WASHINGTON – With most of Congress (search) vacating the Capitol for five weeks of politics and vacations, lawmakers already are predicting that little will get accomplished when they return this fall before the last campaign swing and elections.
Halfway through the year, Congress has spent its time on a mix of politics and business, but leaves for the remainder of summer with some major work yet unfinished. Lawmakers return after Labor Day and plan to break again Oct. 1.
"When we return after the recess, we have a real challenge," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search), R-Tenn. "Indeed, we only have probably 20 legislative days left in this session."
Left uncompleted last week were spending bills covering all government spending after Sept. 30, except for the military. Finishing the defense spending bill for next year was one of the last things Congress did Friday night before adjourning.
Two major tax bills also were left undone. One would extend beyond their scheduled Jan. 1 expiration some of President Bush's most popular tax cuts: the $1,000 per child tax credit, an expanded 10 percent bottom tax bracket and elimination of the so-called marriage penalty paid by working couples.
The other would restructure tax breaks now enjoyed by U.S. exporters and create billions of new dollars in new corporate tax breaks. Europe began putting punitive tariffs on many U.S. products last March in retaliation for what the World Trade Organization (search) said were illegal subsidies in current U.S. corporate tax law. Without action by Congress those tariffs could reach 17 percent by early 2005.
Despite the legislative backlog, Frist found time in July for the Senate to debate at length a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. The effort, supported by Bush and conservative Republicans, failed.
Lawmakers would like to return home before the election with a new, job-creating highway and mass transit bill worth between $280 billion and $300 billion over the next six years.
They also hope to make room in the tight schedule this fall to study the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission (search). Some Senate and House committees will hold an unusual round of August hearings on intelligence reform, though few expect that to get put into law this year.
Achievements in trade, terrorism and national defense were made in the spring and summer. Congress approved trade pacts with Australia, Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa. The president signed new laws to develop and stockpile vaccines and other antidotes to biological and chemical weapons, and to let retired police officers carry concealed weapons.
Congress also interrupted its policy work to turn attention to investigating abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of American soldiers and mourn the death of President Reagan.
The prospects of completing the unfinished business in less than a month have some already predicting that Congress will have to reconvene after the election for a lame duck session.
The biggest pile of essential work consists of 12 annual spending bills for next year. The federal budget year starts Oct. 1, the same day most lawmakers want to head out of Washington for last-dash campaign efforts.
Only the $417 billion defense bill is finished. It includes an immediate $25 billion infusion into the Pentagon's operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Congress will have to write the 12 remaining bills without the benefit of a budget to guide its spending decisions. And most of the remaining spending bills are laden with disputes, ranging from cuts to NASA and aid for local emergency workers to a ban on Export-Import Bank loans to companies that have avoided taxes by shifting their headquarters offshore.
Sarah Binder, a George Washington University professor of political science, predicted some bills will get done in September and others will have to wait until after the election because both Republicans and Democrats may see advantages in stalling.
"It's not clearly in everybody's interest to leave them; it's not clearly in everybody's interest to get them done," she said.
As a result, congressional leaders are talking about packaging many — perhaps all — of the remaining spending bills together in hopes of speeding their progress. In all likelihood, most of the bills won't be finished until after the November elections.
Another financial must-do bill increases the government's $7.4 trillion borrowing limit. The vote is always touchy, particularly for Republicans at this time of record federal deficits. Many in the GOP would like to see that vote postponed until after the elections.
Other items that have been on the agenda for months may not be completed. That list includes a rewrite of the 1996 welfare laws, a comprehensive energy policy and revisions to class-action lawsuits.
"Basically, they've been killed off in the Senate," Binder said. "My sense is those aren't going to have a second life in the fall."