WASHINGTON — When lawmakers return to Washington on Monday, they face big issues, including taxes, spending cuts and the prospect of a debilitating "fiscal cliff" in January. Yet Congress is expected to do what it often does best: punt problems to the future.
With Election Day less than two months away, their focus seems to be on the bare minimum — preventing a government shutdown when the budget year ends Sept. 30.
Democrats controlling the Senate and their House GOP rivals also will also try to set up votes intended to score political points or paint the other side with an unflattering brush two months before the election. Their efforts are sure to be overshadowed by the presidential campaign.
Topping the agenda of substantive business is a six-month temporary spending bill to finance the government's day-to-day operations. The annual appropriations process on Capitol Hill collapsed about midway through the campaign season. The stopgap measure would give the next Congress time to fashion a full-year plan. There would be no more sure way of driving Congress' approval ratings even lower than for lawmakers to stumble into a government shutdown right before the Nov. 6 vote.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., hope to present the measure this week, with a House vote as early as Thursday. The measure also will ensure a steady flow of money into disaster aid accounts.
More challenging is what to do with one of the most significant pieces of leftover business, a five-year farm bill. It would overhaul crop safety net programs while funding the food stamp program that now provides assistance to more than 46 million people.
The current farm act expires at the end of September. House Republican leaders are wary of bringing the bill to the floor. It now appears that Congress will at most opt for a temporary extension of the old bill, including drought aid for livestock producers whose assistance programs expired last year.
But it's not certain lawmakers will do even that. Without a formal extension, food stamp and other nutrition programs would continue to function beyond Sept. 30. Most farmers would not be affected because the current farm bill covers 2012 crops regardless of when they are harvested.
The food and farm legislation has bedeviled House leaders because many GOP conservatives want deeper cuts to food stamps than Democrats, whose votes are needed to pass the measure, are willing to go for.
In all likelihood, political votes are on tap. New York Sen. Charles Schumer, a key Democratic Party strategist, wants a procedural vote on the House Republican budget plan written by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential nominee.
"Let 'em embrace it again," Schumer said while making the rounds at the Democratic convention last Thursday.
In the House, Republicans promise a vote Friday on a bill called the "No More Solyndras Act," which would phase out Energy Department loan guarantees for solar and wind energy companies. It's unlikely to even get a vote in the Senate.
Solyndra Inc. went bankrupt last year after receiving a loan guarantee from the Obama administration, even as some White House aides raised red flags. The California company's failure left taxpayers on the hook for $500 million.
But after a full five-day workweek, House members could be packing up and leaving the Capitol by Friday evening to return to their districts to campaign. At most, they'll return the following week. The Senate is also likely to have a shortened September schedule.
What may be most noteworthy then about the abbreviated pre-election session is not what Congress is doing but the stack of must-do work that lawmakers are leaving unfinished until a postelection lame-duck session.
Topping the list is the expiration of the full menu of President George W. Bush-era tax cuts on Dec. 31. The resulting tax increases, when combined with more than $100 billion in automatic across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect at the same time, have become known as the fiscal cliff. Economists warn that unless Congress acts, the one-two austerity punch would send the fragile economy back into recession.
The automatic cuts are punishment for the inability of last year's deficit reduction "supercommittee" to strike a bargain to cut 10-year deficits by at least $1.2 trillion as promised by last summer's debt and budget pact. The Bush tax cuts were originally set to expire at the end of 2010 but were renewed two years ago. President Barack Obama promises to raise the top tax rate on upper bracket earners back to the Clinton-era level of 39.6 percent, up from 35 percent now.
Other pressing issues for the lame-duck session include averting an almost 30 percent cut in physicians' Medicare fees, the food and farm bill, passing the annual Pentagon policy bill, a Russia free trade bill and legislation to reform the Postal Service, which is now losing $25 million a day. Congressional inaction now would mean the Postal Service will default on a $5.5 billion payment into its pension fund that due at the end of the month.