Leaving taxpayers hanging and next year's spending bills undone, Congress is rushing to return to the campaign trail, pausing just long enough to agree on a stopgap bill to keep the government from shutting down after Thursday.
After an 18-month burst of legislating that included overhauling the nation's health care system, rewriting rules for Wall Street and repeated efforts to boost the economy, lawmakers punted on the final thorny questions of whether to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire and how to cut spending in the next fiscal year.
Republicans and Democrats blamed each other for deadlocking, and about the only thing they settled on was the need to flee Washington, where they've battled relentlessly for months.
"We may not agree on much, but I think with rare exception all 100 senators want to get out of here and get back to their states," Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters just hours before the Senate passed the short-term spending bill with a vote of 69-30 to keep the government running past the end of fiscal year 2010, which ends Thursday night. The House was expected to follow suit overnight, sending the measure to President Obama for his signature.
The short-term spending bill lasts through Dec. 3. It would at least temporarily cut spending by billions of dollars in 2011. The savings come from the Census Bureau and the military base closing commission, both of which saw major increases last year but were always slated for lower funding this year.
A Republican-led effort in the Senate to cut spending even deeper failed, 51-48, but the eight Democrats who joined with the GOP on the vote signaled just how concerned lawmakers are with ballooning red ink.
With just more than a month to go until the elections, Republicans said Democrats should fear going back to face constituents.
"The public didn't like the stimulus. The public didn't like the health care bill. The public wasn't sure what the Wall Street bill was about. And the public is deeply concerned that we are spending too much, borrowing too much, and engaging in too many Washington takeovers," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
But Mr. Obama, already on the campaign trail this week while Congress finished up its work, told voters Republicans have blocked Democrats' ideas and tried to set him up to get the blame.
"I have to give them credit - that from just a raw political point of view, it's been a pretty successful strategy, right? Because right now people are frustrated. All the good feeling that we had coming into the campaign is dissipated," Mr. Obama said in Richmond on Wednesday.
"I think that the only way this is going to change is if the same folks who supported me in 2008 - not just Democrats, but independents and Republicans who want to see the country move forward - if they don't sit on the sidelines, they don't give up," he said.
The Senate spent much of its final day in limbo as the last details were hammered out on the stopgap spending measure.
House lawmakers were far busier, though, passing a bill to allow the U.S. to try to punish China and other nations suspected of manipulating their currency to unfairly boost exports.
The measure was approved 348-79, with 99 Republicans joining 249 Democrats in support, but it now joins hundreds of other bills the House has passed but that have languished in the Senate, where action is always much slower.
And that's unlikely to change in a lame-duck session of Congress planned for mid-November, when both chambers are likely to keep a truncated schedule.
One issue they will have to address, though, is the expiring tax cuts. If they don't act every taxpayer will face a tax increase in 2011, when the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts have expired.
Democratic leaders have vowed they won't allow a tax increase on individuals making less than $200,000 or couples making less than $250,000, though they insist those making above that level should pay tax increases.
But they faced opposition from both Republicans and a significant number of rank-and-file Democrats, who say any tax increases now could hurt the economic recovery.
Uncertain whether they would prevail, Democratic leaders postponed action altogether.
That decision left many House Democrats uncomfortable, and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, added to their troubles when he declared the motion to adjourn the House until after the election a referendum on tax cuts, and urged lawmakers to reject the motion and stay to finish business.
"A vote to adjourn this Congress without an up-or-down vote to stop all the tax hikes is a vote to raise taxes and destroy more jobs," he said.
Mr. Boehner lost by a single vote, 210-209, but only after three dozen Democrats sided with Republicans and against their leaders.
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