Congress Heads Home for Recess, Leaving “To-Do” List Behind

Congress headed home this weekend for a nine-day break, leaving behind much of the trouble it was elected to help ease.

Remember the federal budget conflict? It remains as messy as ever, as lawmakers aren’t even formally negotiating a compromise.

The automatic spending cuts known as the sequester? Lots of talk about the problems they cause, but this week the only relief went to the air traffic system, just as Congress headed home — many members by way of the nation’s airports.

Gun control? Forget it, for now. Immigration? See you in May.

Congress had just returned to work April 8 after a 16-day recess for Easter and Passover. It stayed in session for about three weeks, then left again Friday for a spring recess that’s scheduled to last until May 6.

The reasons for the latest exodus: Keep in touch with the folks back home, and allow lawmakers time to think about priorities and strategy.

This past month had promised to be more productive, or at least more collegial. President Barack Obama has been hosting dinners with Republican lawmakers, and he offered a detailed federal budget plan. Senate Democrats and House of Representatives Republicans had already passed theirs.

The next step is for top negotiators from the two parties to sit down and figure out a common budget outline. That would become the blueprint for more specific spending and revenue decisions, and it would guide Congress as it prepares a budget for fiscal year 2014, which begins Oct. 1.

While some high-level talks proceed, Republicans won’t appoint negotiators. Such delays are not uncommon, but this year is different. Three budgets are on the table, and the public is intensely interested.

Still, said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., there’s no point in Republicans naming negotiators, known as conferees. “Democrats have drawn a line,” he said. “They won’t give on tax increases.”

Obama and Senate Democrats have proposed raising nearly $1 trillion in revenue over the next decade.

Republicans offer another argument for their position. If budget negotiators meet and can’t agree, House Democrats might try to get the entire House to vote on instructions relating to the budget. Such votes could embarrass Republicans. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called such votes “politically motivated bombs.”

Democrats maintain that Republicans have been too insistent on imposing painful spending cuts.

We’re flexible, Democrats say, and we aren’t eager to play partisan politics. What’s wrong, asked House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., with voting on the future of Social Security or Medicare, or more investments in infrastructure?

“They will have to vote on issues we think the American people are overwhelmingly for and that Republicans would be inclined to vote against,” Hoyer said. “That is not a good place for them to be, but that is democracy.”

That is gridlock. “It’s pretty unusual when you have both houses passing a budget and then not having” a formal negotiation, said veteran budget analyst Stan Collender of Qorvis Communications.

Some progress might be made soon. Talks between top congressional and Obama administration officials on raising the national debt limit are expected later this spring and summer, and a spending and tax plan might very well be part of an agreement.

At the same time, Congress’ spending committees will meet and try to fit spending into the limits imposed by recent budget agreements. Those limits led to the automatic spending cuts that took effect March 1, and many view them as causing chaos this week at some of the nation’s airports.

That drama ended with Friday’s budget fix, but it affected only aviation.

“We need to address the other issues right now, and not make it easier for members of Congress to fly home for a week away,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top House Budget Committee Democrat.

Instead, he said, Congress should remain in town, “making sure we do not see the negative impacts of the sequester grind on for those kids in Head Start, for the seniors on Meals on Wheels, for folks who are doing important, life-saving research.”

The two big non-budget issues in the spotlight this month – gun control and immigration – also are to be continued. The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to begin writing an immigration bill May 9.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pulled the gun bill a week ago after efforts to pass gun control measures fell far short of passage, and he vowed that it would return. No timetable has been set.

Why not work on all this next week? After all, Congress’ approval ratings remain dismal, and polls find that people continue to have little faith that lawmakers can get things done. Congress’ Gallup poll approval rating this month was 15 percent.

And 64 percent think that Congress is making things worse for the middle class – only 8 percent think it’s making things better – according to an Allstate-National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll this month.

What may be most striking, though, is that Americans want compromise. A Heartland poll last November found that “regardless of who they supported in the presidential election, Americans expect both parties in Washington to work together and make compromises to get more done, even if it means bending on some policies and preferences,” said Jeremy Ruch, a senior director for strategic communications at FTI Consulting, which conducted the survey.

Any bending on Capitol Hill, though, won’t come until at least next month. And then only for another three weeks. On May 24, Congress is slated to begin another nine-day recess.