Lawmakers Eye the Exit as Congress Heads Toward Election Hiatus

With one foot out the door, Congress is wrapping up its work in Washington before hitting the campaign trail for midterm elections that will determine whether Democrats hold onto power.

But Congress also is leaving behind a trail of stalled bills, including a major fight over taxes, two embarrassing ethics cases and its most basic job – approving a budget for the government year that begins on Friday.

The Senate and House are expected to consider a few minor agreed-upon bills well into Wednesday night and possibly into Thursday, with an emphasis on the "continuing resolution," which continues funding the government until final votes on budget bills.

"Whatever the Senate passes - they'll send it over and we'll pass it," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.

She indicated that this stopgap measure would keep the government humming until Dec. 3, more than a month after the pivotal, midterm elections. By that point, the House and Senate must either approve the individual spending bills or agree to another stopgap bill. If not, the government shuts down.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer expected to wrap up legislative business by the end of Wednesday night before adjourning until Nov. 15.

Staying or going might seem an equally unpleasant prospect for some embattled Democrats, who are facing more than four weeks of defending unpopular votes in favor of President Obama's economic stimulus measure, health care law and uncompleted legislation for curbing global warming.

They also head home without what was supposed to be their closing argument of the campaign, an extension of Bush-era tax cuts for families making less than $250,000.

Republicans and a few Democrats urged Congress to preserve the tax cuts for all Americans, even the wealthiest. Democratic leaders opted to avoid the risk of being branded tax hikers and punted the matter until after the elections.

Republicans applied the label anyway.

"If Democratic leaders leave town without stopping all of the tax hikes, they are turning their backs on the American people," said House Minority Leader John Boehner.

Pelosi has vowed that the middle class tax cuts will be passed this year.

Republicans also denounced Democrats for delaying the ethics trials of Reps. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Maxine Waters, D-Calif., until after the elections. Both lawmakers had said they wanted trials as soon as possible.

House leaders also appeared unlikely to call a vote on a Senate-passed school nutrition bill favored by first lady Michelle Obama. The bill is opposed by liberals because it would cut food stamp benefits to find the money to pay for better school lunches. The Senate passed the $4.5 billion legislation in August, and many of the child nutrition programs it includes are to expire on Thursday, the last day of the fiscal year. They'll be temporarily extended under the stopgap bill.

In the waning hours before adjournment, Democrats moved what smaller legislation they could.

The House was advancing to Obama's desk a bill setting NASA policy and legislation aimed at strengthening congressional oversight of sensitive spy operations. But a House measure to provide free health care and additional compensation to World Trade Center workers sickened in the towers' crumbled ruins was sure to stall in the Senate.

The stopgap spending measure was kept clean of a host of add-ons sought by the Obama administration, including money for "Race to the Top" grants to better-performing schools and more than $4 billion to finance settlements of long-standing lawsuits by black farmers and American Indians against the government.

Negotiations continued, however, on a separate bill to provide $1.2 billion to remedy discrimination by the Agriculture Department against black farmers and $3.4 billion to settle claims that the Interior Department mismanaged Indian trust funds. Prospects were being helped by the addition of several measures -- favored by western Republicans -- to resolve Indian water claims.

The stopgap bill is a reminder of the dismal performance by Congress in doing its most basic job -- passing an annual budget and the spending bills for agency operations.

Only two of a dozen annual appropriations bills have passed the House this year and none has passed the Senate as Democratic leaders have opted against lengthy floor debates and politically difficult votes on spending.

The breakdown in the budget process includes a senator from Obama's own party holding up the confirmation of a director to head the White House budget office, a critical post. Mary Landrieu, D-La., is blocking the nomination until the administration lifts or significantly modifies a Gulf oil well moratorium imposed after the BP spill.

The end-of session agenda included:

-- A legislative blueprint for NASA's future that would extend the life of the space shuttle program for a year while backing Obama's intent to use commercial carriers to carry humans into space. Obama will sign the measure.

-- The first intelligence authorization bill since 2004, with compromise language on demands by Congress for greater access to top secret intelligence. The most secret briefings will still only be provided to top congressional leaders, but members of the intelligence panels will receive a general description of the programs. The House was clearing the measure for Obama.

The child nutrition bill ran into trouble after House supporters abandoned their own $8 billion version and proposed passing the Senate version, which would be partially paid for by using future funding for food stamp programs. The bill now faces opposition from hunger groups, and some Democrats have said they will not support it if the food stamp money is used.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.