Congress returns this week with embattled Democrats torn between trying to show they have the answers to the nation's economic woes and fearing their solutions will further incur the wrath of voters angry about new government programs.
It appears the fears will win out.
The in-box is overflowing as lawmakers end their summer recess and undertake four weeks of legislating ahead of the Nov. 2 election: Tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush are set to expire at year's end; annual spending bills await action; and President Obama has a new plan to stimulate the economy through tax credits, breaks for business investment and public-works projects.
But progress on any of those fronts before the election is doubtful.
Majority Democrats are returning to Washington after a month of listening to voters angry about government spending. Republicans are dead-set against White House initiatives, although House Minority Leader John A. Boehner said Sunday he could accept Mr. Obama's middle-class tax breaks as better than nothing.
"It will be difficult to get a very broad agenda through," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.
Some issues probably will fall back into a lame-duck session after the election. Even then, Republicans won't be inclined to cooperate, particularly if they regain control of the House or Senate.
Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, said he expects the Senate to get into "serious debate" on the Bush tax cuts, but he would not speculate on the chances for an agreement. House Democratic leaders say they prefer to see what the Senate does before taking up the issue.
Congress hasn't sent the president any of the 12 annual spending bills it must pass to pay for government programs when the new budget year starts Oct. 1. With lawmakers leery of voting for spending increases, prospects for much action on these bills are slim. Congress instead will have to vote to keep agencies funded at current levels to avoid a shutdown.
Among other items on the may-not-happen list are a bill to authorize defense programs for 2011 and a bill requiring greater disclosure of corporate and union spending on campaign ads.
Senate Republicans have balked at the defense bill because the House added a provision to end the "don't ask-don't tell" policy for gays serving in the military. GOP aides said it would require up to four weeks of debate time if that provision remains.
The campaign-spending bill is in response to a Supreme Court ruling lifting restrictions on election-ad spending. Advocates of the measure, which requires greater disclosure of those financing ads, had hoped it could be passed before the November elections. But in July, the Senate fell three votes short of overcoming a GOP filibuster.
Also on tap, to the dismay of Democrats, are House ethics committee trials of two prominent Democrats, Reps. Charles B. Rangel of New York and Maxine Waters of California, for suspected ethics violations. One or both of those trials could begin before the fall elections.
Other issues with a chance of progress:
• The Senate is close to passing food safety legislation giving the Food and Drug Administration greater power to order recalls and to increase inspections of food facilities. The House has passed a similar bill.
• The House could take up a $4.5 billion Senate-passed child nutrition bill, promoted by first lady Michelle Obama, that would create healthier standards for food served in schools.
• The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to vote on a new arms treaty with Russia. A two-thirds vote by the full Senate is needed for ratification. Also possible, although less likely, is consideration of a long-stalled free trade agreement with South Korea.