Progress Report: What's Divided Congress Accomplished This Year?

PHOTO: House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, surrounded by Republican House members speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 20, 2011.PlaySusan Walsh/AP Photo
WATCH GOP, Democrats Make Payroll Tax Cut Deal

The House of Representatives and Senate concluded their business for 2011 Friday, bringing an end to the 112th Congress's first legislative session. This bitterly divided Congress will surely be remembered for its showdowns over government spending, but what exactly has it accomplished with half of the two-year term in the books?

Republicans swept into the House majority promising the American people that business as usual was over. No more earmarks. No more bills passed in the middle of the night. Republican leaders promised to shepherd a "cut and grow" majority to get the economy moving again.

House Speaker John Boehner seized the gavel on Jan. 5, marking the end of the Nancy Pelosi's speakership and the beginning of the new Republican majority.

But three days later as the House prepared to vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, tragedy struck when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was wounded in the head during a shooting spree at a "Congress on Your Corner" event that killed six constituents and a young congressional staffer named Gabe Zimmerman.

No moment this year would parallel the sensation when Giffords returned to the House chamber to cast a vote to pass the debt limit agreement. Giffords would later share her grueling recovery in an exclusive interview with ABC News' Diane Sawyer.

Throughout the year, the partisan battle over cutting the nation's soaring deficit consumed the political oxygen in the Capitol.

All year long, in order to keep government's doors open, Congress repeatedly passed stop-gap continuing resolutions to fund the government on an incremental basis. Finally on Friday, President Obama signed an omnibus package of appropriations bills to fund the government through the end of FY2012, Sept. 30.

But no fight better captures the character of the 112th Congress than the battle over raising the debt ceiling.

In his first interview after the midterm elections last year, Diane Sawyer asked then-House Minority Leader John Boehner what he would do about the need to increase the country's statutory debt limit, considering many of his Tea Party Republicans were elected to office on the pledge not to do it.

"Increasing the debt limit allows our government to meet its obligations," Boehner, R-Ohio, said Nov. 4, 2010. "There are multiple options for how you deal with it."

Over the next eight months, just about every available option was explored.

Along the way, House Republicans began to package ammunition to bargain with at the negotiating table. The House passed a budget, albeit a controversial one called the Path to Prosperity; voted Jan. 18 to repeal the president's healthcare law, and fought to cut discretionary spending.

Democrats and Republicans had competing visions for creating jobs. The GOP called its agenda "The Plan for America's Job Creators" while Democrats rallied around a "Make it in America" jobs plan.

But as was the case all year long, the Senate refused most legislation passed by the House, ending the year with more than two-dozen jobs bills stacked up in the upper chamber "like cordwood," as Rep. Jeb Hensarling , R-Texas, often repeated throughout the year.

The House, meanwhile, refused to vote on President Obama's American Jobs Act, but Republican leaders maintained they would seek common ground from within the president's proposal and pass aspects of it piecemeal.

Eventually, Congress passed some elements of the proposal, including three free trade agreements and a bill to provide tax credits to businesses that hire unemployed or disabled veterans.

One thing leaders from both sides could agree on was there were many missed opportunities this year – none more disappointing than the failure of the supercommittee.

"As we come to the end of the 112th Congress, it can clearly be labeled the Republican do-nothing Congress," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Dec. 16. "It's a year of missed opportunities and made-up crises, 346 days without a significant job-creating agenda."

Bipartisan negotiations took off last spring when the president and Congress asked top leaders to join Vice President Joe Biden in deficit reduction negotiations. These talks were initiated to identify areas of common ground for cuts that could be quickly agreed to as Republicans and Democrats worked towards a solution to increase the debt limit.

But once those talks fell apart, Speaker Boehner and President Obama began secret negotiations on a so-called "Grand Bargain" which aimed at slashing $4 trillion from the deficit over 10 years. But as the duo approached the cusp of an historic agreement, Boehner left the private negotiations after the president demanded more revenue at the last minute.

Instead, a couple of weeks later Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Boehner and Obama all agreed on a two-phase debt limit agreement, cutting $2.1 trillion over the next decade and creating the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as the supercommittee. The debt limit agreement cut $900 billion immediately, and mandated that the supercommittee come up with a proposal to cut another $1.2 trillion from the deficit by Nov. 23. If Congress failed to achieve the cuts, sequestration would take hold and cut $1.2 trillion from sacred cows on both sides of the aisle.

The supercommittee deliberated regularly all fall long, but when its deadline approached, the 12-member panel announced it could not reach a bipartisan deal. As a result, the full Congress now has all of 2012 to figure out an alternative set of cuts to offset the sequestration cuts before they take effect Jan. 1, 2013.

When the supercommittee failed to strike an agreement, a number of legislative imperatives Congress had assumed would be handled by the exclusive panel were left for the full Congress to enact.

Chief among those assignments was extending the payroll tax credit and unemployment insurance – two issues set to expire at the end of the year.

Four votes failed in the Senate as Democrats and Republicans were divided on how best to pay for the extensions. Democrats insisted on a surtax on millionaires, but the GOP refused to agree to tax hikes.

House Republicans were able to pass their own one-year extension as time ran short. Finally, the Senate approved a two-month temporary extension to buy negotiators more time to hash out a long-term deal after the holidays. But the House would not roll over that quickly.

After a week of calling on Democrats to return to Washington to close the gaps between the two bills and enact a one-year extension, Boehner and the GOP finally caved and agreed to a two-month extension. The deal, which Boehner said was no reason to celebrate, was accompanied with assurances Democrats would go to conference to negotiate a long-term deal.

Friday the House and Senate both agreed to that deal by unanimous consent, delaying the fight for another day next year. The House returns for legislative business Jan. 17, while the Senate reconvenes Jan. 23.

"I don't think it's any time for celebration. Our economy is struggling," Boehner said Thursday night when he announced Republicans would agree to the payroll tax deal. "We've got a lot of work ahead of us in the coming year, but I want to wish the American people and all of my colleagues a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year."

Less than 24 hours later on Friday, as Boehner walked to his waiting SUV and left the Capitol, the speaker wished reporters a Merry Christmas and said he'd be celebrating the holidays someplace warm... as if it wasn't hot enough at the Capitol all year long.