Published September 22, 2012
President Obama on Saturday accused Capitol Hill lawmakers of leaving behind both Washington and unfinished legislative business until after November because they are more concerned about their re-election campaigns, amid criticism he is side-stepping key United Nations meetings next week to hit the campaign trail.
The Senate closed the Capitol early Saturday after passing a spending bill that will make sure the government won't shut down Oct. 1, the start of the new budget year. The so-called continuing resolution passed by a 62-30 vote.
The Republican-controlled House left Friday after passing the Stop the War on Coal Act –- a bill to help the coal industry’s fight against administration energy and environmental policies and hurt Obama's political prospects in coal states such as Ohio and Virginia.
Obama accuses lawmakers of being "more worried about their jobs and their paychecks" than their constituents, in his weekend radio and Internet address.
Meanwhile the world's leaders are arriving in New York for next week's United Nations General Assembly meeting, but the president has no plans to meet privately with any of them.
However, he and first lady Michelle Obama will make an appearance on "The View," a freewheeling TV talk show more likely to reach voters than the president would with the diplomacy he is skipping at the United Nations.
Unlike presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did during their respective 1996 and 2004 re-election seasons, Obama is skipping the face-to-face meetings with counterparts where much of the U.N. works gets done, leaving Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to pick up more of those sessions.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said last week that Obama not planning to meet in with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is "confusing and troubling."
In addition, more than 40 people, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, have been killed in violence over the past few weeks in the Middle East and North Africa.
Obama will address the entire United Nations Assembly in a speech Tuesday, and White House officials have said a meeting with Netanyahu perhaps Thursday or Friday is still possible.
Obama's itinerary on Monday and Tuesday is compressed so that he can get back to campaigning in some of the most contested states such as Ohio and Virginia.
The 112th Congress – often called the most partisan, least productive Congress in memory -- left behind unfinished legislation on the taxes, the federal budget, farm policy and to save the Postal Service from insolvency.
The Democrat-controlled Senate’ session was preceded by a scrap 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.
Among those out of town was incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill was in Missouri for a debate with Republican challenger xxx. Tester and McCaskill’s races are among a handful that could decided whether Democrats maintain control of the Senate.
The only must-do item on Capitol Hill was the 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."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.