Congress Eager To Bolt Despite Pile Of Undone Work

Congress appears headed for the exits as gridlock envelops Washington and lawmakers long to head for the campaign trail. The only thing they absolutely have to pass next week is a continuing resolution to keep the government open after the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. So far, they're arguing over who goes first, the Senate or the House. Guest host Mary Louise Kelly talks with NPR congressional correspondent David Welna about the stalemate.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

As Michelle Obama gears up to hit the campaign trail, so are members of Congress. In fact, it looks like Congress is headed for the exits early, maybe as early as this coming week. That's despite the pileup of unfinished work in Washington.

This week, the Senate failed even to get key measures to the floor for debate. NPR's David Welna is on the Hill and he's joining us now.

David, what a week of - I don't know what you call it - crash and burn on the Hill. The victims you could count - the Don't Ask Dont Tell measure, the food safety bill. What was happening up there?

DAVID WELNA: Well, Mary Louise, things always do get a bit crazy toward the end of the session. Both sides try to use the ticking clock to their advantage. But this year things are especially fractious. And I think it's mainly because everything but everything on Capitol Hill is seen these days through the prism of the mid-term elections.

Democrats are cringing at the prospect of losing seats in both chambers and possibly their control of one or both. And Republicans are licking their chops at the prospect of coming back much stronger in a few months. So it's not in their interest to let Democrats claim any pre-election victories that could help them at the polls.

And the defense bill with its Don't Ask Don't Tell provision was something a lot of Democrats wanted passed, since they also hoped to add an amendment that would make it possible for children of illegal immigrants to become citizens, which might fire up Latino voters. Instead, they weren't even able to bring up the bill for debate. And the same thing happened to the food safety bill already passed by the House, which Democrats and even some Republicans have been trying to get through the Senate for months. And as he's done several times before, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn threatened to filibuster that bill.

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): I know sometimes I'm not accused of being human, but the fact is, is I consume the same food everybody else does. I dont want to get sick from it. But we can't continue to pass bills that pile on regulations that cost the American people $1.5 billion that dont fix the real problem.

WELNA: And this is part of the problem that Democrats face. The bills theyve wanted to get done all session are time-consuming to move forward and nobody right now is in much of a mood to spend more time in Washington.

KELLY: How much longer are they likely to stick around, David? I mean are there things they absolutely have to get done before they leave town?

WELNA: They may be out by the end of next week, a week earlier than the Senate planned to leave. But before anyone leaves town, they're going to have to pass what's called a continuing resolution by Thursday night. And that's because on Friday a new fiscal year begins and not one penny has yet been appropriated by Congress to keep the government running.

KELLY: Well, and that is - we should be clear - that's not it for this Congress. They have to come back again after the elections.

WELNA: No, theyll limp back after the elections for at least one and likely two lame duck sessions. And one of the biggest things theyve left for then is dealing with the Bush-era tax cuts that all expire at the end of the year. Some Democrats wanted to vote on those tax cuts before the mid-terms.

But others, like California Senator Dianne Feinstein, said it was better to wait until afterward. And the reason is that because Democrats only wanted to pass the tax cuts that benefit the middle class, and let the ones for the wealthiest expire, they would make themselves vulnerable to charges by Republicans that they're simply raising taxes.

Senate DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): That's how it would be portrayed, when in fact the taxes for 99 percent of the people would go down, but for one percent. And so that one percent would then dominate the election campaign. I dont think that's right.

KELLY: Well, I mean it sounds like the atmosphere is so poisonous at this point. Whats your sense? Will it be any easier to get anything passed in November?

WELNA: You know, its hard to imagine Republicans being very cooperative if they do win big on Election Day, and it looks like they will. They'd have a much stronger hand to play once the new Congress is sworn in in January. But expect even less cooperation with the Democrats come next year, if the Republicans win as big as they hope they will in November.

KELLY: Okay. That's NPR congressional correspondent David Welna.

Thank you.

WELNA: Thank you.

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