WASHINGTON — One of the least productive Congress in memory is bolting Washington for the campaign trail, leaving in its wake a pile of unfinished business on the budget and taxes, farm policy and legislation to save the Postal Service from insolvency.
The GOP-controlled House beat its retreat Friday morning after one last, futile slap at President Barack Obama — passing a bill entitled the "Stop the War on Coal Act." The measure, dead on arrival with Obama and the Senate, would block the government from policing greenhouse gas emissions and give states regulatory control over the disposal of harmful coal byproducts.
Over in the Democratic Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., delayed that chamber's getaway to force a procedural vote on legislation by endangered Democrat Jon Tester of Montana to boost access to public lands for hunting and fishing. Republicans protested that the move was nakedly political.
The spitting match ensured a post-midnight Senate session before a final vote on the only must-do item on the agenda — a six-month spending measure to keep the government running after the current budget year ends on Sept. 30.
Reid also relented to a monthslong demand by tea party Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for a vote on cutting off foreign aid to the governments of Libya, Egypt and Pakistan. The measure faced sure defeat. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., however, was poised to win sweeping approval of a nonbinding resolution supporting action to make sure Iran doesn't develop a nuclear weapon.
It's the earliest pre-election exit by Congress from Washington since 1960, though lawmakers will return in November after the election to deal with its stack of unfinished work.
The approval rating for the current Congress in a Gallup poll earlier this month sank to just 13 percent, the lowest ever for an election year. The GOP-controlled House and Democratic Senate managed to come together with Obama to enact just 173 new laws. More are coming after the election, but the current tally is roughly half the output of a typical Congress. Even so, political pundits say Republicans are strong favorites to keep the House while Democratic chances of keeping the Senate are on the upswing.
The exit from Washington leaves the bulk of Congress' agenda for a postelection session in which it's hoped lawmakers will be liberated from the election-year paralysis that has ground Capitol Hill to a near halt.
Topping the lame-duck agenda is dealing with the so-called fiscal cliff, which combines the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts on Dec. 31 and more than $100 billion in indiscriminate, across-the-board spending cuts set to strike at the same time as punishment for the failure of last year's deficit "supercommittee" to strike a deal.
Also left in limbo is the farm bill, stalled in the House due to opposition from conservative Republicans who think it doesn't cut farm subsidies and food stamps enough and Democrats who think its food stamp cuts are too harsh.