Delegation takes stock, looks ahead
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - As Congress prepares to recess until after the election, members of West Virginia's congressional delegation took stock of the year gone by.
Sen. Joe Manchin said Thursday he would rather stay in Washington to talk about the debt - which is now more than $16 trillion - than go home to campaign.
The junior senator, who expresses perpetual dismay about an intractable Washington, said he didn't even know what to call the 112th Congress.
"They will have to have a new word added in the dictionary for this one," Manchin told reporters during a Thursday conference call.
But the state's senior senator, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., wasn't so despondent.
"Despite historic levels of opposition, Congress has found a way to pass a number of important bills this year," Rockefeller said Thursday night through a spokesman. "A lot depends on where you sit and what you have responsibility for."
Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate's powerful commerce committee, said he's held 177 hearings, conducted 28 sessions to mark up bills and reported over 100 pieces of legislation to the full Senate.
Still, Rockefeller said he was frustrated by partisan politics and blamed Republicans.
On the House side, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., held a call with reporters to tout a package of measures friendly to the coal industry.
The measures have already passed the House but not the Senate. So, the House tied the bills together, named the package the "Stop the War on Coal Act" and plans to try to pass them again today.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., maintains a webpage devoted to tracking "jobs bills stuck in the Senate."
"We've passed things over to the Senate we can't get done," Capito said.
But Capito called herself an optimist.
She said the Congress has worked broadly on "pulling down" the nation's spending.
Capito also cited a comprehensive two-year transportation bill and a bill meant to spur job creation that did pass and become law this year.
"The bigger question is all the things we left undone," she said.
The things left undone include the government's operating budget. The White House and Congress haven't gotten together to pass a normal budget measure since President Barack Obama took office.
Manchin took the Senate floor Thursday to complain about yet another temporary plan to fund the government. The stopgap funding measure was the 13th since Manchin went to Washington in late fall 2010.
There had been a ray of hope that a comprehensive farm bill could clear the House this week. But on Thursday, the House's Republican leadership said the chamber would not take a vote until after the election on the agriculture policies.
After the election, lawmakers could face a new political landscape - or at least a settled one - but will still face the same large and long-term problems: a huge national debt and high and persistent unemployment.
Immediately at their feet, however, will be questions about how to deal with the Bush-era tax cuts set to expire in January and automatic cuts to the defense budget that are also supposed to begin in 2013.
The automatic budget cuts were a threat Congress imposed on itself. They were meant to spur lawmakers to come up with a long-term financing plan rather than deal with cutting the military.
But, as it has with other such gimmicks - like waiting for recommendations from a bipartisan budget commission and then ignoring them - Congress may outfox itself and avoid dealing with its larger issues.
Referring to the automatic cuts, Manchin predicted, "You can be sure they will try to extend the sequestering and the automatic cuts going in Jan. 1."
He said the Congress seemed like a "don't show," a reference President Harry Truman's "do nothing" Congress.
Manchin said he would have preferred Congress stay in session instead of heading home ahead of the election.
"I haven't had anybody, madam president, in West Virginia tell me that we should hurry home to campaign," Manchin said during his Thursday floor speech, referring to the senator who was presiding over the floor session. "I have had plenty of them tell me that we need to stay here and do the job they hired us to do. And that means fixing the budget because our debt is piling up every day and it's choking our economy."
Rockefeller said he, as the second-most senior member of the Senate finance committee, would be working every day, whether Congress is in session or not.
"At this point, I think we need to get past the election - and to hear from the American people when they cast their votes - in order to find balance and make real progress on jobs, taxes and the deficit," Rockefeller said.