- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Congress is slinking toward an August exit from Washington with little to show for the past few weeks, and House Republicans suffered a major setback Wednesday when they had to pull their first domestic spending bill of the year from the floor, realizing they didn’t have the votes to pass it.

Far from the late-summer deadline fights of 2011, when the government flirted with a debt default, or 2009, when Congress gave a last-minute injection to shore up the “cash for clunkers” program, no last-minute deals are brewing, and there is little urgency to get much accomplished before five weeks of vacation.

Indeed, this year’s Congress is on pace for one of the lowest productivity records in history, and both sides are pointing fingers at each other.

“I think this may have been the least productive Congress in which I have served, exceeding the last Congress. The past seven months have been wasted for the most part,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, told reporters this week.

The gridlock was evident on both sides of the Capitol on Wednesday.

The Senate, which is trying to clear some of President Obama’s nominees before the summer recess, spent the entire afternoon in limbo, waiting for a single senator to fly back from her home in North Dakota so she could be the key 60th vote to halt a filibuster on the nominee to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

But at least that vote happened.

In the House, Republicans canceled a vote on the transportation and housing spending bill after they realized they couldn’t rally support among their own members to pass it.

Rep. Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the bill’s failure could doom the party’s commitment to uphold the sequester spending cuts that have helped reduce the federal deficit this year.

“I believe that the House has made its choice: Sequestration — and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts — must be brought to an end,” he said after watching his bill collapse.

Democrats said Republicans were caught between its two extremes: Conservative pressure groups were telling Republicans to vote against it, while more moderate members said it cut too deeply. That left Republicans without the votes to pass the bill on their own, and Democrats vowed not to help them.

Congress did score some bipartisan victories this week.

The House gave overwhelming final approval to a bill to revamp federally backed student loans, voting 392-31 to pass it and send it to Mr. Obama for his signature.

The Senate has yet to pass any of its 12 annual spending bills — it still hopes to clear at least one Thursday — and the House has passed just four.

The House also leaves without having taken up an immigration bill — breaking an informal deadline set by Republican leaders and Mr. Obama.

With little to fight over this week, Democrats in the House and Senate huddled separately with Mr. Obama to prepare for battles in September and October over spending and debt.

Mr. Obama emerged from the Senate with a new mantra for his focus the rest of this year: “Jobs. Middle class. Growth.”

His congressional troops said they are unified behind him.

“One thing is very clear as we get into debates this fall: We are united,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told reporters after the Democratic caucus met with Mr. Obama in the lunch hour.

The most immediate battle will be over the annual spending bills, where the House and Senate are tens of billions of dollars apart in their numbers. Basic government funding expires at the end of September.

Also looming this year is another debt fight. The federal government is using extraordinary means to delay bumping into the legal limit for how much it can borrow, and analysts predict the Treasury Department will run out of room in October or November.

Republicans say they will not accept another debt increase without concessions, while the White House says it is finished negotiating over spending cuts keeping the economy down.

House Democrats are calling for cancellation of the annual recess — but their colleagues in the Senate, where they hold the majority, are just as eager as House Republicans to flee town.

Some analysts said the lack of August deadline action is partly a reflection of the new calendar. Congress used to try to wrap up business each year in October or November, but recently has been going up to Christmas. This past year, it ran right up until the start of the new Congress on Jan. 3.