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Analysis: Republicans in Congress claim action on governing

March 31, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) — Two important issues concerning how the government spends taxpayer money have made progress in the U.S. Congress, a break from years of legislative dysfunction and gridlock.

For Republicans, it is proof they can govern now that they control both chambers of Congress, following their sweep in November’s elections. But more contentious issues lie ahead, and last week’s congressional actions are far from a guarantee that the Republicans will, in fact, become a legislative dynamo.

Whether they succeed could be important going into the 2016 elections, when Republicans hope to capture the White House and defend their slim majority in the Senate. Republicans have stood united in opposing President Barack Obama’s policies. But they have been less clear or united on advancing alternatives. That shows especially in repeated Republican efforts to repeal Obama’s health care overhaul.

For now, Republicans claim they are living up to their promises, pointing to movement on a budget and a fix to Medicare, the government health care plan for Americans at age 65.

The adopted budget lays out a plan for spending in the coming fiscal year and an outline of fiscal expectations for the next decade. That broke with recent history, when Democrats, who had the Senate majority before the last election, did not even take up budget votes. Budgets put forward by Congress and the president are highly ideological political documents and do not have the force of law. Real spending decisions are made later with specific appropriations by Congress for the various government agencies.

Of greater significance last week was bipartisan agreement in the House of Representatives on Medicare. The bill was passed overwhelmingly in the House and will be taken up and passed quickly in the Senate after the two-week Easter recess.

The measure’s chief goal is to replace a 1997 budget-cutting law that tied doctors’ Medicare fees to overall economic growth. With medical costs fast outpacing economic growth, that formula has threatened deep reimbursement cuts that lawmakers have blocked on an emergency basis 17 times since 2002, a ritual both parties wanted to end.

“I want to give John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi credit,” said Obama, who promised to sign the measure into law. “They did good work today.” Boehner is speaker of the House, leader of the chamber that has been in Republican hands since taking the majority in the 2010 election. Democrat Pelosi preceded Boehner as speaker.

The Medicare bill also contains funds for health care programs for children and low-income people that Democrats said were victories for them. Republicans won long-term through modest strengthening of Medicare’s finances, including cost increases for higher-income recipients.

Buoyed by such incentives, House members more accustomed to gridlock found themselves with little to argue about.

“I just want to say to the American people, don’t look now but we’re actually governing,” said Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers.

Passage of the Medicare bill and congressional budgets contrast sharply with the Republicans’ first months in control of both chambers of Congress. Early legislative action was marked by high-profile stumbles and a near-shutdown of the Homeland Security Department.

And the symbolic Republican budget blueprint diverges starkly from Obama’s fiscal plan, a foreshadowing of bitter fights to come as spending measures are drawn up.

Obama’s plan leaves a projected deficit exceeding $600 billion 10 years from now. The Senate plan claims a surplus of $3 billion.

Over the decade, Obama would raise $2 trillion in higher taxes from the wealthy, corporations and smokers while granting tax breaks to low-income and middle-class families. He would boost spending on domestic programs including road construction, preschools and community colleges and veterans.

The Senate budget would cut $4.3 trillion from benefit programs over the next 10 years, including yet another bid to annul Obama’s health care law. Senate Democrats would block any effort to repeal the law, and, should they fail, the president would be certain to veto the measure.

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Steven R. Hurst is AP international political writer

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