Congress back to work, but little action expected

6:09 AM, Sep 11, 2012   |    comments
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(CBS News) With just 13 days left in the final legislative session before the presidential elections, Congress returns this week with a number of crucial legislative measures on the to-do list. But there's little evidence that the perpetually deadlocked body will do much more in the next two weeks than is necessary to keep the government functional.

Facing the threat of the so-called "fiscal cliff," acombination of tax increases and spending cutsscheduled to go into effect January 2013, the House and Senate must soon take up a series of contentious debates over taxes, defense and spending cuts.

The Bush-era tax cuts are set to expire at the end of the year, and January 1, 2013 also marks the day when $1.2 trillion worth of budget cuts, which cut across domestic programs and the Pentagon, begin to go into effect unless Congress can reach a deal to offset them. On the same day, a payroll tax cut will expire, as will a deferment of payment cuts to Medicare physicians.

Despite across-the-board urgings to address the looming fiscal cliff swiftly, most observers expect many of the relevant conversations to go up to the 11th hour, during the post-election lame duck session, when both parties are able to calibrate their actions based on how they fared in the presidential, and congressional, elections.

"The fact is, whether it's the leadership or the members, all they want to do is get out of there as quickly as possible and get back there on the campaign trail," said Jim Manley, former spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and now senior director at the public affairs firm Quinn Gillespie & Associates. "There's not going to be a lot of appetite for doing much more than a handful of items."

On Thursday, the House is expected to take up a stopgap spending measure to keep the government funded and operational through March of 2013, a short-term fix but immediate necessity given that the current funding runs out as of October 1.

The temporary spending bill will represent a slight increase from 2012 spending, but is expected to earn sufficient support for passage, including from vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who CBS News has learned will be on Capitol Hill this week. In addition to their eagerness to get back on the campaign trail, candidates from both parties are averse to threatening a government shutdown so close to the election. One GOP Senate aide says a clean bill could pass through the two chambers within a couple of days. 

The Senate is also slated to vote this week on a Veterans Jobs Corps Act of 2012, a bill authorizing $5 billion to help veterans find jobs. It's unclear whether the bill will get the 60 votes necessary to proceed to the legislation, but a GOP Senate aide cited a decent chance it would earn bipartisan support.

Even if both measures do pass, which is contingent on the details of the spending bill and the will of the Congress members, these increasingly rare incidences of bipartsan cooperation appear poised to stop there: The Republican-led House will hold a vote Thursday requiring President Obama to submit a plan to Congress outlining how to replace so-called "sequester" cuts before the election, and both Republicans and Democrats have scheduled overtly political votes seemingly aimed at increasing political capital in the days before the election. House Republicans are voting Thursday on the so-called "No More Solyndras Act," and Senate Democrats would  consider holding vote on Paul Ryan's controversial budget plan - which they oppose - if time permits.

"Stopping the coming tax hike on small businesses and replacing the sequester topped our July agenda and remains atop our agenda for September, when and if the Senate Democrats summon the courage to act," said Kevin Smith, a spokesperson for John Boehner, in an email. "They have run out of excuses."

Republicans and Democrats have been deadlocked for months over a plan to extend - either partially or in full - the Bush-era tax cuts, and the $1.2 trillion in automatic sequester cuts are equally contentious: Both sides disagree with the reductions, which are spread out over spending and defense cuts, but the two sides were unable to compromise on an alternative in a congressional "super committee" last year. The sequester bill is expected to fall short in the Senate, as is the Solyndra bill; meanwhile, Democrats will likely bring up the Ryan budget bill to make a political point - not to pass it.

Buried amid the politics, however, are a handful of issues that demand legislative attention.

The farm bill, which expires at the end of the month, has not yet been extended by the House, which instead passed a bill to extend only expired disaster relief programs for ranchers, beekeepers, farmed fish producers and tree farmers through the end of the month. The Senate did pass a bill to extend the farm bill with bipartisan support, but the House did not act on it, and the Senate has not taken up the House proposal for disaster relief. 

Some lawmakers have suggested the possibility of a one-year extension, but so far there is no evidence of a deal. 

Other legislation that may or may not get taken up in the next two weeks include the Violence Against Women Act, a cyber security bill, legislation to improve the postal system, and a bill to normalize trade with Russia. One Senate Democratic aide pointed out that the legislative rules governing the Senate might make it difficult to act on more than the spending and veterans jobs bills given the time constraints. 

Despite the brief legislative window, Democratic New York Senator Charles Schumer urged Congress to act.

"This is our last window to get something done on jobs and middle-class tax relief before Washington switches to election mode full time," he said, according to the Times. "It's a brief work period, but that doesn't mean we can't accomplish something."

Based on recent history, that seems like an optimistic view: As Reuters points out, only 61 bills have become law so far this year - the lowest number in more than 60 years.

Norman Ornstein, a political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that the situation is actually even bleaker you consider both the quality and quantity of the bills Congress has passed.

"This Congress's equivalent of the Marshall Plan is the debt limit debacle and the downgrade of America's credit," he said. Blocking the farm bill and putting off action on the fiscal cliff, he argued, is just more evidence of how dysfunctional Congress has become.

"To not deal with some of that stuff [relating to the fiscal cliff] is pretty foolish, but this is the mother of all do-nothing Congresses -- and so foolishness is pretty much what they've patented," Ornstein said. "It's pathetic."

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