Will The New Year Be A New Start For Congress?

According to Gallup, Congress has never been more disliked in all the years it has been polling that question. Can it get any worse heading into the new year?

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Obviously, this is a big year for politics. But what about policy or governing? Well, NPR congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook looks back at last year for clues to what may be in store this year.

ANDREA SEABROOK, BYLINE: Just one year ago, John Boehner took the House speaker's gavel and ushered in the new Republican majority.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: Welcome to the people's House, welcome to the 112th Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SEABROOK: The freshmen included more than 80 new Republicans. Many were new to politics, elected with Tea Party support. Illinois' Peter Roskam, in the GOP leadership, said they came with a seriousness of purpose.

REPRESENTATIVE PETER ROSKAM: There's no hubris. There's no triumphalism. There's no chest-thumping. These are people who have come to accomplish something.

SEABROOK: To that end, they rushed headlong into a fight over funding the federal government for the rest of the year. It was the first of many times in 2011 that Americans would hear dueling sound bites from the Democratic president, Obama, and the Republican House speaker.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The only question is whether politics or ideology are going to get in the way of preventing a government shutdown.

BOEHNER: There was no agreement reached, and so those conversations will continue.

SEABROOK: But that first battle of the war of 2011 wasn't the thing that woke Americans up.

ANDREW KOHUT: Every week, we do a survey about what news the public is paying attention to.

SEABROOK: Andrew Kohut heads the Pew Research Center.

KOHUT: And for much of the year, we didn't see all that much attention to the disputes and debates here in Washington between the Republicans and Democrats.

SEABROOK: It was the summer - June into July - that awakened people. The government had hit its credit limit, and the Republican majority in the House refused to raise it. That meant, for the first time in history, the U.S. could have defaulted on its debts. From the White House, President Obama gave a televised speech.

OBAMA: This is no way to run the greatest country on Earth. It's a dangerous game that we've never played before, and we can't afford to play it now.

SEABROOK: House Speaker John Boehner gave his rebuttal.

BOEHNER: And the sad truth is that the president wanted a blank check six months ago, and he wants a blank check today.

SEABROOK: After intense, private negotiations, President Obama offered what he called a grand bargain. It had cuts to social programs - sacred to Democrats - and a hike in taxes on upper-income Americans. Some Congressional Democrats felt the president had given away too much. Journalist Ron Suskind wrote about the administration in his recent book "Confidence Men." Suskind says Democrats were miffed, asking themselves...

RON SUSKIND: Why will the president not exercise power that is literally sitting in his hands?

SEABROOK: President Obama could have fought harder, says Suskind. He could have appealed to the public or threatened to raise the debt ceiling by executive order. But he didn't.

SUSKIND: And when there's a vacuum like that, all manner of mischief is unleashed.

SEABROOK: Republicans, especially the new freshman class, said no - no new taxes at all. They dug in. The grand bargain was thrown out, and instead, congressional leaders built a plan more palatable to the House Republicans. It set up a convoluted process for budget cuts and the supercommittee, tasked with finding more cuts. The plan was jammed through Congress, just barely avoiding fiscal calamity. The Republicans, especially Speaker Boehner, had seemed to take the upper hand, politically. But when the dust cleared, says pollster Andrew Kohut, the GOP victory had come at great cost.

KOHUT: I was, you know, quite frankly, shocked when our first poll came back, when we said which party takes more extreme positions, we had a two-to-one margin naming the Republicans over the Democrats - very surprising.

SEABROOK: The fight over the summer had become the poster child, says Kohut, for Washington not working. In the fall, the supercommittee fizzled out. By winter, another face-off over government funding, and just before Christmas, what unity and purpose there had been among House Republicans had fractured, says author Suskind.

SUSKIND: And Boehner can't deliver his troops because there is nothing to deliver. He can't get them in line, and ultimately, all that happens is they default to inaction and obstinacy.

SEABROOK: And now, 2012. Election years are full of smoke and mirrors. Even more than usual, every action is gauged for political effect. Looking back at 2011, it was a year of fits and starts but mostly fits. Now, Americans of all political views are more frustrated than ever at their government, but the outlook for 2012 is not much different. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.

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