The Do Almost Nothing Work Session: Tax Cuts in Limbo

You might call it the "Do Almost Nothing" work period. Congressional Democrats, returning from a month-long August recess, had grand plans to tackle the Bush tax cuts, a food safety bill, an FAA measure, and possibly more, to show Americans whose side they are on -- but in the end, they opted for a series of votes on measures they hope will boost their sagging political odds in November.

To be sure, Republicans stood in the way of action on all of these bills, from a repeal of the military's policy on gays serving openly, to a measure that clearly would benefit the politically-vulnerable incumbent Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., with a key voting block in his state, Hispanics -- a move to legalize the children of illegal immigrants provided they serve in the military or go to college.

"What else were we going to do with Republicans intent on blocking everything we wanted to do?" asked one senior Senate Democratic leadership aide.

But not every Democrat agreed with their leadership's plan to put off action on the Bush tax cuts until after the elections. Sources tell Fox that one of the Senate's most vulnerable Democrats, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, along with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, who is also struggling in her bid for another term, both fought for a vote on extending only the middle class tax cuts.

And that was, indeed, Reid's plan until just last week, but in the face of a splintered caucus, with several other vulnerable members clamoring to get home to campaign, like Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who is deeply in jeopardy of losing her seat, the majority leader chose to punt the issue to a lame duck session.

Sen. Mike Bennet, D-Colo., an appointee facing a fierce challenge to secure his first full term, opposed adjournment without addressing the expiring tax cuts, releasing a statement that said, "The Senate should be more concerned about doing what's right for the country and less concerned about campaign season," and advocating his own one-year extension of all the Bush rates with a longer extension for the middle class. "The Senate should have brought the extension of key tax cuts to the floor for up or down votes."

In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, was forced to cast a rare vote when 39 of her Democrats revolted and joined Republicans on a measure that would have forced a vote on the tax issue.

Republicans in the Senate, in the meantime, chose to advocate for staying in town and working on Congressional business as it relates to the economy.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., a newly-minted member of GOP leadership, said, "We are heading home for six weeks, when many Americans wish they had jobs. And we should stay here and to continue to work on the things that are most important to the American people, which is jobs, the economy, the debt, and the spending."

"The Democratic Congress is going home this week with more concern about their jobs than the jobs of 10 percent of the American people who don't have jobs, with both concern about Election Day than about New Year's Day, when we'll have one of the biggest tax hikes in American history," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said, adding, "The mood across the country is to throw the rascals out, and the rascals by a big majority are Democrats."

Though Republicans were not exactly united in that sentiment to stay in town. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who bucked his party's establishment to support a number of GOP challengers, said, "I want to get home. It's time to campaign for a change in Washington, to get some more Republicans in here to stop all this wasteful spending."

One Republican did not even bother returning to Washington for the work period, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who is mounting a difficult write-in campaign for re-election.

But Reid hit Republicans for standing in the way of Senate action on just about everything, "The minority strategy has been obvious for some time. It's to legislate as little as possible. They've done everything they can to slow the Senate to a screeching halt, from sticking together to block everything as a group."

As for his race, Reid, though he is in a dead heat against tea party-backed GOP candidate Sharron Angle, showed no signs of concern Wednesday, telling reporters, "We're feeling quite good. We've got a great campaign organization. I'm looking forward to going home in a few days to maintain the lead that I have. And we'll see what happens 34 days or whatever it is. I look forward to the campaign. I'll really be glad to get home. I've spent a lot of time here working through the procedural morass that the Senate has become."

And so the members headed home after wrapping up action at midnight, with Reid revealing his priorities for the lame duck session that will begin on November 15, with nary a tax cut measure in sight, though Speaker Pelosi did renew her pledge that the House would extend the middle class tax cuts. It remains to be seen if Democratic revolts on both sides of the Capitol throw yet another wrench into those plans resulting in another "do almost nothing" work period.