WASHINGTON - Fresh off a five-week vacation, lawmakers return to Washington today for a truncated pre-election session in which Congress will do what it often does best: punt problems to the future.
They face a slew of deadlines and the prospect of a debilitating "fiscal cliff" in January, yet are expected to take a pass on the big issues of taxes and spending cuts. Their focus seems to be on the bare minimum, preventing a government shutdown when the budget year ends Sept. 30.
Democrats controlling the Senate and their House GOP rivals also will also try to set up votes intended to score political points or paint the other side with an unflattering brush two months before the election.
Topping the agenda of substantive business is a six-month temporary spending bill to finance the government's day-to-day operations. The annual appropriations process on Capitol Hill collapsed about midway through the campaign season. The stopgap measure would give the next Congress time to fashion a full-year plan.
More challenging is what to do with one of the most significant pieces of leftover business, a five-year farm bill. It would overhaul crop safety net programs while funding the food stamp program that now provides assistance to more than 46 million people.
The current farm act expires at the end of September. It now appears that Congress will at most opt for a temporary extension of the old bill, including drought aid for livestock producers whose assistance programs expired last year.
But it's not certain lawmakers will do even that.
Many GOP conservatives want deeper cuts to food stamps than Democrats will go for. Democratic votes are needed to pass the measure.