Congress shut off the lights just after 1:04 a.m. Thursday, as lawmakers go home to face voters in what surveys indicate will be, for many incumbents, the most challenging campaign of their lives.
For now, the historic accomplishments of this Congress are nearly invisible. Features of a broad health-care reform act, such as a ban on insurance companies setting lifetime limits or denying coverage to children with preexisting conditions, just kicked in last week. That $70 billion to boost clean energy or the $19 billion to digitize medical records in a 2009 stimulus package takes hold over a longer term. States last month just got their second round of funding from a $7 billion pool to extend broadband in rural areas. The record is also out on whether a $4 billion fund to reward innovating schools improves what’s happening in US classrooms.
But what stands out as Congress breaks for the next six weeks is what’s left undone. That includes all spending bills for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 and decisions on extending the so-called Bush tax cuts, now set to expire on Dec. 31.
“You’ve had a year when Congress has passed a lot of big bills that caused a lot of controversy and where the benefits aren’t yet apparent to voters,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “The Democrats leave themselves in a vulnerable position. When Congress passed Medicare [in 1965], people were enrolled and getting benefits within the year.”
Thirty-nine Democrats in the House and two in the Senate joined Republicans Wednesday in opposing motions to adjourn, citing the need to renew the tax cuts to assure business and the public that they will not incur big tax increases next year. In a floor speech, Republican leader John Boehner said that those members voting yes on the adjournment resolution were "putting their election above the needs of your constituents."
The list of Democrats opposing the adjournment includes many of the most vulnerable members heading into midterm elections, especially freshmen in seats formerly held by Republicans. In the end, Democrats adjourned the House with just one vote to spare, 210 to 209.
The tough adjournment vote was only the latest indicator of deepening divisions in Democratic ranks on tax and spending issues heading into midterm elections. This week 47 Democrats, led by Rep. John Adler (D) of New Jersey, called on Speaker Nancy Pelosi to extend the expiring 2003 Bush tax cuts on dividends and capital gains. Earlier this month, 31 Democrats called on Ms. Pelosi to extend the 2001 tax cuts for all income brackets, not just individuals earning less than $200,000 and families earning less than $250,000 a year. President Obama and House Democratic leadership have proposed those limits on a tax-cut extension.
“I want to get us back to a more robust and sustainable growth path. Then we can comfortably review [the tax cuts],” says freshman Rep. Gerald Connolly (D) of Virginia, who voted against adjournment and is looking at a difficult race in November.
Asked whether he blames leadership for the challenges of this campaign season, he says: “Progressives understand that progressive moments are very rare and usually very limited in duration in American politics. Our leadership here and in the White House decided they were going to capitalize on that moment in time, and moderates and centrists in our caucus have gotten increasingly antsy on that agenda. Depending on the outcome on Nov. 2, we’ll see who gets to frame that narrative.”
On their way out the door, lawmakers passed a measure to continue to level-fund the federal government until Dec. 3. This resolution passed the Senate 69 to 30.
“We may not agree on much, but with rare exception, all 100 senators want to get out of here and get back to their states,” said Senate majority leader Harry Reid in a press briefing on Wednesday.
House Republicans called it a missed opportunity to cut spending. They are proposing a budget for fiscal year 2012 that reverts to 2008 funding levels, before stimulus and bailouts.
“Democrats spent ages trying to pass an unpopular health-care bill, but they could not find one day during the last year to write a budget,” said Rep. Tom Price (R) of Georgia, who chairs the Republican Study Committee. The measure passed the House 228 to 194.
“While the political logic behind postponing a decision on the tax cut for the wealthy is quite clear, there are pretty big political risks involved and the decision might leave Democrats more vulnerable in November to attack,” wrote Professor Zelizer of Princeton in a follow-up e-mail.