US lawmakers head home, severe challenges loom
US lawmakers fled Washington for home Friday after months of election-year gridlock, with a mountain of unfinished business awaiting their return, including action on taxes, spending cuts and cybersecurity.
Senators and House members have left what some congressional aides are calling unprecedented amounts of work on their plate as they recess, with faint chance of avoiding dramatic partisan showdowns in the lame duck session between the November 6 election and the start of the next Congress in early January.
Summer-bound lawmakers often leave legislation hanging, but some aides and observers say 2012 is special, with the so-called fiscal cliff -- a confluence of major issues like expiring tax breaks and looming cuts to domestic and military spending -- staring the country in the midst of election season.
"It just feels different this year," Dick Keil of Purple Strategies said, citing increasing willingness by Democrats and Republicans to throw down the gauntlet on bills as diverse as postal reform and drought relief.
"Cancellations or threat of suspension of various programs is giving investors pause and contractors heartburn," he said.
An exasperated Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi took to the House floor late Thursday to rebuke Republicans for closing up shop with so much at stake.
"They want us to create jobs, they want us to reduce the deficit and they want us to give a middle income tax cut, which the president has suggested and the American people overwhelmingly support," Pelosi told a nearly empty chamber.
"Instead we have no jobs agenda, no tax cuts for the middle class, no farm bill, no Violence Against Women Act, no cybersecurity strategy, no balanced, bipartisan plan to prevent the sequester," she said, referring to the automatic spending cuts set to kick in early next year if Congress does not act.
Republicans argue that President Barack Obama's bid to end tax breaks for families making over $250,000 a year is a job-killer.
The Republican-led House is "the only group in town here who've taken action to stop the looming tax hikes," House Speaker John Boehner said.
The House passed a bill extending all the tax breaks, but the Senate refused to take it up, instead passing its bill for middle-class tax cuts.
September is widely seen as a time to wrap up some key provisions in order to earn the trust of voters ahead of the election.
That's when emergency assistance for drought-hit farmers, legislation to help the cash-strapped US Postal Service and a major cybersecurity bill are likely to pass after stalling in recent weeks, staffers said.
But one could fly Air Force One through the chasm that divides Republicans and Democrats over taxes.
The White House argues that raising taxes on the wealthy could boost revenue by nearly $1 trillion, close to what Congress needs to trim from the deficit if it wants to prevent the sequester in January.
If Republicans refuse to go along, Democratic Senator Patty Murray said her party is willing to risk racing over the fiscal cliff and into financial chaos in 2013.
"Both parties appear perfectly comfortable with playing this game of chicken by going past the election," Keil observed.
Some lawmakers argue that waiting until the lame duck session is the right way to head off the crisis.
"I think we need that quiet moment after the election, when cool heads can sit down together," said House Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee.
Republican Steve King disagreed, saying lawmakers should extend all tax breaks into 2013, when the new Congress can address how to move forward.
"We're into this cycle of perpetual lame duck sessions, and it's just wrong," he said.
The Congressional Budget Office has warned that stalemate over how to tackle the year-end fiscal deadlines would likely push the US economy into recession in the first half of 2013.
Donald Wolfensberger, a Congress expert at the independent Woodrow Wilson Center, said he envisions one of two scenarios playing out.
"They can kick the can down the road a bit more" into 2013, when lawmakers can renegotiate tax breaks as part of broader tax reform, he said.
"Or there's the 'Let 'Er Rip' school -- when people go off the cliff and realize how bad things are. That should get people together and compromise."