MEDIA GENERAL NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON - Congress, departing for its summer recess, left behind few achievements and a backlog of business to accomplish this fall amid election rancor, political analysts said.
"Even a deal on a tax cut is proving elusive," said Stan Collender, an independent federal budget analyst with Financial Dynamics. "If in an election year Congress is having trouble passing a tax cut, what else do you need to know?"
Presidential election years are a notoriously difficult time for Congress to conduct business, and with the House and Senate so closely divided between Republicans and Democrats, that difficulty increases.
In addition, analysts say, disputes are growing within the Republican majority between those members who believe tax cuts are of paramount importance and those who believe balancing the budget is more important.
And Democrats are rebelling against what they see as strong-arm Republican tactics.
"Inaction and disarray are the orders of the day," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. "Some of it is the dynamic of having a closely divided Congress. But they [Republicans] have sown the seeds of their own troubles."
In the Senate, Republicans could not win a vote to end debate on a bill to reform class-action lawsuits, a top priority of the business community, even though 62 senators support the legislation.
Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee pushed a White House-backed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage to a Senate vote this month, but he could not get a majority of senators - including six Republicans - to vote for it, much less the two-thirds vote needed for passage.
Congress has yet to pass a budget resolution, which by law is supposed to be done by April 15, although it rarely happens that early. The budget resolution sets the framework for how money will be appropriated.
Only one of 13 appropriations bills has been completed.
A transportation bill has stalled in a dispute between Republican congressional leaders and the White House. An energy bill, one of the administration's top priorities, is tied up in conference committee with a bipartisan majority of senators now opposed to it.
"The normal process of developing consensus hasn't existed," Collender said. "There have been very few hearings, not much floor debate."
The Republican leadership in the House is pushing bills through without Democratic input, he said, but the legislation dies in the Senate, where the rules give Democrats the power to block legislation.
When Congress comes back Sept. 7, it will have only a few weeks before members go home to campaign. Already some legislators are talking about passing a temporary spending resolution to keep the government operating through the election and then returning for a lame-duck session in November.
Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, in a news conference, condemned the last eight months' work as "a do-nothing Republican Congress."
"All of these [bills] have been held hostage for months by Republican infighting and their own divisions with little regard for what is at stake for the American people," he said. "Republicans have managed to work the least amount of days of any Congress in the last 48 years. Not only are we not doing anything, we are not even working at doing things."
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, dismissed Democratic complaints.
"You take all the things we have done in the last 10 years, and most importantly in this Congress, and you will find we have pushed the envelope," DeLay said in an interview. "We have been the leaders in this country in all kinds of policy changes from tax relief to regulatory relief. We have completely redesigned the Medicare system.
"We have an agenda, and they [Democrats] have no agenda," he said. "Their only agenda is to hold press conferences calling us the do-nothing Congress."
Disputes within the Republican Party have been exaggerated, he said.
"It's called a family conversation," he said. "We're trying to grow the vote and come to a consensus on where we should be headed. We've been doing that for 10 years."
Ornstein said Republicans had counted on passage of the Medicare prescription drug plan last year to be their crowning achievement of this Congress. This year, he said, they had planned to sit on their laurels and tweak the budget.
"But it hasn't worked out that way," he said. "Even though there has been a tangible benefit for a lot of senior citizens, you don't have a lot of people saying, 'Thank you, Congress.'"