The House and Senate voted late Wednesday and early Thursday morning to adjourn until after the November elections, funding the government through Dec. 3 and leaving work on all 12 annual appropriations bills and a vote on the expiring Bush tax cuts until the chambers return for a lame duck session after Nov. 2.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made it clear Wednesday afternoon that leaving town was the top priority for leaders, both Democrat and Republican. "We both have the same goal in mind, and that is to get out of here," Reid said of an agreement he had reached with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "We may not agree on much, but I think, with rare exception, all 100 senators want to get out of here and get back to their states."
Although endangered incumbents were eager to leave Washington to concentrate on campaigning in their home districts, members of both parties left town frustrated that Democratic leaders had not held a vote on the Bush tax cuts before adjourning.
"I would have preferred to have the Bush tax cuts extended for everyone before we left," Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) told Politics Daily. "But the Democratic leadership evaluated that and made the decision not to bring them up. My preference would have been to get them done and passed as quickly as possible so that there is more certainty and clarity for businesses."
Behind the Democrats' decision not to vote on the expiring tax cuts was a growing intra-party feud over how to proceed, with President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling for an end to tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, while moderates pushed to extend the cuts for every income level, even temporarily.
In a display of just how much disagreement Democrats had within their own caucus, 39 House Democrats joined the House Republicans late Wednesday in an effort to force Congress to vote on the cuts before leaving town. Democrats won 210 to 209, but only after Pelosi took the unusual step of voting to break a tie.
Before the vote, Republican Minority Leader John Boehner blasted Democrats for leaving the issue on the table.
"The idea that we are going to leave here without extending these tax cuts and end the uncertainty is an irresponsibility on behalf of this Congress," Boehner said in a speech on the House floor. "How any member can vote to adjourn and punt this into a lame duck session, I think is putting your election above the needs of your constituents."
But House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer insisted that the Democrats are not divided in their commitment to cutting taxes and will hold a vote before they expire in January. "Democrats are united that there should be no tax increases on the first $200,000 of every American's income. Period," he told reporters. "That will be done before the end of the year."
In addition to the question of taxes, Democrats and Republicans traded blame before adjourning over who is responsible for none of the 12 appropriations bills being passed this year, despite the fact that the current spending bills expire on Friday.
"We have no business packing up and going home," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Wednesday. "We should stay here in session and consider each appropriations bill in order."
But Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said that his committee had sent all of the bills to the full Senate for consideration months ago, some as early as June, and suggested that Republicans had delayed action on them. "The bills are all at the desk, but somebody held them up," Inouye said. "I can assure you none of us held it up."
No matter who is to blame for the impasse, nearly all senators agreed Wednesday that something needs to change in the way federal spending is handled by Congress, which has for years failed to pass spending bills before their expiration dates.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told Politics Daily that the entire budgeting process needs to be reformed, and said this year is a perfect example as to why. "I think it's terrible," he said. "Here you've got an economy that is trying to struggle its way through this downturn and all Congress is doing is creating more uncertainty."