Gridlocked Congress already eying early getaway

WASHINGTON (AP) — Efforts in Congress to provide emergency drought aid to hard-hit farmers and overhaul crop subsidy programs appear to be falling victim to Washington gridlock.

Talk of action now to avoid sending the economy over the "fiscal cliff" is just that, talk.

Indeed, lawmakers have only been back in session for a couple of days since returning from their August recess, but on Tuesday were already anticipating a quick exit from Washington to hit the campaign trail — with the only significant accomplishment being a must-pass bill to avoid a government shutdown at the end of the month.

Tuesday at the U.S. Capitol, like so many other days, featured lots of talk but little action.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, started the day off on a sour note by telling reporters after a closed-door morning caucus with the GOP rank and file that he's not confident Congress can reach a budget deal late this year and avoid a downgrading of the U.S. debt rating.

A couple of hours later, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, again threw cold water on GOP hopes of passing a short-term extension of food and farm programs when they expire Sept. 30.

For his part, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was far more hopeful that "some kind of agreement" would be reached to avert the fiscal cliff — a one-two combination of automatic tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts set to strike the economy on Jan. 2.

After the election, though. Not now.

"I'm hopeful we will reach some kind of agreement," Reid said, suggesting that the results of the Nov. 6 elections will weaken the GOP's resolve to block tax increases on wealthier earners and that Republicans will be more willing to compromise.

"I believe that once the elections are over, the tea party's strength will be significantly weakened," Reid added.

Reid's GOP counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, let the cat out of the bag just minutes after Reid's remarks. He said the six-month spending bill, called a continuing resolution in Washington lingo, would be the last order of business until the postelection lame duck session in November.

McConnell told reporters that Reid "has indicated to us that the continuing resolution would be the last item of this work period."

The House is set to pass the continuing resolution on Thursday, which means the Senate would pass the measure next week before making its getaway.

On the food and farm bill impasse, McConnell said: "I don't believe that we ought to let the current farm bill expire if we're unable at this point to pass a replacement." Hope for that is fading however; Congress is instead on track to fund food stamps through the continuing resolution.

With the demise of the annual appropriations process that sets the day-to-day operating budgets for federal agencies, Congress invariably requires a stopgap continuing resolution. But six months is a long time for such measures, which causes problems for agency budget chiefs, who typically are denied authority to start new projects.

The Pentagon, for example, is warning that it may have to delay the overhaul — in the electoral hotbed of Newport News, Virginia — of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier. An administration request for an exception to guarantee work could begin in January was denied by House Republicans, who are frustrated that Senate Democrats have sat on both the annual defense appropriations measure and a companion military policy bill.

Typically such temporary funding bills freeze spending at current levels. But the measure slated for a vote this week actually allows for a 0.6 percent increase to every program, reflecting a slight increase in spending permitted by last summer's hard-fought budget and debt-reduction accord.

Just a handful of high priority programs would be awarded larger increases, including a government cybersecurity initiative, wildfire suppression efforts, a drive to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal and processing of veteran disability claims.

The 2012 budget year ends on Sept. 30. But not one of the 12 annual agency appropriations bills has become law, requiring lawmakers to step in with the stopgap funding measure to avoid a disastrous partial shutdown of the government. Six of the 12 measures have passed the House; none has passed the Senate.

The six-month measure all but guarantees the leftover business of setting agency budgets will be kicked over to the next Congress.

But the matter of the fiscal cliff — the combination of expiring Bush-era tax cuts and more than $100 billion in automatic across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect in January — will demand some kind of action in the lame duck session, if only a brief reprieve to give the next Congress and administration more time to address them.

The automatic cuts are punishment for the inability of last year's deficit reduction "supercommittee" to strike a bargain to cut 10-year deficits by at least $1.2 trillion as promised by last summer's debt and budget pact.

Also on Tuesday, a leading federal judge, Chief Judge David Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, warned that if the automatic cuts were to go into effect, federal civil jury trials across the country probably would grind to a halt.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, a measure to establish a $1 billion Veterans Jobs Corps to relieve high unemployment among servicemen and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan easily passed a procedural hurdle and is likely to pass by week's end.

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