Updated: 10:02 p.m.
After pushing Democratic leaders for nearly three weeks to stop trying to find the one bill that could reverse the majority's poor election prospects, vulnerable House and Senate Democrats finally got what they wanted: an early ticket home to campaign.
But the party remains as divided as ever on its pre-election strategy, with some Members warning that Democrats will regret not drawing a sharper contrast with Republicans on middle-class tax cuts in particular.
In preparing to leave town Wednesday night, Democratic leaders in both chambers bowed not only to demands that they leave a week and a half earlier than planned but also scrapped contentious votes on extending Bush-era tax cuts to accommodate nervous Members up for re-election.
The primary accomplishment of the post-August-recess work period was a small-business lending bill that the Senate passed two weeks ago and the House passed last week. Except for a vote this week to take up a bill that would keep the government funded through the elections, all other major Senate votes ended in GOP-led filibusters. The Senate on Wednesday evening passed, 69-30, the stopgap spending bill to keep the government running before adjourning until mid-November's lame-duck session.
"I think there's a sense of relief that everyone's going home to work for the next 30 days, because [Washington] is a very frustrating place to be right now with the games that have been played for the last six months," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who isn't up for re-election until 2012.
Republicans looked on in bemusement, prepared to try to capitalize on the Democrats' weakness. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) accused the Democrats on the House floor this week of having lost the will to govern, failing to pass a budget and leaving without addressing tax cuts.
And when House Democrats barely mustered a 210-209 vote to adjourn, Republicans charged that every Democrat who voted to get out of town was effectively voting for a tax hike.
House Republican Study Committee Chairman Tom Price (Ga.) said adjourning without extending the tax cuts "shows an appalling failure of leadership on the part of House Democrats, particularly at a time when millions of our fellow Americans are struggling to find a job."
Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) agreed that Democrats rushing to head home have little on which to campaign.
[IMGCAP(1)]"What they have to say when they go home is this message: We didn't pass a budget. We didn't accept the Republican suggestion for $300 billion in appropriation spending limits. We didn't put a freeze on tax hikes, which are automatically coming on the first day of next year," Alexander said. "There's 10 percent unemployment. There's an unpopular health care bill, which we'd rather not talk about. We've given you, they would say, too much spending, too much taxes, too much debt, too many Washington takeovers, and over the next 10 years, the budget's going to double and then triple. That's the message that the Democratic Congress is taking home."
In the Senate, a small number of incumbents helped force the decision on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who initially resisted an early exit but, as a vulnerable incumbent himself, was not as hard to convince. The Nevada Democrat announced late last week that the Senate would postpone action on tax cuts. Democratic sources said the most vocal opponent of voting on the issue was Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who was backed up by Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Michael Bennet (Colo.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.), among others. All but Wyden are in danger of losing their seats on Nov. 2.
Other incumbent Democrats such as Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.) and Russ Feingold (Wis.) favored holding a vote on Bush tax cuts now in order to make the case that Republicans were blocking an extension for the middle class.
They wanted to vote on President Barack Obama's plan to extend tax cuts for on the first $250,000 of a couple's income, rather than include earners from upper brackets.
Despite what Democratic sources said was a desire to postpone the vote on the tax cuts, Bennet and Lincoln on Wednesday night voted against adjourning, presumably in protest of the Senate's inaction on Bush tax cuts.
In a statement, Bennet said he wanted to vote on his specific compromise to extend all Bush tax cuts for a year. Lincoln's position was not immediately available.
Though she voted to adjourn, Boxer had insisted that any vote on the Bush tax cuts include an extension of breaks for those making up to $1 million. Sources said when those options were shot down by others in the caucus, Boxer, Bennet and others argued to have no vote at all.
One senior Senate Democratic aide said a few vulnerable Members were allowed to basically shape the agenda this month because their jobs are in peril.
"They know what they need to do, what legislation will resonate and what legislation will backfire going into the election," the aide said.
The aide added that more time at home has shown results before. In August, for example, Democrats began to close the large gap in generic Congressional party matchup polls "because we were home and talking to voters. We're viewed more negatively when we're in Washington than when we were at home."
But Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who co-authored a letter calling for a middle-class tax cut vote this week, said he was disappointed House leaders did not listen to his advice.
"I don't think it's smart politics or smart fiscal policy," Grijalva said. "The smart politics is for the middle class to know that we're there for them ... and the fiscal policy is that we have an opportunity to show that we're serious about the deficit too."
Like their Senate counterparts, House Democrats wrestled with the issue for weeks, with dueling letters advocating tax cuts for the middle class, for investors or for everybody, while Republicans attacked from the sidelines. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pushed for a vote behind the scenes, noting the support that Democrats' position had from the public, according to the polls, and its potential to reinvigorate the party base heading into the midterms. But many moderates and vulnerable Members wanted to either extend all the tax cuts or put off the issue, and their calls grew even louder once the Senate decided to postpone a vote on it last week.
Members — particularly liberals — pushing for action were frustrated at the party's inability to hold a simple vote to extend middle-class tax cuts.
"It's really ridiculous," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), co-chairwoman of the CPC.
"We should do a suspension bill," Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said. "And then we really smoke them out. Who's with us and who's against us? Stand up for what you believe or get the hell out of the church!"
Sen. Bob Casey, however, said he had a change of heart about voting on tax cuts after listening to his colleagues last week.
"When I was walking in [the meeting] last week, I was in favor of having it, but in listening to our caucus, I was persuaded that it's better to delay it," the Pennsylvania Democrat said Tuesday. "One of the reasons was ... more time to debate it. ... And second, we will be able to have a vote like that that has enormous consequences for the country both in terms of the budget and long-term deficits and debt, but you can do that in an environment free of the pressure and the intensity of an election. And that's better for everyone."
Still, Democratic leaders were clearly worried about leaving such a big issue unresolved. Pelosi on Wednesday renewed her pledge that the House would extend the middle-class tax cuts before year's end and said she hoped the House could complete a post-election lame-duck session — tentatively slated to begin Nov. 15 — before the continuing resolution expires.
"Our CR goes to Dec. 3," Pelosi told reporters. "It would be my hope that we would be finished with our work by then."
Kathleen Hunter contributed to this report.