Two weeks from the end of its two-year term, the 101st Congress has little to brag about and much to do.
The preoccupation with getting a budget has backed up other important legislation on subjects ranging from clean air and housing to civil rights and child care.With anti-incumbent sentiment running high across the country, no member of Congress wants to face voters having done little more than approve job protection rights for the disabled, an inadequate savings and loan bailout and a congressional pay raise.
"It's been a thin session so far, there's no question about it," said Thomas Mann, who studies Congress for the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
Before they can go home for an abbreviated campaign season, lawmakers still must pass the nuts and bolts: taxes and spending cuts to enact the vague guidelines they have agreed to in the budget; and the 13 annual spending bills needed to run the government through next Sept. 30.
That won't be easy. The bill implementing the budget agreement will have to include $135 billion or more in new taxes, possibly including levies on gasoline, alcoholic beverages and cigarettes, and about $40 billion in Medicare savings including higher deductibles for beneficiaries.
"If the budget deal is genuine, that overwhelms everything else and becomes the major piece of legislation by which the Congress is remembered," said Mann. "They will have tackled the biggest problem that has haunted government for a decade."
On top of those must-do bills, leaders in both houses have a pared-down list of other items they want badly to complete.
Topping the list is a compromise Clean Air Act, the first rewrite since 1977 of the law setting air-quality standards. The House and Senate have passed significantly different versions, and negotiators have struggled since July to reconcile them, with little success.
The bill would impose broad new air pollution control requirements on factories, power plants and automobiles to ease acid rain and urban smog, and for the first time require broad industrial controls on toxic chemical releases.
Estimates are that it would cost as much as $25 billion a year to comply with the tougher regulations.
Another top priority is legislation providing federal child care assistance, including money to low-income families through tax credits. The House and Senate have passed differing versions.