WASHINGTON – Some fights of the 110th Congress have lost their oomph in the waning months before the November elections, with both parties content to run out the clock on messy matters like the war in Iraq, spending bills and various disputes with the White House.
Democrats dropped any pretense of trying to address some of the stickiest issues when their Senate leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, told reporters Thursday that Congress will punt until next year its biggest job, setting most of the government's spending priorities.
What's good enough for 2008 will suffice until a new president and a new Congress take office next year.
"I would hope that before we would leave here this year that we would do a continuing resolution that would get us (through) until after Senator Obama becomes president," Reid said.
Optimistic or realistic, his comments offer a glimpse of the delicate choice of items to be served up by party leaders coordinating Congress' schedule with the presidential campaigns of Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain.
Thursday alone provided several examples of how Bush and Democratic congressional leaders are playing for time as it ticks toward the election.
There would be no point, Reid suggested, in calling a lame-duck Congress back into session after Election Day to hash out the remaining spending bills only to send the finished products to a lame-duck president who is not shy of exercising his veto power.
Republicans, predictably, voiced outrage, but they're the minority and have little power to set the agenda. They've still got access to microphones, however. They exercised this power repeatedly Thursday when they turned virtually every debate in the House to offshore oil drilling -- a once-dead idea that has caught on with some voters paying $4-plus for a gallon of gasoline.
Members of Congress have a list of accomplishments to counter charges of ineffectiveness.
They sent most families economy-stimulating tax rebates of $600 to $1,200, boosted college aid to veterans, expanded farm subsidies, increased food stamps and put some restrictions on Bush's eavesdropping program in pursuit of terrorists.
A couple of pocketbook issues are still alive: how to rescue hundreds of thousands of homeowners from foreclosure and doing something -- anything -- that might assuage voters angry about gasoline prices.
Deals also are close on banning lead in toys and a $50 billion program to combat AIDS and other diseases overseas.
In a broad sense, Republicans and Democrats are striving to do no more harm to their standing with voters at a time when only 23 percent of the public approves of how Congress is doing its job.
It may be in neither party's interest, for example, to compromise on controversial judicial nominations. Also dead for the time being: Bush's tax cuts, immigration reform, fixing Social Security and revamping Bush's No Child Left Behind school program.
Reid's comments were but one example on Thursday that the parties were engaged in non-engagement on some issues.
In the House, Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., gaveled open the latest oversight hearing with an empty chair behind the witness table where Bush's one-time political guru, Karl Rove, was to sit if he had complied with his subpoena.
Rove had been summoned by the panel to discuss what critics say is politicization of the Justice Department, a topic that riled the legal, law enforcement and political worlds last year until the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
But unlike previous noncompliance by Bush aides, there were no rants of outrage from Democrats nor equally muscular defenses of the White House by Republicans. Not a single voice was raised.
It took mere minutes for those present to reject Bush's executive privilege claim on behalf of Rove. The lone "no" vote came from an early lame duck: ranking Republican Chris Cannon of Utah, who lost his bid for a seventh term in a primary last month.
Oh, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio introduced his latest article of impeachment against Bush. It might have incited a rallying cry in a less-consequential year, but Democratic leaders barely commented.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had long ago warned that impeachment articles against Bush were doomed; Kucinich previous 35 impeachment articles were dispatched to the Judiciary Committee for an unattended burial.
A reporter asked Pelosi whether this exercise with Kucinich had become a nuisance. She didn't answer directly.
"There will be some review of it in the committee," Pelosi said. "So that is the status of that."