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Congress Returns to Gridlock

Partisanship Will Keep Members From Accomplishing Much in September

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.

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