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Congress finishes bare minimum of work, hits campaign trail

The Senate sends Obama a bill to keep the government running. Everything else must wait until after the election.

WASHINGTON — The Senate closed the Capitol on Saturday after sending President Obama a spending bill that will make sure the government won’t shut down Oct. 1, the start of the new budget year.

The measure passed early Saturday by a 62-30 vote — and then lawmakers skipped out of town to campaign.

Left behind for a postelection session is a pile of unfinished business on the budget and taxes, farm policy and legislation to save the Postal Service from insolvency.

The only must-do item on the agenda was a six-month spending measure to fulfill the bare minimum of Congress’ responsibilities by keeping the government running after the budget year ends on Sept. 30.

The measure permits spending on agency operating budgets at levels agreed to under last summer’s hard-fought budget and debt deal between Obama and Capitol Hill Republicans. That’s a 0.6% increase from current spending rates, which represents a defeat for House Republicans, who had sought to cut about 2% below the budget deal and shift $8 billion from domestic programs to the Pentagon.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also relented to a demand by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) for a vote on suspending foreign aid to the governments of Libya, Egypt and Pakistan. Paul only got 10 votes. But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) won approval of a nonbinding resolution supporting steps to make sure Iran doesn’t develop a nuclear weapon.

It’s the earliest preelection exit by Congress from Washington since 1960, though lawmakers will return after the Nov. 6 vote to deal with unfinished work.

The approval rating for the current Congress dropped to 13% in a Gallup poll this month. That was the lowest ever for an election year.

The exit from Washington leaves the bulk of Congress’ agenda for a post-Nov. 6 session in which it’s hoped lawmakers will be liberated from the election-year paralysis that has brought Capitol Hill to a near halt.

Topping the lame-duck agenda will be the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, which are due to expire Dec. 31, and more than $100 billion in across-the-board spending cuts set to strike at the same time. The cuts are punishment for the failure of last year’s deficit “super committee” to strike a deal.

Also left in limbo is the farm bill, stalled in the House by opposition from conservative Republicans who think it doesn’t cut farm subsidies and food stamps enough and Democrats who think its food stamp cuts are too harsh.

The current farm act expires on Sept. 30, but the lapse won’t have much practical effect in the near term.

The lack of productivity of the 112th Congress was the result of divided government and bitter partisanship.

Congress’ major accomplishments tended to be legislation that mostly extended current policies, such as a highway bill, and legislation demanded by Obama to renew a 2-percentage-point payroll tax cuts and extend student loan subsidies.

Even this Congress’ signature accomplishment — a budget and debt deal enacted last summer to cut $2.1 trillion from the budget over 10 years — delayed the most difficult decisions by assigning the super committee the job of finding at least $1.2 trillion in deficit savings.

When that failed, House Republicans walked away from the budget deal by pressing for further cuts to domestic appropriations and reversing some of the pact’s Pentagon cuts.

In the Senate, Reid worked closely with the White House to use the Senate schedule for Obama’s political advantage, repeatedly forcing votes on closing tax breaks for oil companies and raising taxes on upper-bracket earners.

But Reid failed to schedule debates on any of the 12 annual appropriations bills, and the Democratic-led chamber, for the third year in a row, failed to pass a budget.

Republicans also point to almost 40 items of House-passed jobs-related legislation sitting stalled in the Senate.

“This isn’t leadership. It is negligence,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

Senate Democrats cited their progress on bills such as a renewal of farm programs and legislation to overhaul the Postal Service and give it an infusion of cash to stave off insolvency.

“The reality is, for as closely as divided as this Senate is, we passed a large number of bipartisan bills this year — very important bills — but as you all know, it takes two chambers to pass a law,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y). “On the other side, too many of the Congress members, particularly the tea party folks, think compromise is a dirty word.”

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