WASHINGTON – The most partisan, least productive Congress in memory has skipped out of Washington for the campaign trail.
The Senate shuttered the Capitol soon after sending President Barak Obama stopgap spending legislation that will make sure the government won't shut down on Oct. 1. It passed early Saturday morning 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 had beat its retreat Friday morning after taking one last, futile slap at Obama -- passing a bill entitled the "Stop the War on Coal Act." The measure, dead on arrival in the Senate, was aimed at boosting the coal industry in its battle against new environmental regulations while hurting Obama's political prospects in coal states like 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 the chamber's 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 nakedly political move to boost his reelection chances.
The votes came at midnight to give senators who had scattered from Washington time to return. Democrat Claire McCaskill was in Missouri Friday 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. Tea party star 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 monthslong 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. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., however, won sweeping 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 in November after the election to deal with its stack of unfinished work.
The approval rating for the current Congress in a Gallup poll earlier this month sank to just 13 percent, 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 postelection 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 was dealing with the so-called fiscal cliff, which combines the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts on Dec. 31 and more than $100 billion in indiscriminate, across-the-board spending cuts set to strike at the same time as 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 those from farm states like North Dakota and Iowa.
The lack of productivity of the 112th Congress was the result of divided government and bitter partisanship. Die-hard GOP conservatives eager to roll back Obama's agenda barreled headlong into an official Washington still largely controlled by Democrats -- and oftentimes seemed to limit the options of their own leadership with their intransigence. The looming presidential and congressional elections caused top leaders in both parties to play it safe and stick to party positions.
The result: Congress' major accomplishments tended to be legislation that mostly extended current policies, like a highway bill passed earlier this year and bills 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 -- punted most of its difficult decisions to the future by tasking the supercommittee with finding at least $1.2 trillion in deficit savings.
And, after the supercommittee cratered, 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.
Meanwhile, 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 floor 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.
"They haven't passed a budget in more than three years. They have no plan to save Medicare, no plan to stop all the tax hikes, and no plan to replace the sequester," Boehner said. "This isn't leadership. It is negligence."
Democrats defending the Senate point out that the balky chamber managed several bills that the House would not, including 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."