As lawmakers head to the exits for a monthlong summer vacation that begins Friday, Congress doesn't face any deadlines like last August's debt-ceiling drama. But members are still leaving behind a long checklist of work undone.
And unlike last year, when the Senate was often the roadblock, this year it's the Republican-controlled House where big measures, such as the massive farm bill and postal reform, have stalled.
"In my opinion, we ought to be addressing all of those pieces of legislation, and could, because they have all passed the Senate in a bipartisan fashion," House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland told reporters Wednesday. "But again, it is like the transportation bill ... ultimately they did a transportation bill at the last possible day, but reaching compromise is very difficult."
Both chambers are feuding over whether to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, how to head off the automatic spending cuts looming Jan. 2, and more than the dozen annual spending bills required to keep the government open. The House and Senate can't even agree on a total spending dollar amount.
Some bright spots emerged this week when party leaders agreed to punt the dozen annual spending bills into next year and keep the government open with stop-gap funding through March.
Further complicating matters is the short schedule. Both chambers are expected to return for a short time in September then leave again to campaign ahead of November's elections.
The House has scheduled just 11 legislative days this fall.
After struggling to pass a highway bill in the spring, the chamber failed to pass key postal reform legislation by the Aug. 1 deadline, allowing the agency to default for the first time. GOP leaders also abandoned work on a short-term farm bill earlier this week, instead turning their attention to drought relief legislation, and they can't say whether they will even pass a farm bill before the current one expires in September.
Both bills have been stalled in the House for months after sailing through the Senate earlier this year.
House leaders also have refused a vote on a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that easily passed the Senate, instead passing their own version that stripped out language protecting same-sex couples, Native Americans and undocumented immigrant women from domestic abuse.
The future of most of the bills looks bleak, at least over the next few months. Republican aids admit there's little chance of passing postal reform before the election, and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy said he hopes to take up the farm bill next month but can't guarantee anything.
"I always have goals," he said.
While both chambers are guilty of stalling, House Republicans have outdone the Senate on some measures. They passed a budget this past spring, while Senate Democrats did not even bring one to their chamber floor.
One of the impending year-end battles is over how to avoid $1 trillion in spending cuts scheduled to kick in next year because a bipartisan "supercommittee" failed to agree on a solution.
Republicans are trying to find a way around the military cuts, while Democrats don't want cuts to domestic spending. Lawmakers likely will roll legislation extending a slew of expiring tax breaks into whatever final deal is reached.
Both parties say they won't budge on another fight likely to occur in December. With the Bush-era tax cuts set to expire next year, Republicans say they will only support extending all of them, while President Obama and Democrats want to extend the cuts only for earners of under $250,000.
"We've got a lot of looming things before us from tax increases coming, to sequestration, there could be another debt limit. This could all hinge into the lame-duck scenario," said Mr. McCarthy, the third-highest-ranking Republican in the House. "You could have a new presidency, new Congress, new Senate. Six months gives a little longer time."
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