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Lawmakers Lay Groundwork for Recess

The House and Senate headed into the August recess with a legislative languor, but both chambers said they can point to some victories they can take back home as they look to position themselves ahead of the November elections.

Though they won’t be able to take a farm bill or disaster assistance home to drought-stricken farmers, several recent legislative deals have given many lawmakers fodder for the constituent town halls and election rallies they’ll undoubtedly be participating in.

Rep. Tom Cole said he was buoyed by the passage of a transportation bill, passage of legislation averting an increase in student loans and reauthorization of the national flood insurance program.

“A long-term transportation bill, that was a big win,” the Oklahoma Republican said. “I’ve got five colleges and universities [in my district], so the student loan win was a big win. I think flood insurance around the country, particularly in rural America; that was a big win. So there were some big things done.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) agreed. She pointed to a provision in the transportation bill, the Restore Act, which would send most of the fines from the 2010 BP oil spill to Gulf Coast states.

“It’s just a tremendous victory for the Gulf Coast,” Landrieu said.

A bipartisan push to get a package of tax extenders through the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday also fed a narrative that the parties could work together. Senators who do not even serve on the panel were touting parts of the bill, such as a wind energy tax credit that won plaudits from Colorado’s two Democratic Senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet.

The news that dominated last week — a bipartisan deal in principle on averting a government shutdown — let both parties leave on a less dysfunctional note, even as they continued to spar over routine legislative matters of a different stripe.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), a moderate who is retiring at the end of the Congress in part over the highly partisan atmosphere, said that nothing has changed on the important issues since last August’s quarrel over raising the debt ceiling, which brought the nation to the brink of default.

“It’s just where we were a year ago,” Snowe said, conveying that the Senate is still in a standoff over deficit reduction despite all the efforts made to break the deadlock.

The Democratic-run Senate’s last significant act was a vote that failed to cut off debate on a bipartisan cybersecurity bill, which faced headwinds from business groups and from Republican efforts to offer non-relevant amendments. But even that didn’t sap the optimism of bill sponsors.

“We believe … that we could fashion a bill in September, which we told the Majority Leader we would be able to do,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), one of several GOP Senators backing an alternative bill.

The Republican-led House’s last significant effort before heading out the door was to pass a drought aid measure, which Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow refused to take up in an effort to keep pressure on House GOP leaders to take up a five-year farm bill.

“We are committed to focusing on a farm bill,” the Michigan Democrat said. “That’s what agriculture wants us to do. They’re not up here arguing for a partial disaster assistance program — that’s not what they’re doing.”

However, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said of both chambers departing for recess on Thursday, “We can’t even act like we are doing anything.”

Nevertheless, both the House and Senate began to lay the groundwork last month for extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, which will be a top campaign issue. The tax cuts are set to expire at the beginning of next year unless Congress acts in a likely post-election, lame-duck session. But Republicans and Democrats remain at odds over whether to extend all or part of the tax rates.

The House passed a measure 256-171 last week that would extend the cuts for all taxpayers for one year to give Congress time to reform the tax code. Nineteen Democrats joined with Republicans voting in favor of the bill.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters Thursday that Republicans have voted to stave off tax increases when current tax rates expire on Jan. 1, arguing that increases in the rates would hurt the already weak economy. Republicans believe that this vote will stand them in good stead on Election Day.

“The House is the only group in town here who’ve taken action to stop the looming tax hikes, which are going to cost over 700,000 American jobs,” Boehner said. “We’re the ones who’ve taken action. Where is the Senate? If we’re serious about helping the American economy, we can’t have these tax hikes going into effect in January.”

Senate Democrats feel they have political cover because they passed their plan two weeks ago. In speeches around the country, President Barack Obama has been working to build support for that plan to keep middle-class taxes low but allow tax hikes on wealthy taxpayers to take effect.

Under the Democratic proposal, the tax cuts would be extended for households making less than $250,000 a year.

“We passed middle-class tax cuts, which is going to pay dividends down the road strategically,” a senior Senate Democratic aide said.

Both parties are also positioning themselves on the $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts over 10 years that are set to hit beginning in January.

Boehner said the House has acted to avert the cuts that would hurt the nation’s ability to protect itself. Of the $1.2 trillion, half would come from security spending, which will force a raft of layoffs from defense contractors.

But Senate Democrats will not take up the measure and instead want to keep the threat of the cuts on the table in an effort to force Republicans to agree to a deficit reduction package that includes tax increases.

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