Unproductive Congress skips town until November
Washington • The most partisan, least productive Congress in memory has skipped out of Washington so lawmakers can make their case for voters to re-elect them.
The Senate closed the Capitol not long after sending President Barak Obama a spending bill that will make sure the government won't shut down Oct. 1, the start of the new budget year. The measure passed early Saturday by a 62-30 vote.
Left behind for a postelection session is a pile of unfinished business on the budget and taxes, farm policy and legislation to save the Postal Service from insolvency.
The GOP-controlled House beat its retreat Friday morning after taking one last, futile slap at Obama by passing a bill called the "Stop the War on Coal Act." The measure, dead on arrival in the Senate, was aimed at boosting the coal industry in its fight against new environmental regulations while hurting Obama's political prospects in coal states such as Ohio and Virginia.
The Democratic-controlled Senate's middle-of-the-night session came after a spitting match between Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Republicans over Reid's insistence on advancing legislation by Sen. Jon Tester of Montana to boost access to public lands for hunting and fishing.
Tester is perhaps the Senate's most endangered Democrat and Republicans protested that he was being given special treatment in a clearly political move to boost his re-election chances. The measure cleared a procedural hurdle by an 84-7 vote.
The votes came at midnight to give senators who had scattered from Washington time to return.
Democrat Claire McCaskill was in Missouri for a debate, while Michael Bennet, D-Colo., had been in the southwest portion of his state to attend a ceremony celebrating the new Chimney Rock National Monument. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was venting his frustrations with American Airlines on Twitter.
The only must-do item on the get-out-of-Dodge agenda was a six-month spending measure to fulfill the bare minimum of Congress' responsibilities by keeping the government running after the current budget year ends on Sept. 30.
The spending measure permits spending on agency operating budgets at levels agreed to under last summer's hard-fought budget and debt deal between Obama and Capitol Hill Republicans. That's 0.6 percent increase from current spending rates, which represents a defeat for House Republicans, who had sought to cut about 2 percent below the budget deal and shift $8 billion from domestic programs to the Pentagon.
Reid also relented to a demand by tea party Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for a vote on suspending foreign aid to the governments of Libya, Egypt and Pakistan. Paul only got 10 votes. But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., won approval of a nonbinding resolution supporting steps to make sure Iran doesn't develop a nuclear weapon.
It's the earliest pre-election exit by Congress from Washington since 1960, though lawmakers will return after the Nov. 6 vote to deal with unfinished work.
The approval rating for the current Congress dropped to 13 percent in a Gallup poll this month. That was, the lowest ever for an election year. The GOP-controlled House and Democratic Senate managed to come together with Obama to enact just 173 new laws. More are coming after the election, but the current tally is roughly half the output of a typical Congress.
Even so, political pundits say Republicans are strong favorites to keep the House while Democratic chances of keeping the Senate are on the upswing with Obama's rise in the polls.
The exit from Washington leaves the bulk of Congress' agenda for a post-Nov. 6 session in which it's hoped lawmakers will be liberated from the election-year paralysis that has ground Capitol Hill to a near halt.
Topping the lame-duck agenda will be the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, which expire Dec. 31, and more than $100 billion in across-the-board spending cuts set to strike at the same time. The cuts are punishment for the failure of last year's deficit "supercommittee" to strike a deal.
Also left in limbo is the farm bill, stalled in the House due to opposition from conservative Republicans who think it doesn't cut farm subsidies and food stamps enough and Democrats who think its food stamp cuts are too harsh.
The current farm act expires on Sept. 30 but the lapse won't have much practical effect in the near term. Still, it's a political black eye for Republicans, especially in states such as North Dakota and Iowa.
The lack of productivity of the 112th Congress was the result of divided government and bitter partisanship.
Congress' major accomplishments tended to be legislation that mostly extended current policies, such as a highway bill, and legislation demanded by Obama to renew a 2 percentage point payroll tax cuts and extend student loan subsidies.
Even this Congress' signature accomplishment a budget and debt deal enacted last summer to cut $2.1 trillion from the budget over 10 years delayed the most difficult decisions by assigning the supercommittee the job of finding at least $1.2 trillion in deficit savings.
When that failed, House Republicans walked away from the budget deal by pressing for further cuts to domestic appropriations and reversing some on the pact's Pentagon cuts.
In the Senate, Reid worked closely with the White House to use the Senate schedule for Obama's political advantage, repeatedly forcing votes on closing tax breaks for oil companies and raising taxes on upper bracket earners.
But Reid failed to schedule debates on any of the 12 annual appropriations bills and the Democratic-led chamber, for the third year in a row, failed to pass a budget.
Republicans also point to almost 40 items of House-passed jobs-related legislation sitting stalled in the Senate.
"This isn't leadership. It is negligence," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Senate Democrats cited their progress on bills such as a renewal of farm programs and legislation to overhaul the Postal Service and give it an infusion of cash to stave off insolvency.
"The reality is for as closely as divided as this Senate is, we passed a large number of bipartisan bills this year, very important bills, but as you all know, it takes two chambers to pass a law," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "On the other side, too many of the Congress members, particularly the tea party folks, think compromise is a dirty word."
What Congress did and didn't do
• Congress early Saturday finalized a six-month stopgap spending bill to keep federal agencies running past the end of the budget year and the elections. Action was needed to avoid a partial government shutdown.
• The House moved to rescind guidelines introduced by the Health and Human Services Department giving states more flexibility in how they administer welfare-to-work requirements under the 1996 welfare overhaul act. The bill has little chance in the Senate.
• The Senate approved a resolution insisting that the United States will do all it can to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
Among major legislation left:
• Tax cuts that will expire at the end of the year, including the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts.
• Spending cuts of $109 billion to defense and nondefense programs that will take place automatically at the start of the new year if alternatives are not found.
• Jan. 1 deadline to avert an almost 30 percent cut in Medicare reimbursements to doctors.
• House has yet to act on legislation to overhaul the Postal Service, which is losing $25 million a day.
• The Senate has yet to act on a $635 billion defense policy bill.
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