WASHINGTON – Battle-weary members of Congress are coming soon to neighborhoods near you to press for re-election, more eager to campaign before angry constituents than compromise in Washington on tax cuts, child nutrition or a federal budget.
Majority Democrats facing tough re-election fights rebelled in both chambers Wednesday against their leaders’ decisions to call off controversial votes, pass a temporary bill to keep the government running and head home.
“The Senate should be more concerned about doing what’s right for the country and less concerned about campaign season,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
The measure to adjourn passed both chambers despite the protests. In the House, it passed by one vote — Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s — after 39 Democrats joined Republicans in voting no.
It was a messy end to a session fraught with partisan warfare, and it’s not over. Within days of the voters’ verdict, the same crew — with a few newly elected faces — will reconvene to take up a hefty list of legislation deemed toxic in the unforgiving pre-election atmosphere. Democrats will still control both chambers during the “lame duck” session.
For now, lawmakers sick of stalemate are headed home to an angry electorate.
“All 100 senators want to get out of here and get back to their states,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is locked in a tough re-election fight against Republican Sharron Angle in Nevada.
That they preferred frustrated voters to each other says something about the heavy political lifting candidates of both parties face in the month remaining before Election Day.
An Associated Press-GfK Poll this month showed that the public is fed up with both parties. Only 38 percent approve of how congressional Democrats are handling their jobs, and just 31 percent like the way Republicans are doing theirs.
Majority Democrats facing significant losses in the wake of unpopular bills to stimulate the economy and overhaul the nation’s health care laws sought to do their party no further harm on Capitol Hill.
One foot out the door, the House and Senate convened just long enough to vote on a “continuing resolution,” a stopgap measure to keep the government in operating funds for the next two months and avoid a pre-election federal shutdown.
The Senate late Wednesday approved the temporary spending bill 69-30. The House joined in several hours later with a 228-194 vote, sending it to Obama’s desk to be signed into law.
But they’re heading home without what was supposed to be the Democrats’ closing argument of the campaign: an extension of expiring Bush-era tax cuts for families making less than $250,000 and individuals making less than $200,000. Conservative and moderate Democrats joined Republicans in calling for the preservation of all the expiring cuts, even for the wealthiest Americans.
Wary of being branded tax hikers, Democrats in both houses postponed the question until a postelection session from Nov. 15. If Congress takes no action by the end of the year, Americans of every income level face significantly higher tax bills. Pelosi has said the middle-class tax cuts will be passed this year.
Republicans, meanwhile, did not want to get in the way of the Democrats’ political struggles. They cast the decision to punt the tax cut debate as a vote for a tax hike, and called the Democratic majority irresponsible.
“They are turning their backs on the American people,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner.
But one self-proclaimed “noncombatant” said postponing such important issues preserved the integrity of the debate and any decision that might result.
“It would be one thing if you have a chance to pass something, then by all means have a vote,” Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said Wednesday. “But it was pretty clear that it was going to be mutually assured destruction.”
Republicans also denounced Democrats for delaying the ethics trials of Reps. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Maxine Waters, D-Calif., until after the elections. Both lawmakers had said they wanted trials as soon as possible.
In the waning hours before adjournment, Democrats moved what smaller legislation they could. The end-of session agenda included:
—A legislative blueprint for NASA’s future that would extend the life of the space shuttle program for a year while backing Obama’s intent to use commercial carriers to carry humans into space. Obama will sign the measure, which passed the House on a 304-118 vote.
—The first intelligence authorization bill since 2004, with compromise language on demands by Congress for greater access to top secret intelligence. The most secret briefings will still only be provided to top congressional leaders, but members of the intelligence panels will receive a general description of the programs. The House cleared the measure for Obama.
—Legislation approved by the House, 348-79, that would allow the U.S. to seek trade sanctions against China and other nations for manipulating their currency to gain trade advantages. Quickly criticized by China, its prospects are unclear in the Senate.
—A House-passed measure, already approved by the Senate, to rename a mountain in Alaska after the late Sen. Ted Stevens, who died in a plane crash in August. South Hunter Peak, a mountain located in Denali National Park and Preserve just south of Mount McKinley, will become Stevens Peak.
A House measure to provide free health care and additional compensation to World Trade Center workers sickened in the towers’ crumbled ruins was sure to stall in the Senate.
The stopgap spending measure was kept clean of a host of add-ons sought by the Obama administration, including money for “Race to the Top” grants to better-performing schools and more than $4 billion to finance settlements of long-standing lawsuits by black farmers and American Indians against the government.
A single GOP senator, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, was blocking the bill for black farmers and Indians and negotiations were continuing. Prospects were being helped by the addition of several measures — favored by western Republicans — to resolve Indian water claims.
The stopgap bill is a reminder of the dismal performance by Congress in doing its most basic job — passing an annual budget and the spending bills for agency operations.
Only two of a dozen annual appropriations bills have passed the House this year and none has passed the Senate as Democratic leaders have opted against lengthy floor debates and politically difficult votes on spending.
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