“The whole idea is to come up with an outline,” said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb.
Such talk has been going on for months, though, and it’s produced no tangible results. Last year, it took a summer’s worth of higher-level negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders before a last-minute agreement was reached to raise the nation’s debt limit and cut spending.
The turmoil was a major factor in pushing financial rating agencies to lower the nation’s credit rating below AAA in August 2011 for the first time in 70 years.
“The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective and less predictable than what we previously believed,” the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s explained.
Prospects for a new agreement have been elusive, and no one is going home optimistic.
“If you kick the can down the road you continue to further uncertainty, and inconsistency, and a lack of predictability. That’s what this Congress has done, because it’s refused to deal with issues,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.
It’s not just the major battles. This Congress also struggled to pass what’s usually routine legislation.
Fights stalled action on highway legislation, extending domestic violence laws, providing disaster aid and keeping interest rates low on student loans.
The lengthy summer recess didn’t cool passions; if anything, it inflamed them. No new 12-month budget would be considered. Instead, lawmakers were eyeing a six-month stopgap that funds the government through early next year.
The farm bill got stuck because of disagreements over how to reduce spending on food stamps. The Senate adopted, in a bipartisan vote, a plan to cut billions from farm and food programs over the next decade. House Republicans wanted further reductions, however.
Perhaps the most obvious victims of this war have been post offices. The 112th Congress has approved renaming more than 25 post offices so far but has failed to agree on an overhaul measure to rescue the financially strapped Postal Service.
The agency reported losing $57 million a day in the last quarter, and it defaulted last month for the first time on health benefits payments for future retirees. It’s set to miss a second payment of $5.6 million at the end of this month.
The Postal Service has been pressing Congress to allow it to do away with Saturday delivery and reduce its annual health payments. The Senate passed its version of a Postal Service bill in April, but the House has failed to act.
Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe recently may have inadvertently summed up not only the plight of the post offices, but also the entire Congress.
“This is no way to run any kind of business,” he said.