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The Year In Congress: How Did Republicans Do?


When Republicans took over both chambers of Congress in January, party leaders promised they would prove to the country that Republicans could govern. Well, as 2015 draws to a close, our congressional reporters Ailsa Chang and Susan Davis look back on the year in Congress.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: 2015 was the first year Republicans controlled Congress in nearly a decade. And on the last day of the session, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reflected on what his mission was this year.


MITCH MCCONNELL: And I said the day after my own re-election down in Louisville, what I wanted us to be was a responsible right-of-center governing majority.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: And this was the first promise he made the day after the election.


MCCONNELL: Let me make it clear - there will be no government shutdowns and no default of the national debt.

DAVIS: No government shutdowns and no defaulting on the debt. Turns out, McConnell made good on that promise. But Democrats, like Dick Durbin of Illinois, say Republicans shouldn't be congratulated for that.

DICK DURBIN: That's like saying. you know. they didn't blow the top off the Capitol, so clearly Republican leadership is in touch with America. No, it takes more than that.

CHANG: So what does it take to be a governing majority? It means compromise. It means getting stuff done. And as the year wraps up, Republicans are going around saying that's exactly what they did.

What do you have in your hand right here? t

LAMAR ALEXANDER: I have in my hand a list of bipartisan accomplishments.

CHANG: Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee is holding a double-sided card listing 24 legislative accomplishments. He's printed this list up into a whole stack of cards that he's carrying around in his jacket pocket.

Are you distributing these cards to your colleagues?

ALEXANDER: I have done that because I think that, you know, our Republican candidates for president are running around saying we don't get anything done when, in fact, we've gotten a lot done.

DAVIS: They did get a lot done. Right before they adjourned, they passed a trillion-dollar spending bill and hundreds of billions of dollars of tax breaks.

CHANG: And before that, they overhauled education laws on public schools, passed a long-term bill to fund roads and bridges and ended the NSA's bulk surveillance program.

DAVIS: They also beefed up cybersecurity, made it easier to do trade deals and renewed a health care program for 9/11 responders.

CHANG: But Democrats say none of this would've been possible without their cooperation. Here's how Democrat Tom Carper of Delaware explains it.

TOM CARPER: I think Democrats are better at being in the minority than the Republicans. We're a more cooperative, constructive minority than those guys and gals were (laughter).

DAVIS: Still, so many issues remain unresolved - not because lawmakers think they're the unimportant but because partisan divisions are so deep, they simply can't find common ground. >>CHANG: And on some issues, Democrats say Republicans simply failed, like on guns. Here's Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York.

CHUCK SCHUMER: The mass shootings week after week, different types of people all being killed is arousing the American conscience. And we will win these fights.

DAVIS: Now, Schumer's talking about fights between Republicans and Democrats over policy. But this year, some of the biggest fights were between Republicans themselves.

CHANG: It all came to a head in September. Remember that? We thought Pope Francis' address to Congress was going to be the big news of the week.

DAVIS: Yeah, but then a bombshell dropped the very next day. House Speaker John Boehner abruptly announced he was quitting Congress.


JOHN BOEHNER: This morning, I woke up and I said my prayers, as I always do. And I decided, you know, today's the day I'm going to do this.

CHANG: Boehner decided to bounce before his own members could force a vote to throw him out of the job. Many of his critics make up the Freedom Caucus. It's a group of hard-line conservatives, like Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, who wanted him gone.

TIM HUELSKAMP: I'm confident as a conservative that we have the right answers. I think John Boehner was willing and able to articulate that. He never did.

DAVIS: At first, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy seemed like the natural successor to Boehner. But on the day of his speaker election, McCarthy dropped out, too.


KEVIN MCCARTHY: The one thing I found in talking to everybody, if we are going to unite and be strong, we need a new face to help do that.

DAVIS: That new face was Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, popular lawmaker and the 2012 vice presidential nominee. The only problem was...


PAUL RYAN: This is not a job I've ever wanted, I've ever sought.

DAVIS: So it took more than a week of pressure before Ryan finally agreed to step up.


RYAN: I came to the conclusion that this is a very dire moment - not just for Congress, not just for the Republican Party but - but for our country.

CHANG: All of this House chaos kind of made it look easy in the Senate, where Mitch McConnell has to manage the chamber and the presidential aspirations of Republican colleagues who are criticizing Congress in their campaigns, like Ted Cruz of Texas.


TED CRUZ: You want to understand the volcanic frustration with Washington? It's that Republican leadership in both houses will not fight for a single priority that we promised the voters we would fight when we were campaigning less than a year ago.

DAVIS: But Ailsa, let's not end on a downer. Let's remember there is a lighter side to this place.

CHANG: There is - like, thanks the Congress, this year, the sledding ban on the Capitol grounds is over.

DAVIS: And Congress has made it legal for you to take your dogs and cats on Amtrak trains.

CHANG: Yes. And they protected your rights to keep any resources you find in outer space.

DAVIS: Wait, what? You mean, if you mine an asteroid, you can keep it?

CHANG: That's right.

DAVIS: So that was the year in Congress in 2015. If it was too much for you, don't worry - Congress is only in session for about 13 weeks before Election Day.

CHANG: For NPR News in Washington, I'm Ailsa Chang.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.