WASHINGTON – Leaving piles of unfinished business for the fall, Congress began exiting Washington Thursday for a five-week vacation with its accomplishments few, its efforts at budgeting in tatters and its collective nerves frayed by months of feuding.
The House’s chief accomplishment for the week was a bipartisan Wednesday vote to deal with spiking student loan interest rates, readying that legislation for President Barack Obama’s signature. But that bit of progress came the very day that a Republican strategy of embracing painful automatic budget cuts imploded with the collapse of a major transportation and housing bill.
That measure fell victim, top lawmakers said, to opposition from both conservative and more moderate Republicans and laid bare the flaws in the party’s budget strategy, which promised deeper cuts to domestic programs than the rank and file were willing to deliver in votes on funding bills implementing the pledge.
Before leaving town, the GOP House prepared its 40th attack on Obama’s signature health care law today and slated votes on other legislation aimed at embarrassing the administration and sharpening the party’s political message for encounters back home with constituents.
On Thursday, the House passed the “Stop Government Abuse Act,” which among its provisions would allow people to tape record conversations they have with IRS agents and other federal workers.
Before leaving town, senators held a bipartisan closed-door luncheon in hopes of continuing the fragile sense of comity that has enveloped the chamber since it defused a filibuster battle.
But that session came just minutes after Republican Senators banded together to shut down the Democrats’ attempt to advance their own, far more generous version of the transportation and housing bill, which was filled with funding for popular items such as road and bridge repairs and community development grants for local projects.
Republicans united to kill the $54 billion measure, following the instructions of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who kept GOP defections to only one: moderate Susan Collins of Maine, who co-wrote the measure from her position on the Appropriations Committee.
Collins, trying to persuade other Republicans to break with McConnell, at first struggled to be heard above the Senate’s din.
That prompted an unusual outburst from Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
“Madame President, have senators sit down and shut up, OK?” he barked at presiding officer Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who broke into a wide smile captured by C-SPAN cameras.
After the vote, Democrats rushed to news cameras, appearing with union construction workers in hard hats to accuse Republicans of killing jobs.
The demise of the transportation measure in both House and Senate leaves Congress at the drawing board when it comes to the budget as it prepares to leave Washington for a month. The new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, and it’ll take a stopgap funding bill to prevent a government shutdown.
Tea party Republicans are willing to force a partial government shutdown over “defunding Obamacare,” an idea that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, opposes privately but is unwilling to criticize in public. A more likely outcome is a plain vanilla stopgap measure to keep the government operating at current levels for a few weeks or months.
An even bigger showdown comes later in the fall over must-pass legislation increasing the government’s borrowing cap to prevent a first-ever, market-rattling default on U.S. obligations.