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Congress ends term of blame and gridlock

Turbulent two years led to the 2d-lowest number of laws enacted since 1940s.

WASHINGTON - The 113th Congress began its turbulent life two years ago battling over whether to help Hurricane Sandy victims. They did, eventually.

By the time Congress limped out of town last week, one of its last acts was to honor the 100th anniversary of the extinction of passenger pigeons.

In between were mostly modest achievements overshadowed by partisan gridlock, investigations, and sharp clashes capped by a government shutdown.

If productivity is measured by laws enacted, this Congress was near the bottom.

Congressional and White House data showed that President Obama signed 296 bills into law as of Friday, the second lowest total, by just 13 measures, for any two-year Congress in records dating to the 1940s.

Each party accused the other of scuttling bills for political purposes ahead of November's elections, which gave Republicans firm control of the House and Senate in 2015.

Leaving the Capitol last week, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) lamented that lawmakers should have achieved more, "but that's what we got."

No chance of passing

Republicans contended that Democrats forced blatantly political votes on issues from the minimum wage to pay equity that had no chance of passing.

Such tactics were "designed to make us walk the plank. It had nothing to do with getting a legislative outcome," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said last week in an interview.

Revamping the immigration system, tightening gun buyers' background checks, forcing work to begin on the Keystone XL oil pipeline - they all foundered as the Republican-run House and Democratic-led Senate checkmated each other's priorities.

The partisan impasse was complicated by conservative tea party lawmakers whom GOP leaders often found unmanageable. That helped lead to a 16-day partial government shutdown that voters hated.

It became one of this Congress' hallmarks.

Through two years, the bar for accomplishments dipped so low that routine functions such as averting a federal default and keeping government agencies open seemed like crowning achievements.

As if to underscore the turmoil around him, Senate Chaplain Barry Black opened one session last year by praying, "Rise up, O God, and save us from ourselves."

Action went nowhere

The House voted more than 50 times to kill or weaken Obama's 2010 health care overhaul. It voted to block the administration from curbing carbon emissions from coal-fired plants and from protecting streams and wetlands from pollution, to deport many immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, and to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

None of these bills cleared the Senate.

The Senate voted on bills raising the federal minimum wage, pressing employers to pay women the same as men, letting students refinance college loans, and extending jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.

All died.

A repeated source of headaches for GOP leaders was Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas).

The tea party freshman kept the Senate in session overnight in September 2013, saying Republicans should demand repeal of Obama's health care law as the price for averting a government shutdown.

GOP leaders opposed that ultimatum, but conservatives agreed with Cruz, and most federal agencies closed. It took 16 days for Republicans to relent.

In Congress' final days, Cruz rebelled again, forcing a vote opposing Obama's immigrant actions. Cruz lost this one, in a gambit that gave Senate Democrats time to confirm more Obama nominees.