Just-Returned U.S. Congress Looking for Exit Strategy

Two days after returning from a five-week recess, leaders in Congress are discussing an exit strategy that would leave decisions about the George W. Bush-era tax cuts and automatic spending reductions until after the Nov. 6 election.

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, said party leaders want to recess by Sept. 21 and return in November.

“That would be optimal,” he said yesterday in an interview.

Such a schedule would depend on working with Republicans to enact a six-month stopgap measure to keep the federal government operating in the new fiscal year starting Oct. 1, Durbin said.

Republicans in the House and Senate said yesterday that they too were aiming for Congress to leave Washington by the end of next week to resume campaigning at home.

Lawmakers had tentatively planned to be in session through Oct. 5. An earlier departure underscores that neither party is ready to reach consensus on major legislation before the election.

Public approval of Congress’s performance fell to 10 percent, tying a record low set in February, according to a Gallup poll released Aug. 14. The Aug. 9-12 telephone survey of 1,012 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.

Defense Spending

In November, lawmakers will try to reach a bipartisan deal on extending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, which expire Dec. 31, and averting $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts set to take effect in January. Congress will consider a Defense Department spending measure, and decide whether to extend a payroll tax cut into 2013 and head off an expansion in the reach of the alternative minimum tax.

They also face a Dec. 31 deadline to reauthorize wiretapping of suspected terrorists that the U.S. government began without court warrants after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“The political weather is so hot now that we need a cooling-off period, and that cooling-off period will take place between now and the election,” Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said today in an interview.

Maine Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, who is retiring after this year, said Congress has wasted valuable time by not addressing the nation’s most pressing fiscal issues.

‘Stalling, Obfuscating’

“We’ve lost two years in the life of America just stalling, obfuscating, delaying, denying,” Snowe told reporters. “That’s a tragedy for America. We certainly can do far better.”

If Congress leaves Washington by Sept. 21, lawmakers this year will have been in session fewer than 10 days in the three months before the election. It would be the earliest pre-election adjournment since 1960, when lawmakers headed home Sept. 1, according to the Senate Historical Office.

“There’s not much appetite to stay around here and do anything,” Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat who isn’t seeking re-election, said in an interview. “So it doesn’t matter much whether we’re here or we’re not. Things are not getting done.”

Farm Programs

In addition to acting on the government funding measure, H.J.Res. 117, lawmakers this month must decide how to address farm programs that expire Sept. 30.

The Senate in June passed a farm bill designed to save $23.6 billion over a decade, cutting food stamps by about $4 billion. The full House hasn’t voted on a five-year farm bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee on July 12.

It may be time to start considering a one-year extension of current farm programs, Representative Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the agriculture panel, said yesterday in an interview. Legislative days are becoming “fewer and fewer every moment,” he said.

Even that extension may encounter difficulty. Before the August recess, House Republican leaders dropped plans to vote on a one-year proposal because it didn’t have enough support.

Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, said in an interview yesterday that he “won’t go for” a one-year extension.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, said regarding a Sept. 21 target departure date, “The important thing is to make sure that the necessary resources are there for the government to continue operating.”

The House will consider the stopgap funding measure tomorrow, Cantor said. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said his chamber will take up the House version as long as it isn’t revised.

Reid “has indicated to us that the continuing resolution would be the last item of this work period, before we reconvene after the election for a very, very busy period with a lot of important things to be done,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, told reporters.

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