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How Congress found a way to agree in 2015

December 30, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
Congress ended 2015 on an unusually productive note. A $1 trillion compromise passed with a majority of both Democrats and Republicans, and problems that lawmakers had kicked down the road year after year finally made it into law. Political director Lisa Desjardins takes a look back.

GWEN IFILL: Congress ended the year on an unusually productive note, despite partisanship and divided government.

Political director Lisa Desjardins explains how that happened.

LISA DESJARDINS: In what has been the Capitol of gridlock, 2015 brought signs of legislative life and a measure of pride.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, Majority Leader: As we end the year, I think, by any objective standard, it’s been a year of significant accomplishment. And I want to thank the Democrats who did cooperate.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I also want to give Speaker Ryan credit. I called both him and Mitch McConnell, as well as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, for the orderly way in which they actually negotiated a budget.

REP. PAUL RYAN, CEO, American Road & Transportation Builders Association: I look forward to, in 2016, just like we have in the last six weeks, getting Congress working back on the way it should be working.

LISA DESJARDINS: The bipartisan lovefest came after congressional leaders and the White House agreed to a rare full-year bill to fund the government. A trillion-dollar compromise passed with a majority of both Democrats and Republicans capped off a wild, but productive last month.

Of course, some things on the congressional done list were political feats. For the first time, Republicans passed a repeal of Obamacare through both houses, forcing a presidential veto. But what stood out was the long-term legislation that made it into law. Call it the punt list: problems that Congress had kicked down the road year after year, including pay for Medicare doctors, who had faced potential pay cuts for more than a decade.

This time, Congress passed a five-year fix that bases pay on quality of care. Also, tax cuts, a series of technically temporary, but, in fact, every year of tax cuts were made permanent. And a big one, highway funding — after 34 short-term patches, Congress passed a five-year long-term plan. That was a breakthrough for every state in America.

Pete Ruane is a lobbyist of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association and says lawmakers found a way to agree.

PETE RUANE, American Road and Transportation Builders Association: Frankly, there was a fatigue factor on Capitol Hill. They have been dealing with this so long. And I think they were looking for substantive, tangible accomplishments, ones that did have bipartisan support.

And the transportation legislation was ideal for that. So, there was serious interest in actually doing something this year, and that worked in its favor to getting it done in 2015.

LISA DESJARDINS: Another factor? Years of building tension among house Republicans finally burst, forcing out House Speaker John Boehner. But, on his way out, Boehner pushed through tough bills, like raising the debt ceiling.

In the end, Republicans compromised with themselves, boosting the military and other priorities, but at the cost of raising the deficit. That said, if you think all of this means a productive 2016, think again.

Congress typically doesn’t pass major legislation in an election year.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Lisa Desjardins.