WASHINGTON -- Fresh off a five-week vacation, lawmakers return to Washington on Monday 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 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. Their efforts are sure to be overshadowed by the presidential campaign.
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. There would be no more sure way of driving Congress' approval ratings even lower than for lawmakers to stumble into a government shutdown right before the Nov. 6 vote.
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. House Republican leaders are wary of bringing the bill to the floor. 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. Without a formal extension, food stamp and other nutrition programs would continue to function beyond Sept. 30. Most farmers would not be affected because the current farm bill covers 2012 crops regardless when they are harvested.
In all likelihood, political votes are on tap. New York Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democratic Party strategist, wants a procedural vote on the House Republican budget plan written by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential nominee.
"Let 'em embrace it again," Schumer said while making the rounds last Thursday at the Democratic convention.