Congress Has 13 Work Days Until Election for Must-Do Work

U.S. Congress Faces Small Legislative Window Before Election
"We have a lot to do," said Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, adding that last week’s agreement on a six-month funding bill was ’welcome news” because it “takes the risk away” of a government shutdown right before the election. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The U.S. House and Senate, facing a backlog of unfinished business, are set to be in session together for 13 days before the Nov. 6 election. Even so, members plan to do what they have done all year on the biggest tax and spending decisions: Nothing.

By Oct. 1, Congress needs to pass a stopgap federal spending bill, renew farm programs and help the U.S. Postal Service pay for retiree health care. Lawmakers left Washington for a five-week recess without providing drought aid to ranchers or acting to protect computers against cyberattacks.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans see an advantage in spending time before the election on averting automatic income tax increases and the $1.2 trillion in spending cuts that start taking effect in January. Each side wants to try to improve its negotiating position depending on which party will occupy the White House and control the House and the Senate.

“The one thing they keep agreeing on is to postpone big decisions,” said Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University in New Jersey. “It’s easy for them to agree on that.”

Upon returning to Washington Sept. 10, Congress faces a Sept. 30 deadline to pass a stopgap measure to fund government operations for six months, which congressional leaders and President Barack Obama tentatively agreed to last week.

The agreement came after Tea Party-backed Republicans dropped their demand for less spending than the $1.047 trillion budget in a 2011 law that raised the federal debt ceiling.

‘Cloud of Uncertainty’

“The time to pick a fight on a government shutdown is not now,” said Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican and co-founder of the chamber’s Tea Party Caucus. “Our country is under a cloud of uncertainty.”

House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told reporters Aug. 2 that there would be “a lot of conversations over the next five or six weeks” on what Congress will try to accomplish in September.

As of Aug. 3, Congress had sent 63 bills to Obama for his signature this year. Many name post offices and convey land parcels, and most of the rest extend programs lawmakers had already passed.

The slow pace of legislating mirrors that of 2011, when lawmakers sent 90 bills to Obama that eventually became law. Last year’s output barely topped that of 1995, when 88 bills became law, fewer than at any time since the Congressional Record started keeping track in 1947.

Messaging Votes

The Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-led Senate have spent time on so-called messaging votes on measures that won’t advance in the other chamber. That includes House Republican bills to repeal all or part of Obama’s 2010 health care law and Senate Democrats’ plan to set a minimum 30 percent tax rate for the highest earners.

“Actually getting legislation to the president’s desk isn’t as high a priority as making a symbolic point,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. “This is the consequence of split party control of Congress at a time when the parties are highly polarized.”

Lawmakers have been staking out their positions on how to deal with the expiring 2001 and 2003 tax cuts and the spending reductions set to start next year. The House voted Aug. 1 to extend the tax cuts for all income levels through 2013, while the Senate voted July 25 to let the cuts expire for top earners. Neither proposal has the support of leaders in the other chamber and probably won’t advance there. House and Senate leaders aren’t negotiating a compromise.

Food-Stamp Cuts

The House in May passed legislation that would replace automatic cuts to defense programs, which amount to half of the $1.2 trillion in cuts, with reductions to domestic programs including food stamps. Senate Democratic leaders oppose that measure.

“I’ve never seen a situation where so many things are going to pile up” at the end of the year, said Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican. Kyl has served in Congress since 1987.

Freshman Representative Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican, said he’s “concerned” with the “pretty short timetable” in September. Huelskamp had pressed for adoption of the six-month spending measure before the recess.

As with the government funding, Congress may end up with stopgap measures to continue laws that are set to expire. Boehner acknowledged that House leaders don’t have enough support to advance a five-year farm bill approved July 12 by the House Agriculture Committee.

Sept. 30 Expiration

The law authorizing funds for Department of Agriculture programs, including nutrition and conservation initiatives as well as farm subsidies, expires Sept. 30. Though the Senate passed its version of a five-year farm bill, “the House is pretty well divided,” Boehner said.

Just before leaving Washington for the recess, the House passed a measure providing financial aid to livestock producers affected by the worst drought in a half-century. The Senate didn’t act on the legislation.

A postal overhaul also may languish. The U.S. Postal Service said it won’t make a required $5.5 billion payment due Aug. 1 to the U.S. Treasury for future retirees’ health care.

The service has said for months it couldn’t afford that payment or a $5.6 billion payment required by Sept. 30.

More Employees

The Postal Service, which has more employees than any U.S.- based publicly traded company other than Wal-Mart Stores Inc., has said it expects to temporarily run out of cash in October unless Congress alters or ends the retiree health-care obligation and lets it make other changes.

Also on the Senate’s September to-do list is a $205.1 billion proposal to renew a group of lapsed or expiring tax breaks and prevent the expansion of the alternative minimum tax for 2012 and 2013.

While Congress addresses those matters, the major tax-and-spending issues will wait, Zelizer said.

In a “minute-by-minute political world, both parties are waiting to see the outcome of the election,” he said. “They want to know where the political pressure is, what the election results are and what’s in their best interest.”

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