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Congress Takes A Break With Looming To-Do List


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg in for Scott Simon. Congress wrapped up its summer session this week and members headed back to their home district. But with public approval ratings of Congress wallowing in the teens and constant headlines about gridlock, a lot of people might be wondering what exactly did the Congress accomplish anyway? For some answers about congressional actions and what is still unfinished, we are joined by NPR's David Welna. Hiya, David.


STAMBERG: The departure of the Congress means that driving will be a whole lot easier here in our hometown in Washington. But otherwise, any other good news? Do these lawmakers have anything to show for these last weeks?

WELNA: The good news might be that they're not going to be back until the middle of September. But I think it's a pretty safe bet in the meantime that we'll hear House Republicans touting their vote this week to extend for another year all of the Bush-era tax cuts, which expire at the end of this year. Of course, that's a non-starter with Democrats, who last week in the Senate voted to extend all those tax breaks, except for the ones benefiting the wealthiest 2 percent. Both those votes were time for lawmakers from both parties to campaign on during the break. So, we're likely to hear a lot more the kind of rhetoric we heard from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as the House disbanded on Thursday.

REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI: The only thing the Republicans have done is to increase the uncertainty that threatens another debt crisis and undermines our economic growth.

WELNA: Now, congressional leaders should get some credit at least for removing some uncertainty this week by agreeing to a six-month stop-gap spending bill because that heads off any possible government shutdown before the election. And this is also the week when student loan rates would have doubled had Congress not slapped a fix for that onto a two-year $100 billion transportation bill, which may in fact be the only real jobs bill that you'll see coming out of this Congress.

STAMBERG: And what did they not finish before they left town?

WELNA: Well, their most glaring failure was not passing any disaster relief for livestock producers who have been hit hard by the national drought. It's all part of a larger failure to pass a five-year farm bill that's been stalled in the House over a dispute on funding for the food stamp program. And on the Senate's last day in session this week, Republicans, at the behest of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, blocked a big bipartisan cybersecurity bill. And a reauthorization of the Violence against Women Act has also stalled in the House. And not surprisingly, this has become a campaign talking point for Democrats.

STAMBERG: Here's this notoriously convivial Congress. How can they possibly wrap it all up when they get back?

WELNA: Well, they won't, probably because they're only going to be in session for about a dozen legislative days before closing down to campaign full-time in October. But another reason I don't expect much to get done is that there are very few Republicans inclined to do anything that Democrats might claim as an accomplishment going into the election. One House Republican who has been willing to find some common ground with Democrats is Ohio's Steve LaTourette. And he announced this week that he's fed up with all the intransigence and he won't seek re-election after 18 years in Congress. And LaTourette's a close friend of House Speaker John Boehner, who a couple of days ago attributed the refusal to bend on Capitol Hill to a larger trend.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: The American people are probably more polarized now than any time since I've been here. And as a result, we see that polarization reflected here in the halls of Congress.

STAMBERG: So, David, he's blaming it on the public, eh?

WELNA: He is, but, of course, I think a lot of the blame goes to Congress too, because both sides are betting that the elections will put them in a much better position to sort out what's really quite a mess here. And Republicans especially are hoping they'll have a stronger hand to play by winning back the White House and taking control of the Senate. We'll find out in November.

STAMBERG: NPR's David Welna, speaking with us from Capitol Hill. Thank you so much, David.

WELNA: You're welcome, Susan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.