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Here's one of the many ways that Congress is like high school. Lawmakers tend to do some late night cramming as if for a test and then head home for the holidays. This December, Congress passed a budget and left town. President Obama and his family are vacationing in Hawaii. So let's talk about the shape they left the country in and what they might do in the new year.
Cokie Roberts joins us now as she does most Mondays. Hi, Cokie.
COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. Merry Christmas.
INSKEEP: Thank you. Thank you very much and same to you. Now, they've passed a budget, as you know. They agreed on what they can agree on, they say, and left the rest alone. Does that clear the way for more bipartisanship in Congress?
ROBERTS: Well, the president said on Friday in his news conference, it's too early to declare an outbreak of bipartisanship, but it's fair to say we're not condemned to endless gridlock. Look, this Congress has passed fewer than 70 bills to get to the president's signature. I think they wanted to go home saying to the voters, look, we can get something done...
INSKEEP: Is 70 a low number? Is that a bad number?
ROBERTS: That is a very - that is the lowest ever. This makes the do-nothing Congress of the 1940s look like it was just, you know, on a whirlwind. It will be interesting to see if there's constituent reaction. This is not a time of year when you have town meetings, that kind of thing. But even as they go home with this moment of bipartisanship, both parties are drawing their lines about what happens next year.
INSKEEP: And I guess we should mention this budget agreement is sort of a blueprint. It doesn't actually affirm the spending of any money. There's a lot of debate and discussion still to come here.
ROBERTS: That's right. But now what you hear all the time privately is the grown-ups are in charge. By that people mean the appropriators, the people on the Appropriations Committee who have always been a different breed from the rest of the Congress - both in the House and the Senate. They are experts in their fields, in the subcommittees that they're in charge of - whether its agriculture or housing or foreign affairs, whatever it is - and they can make a deal.
And so we'll see if the grown-ups actually do make the kinds of deals that sell in the rest of the Congress. But even with that, both parties, again, are plotting major wars for 2014 - maybe starting with that fight over the debt ceiling, which is coming up again in February. The president says he's not going to negotiate on that. So we'll see.
INSKEEP: OK. And when you talk about wars, of course the context of these wars would be at an election year...
INSKEEP: ...with the House and Senate up for grabs here. And Democrats are positioning themselves as defenders of the middle-class. Can that work for them?
ROBERTS: Well, we're going to hear that over and over, I think. Now, they talked about that going into the last election but then they got distracted, because the Republican candidates were out there, in many cases, on social issues and the Democrats just let that go. But if they can hang in coherently behind extending unemployment benefits - a lot of those have run out right in time for Christmas - some forgiveness on student loans, some movement on immigration, food stamps, then, you know, maybe they can put something together here.
Now, of course, what their big problem continues to be at the moment is that healthcare law.
INSKEEP: And Republicans seem to feel confident that President Obama is just going to be weighted down and down and down by the Affordable Care Act.
ROBERTS: Well, every day at the moment there is another headline in one newspaper or another about some problem with that law still. Now, Republicans - that's part of the reason that they agreed to the budget agreement was that they didn't want to distract from all of those negative headlines. They think that this will work for them going into 2014.
Now, the president seems certain, and he said so again in his press conference on Friday, that the law in the end will be something that people see positively. And really the election year is where we're going to see it all played out.
INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. Glad you're with us on this holiday week. That's our colleague, Cokie Roberts.
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