Facing A Full Docket, Congress Returns To D.C.

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Congress returns to Washington, D.C., this week, and, among its chores, it must deal quickly with transportation legislation. Without at least an extension, both the gas tax and highway construction could come to a halt.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris. It's been five weeks since we last saw lawmakers on Capitol Hill battling over the debt ceiling. Well, they're back. The Senate reconvened today, and the House returns tomorrow. Members of Congress will have plenty to do this fall session. And while much of the summer's fight was over how much money to spend, NPR's David Welna reports that the debate is now shifting to just how to spend it and whether it creates jobs.

DAVID WELNA: You might think that with only 24 days left before a new fiscal year begins and with not a single spending bill ready to keep the government running October 1st, members of Congress would now be scrambling to avoid the kind of shutdown showdown we saw earlier this year. But because the debt ceiling deal also set the limit for next year's spending, such a stalemate is no longer likely. Instead, the argument in Congress this fall is all about jobs and what Congress can or cannot do to create more of them. Majority Leader Harry Reid made that clear as he opened today's session of the Senate.

Senator HARRY REID: Our constituents are going to be watching very closely this fall to see whether we've heard their message. We need some jobs. So we must set aside partisanship, and we must do it for the sake of American jobs. They're not going to be satisfied with the same obstructionism and gridlock they saw this spring and summer.

WELNA: Nevertheless, Reid held out little hope of getting any cooperation from his GOP counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

REID: As my friend said, his number one goal is to defeat President Obama - my friend the Republican leader. With that as the number one goal, it makes it very difficult to get things done around here.

WELNA: McConnell, for his part, shot back portraying Washington as the nation's biggest problem. He noted that Americans are frustrated not only with the U.S. economy and the latest dismal jobs report but also with the state of their government.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL: I don't think any one of us is under any illusion that the American people were particularly eager to see us come back. And who could blame them?

WELNA: McConnell also took a swipe at the jobs message President Obama plans to deliver before a joint session of Congress on Thursday. Most people, he said, have concluded the problem with the economy is not that Washington is doing too little, but that it's done too much already.

MCCONNELL: So Republicans will spend the next weeks and months arguing in favor of a robust legislative agenda aimed at blocking or repealing some of the most pernicious rules and regulations so business can breathe again and begin to hire.

WELNA: Meanwhile, a new supercommittee, charged with further shrinking projected deficits by more than a trillion dollars over the next decade, plans to meet for the first time Thursday. Half of its 12 members are Republicans. The other six are Democrats. They're charged with agreeing on a plan by Thanksgiving. House Democrat Xavier Becerra, who's on the panel, declared today that all 12 members already agree on one thing.

Representative XAVIER BECERRA: That perhaps our most important task is to put America back to work, and that each and every one of us has an obligation to commit almost to a bottom-line that says that anything we propose must lead to job creation.

WELNA: But job creation is not part of the supercommittee's assignment. It's what Democratic leaders want. Congressional expert James Thurber, of American University, says that's telling.

JAMES THURBER: I think the committee is not independent. I think it will be listening to the leaders, and it will be a very close relationship. And those leaders will be listening to the caucus. And I don't think very much has happened since the debt limit discussions, and so we may go into a deadlock.

WELNA: Yet, as Thurber notes, Congress often requires a deadlock to ultimately take action. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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