Congress Bets On Post-Election Edge, Delaying Action
Congress roared into town last week after a five-week break. Lawmakers will be heading back home just as quickly this week. They're expected to complete exactly one big item before pulling the plug on this briefest of sessions: a stopgap spending measure that keeps the government from shutting down during the next six months.
Members of both parties prefer tackling the mountain of unfinished business they leave behind only after the November election.
When the Republicans who control the House of Representatives drew up their legislative schedule for this fall, they planned to be in session until the second week of October. But Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced a change of plans when he wrapped up the House session on Friday.
"We no longer anticipate votes in the House during the week of Oct. 1. This is a change from the original House calendar," he said.
Steny Hoyer, the chamber's number-two Democrat, reminded Cantor that unlike the Democratic-led Senate, which has passed a five-year renewal of the massive farm bill, the House has yet to take up its own version, even though the current one expires in two weeks.
"Is there any possibility that before we leave here, in consideration of the crisis that confronts many in the farm community, that we will consider that bill?" he asked.
Hoyer, of course, was well aware that House Republicans are deeply divided over the farm bill, and that their failure to act on it would likely help Democrats at the polls. Cantor tried putting the best face on a tough situation.
"Yes, there could be a possibility there's some action next week on the issue of the farm bill. Looking to find ways that we can work together on issues that we all support, not issues that divide us," he responded.
The reality, though, is that apart from the stopgap spending measure that prevents a shutdown neither party wants before the election, there's little reason for either Democrats or Republicans to cut deals now, knowing they could have more leverage as a result of the election.
"I mean, obviously it's a very different universe on the other side, if it's president-elect Romney that we're dealing with and a Republican Senate," says Tom Cole, a House Republican from Oklahoma. "And look, that's true for the Democrats as well. They know that, and so they're not willing to make any deals before the election."
That angers some lawmakers, like Republican Rob Wittman from Virginia. On Friday, he railed on the House floor about Congress having done nothing to prevent $100 billion in automatic spending cuts next year, half of which carve into defense spending.
"Congress should stay in Washington and stop ignoring the reality of these looming cuts. It is time to put governing over politics," he said.
But Democrats say the threat of those automatic cuts, known as sequestration, is the only thing that will compel Republicans to agree to a deficit-reduction deal after the election that includes tax hikes on the wealthy.
"To the extent that we start backing off ... this deal, that was struck a year ago, that puts the gun to our head, compels us to act responsibly," says Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware. "We start picking that apart, then we end up maybe doing nothing."
In the end, says Oklahoma Republican Cole, nothing can really get done until each party knows what kind of a hand it's been dealt at the polls in November:
"I tell voters at home, please look at these issues carefully, because the votes you cast are really not just gonna be just for the individuals, they're gonna solve these issues in relatively short order," he says. "We have to reach resolutions on these issues, and I think we probably will, but it'll be the people that win in November that make those decisions."
Democrats, meanwhile, are accusing House Republicans of simply trying to run out the pre-election clock.
"I guess the Republican plan is to do next to nothing, and to get out of town as quickly as possible," says Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, "even though we just got back from a five week recess, in hopes the American people don't notice we were even here."
But they will be back for a post-election lame duck session, when they may be more disposed to cutting deals.
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