WASHINGTON -- Congress sophisticated message machines roar into action this weekend, as lawmakers head home eager to mobilize constituents and gain momentum for budget and immigration battles to come.
Chances are, their efforts will sputter.
Republicans are split over how to tackle federal spending. Democrats stand more unified on economic issues, but they have other troubles. Senators from swing states face difficult re-election challenges next year, making it risky for them to follow party orthodoxy on a host of controversial topics, led by gun control and health care. At the same time, ordinary Americans, regardless of their political leanings, often feel no sense of urgency or think their voices even matter.
Polls consistently find that big majorities disapprove of the job Congress is doing, and that no single compelling issue figures to dominate political dialogue. Most subjects have a familiar hue: Another government shutdown over the budget? Another battle over the debt ceiling? Impasses over health care, guns and immigration?
Theres not going to be one big anvil hanging over the heads of members of Congress when they come back, said Brad Coker, the managing director at Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which surveys voters in several states.
Congressional leaders, as well as interest groups, still see value in trying to organize and prod constituents. Still fresh are not-long-ago days when the August recess, which this year began Friday and is scheduled to run through Sept. 9, made a difference. In 2009, for instance, anger over the Democrats health care initiative exploded at town hall meetings, solidifying Republican opposition that remains strong to this day.
Today, lawmakers get fewer surprises when they return home. Social media give constituents the ability to make their views known instantly, even constantly, and have allowed special interest groups to mount campaigns within hours, all of which makes a shocking eruption over a single issue unlikely.
But if it does happen, immigration has the potential to create that kind of summer heat. Theres a clear split between those who insist on secure borders while being wary of a path to citizenship and those who see the two proceeding almost simultaneously.
The Senate passed the comprehensive approach in June, but leaders in the House of Representatives are pursuing a piecemeal approach that features border security first. They remain reluctant to back any path to citizenship for most of the nations 11 million immigrants who are here illegally.
Both sides have plotted an active August, full of protests and participation in town hall meetings. But theres a big difference between immigration this year and health care four years ago.
In 2009, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, so the opposition was more motivated to make itself heard through grass-roots efforts. This year, Republicans control the House, and they hardly need reminders to slow the push for overhauling the immigration system.
The feeling in 2009 was that there was this gigantic train moving down the tracks. There was a sense of urgency and magnitude, said Roy Beck, the founder of NumbersUSA, an immigration reduction organization. I dont think that feeling is there now on immigration.
That leaves concern over federal spending as the summers other big topic. Congress left with lawmakers sniping at each other over a fiscal 2014 budget. If they dont act before the year begins Oct. 1, most government services would shut down.