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Congress gears up for elections with flurry of votes

Laws unlikely to result from the posturing

'These are, pure and simple, political votes,' said William Delahunt, a former Bay State congressman. "These are, pure and simple, political votes," said William Delahunt, a former Bay State congressman.
By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / May 6, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The bipartisan feel-good moment over the Osama bin Laden raid was fleeting. Democrats and Republicans returned to their confrontational posture the past two days, fiercely debating abortion and tax subsidies for oil companies.

But the most recent fury and flurry of votes are not likely to produce many new laws this year, and both sides know it.

In the short era of divided government since the Republicans took control of the House in January, Congress has produced plenty of high-profile symbolic votes and a paltry amount of substantial laws. The reason, political specialists say: Both parties are using debates and votes to telegraph messages to their most fervent supporters, put the opposing party on record on key issues, and jockey for position for the 2012 elections.

“I consider these kinds of votes as reaffirming to the base,’’ said former Massachusetts congressman William Delahunt, a Democrat who represented the South Shore and Cape Cod. “Not that the members don’t have strong beliefs about these issues, but these are, pure and simple, political votes.’’

Lawmakers also know legislation on contentious topics often takes more than one try to pass.

Yesterday, House Democrats tried to force a vote on ending some tax breaks for big oil companies. The GOP beat back the effort, but now Democrats will use the vote to argue that Republicans support billions in tax breaks for some of the world’s most profitable companies. With such companies as Exxon Mobil Corp. reporting $11 billion in profits this past quarter, Democrats believe this is an issue ripe for the stump.

Earlier this week, House Republicans overpowered resistance from Democrats to pass the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,’’ which would strip tax deductions from people who buy private insurance that covers abortion and from businesses that offer benefit plans that cover the procedure.

Supporters say the bill is just an extension of a long-standing prohibition against spending federal tax money for abortions. Opponents say the bill pushes the definition of federal funds to an absurd level by including tax credits and would compel insurers to drop coverage of abortion services.

The chances that the bill will be enacted into law this year are next to zero: President Obama has threatened to veto it, though the Democratic-controlled Senate is expected to kill the bill first.

But advocates on both sides say the debate and vote are key parts of developing a record for the next campaign.

“One thing that is important to us is that voters see a contrast [between candidates], and from what we see coming out of the House of Representatives, that contrast is clear,’’ said Ted Miller of NARAL Pro-Choice America, a national abortion-rights group.

Senator Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican leading the push for the bill, acknowledged he faces “an uphill battle’’ this year. “It’s unlikely that we will be able to get the 60 votes’’ necessary to overcome a filibuster, he said. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.’’

Votes on such issues “are more than symbolic votes,’’ said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist. “They are votes that can motivate the base and certainly can help you raise money.’’

The actions this week are only the latest examples in a long pattern. Almost immediately after taking power in January, House Republicans passed legislation to repeal Obama’s health care overhaul. That was a key demand of conservatives and Tea Party-backed groups that helped elect scores of Republicans.

The Senate, as expected, quickly squashed the measure.

As the parties argued in March over a budget for the rest of the fiscal year, Senate leaders brought up competing GOP and Democratic plans for votes that were sure to fail, in the hopes that the defeat of both plans would spur more negotiations.

Despite the frequent posturing, the two parties came together last month — facing a potential government shutdown — to pass a bipartisan spending plan.

Vice President Joe Biden is trying to duplicate that success by hosting talks with members of Congress aimed at finding a compromise on raising the ceiling on how much the government can borrow, and a bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Six has been meeting privately in an effort to strike a deal to address the federal deficit in the long term.

One GOP casualty of the Biden talks appears to be an effort to transform Medicare into a voucher program. That push, a key part of a budget plan authored by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and passed by the House, was the subject of opposition by constituents at some town hall meetings held by congressmen in the last two weeks.

Several prominent Republicans, including Ryan, signaled their willingness to shift the fight over Medicare to another time.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault.com.

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