Goodbye 112th, hello 113th. The new session of Congress starts today, leaving behind what is widely considered to be the most contentious and least productive session in recent history.
Some lobbyists and lawyers, however, are expressing guarded optimism that Capitol Hill will be more productive in 2013, if only because it's a non-election year. While Congress will be focused mainly on fiscal issues in the first few months, other issues will be moving forward in committees.
"I think you're going to be seeing a lot of hearings and background work with hopes of moving legislation in the last six months of this year," said American Continental Group's Marla Grossman, a former Senate Judiciary Committee counsel. Lobbyists are already working the Hill on issues like intellectual property, she said.
But first, the Senate will spend months on large fiscal issues. Bills on the budgets, tax reforms and more fiscal cliff resolutions will dominate floor time through March, when steep automatic cuts called the sequester are scheduled to occur unless action is taken.
Republicans and Democrats have already started posturing for a fight in February on extending the debt ceiling. There might also be gun control debates in the wake of the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., and a lot of administration decisions are going to need Senate confirmations, Grossman said.
"At least for the first two months of the year, that's a pretty full schedule," said Grossman, a former judiciary committee counsel. The bigger fiscal fight at the beginning of the year, however, "really allows the committees of jurisdiction to focus on background work."
How those fiscal issues are resolved will be a major factor in shaping the political atmosphere in Congress for the rest of the session. The legislators come in already battle-weary from a last-minute push in 2012 to avert the significant, mandated tax hikes and spending cuts of the "fiscal cliff."
And new battles are already forming for the first days of the new session. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to change rules on the filibuster, which he says was abused by Republicans particularly when it came to confirmation votes for federal judicial nominees. In a floor discussion on the changes Wednesday, Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said: "I have talked to people in Maryland who are very reluctant to put their names forward because they do not want to put their families and themselves through the uncertainty."
The last session of the Senate never voted on four circuit court and seven district court judicial nominees who had been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and only awaited a floor vote. Five of those were for positions considered to be judicial emergencies.
In the House, Democrats decried a decision by Republican leadership to write the session rules to include an explicit acknowledgement that the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group speaks for "the House in all litigation matters in which it appears." BLAG has been defending the Defense of Marriage Act in the federal courts after the White House and the Department of Justice declined to do so, saying the law was unconstitutional.
"As House Democrats have time and time again made clear, the BLAG does not speak for all Members of the House of Representatives and we will continue to oppose this wasteful use of taxpayer funds to defend DOMA," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a written statement.