WASHINGTON – After a two-year session marked by epic fights over government spending and health care regulation, Congress is spending its final days doing the legislative equivalent of watching movies before school lets out for summer.
On the House side, lawmakers took a day off Monday and are poised to punt a crucial vote on tax increases until after the election.
On the Senate side, Democratic leaders scheduled a debate Monday night on an anti-outsourcing bill that is expected to fail and already have ruled out voting on the tax cuts.
The only thing Congress has to do before adjourning is pass a bill to keep the federal government running since lawmakers failed to pass any of next year’s budgets. Then it’s lights out.
It is with this record that incumbents return to the campaign trail to beg voters to let them keep their jobs. At a time when congressional approval ratings hover just north of 30 percent, lawmakers have given themselves virtually nothing new to run on in the closing weeks of the midterm campaign.
President Obama on Monday signed a jobs bill to create a $30 billion credit fund and allot billions more in tax breaks for small businesses. But on several other key issues, Congress is running out the clock.
Voters will have to rely on lawmakers’ word that they will reset that clock come November and press for a vote on top concerns like the expiration of the Bush tax cuts.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told “Fox News Sunday” he doubts his chamber will take up the issue before November given the roadblocks in the Senate.
“The obstruction is in the Senate. … It would be a specious act for us,” he said. Hoyer nevertheless pledged Congress would shield the middle class from a tax increase next year.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, offered a similar outlook. He predicted the Senate would eventually garner enough support to keep middle-class tax rates at current levels. As for hikes on upper income earners, that will depend on the election.
Until then, he suggested Congress should just pack it in.
“What it gets down to is we can count, and we know we don't have 60 votes for our tax position,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We want to basically say after the election when we still face a deadline, by the end of the year we'll take up all of these tax issues. That to me is the only realistic way to address it.”
The parties have hit a rock-hard impasse over the Bush-era tax rates, which if left unaddressed will expire, triggering a tax hike for almost every American. Democrats argue that taxing the highest income bracket will earn government the extra money needed to close the deficit.
But Republicans, and some Democrats, have resisted this approach, arguing that tax rates should not change for any income level since a tax hike on wealthy job-creators could stifle economic growth.
That stiff partisan divide has shown up on most big votes in the closing months of the legislative year. Senate Democrats for the second time failed to win the 60 votes necessary last week to advance a campaign finance bill imposing restrictions on political spending.
Legislative efforts to give some children of legal immigrants a path to legal status and repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy also failed last week. The critical blueprint for Defense Department spending, which was used as a bulletin board for those controversial proposals, failed along with them.
The congressional "highlight" of last week came when comedian Stephen Colbert testified on migrant workers before an obscure House subcommittee Friday.
As for this week, a Senate committee is holding a vote Wednesday on the International Violence Against Women Act. The Senate could turn out the lights on Thursday.
House lawmakers plan to adjourn at week's end but are planning to call up one significant bill -- a package to cover health costs of workers who inhaled the dangerous cloud of ash in lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The bill enjoyed a majority of support when the House debated it in July but ended up failing after Democrats called it up under a procedure that required a difficult-to-attain two-thirds majority for approval.
That failure led to a melee of finger-pointing on both sides of the aisle, but this time Democrats say they will use “regular” rules of order that require a majority vote.