WASHINGTON -- Congress headed home this weekend for a nine-day break, leaving behind much of the trouble it was elected to help ease.
Remember the federal budget conflict? It remains as messy as ever, as lawmakers aren’t even formally negotiating a compromise.
The automatic spending cuts known as the sequester? Lots of talk about the problems they cause, but this week the only relief went to the air traffic system, just as Congress headed home — many members by way of the nation’s airports.
Gun control? Forget it, for now. Immigration? See you in May.
Congress had just returned to work April 8 after a 16-day recess for Easter and Passover. It stayed in session for about three weeks, then left again Friday for a spring recess that’s scheduled to last until May 6.
The reasons for the latest exodus: Keep in touch with the folks back home, and allow lawmakers time to think about priorities and strategy.
This past month had promised to be more productive, or at least more collegial. President Barack Obama has been hosting dinners with Republican lawmakers, and he offered a detailed federal budget plan. Senate Democrats and House of Representatives Republicans had already passed theirs.
The next step is for top negotiators from the two parties to sit down and figure out a common budget outline. That would become the blueprint for more specific spending and revenue decisions, and it would guide Congress as it prepares a budget for fiscal year 2014, which begins Oct. 1.
While some high-level talks proceed, Republicans won’t appoint negotiators. Such delays are not uncommon, but this year is different. Three budgets are on the table, and the public is intensely interested.
Still, said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., there’s no point in Republicans naming negotiators, known as conferees. “Democrats have drawn a line,” he said. “They won’t give on tax increases.”
Obama and Senate Democrats have proposed raising nearly $1 trillion in revenue over the next decade.
Republicans offer another argument for their position. If budget negotiators meet and can’t agree, House Democrats might try to get the entire House to vote on instructions relating to the budget. Such votes could embarrass Republicans. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called such votes "politically motivated bombs."
Democrats maintain that Republicans have been too insistent on imposing painful spending cuts.
We’re flexible, Democrats say, and we aren’t eager to play partisan politics. What’s wrong, asked House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., with voting on the future of Social Security or Medicare, or more investments in infrastructure?
“They will have to vote on issues we think the American people are overwhelmingly for and that Republicans would be inclined to vote against,” Hoyer said. “That is not a good place for them to be, but that is democracy.”
That is gridlock. "It’s pretty unusual when you have both houses passing a budget and then not having” a formal negotiation, said veteran budget analyst Stan Collender of Qorvis Communications.
Some progress might be made soon. Talks between top congressional and Obama administration officials on raising the national debt limit are expected later this spring and summer, and a spending and tax plan might very well be part of an agreement.