After a five-week recess, Congress is back at work in the last legislative session before midterm elections in four weeks. Reams of bills await attention — including more than 300 measures from the House that the Senate has so far shelved — and President Obama is pressing for small-business tax breaks. How much will lawmakers — who won't want to alienate voters ahead of elections — get done? Most experts agree: not much.
The down economy remains the focus of Congress, and the search is on for that magic cure to turn things around.
For instance, there are those Bush-era income-tax cuts due to expire at the end of this year. Obama wants the cuts extended, but only for couples earning up to $250,000.
Republicans, including House Minority Leader John Boehner, say those tax cuts should also be extended for the 3 percent of Americans who earn more.
"If the only option I have is to vote for some of those tax reductions, I'll vote for them," Boehner said Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation. "But I've been making the point now for months that we need to extend all the current rates for all Americans, if we want to get our economy going again and we want to get jobs in America."
While those comments seemed to signal to some the potential for compromise, the Republican leader was outright dismissive of the president's plan for more spending.
Obama has been calling on the Senate to pass a multibillion-dollar package of tax breaks and loans for small businesses that has been stalled for months — plus another $50 billion in spending on roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
"I wonder what's new about more stimulus spending, more taxes and more uncertainty for American small businesses," Boehner said. "That's what the president is proposing, and what's new about that?"
But Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer says the GOP alternative proposal to cut government spending down to 2008 levels will only make things worse.
"If you in effect withdraw investment from the economy now, in an effort to, the Republicans say, simply cut spending, it's going to go further down," Hoyer said. "And you are going to be in a downward spiral, because then revenues are going to go down and you are going to be chasing your tail down a rat hole."
And there are still more bills sitting on the table.
"The problem, the real challenge here, is the clock," said Sandra Eskin of the Health Group at the Pew Charitable Trusts. She's backing a bill that would give the Food and Drug Administration new authority over food production, including the power to force the recall of tainted food. It's stalled in the Senate even with bipartisan support.
"Anybody with a bill that they would like to have passed is fighting the clock more than anything else," Eskin said. "There are very limited days left. I believe the accurate count is 14 legislative days — days on which the Senate will take a vote before they recess for the election period."
Also in the pipeline are spending bills to keep the lights on at government agencies, a defense bill that would end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays in the military, and a treaty with Russia on arms control. Plus, multiple committees have drafted legislation in response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
They'd be big issues at any other time, but they're now competing to get on the radar in this short pre-election stretch.