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Congressional Leaders Take Parting Shots Before Departing for Campaign Trail

September 30, 2010 at 5:01 PM EDT
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As members of Congress adjourned late Wednesday for seven weeks to campaign for midterm elections, Republicans and some Democrats were at odds on whether to vote for a tax-cut extension. Kwame Holman looks at the last-minute scramble on Capitol Hill.
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JEFFREY BROWN: They haven’t finished their work for the year, but members of Congress adjourned overnight to return to their districts with 33 days to go before the midterm elections. NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: In the House, Democratic leaders struggled just to pass the motion to adjourn and head home to campaign.

MAN: On this vote, the yeas are 210, the nays are 209.

KWAME HOLMAN: Thirty-nine Democrats joined House Republicans to oppose adjournment. They wanted to stay until Congress extends the Bush-era tax cuts that expire in December. But that appeal fell short in the House and the Senate, where Republicans said it was a telling failure.

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R-Tenn.): The Democratic Congress is going home this week with more concern about their jobs than the jobs of 10 percent of the American people who don’t have jobs, with more concern about Election Day than about New Year’s Day, when we will have one of the biggest tax hikes in American history.

KWAME HOLMAN: On the other hand, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, locked in a tough reelection fight, argued, going home was in everyone’s best interests.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-Nev.), Majority Leader: 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.

KWAME HOLMAN: Before scattering, House members and senators did pass a temporary spending bill to fund government operations for the next two months. That left unfinished 10 of 12 annual appropriations bills, legislation that will be reengaged in a lame-duck session after the election.

And possible House ethics trials for Representatives Charles Rangel and Maxine Waters also will wait until November. In the meantime, many embattled Democrats will face voters frustrated about the bad economy and angry over government deficits. And they will have to work to defend votes for President Obama’s economic stimulus and the new health care law, both unpopular with some voters.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), Speaker of the House: Mr. Hoyer.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Democratic leaders, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, insist, those measures were signal accomplishments. He said today it’s the most productive Congress he’s known.

REP. STENY HOYER (D-MD), Majority Leader: The Republican strategy has been and continues to this day to create gridlock and failure. That has been their objective in the House and in the Senate.

What was the result? They failed. But they gave the impression to the American people that we couldn’t work together, because that was their political strategy.

KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, House Minority Leader John Boehner laid out a Republican view. He spoke at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), House Minority Leader: The House finds itself in a state of emergency. The institution doesn’t function, doesn’t deliberate, and seems incapable of acting on the will of the American people.

Now, from the floor of the House to the committee level, the integrity of the House has been compromised. The battle of ideas, the very lifeblood of the House, is virtually nonexistent. Leaders overreach because the rules allow them to. Legislators duck their responsibilities because the rules help them to.

And when the rules don’t suit the majority’s purposes, they are just ignored. There’s no accountability. There are no consequences. Whether we here in Washington believe it or not, the American people clearly do.

KWAME HOLMAN: To improve accountability, Boehner called for a radical change in the way Congress handles its bread and butter: appropriations.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Most spending bills come to the floor prepackaged in a manner that makes it as easy as possible to advance government spending program and their agenda, and as difficult as possible to make spending cuts. Again, it’s not a new problem.

And if we’re serious about confronting the challenges that lie ahead for our nation, I think the current structure is inadequate. Today, I would like to suggest a new approach. Let’s do away with the idea of comprehensive spending bills. Let’s break them up.

It would encourage scrutiny and make spending cuts easier. Rather than pairing agencies and departments together, let them come to the floor individually to be judged on their own merit.

KWAME HOLMAN: Boehner also called for cutting or ending an existing program any time Congress creates a new one. Republicans will have the chance to try that approach if they win the House in November.