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What Congress Can Get Done in 2011

The partisan divide is deep, but they'll get together to pass a few key bills.

For better or worse, three words will define the 112th Congress convening in January -- gridlock, stalemate and partisanship.

With Republicans in control of the House and Democrats still in charge of the Senate, the chance of bipartisan agreement on big-ticket items is slim.

Energy cap-and-trade legislation? Immigration reform? Tax code rewrite? Not a chance. The same for significant deficit reduction, despite pledges by each party in the wake of the president’s deficit commission report. And health care repeal, a goal of Republicans, will go nowhere. The real action on that front will come from the Supreme Court, but not before 2012 at the earliest. All of these major initiatives will be mere talking points, part of the backdrop of the 2012 elections.

But not everything will be on ice. Lawmakers do work together when they absolutely have to. Exhibit A: the recent deal on tax cut extensions and unemployment benefits. Neither side got everything they wanted, but both did wind up with something to take home to voters.


Here are some deals you are likely to read about next year:

A free trade agreement with South Korea. It will be sold as a plus for U.S. manufacturing and exports. Labor unions will warn of cheap Korean imports and job losses. Business lobbies and the White House will argue it spells exports and a long-term net plus. There will be opponents on both sides, but the agreement will be ratified.

A six-year surface transportation bill, including more than 1,000 road projects and money for high-speed rail, bridge repairs and other projects. There is one key reason this bill will fly at a time when lawmakers are arguing about other spending -- the package will contain projects in every single congressional district.

A “New Start” nuclear arms treaty, which will reduce nuclear missile arsenals for the U.S. and Russia. Defense hawks will vent for several weeks about whether an agreement diminishes the U.S.' defense posture and superpower status. But they’ll agree to let it pass in the Senate, with 67 votes required.


Debt limit increase. Despite much venting and protest, especially from Tea Party enthusiasts, Congress and the White House will ultimately agree to raise the federal debt limit. Leaders from both parties say it has to be done.

Weapons program cuts. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will push for cuts in weapons programs, especially for fighter jets and ships. While each has champions on Capitol Hill, an agreement is more than likely to pare back some billions, while not affecting national security.

But that’s about it. Republicans will be emboldened. Democrats will be defiant. And President Obama, preparing for his own reelection bid, will be cast as something of a broker, as he was on the tax deal. But in the current political climate, lawmakers will be more comfortable digging in their heels than reaching a hand across the aisle.