The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - Mired in Congress' budget war with President Clinton, the Senate began sending its members home yesterday for the impending elections and planned a lame-duck mid-November session to complete its work.
After initially saying they would follow suit, House Republicans decided instead to stay in town at least until Friday. Six days before the election, they were leery of Democratic accusations that Congress was quitting and leaving the job undone.
"We want to keep ourselves from falling into a trap," Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, said.
Senators began streaming to the airport after voting by voice to keep federal agencies open through Nov. 14, when lawmakers would reconvene. House GOP leaders had said they would approve the same measure by today, and Democrats said Clinton would sign the bill.
But after a private meeting, House Republicans emerged with a different strategy - stay in session at least until tomorrow and continue passing daily measures to keep federal agencies open a day at a time.
"We are not going to be bum-rushed out of town and have a bad deal," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Rep. Marty Martinez, a former Democrat, spoke up at the closed-door meeting to warn that Democrats were intent on setting a political trap for the GOP, said a Republican on condition of anonymity. The lawmaker quoted Martinez as saying, "I know how they think."
Just Tuesday, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said Congress should take a break because "the political atmosphere has been poisoned."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., also advocated the idea, saying yesterday, "I think this is the right thing to do."
The House's decision means the Senate will have to approve daylong stopgap spending bills as well. The Senate can do that if it chooses by voice vote with just one senator in the chamber.
Unclear was whether the House's decision meant serious budget negotiations would continue.
There has been little if any progress since Monday, when Republican leaders rejected a compromise on a giant $350 billion education, labor and health bill that had been accepted by their negotiators. Clinton retaliated that evening, vetoing a bill to finance Congress' operations, which permitted a $3,800 pay raise for lawmakers.
"It might be a good idea to let people cool off a little bit," Hastert told reporters earlier. "We have an election to solve a lot of these problems."
The decision to leave had come none too soon for many exasperated lawmakers pinned down in the Capitol for a budget stalemate to which voters have paid scant attention. At Clinton's insistence, Congress has had to vote daily since Oct. 24 on daylong stopgap bills to avoid closing federal agencies, while accomplishing little else legislatively.
Their eyes on next Tuesday's election, however, each party - particularly in the House - felt it was being helped politically by the standoff. Republicans avoided concessions to Clinton that would anger their core supporters, and Democrats felt it made the GOP appear to be ignoring key issues like education and health care.
"Frustration. It seems like we're going in circles," said Sen. John Breaux, D-La., describing the mood of his colleagues. "Politics has overtaken common sense."
Both parties blamed each other for Congress' plan to leave with disputes still unresolved over immigration, worker safety, taxes and Medicare - and with six of the 13 annual spending bills for the month-old fiscal 2001 still unsigned.
"What this is is an institutional confession of incompetence," Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., one of his party's budget bargainers, told a reporter. "It's a disgraceful abdication."
Republicans said negotiations stalled because the White House stopped sending negotiators to Capitol Hill. And House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said Democratic attacks would have no impact on the voters.
"We understand about demagoguery, and we know it will pop up here," Armey said. "But the fact is they've tried everything under the sun here, and it hasn't done much good."
The lame-duck session would be Congress' ninth in the last half-century. The last was just two years ago, when the House met for one day to vote the impeachment of Clinton.
Lott said he hoped a lame-duck session would consider only unfinished spending bills, a tax-cut package and bankruptcy legislation. Hastert said he also envisioned a limited agenda.
"I'd like to see three days and out," Hastert said.
But such sessions can take an unpredictable shape, with defeated lawmakers taking final stabs at winning legislative items and the possibility of different parties controlling the White House and Congress in January.
"Nobody will have to answer for their actions," Obey said. "It's garbage time. An unleashed Congress is a dangerous thing. About anything is possible, including self-immolation."