The prolonged fight over the budget has been testing wills between the Democratic Congress and President Bush, playing havoc with funding plans for the federal government and keeping members of Congress away from re-election campaigns at home.
With the budget still in question and several other major issues pending, predictions of adjournment are only guesswork. But if this year's quitting time goes beyond this weekend, it will be the latest in an election year since World War II.Some members predict that they will be in session through Oct. 28, which would leave them only nine days of campaigning until Nov. 6.
However, some members of Congress said they are content to be in Washington, where they can enjoy the advantages of incumbency and not have to worry about debate challenges from opponents eager for a confrontation on local television.
A veteran House Republican from the Midwest described the political mood this way: "I heard a colleague in the House restaurant say he wouldn't have to debate that clown" - his opponent - "next week because he'd be working here on important business."
A top Senate GOP aide agreed, maintaining that "prolonged sessions are an excuse to dodge debates and give the opposition an easy shot."
Rep. J. Joseph Moakley, D-Mass., said it is good politics for members to be on the job. "I can't think of a worse place to be than walking the streets of your district with the budget in disarray," he said.
Incumbents of both parties, enjoying a huge edge in campaign contributions, can compete for local TV coverage while remaining on the job in Washington. Both major parties have subsidized facilities to conduct interviews or tape radio spots for use by hometown stations.
Through the use of satellite dishes, members can offer friendly interviews with their press secretaries to stations back home. Despite the journalistic shortcomings, many news directors run the interviews to pair off against comments issued by a challenger.
Tim Roemer, a Democratic challenger to Rep. John Hiler, R-Ind., complained last week to the Washington Post about the difficulty of running against incumbents. "They have the feeds, they have the money and they have the staff," Roemer said. "It's getting to the point where only millionaires and those with access to money can win."
A recent study by Common Cause showed that of all 405 House members seeking re-election, 382 had either no major opponents or faced one who had raised less than $25,000. Incumbents went into the campaign with more than $177 million, compared with less than $15 million for challengers.
In the last two elections, 98 percent of House incumbents were returned to Congress - in large measure, say the critics, because of the money differences.