The flow of legislation that courses through the halls of the US Congress - bills that deal with everything from renewing federal highway funds to extending the Superfund environmental cleanup program - could be blocked unless Republicans and Democrats resolve three difficult disputes.
The two parties are at odds over investigations of two congressional races last fall, as well as whether to hold a vote on campaign-finance reform.
As Congress returns to session this week, Senate Democrats vow to bring the chamber to a halt - except for "essential business" like budget appropriations bills - unless the Rules Committee, chaired by Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, ends its inquiry into last fall's Louisiana Senate race.
In that contest, Democrat Mary Landrieu beat by 5,788 votes Republican state Rep. Woody Jenkins.
Mr. Jenkins appealed to the Senate, claiming massive vote fraud in Orleans Parish. The Rules Committee began a bipartisan investigation, but committee Democrats walked out June 25, saying they had found no evidence that would overturn the election.
"Not only were the allegations of fraud untrue, [but] the witnesses revealed that they had been paid by agents of the petitioner [Jenkins] to tell their stories," charges Sen. Wendell Ford (D) of Kentucky, the committee's top Democrat.
Sen. John Breaux (D), Louisiana's senior senator, tried to negotiate a compromise between Senator Warner and the Democrats, but to no avail.
At the end of July the committee voted along party lines to empower Warner to issue subpoenas without the Democrats' agreement.
While Warner subpoenaed several witnesses and held hearings in Louisiana during the congressional recess, he told reporters there that "We have not, thus far, in my judgment, seen a quantity of evidence that would overturn the election."
Meanwhile, House Democrats are similarly seething over the investigation of Loretta Sanchez's 984-vote victory over then-Rep. Robert Dornan (R), a firebrand conservative, in Orange County, Calif. Mr. Dornan claims noncitizen Hispanics voted for Ms. Sanchez and has produced some evidence supporting the charge. But it's not clear whether the totals were high enough to change the election outcome.
House Oversight Committee chairman Bill Thomas (R) of California is waiting for Immigration and Naturalization Service citizenship records to compare with voting lists.
House Democrats hint at obstructionism if the matter is not resolved soon. Minority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri has "indicated that his patience is wearing thin," says a spokesman. "Other members also expressed their feelings that this investigation had gone on too long without any resolution and that if it was not resolved quickly it would result in slower business on the floor."
Senators bent on reform
As if those disputes were not enough, Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin are threatening that unless Senate leaders schedule a vote on their campaign-finance-reform proposal by the end of September, they will try to tack it onto unrelated bills.
Such a parliamentary move can often tie the Senate up in knots.
Meanwhile, the Congress must pass 13 appropriations bills by the end of September to ensure the federal government stays open for business.
But some thorny issues remain to be decided. They include debates over whether to give money to the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco, whether to build new B-2 bombers, and whether to split the Ninth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals, a move that would be popular in the Mountain West.