The warring sides also need to find some solution on farm subsidies and food stamps before the programs expire Sept. 30. The Senate gave bipartisan approval to its farm bill in June but the House has been unable to pass it or a version of its own.
"The House is pretty well divided. You've got the left concerned about reductions in the food stamp program, you've got the right who don't think the cuts go far enough in the food stamp program," Boehner said. "And frankly, I haven't seen 218 votes in the middle to pass a farm bill."
A leading option would be to punt the issue into the future, as Congress has done with so much else.
Even what passes for accomplishment often simply extends current policy. There were the recent extensions of transportation funding and student loan subsidies, along with earlier action to extend Obama's payroll tax cuts and his demand for additional jobless benefits for the longtime unemployed.
"That's just sort of continuing the status quo," Van Hollen said. "But in terms of tackling big issues, this Congress has been out of commission."
Defense hawks hope political pressure in August will force Congress to address the automatic cuts. The reductions were the default that Obama and congressional Republicans agreed to last year as part of a deficit-cutting plan that also raised the nation's borrowing limit.
Republicans accuse Obama of jeopardizing national security. Democrats counter that sparing the military will require Republicans to concede on raising taxes on high-wage earners.
Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., eagerly talked about trying to work out a compromise in August, but other Republicans and Democrats have shown little interest, content to use the issue as a political club.
"I don't know how we get out of debt if we don't have bipartisanship," Graham said.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney suggested that Congress put off the issue, delaying the cuts for at least one year. Whether Congress can resolve the issue in the postelection session or wait until next year depends on the outcome of the presidential and congressional races.
The possibility of Romney being sworn in Jan. 21 and Republicans taking control of the Senate and House makes a delay more likely.
The real concern ahead is the debt limit.
The Treasury Department has said the government's borrowing limit will be reached near the end of 2012, but it has the ability to shift money to buy a few months reprieve to give the next Congress time to act. That puts the likely deadline for the borrowing authority on a collision course with the expiration of the temporary spending bill to keep the government operating through March.
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