rank and file, had to pull the GOP-crafted legislation just before it was to come up on the floor in mid-February.
Tea partyers – as well as the anti-tax Club for Growth – said $260 billion was too much money. Republicans from urban areas were upset by its treatment of transit funding. Some moderates opposed paying for the House plan with expanded oil drilling.
The transit proposal has been dropped, but GOP leaders have still been unable to line up enough votes for passage. The House ban on earmarks has also hindered the effort to win over Republicans. Few, if any, Democrats are expected to support the bill because they weren't consulted as it was drafted, and because they say it penalizes union workers and undermines environmental protections.
Looming is a March 31 expiration date when the government's authority to spend money from the trust fund that pays for transportation programs, as well as its power to levy the federal gasoline and diesel taxes that feed the fund, runs out.
House conservatives remain undeterred in pushing to shift responsibility for transportation programs to state and local governments.
"I am one of those who say states should take the lion's share of this," Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., said in an interview. "Right now 80 percent of the road repair and the road reconstruction is done by the federal government, 20 percent is done by the municipalities. At some point that has to turn around."
But even some Republicans argue that Congress would be abandoning its authority in handing over a job to the states. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who is working with GOP leaders to round up votes for the transportation bill, frequently cites Article I Section 8 of the Constitution, which says Congress has the power to establish post roads.
"What we are doing here is consistent with the Constitution," he told fellow members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during a meeting on the bill last month.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, in a conference call with reporters Friday, pointed out that it was Republican President Dwight Eisenhower who put together the national highway system.
To suggest most federal transportation programs be turned over to states is "an abdication of a couple of hundred years of federal investment, and particularly the last 60 years of investment in our highways," said Villaraigosa, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "That argument just doesn't meet the needs of the times."
The House is scheduled to vote Monday night on a short-term, 90-day extension. President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., say they want the House to back the Senate bill, but that is highly unlikely. Faced with the deadline, the Senate is expected to back the temporary extension.
Punting on a thorny issue is an all-too-familiar step for many lawmakers, who are frustrated with a congressional period they say is short on accomplishments. Last year, Congress careened from one self-made crisis to the next, from keeping the government funded to raising the limit on its credit card. A grand bargain between President Barack Obama and Boehner to tackle entitlement programs, taxes and spending collapsed last summer.
All told, the House passed 384 bills last year, the Senate 402, according to the Congressional Record. Of those totals, just 56 House bills and only 24 Senate bills became law.
This year, Congress has completed trade agreements, patent reform and a bill for modernizing an outdated air traffic control system. It also extended last year's Social Security tax cut until the end of 2012 – as well as long-term unemployment benefits – and headed off a cut in Medicare fees that threatened to have doctors turning away elderly patients en masse.
Lawmakers suggest fear is a factor in preferring a risk-adverse congressional agenda. Some stalwart conservative Republicans have drawn tea party challengers this year over their vote last summer to borrow another $2 trillion.
"People say to me, `How come you guys can't work together?" said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who is retiring after 32 years in the House. "And I said, `How easy do you think it would be for me to come to an agreement with Michele Bachmann?' So the question is you're saying they're all Michele Bachmann. No, half of them are Michele Bachmann and half of them are afraid of losing a primary to Michele Bachmann."
Republicans argue that Reid wants to avoid tough votes for his most vulnerable Democratic incumbents and preserve Obama's and Democrats' campaign narrative about a "do-nothing Congress."
"It's part of the majority leader's electoral strategy," said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.
In the meantime, public approval of Congress has remained in the low double digits. In an Associated Press-GfK survey after the debt ceiling fight, approval was at 12 percent. It's inched up to 19 percent in a survey last month after a deal was struck on extending the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits.