Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte often is asked what surprises her most about her first term in the esteemed upper chamber of Congress.

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WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte often is asked what surprises her most about her first term in the esteemed upper chamber of Congress. The earnest, 43-year-old conservative from New Hampshire has come up with an uncomplicated reply:

“I thought that we would vote on a lot more bills.”

She most recently offered this answer from her Senate office at 3:45 p.m. on a Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had announced that the Senate was done voting for the week. Senators wouldn’t be needed until Tuesday.

On a television outside Ayotte’s office, C-SPAN was showing an empty Senate chamber. In other offices, aides were booking flights home.

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So it goes on Capitol Hill, a place of many headlines and much drama but not a lot of legislating.

The 112th Congress is on pace to be one of the least productive — as measured by votes taken, bills made into laws, nominees approved. By most metrics, this crowd is underperforming even the “do-nothing Congress” of 1948, as Harry Truman dubbed it.

There is no shortage of explanations for the apparent lack of legislative success. Observers see hyper-partisanship and perpetual campaigning that makes once-routine steps politically perilous.

Experts cite the rise of a brand of conservatism that aims for a government that governs least. Historians say it’s not unusual for Congress to take a breather after a period of hyperactivity such as the session completed last year.

Lawmakers have a long list of politically tinged reasons: House Republicans blame Senate Democratic leaders for avoiding votes that might prove problematic for members up for re-election; Senate Democratic leaders blame Republicans in both chambers for not working on legislation that has a shot of winning a presidential signature.

Perhaps the only group seeing a bright side is the Democratic minority in the House, which supports virtually none of the bills voted on in that chamber but doesn’t have to worry about them becoming law.

President Obama called out Congress last week when he argued that members have to “be here” to make progress on its top priority: a deal on the debt that can pass the Republican-led House and Democratic-led Senate.

But it’s not necessarily time spent in Washington where this Congress is falling behind. It’s how little it accomplishes when it’s here.

“I put it this way: No harm done yet,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. “But nothing accomplished yet — with a lot of ominous things that still may happen.”

To be sure, lawmakers are grappling with big issues, such as the Aug. 2 deadline to increase the debt ceiling. Nearly all other major priorities — a tax-code overhaul or a 2012 budget — have taken a back seat.

And so the legislative trickle has slowed to a drip. From January through May, 16 bills had become law — compared with 50 during that period last year, or 28 in 2007, also a time of divided government.

The Senate has taken 84 “yea and nay” votes, the House 112 — roughly half the number as in 2007. The Senate had confirmed a little more than half of the administration’s nominees; recent Congresses typically have been near the end of the list by this point.

Bills that have passed largely have been extensions of expiring laws. Also on this year’s list was a must-pass deal to keep the government from shutting down, essentially unfinished business from the previous Congress.

Then there were three laws naming public buildings, a resolution appointing a member of the Smithsonian Institution and one extending the life of the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission.

The inertia might be best observed at the Senate Budget Committee.

When Ayotte was named to the panel after Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., resigned abruptly in April, it was a coveted “get” for a conservative who promised to cut spending. She came out of her first meeting with a list of proposals, only to hear Reid say Democrats would not introduce a budget until after the deficit talks.

“I got appointed. I was excited about it. I had one good meeting, and then it was done. That’s been my experience on that committee,” Ayotte said. The committee has not met since April 5.

But Democrats aren’t the only ones who are putting a drag on legislative activity. Republicans on Thursday boycotted a hearing on a series of free-trade deals, derailing what was considered a bipartisan effort.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., held a personal protest to highlight the Democrats’ missing budget. Although Democrats say a budget plan is coming next week, Johnson used a procedural move to keep Reid from scheduling a vote on a resolution authorizing military involvement in Libya — the rare issue likely to find bipartisan agreement.

The tea-party freshman said he realized he was stalling “a very important issue.”

“But the fact of the matter is it simply doesn’t address the fact that we’re bankrupting this nation,” Johnson said.

Much of this has been taken in stride by folks who have been around awhile.

“If you’re not comfortable with delay, frustration and impatience, get out of the Senate,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. “It’s the nature of the institution, but I think we’ve taken it to an art form.”

The House isn’t exactly breaking records, either.

The 50 bills passed in the first five months of 2011 represent the fewest in more than 15 years. Republicans’ anti-government rhetoric translated into a schedule intended to keep lawmakers out of Washington. The result: fewer days in session and fewer votes.

Yet, a debt package could prove that legislative activity doesn’t necessarily correspond to substance.

“Obviously, if they reach some kind of deal that results in a sweeping change in the scope of government and the tax rates, they don’t have to do much else to go down as a consequential Congress,” said Norman Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. “Most everywhere else, their influence is puny.”

With an Aug. 2 deadline, it may take much of the summer to find out. Both bodies then leave for a long summer break and return after Labor Day.

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