Congressional Democrats return to Washington this week with just three or four weeks to try to change the narrative that's driving this election season, but they acknowledge that the gridlock they left behind in August is all but certain to re-emerge.
Both Democrats and Republicans concede a surging GOP has no incentive to cooperate with the majority, particularly in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to pass almost everything.
Given time constraints and election-year pressures, "Our ability to do anything major is going to be limited," Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said last week.
Plus, a general sense of panic has begun to overtake Democrats as they contemplate the very real possibility that Republicans will win control of the House and perhaps, although less likely, the Senate. That has made Members skittish about taking on any controversial or time-consuming agenda items.
"There are a lot of ideas out there but few have the 60 votes to get out of the Senate," one senior Senate Democratic aide said. "The die is cast. We've done everything we can. We just have to see what happens in November."
Because of that, both House and Senate Democratic aides said last week that leaders might cut the work period from four weeks to three to give vulnerable Members time to campaign. Already Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln has put leaders on notice that she will be spending little time in D.C. during September. Lincoln, who trails GOP Rep. John Boozman by as much as 30 points in some polls, would come back for key votes, aides said.
"It sort of depends on are we really going to be able to get anything done?" another Senate aide said. "If the assumption is no, then why should we be here so long?"
Still, Senate Democrats have identified three priorities — a small-business lending measure, a bill dealing with an extension of Bush-era tax cuts, and a stopgap spending bill to keep the government functioning — for the period scheduled to end Oct. 8.
Though they have yet to craft a coherent floor strategy, Senate Democrats plan to stage a showdown with Republicans over the expiring Bush-era tax cuts sometime this month. A recent Gallup poll showed that 44 percent of Americans support President Barack Obama's plan — which most House and Senate Democrats also embrace — to extend the tax cuts for those making less than $200,000 and couples earning less than $250,000. Another 15 percent want all of the tax cuts to expire.
But Obama's proposal is likely to end in a Senate filibuster. A handful of Democrats, as well as Democratic challengers in open-seat races, have said they would rather extend all the tax cuts until the economy recovers. Likewise, Republicans want to extend all the tax cuts.
Though it's likely Democrats will have to wait until after the election to actually pass an extension of the tax cuts, many Democrats are agitating for the fight to begin now. Those Democrats are hoping their strategy of accusing Republicans of blocking middle-class tax cuts could prevent a possible GOP landslide in November.
Obama previewed that message Friday, telling reporters, "What I've got is the Republicans holding middle-class tax relief hostage because they're insisting we've got to give tax relief to millionaires and billionaires to the tune of about $100,000 per millionaire, which would cost over the course of 10 years, $700 billion."
Another senior Senate Democratic aide said that Democrats are still holding out the possibility that "a couple of Republicans say, I really don't want to vote against middle-class tax cuts.'"
But Republicans are not taking the bait so far; they feel confident that Obama and Hill Democrats will regret trying to raise taxes on anyone during an economic downturn.
Plus, Republicans said Democrats don't appear serious about the issue, given they have yet to produce a bill.
"This is something that if they wanted to get it done, they should have introduced it last spring," said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and former leadership aide in the House and Senate. "This kind of lift takes months to get done."
But House Democrats are optimistic enough about their party's strategy that they are thinking of taking up the issue themselves.
Though House Democratic aides said they plan to run with Obama's middle-class tax cut plan while hitting Republicans for a "budget-busting plan for the wealthiest few," they could have a hard time persuading their endangered Members to vote against a Republican attempt to also include the tax cuts for the wealthy.
The one win Democrats could score over the next few weeks could come from the small-business bill. Sen. George Voinovich (Ohio) recently told the Washington Post he is willing to break the GOP filibuster of the bill this week, and other Republicans are likely to join him as well, sources in both parties said.
But Senate Democrats have largely given up on or put on the back burner their hopes of tackling a food safety measure, the annual appropriations bills, and a Defense Department authorization bill, which includes a repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy banning openly gay service members.
Meanwhile, the House will likely take up an assortment of minor bills while Members wait for the Senate to act. The House schedule could include legislation related to their "Make It In America" jobs agenda, a child nutrition bill, a measure eliminating a tax-reporting requirement for small businesses and a vote to provide health care to 9/11 responders.
One senior House aide also complained that Democrats' accomplishments are not getting the attention they deserve.
"Jesus, we've been the most productive Congress in history and we still get no credit."
But Republicans, sensing a wave of political momentum on their side, are not inclined to change their game plan.
"We're focused on acting now, in a bipartisan way, on the new proposals House Republicans offered this week to cut government spending and stop Washington Democrats' tax hike on American families and small businesses," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Jessica Brady contributed to this report.