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Originally published September 20, 2012 at 10:05 PM | Page modified September 21, 2012 at 6:26 AM

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Unloved, unproductive Congress heads home to campaign

Congress is leaving Capitol Hill without agreements on virtually every big issue it deals with: taxes, defense, spending, farms, even post-office policy.

The day in D.C.

Visa bill: The House rejected a bill that would have granted up to 55,000 visas to foreign nationals who have earned advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math. The bill would also have eliminated the lottery diversity program that awards 55,000 permanent residency visas annually to random lottery winners.

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WASHINGTON — Congress' expected departure for the campaign trail was held up Thursday by the political fortunes of two senators battling for survival, Scott Brown, R-Mass., and Jon Tester, D-Mont.

The Capitol Hill exits were barred by four pieces of legislation entangled in a Senate fight: a stopgap spending bill to keep the government financed through March; a measure by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to cut off aid to Pakistan, Egypt and Libya; a companion bill to further isolate Iran, and finally, a Tester hunting bill that Democrats hope will further his re-election bid.

All of those bills could conceivably have come up for a vote Thursday evening, but for Brown's scheduled debate in Boston with his Democratic Senate opponent, Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law School professor. Brown had suggested to The Boston Globe that he might have to miss the debate to stay in Washington to vote. The debate was coming at a potentially crucial time in the race since recent polls had shown Warren overtaking Brown.

"Bottom line is, the people have sent me down here to do my job — and that's to vote," the senator told The Globe.

The possibility of Brown using Senate business as a rationale for missing the debate sent Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, to the floor to call off any deal on a final series of votes, at least for the night.

"I've been to a few of these rodeos," said Reid, D-Nev. "It is obvious there is a big stall taking place. One of the senators who had a debate tonight doesn't want to debate. Well, he can't use the Senate as an excuse. There will be no more votes today."

Brown quickly headed for the airport.

When it does leave, the most disliked, unproductive Congress in decades will be gone until after the November election, departing without agreements on virtually every big issue it deals with: taxes, defense, spending, farms, even post-office policy.

It will let the farm bill, a broad measure that sets the nation's agriculture and food and nutrition assistance policies, expire Sept. 30.

Congress also will exit without any serious effort to edge away from the "fiscal cliff," the prospect of economy-damaging budget chaos if it doesn't act by year's end. Bush-era tax cuts are due to expire, and automatic spending cuts will take effect unless alternatives are passed.

The public is noticing, as the legislative failures stir uncertainty and further roil the weak economy. This Congress' approval ratings were stuck at 13 percent in a Gallup survey Sept. 6-9, the lowest the pollster has ever logged this late in an election year since such measurements began in 1974.

The final days of Congress in a presidential election year are almost always freighted with political tensions, but the nakedness of Senate politics Thursday was particularly bold.

Take the politics of Tester's tight re-election race against Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Republican. Rehberg had already pushed through the House a set of measures coveted by sportsmen in Montana, but the Rehberg bill had come under some fire in his home state for shortcomings and drafting errors.

Democrats saw a chance to help Tester with a Senate version that would be even sweeter to the hunters and fishermen in Montana.

The bill would increase access for recreational hunting and fishing, particularly on federal public lands, o clear the way for bows to be transported across national-park lands — a privilege now enjoyed by gun owners.

Reid decided the last vote before recessing for the campaigns would be a procedural motion to take up Tester's bill. That way the Montanan could campaign with his "sportsmen's package" as pending business before the Senate, business he would say would come to fruition only with his re-election.

Republicans refused to go along. If no earlier agreement is reached, the Senate will be forced to take a procedural vote early Sunday, pass the stopgap spending bill six hours later, vote to move to the Tester measure and then head home.

Lawmakers will be leaving after a September session that was on and off for less than two weeks, and after a summer recess that ran from Aug. 3 to Sept. 10. Congress is expected to return Nov. 13.

"Leaving town in disgrace," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a 30-year congressional veteran.

"This is the most dysfunctional Congress I can remember," said Craig Holman, government-affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonpartisan consumer-advocacy group. "I've never seen Capitol Hill work so poorly."

Republicans and Democrats agree on this much: The inertia was spawned by the unusually hostile partisanship that's come to dominate political dialogue and debate.

It's not just the major battles. This Congress also struggled to pass what's usually routine legislation.

Fights stalled action on highway legislation, extending domestic-violence laws, providing disaster aid and keeping interest rates low on student loans.

The summer recess didn't cool passions; if anything, it inflamed them. No new 12-month budget would be considered. Instead, lawmakers settled for a six-month stopgap that, as evidenced by Thursday's delay, was snared in political nastiness.

Perhaps the most obvious victims of this war have been post offices. The 112th Congress has approved renaming more than 25 post offices but has failed to agree on an overhaul measure to rescue the financially strapped Postal Service.

The agency reported losing $57 million a day in the last quarter, and it defaulted last month for the first time on health-benefits payments for future retirees. It's set to miss a second payment of $5.6 million at the end of this month.

The Postal Service has been pressing Congress to allow it to do away with Saturday delivery and reduce its annual health payments. The Senate passed its version of a Postal Service bill in April, but the House has failed to act.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe recently may have inadvertently summed up not only the plight of post offices, but also the entire Congress. "This is no way to run any kind of business," he said.

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