WASHINGTON — Republicans invoked the 9/11 anniversary Tuesday in calling on Democrats to help them avoid looming defense cuts, but House Speaker John Boehner said he had little confidence a deal could be struck in time.
Congress returned from a five-week summer break to spend part of its first full day united in observing the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, saying the nation was more secure and as resilient as ever, and that the military needed to remain as strong as possible.
"As we look to the future... we need to come together on sequestration," House Republican vote corraller Kevin McCarthy told reporters, referring to the automatic cuts to military spending that kick in if no deal on reducing the debt is reached by year end.
He described it as a "unique opportunity" for bipartisanship, just minutes before hundreds of lawmakers gathered on the steps of the US Capitol to mark the 9/11 anniversary.
"We ask the Senate to work with us -- not as Republicans and Democrats, but as Americans -- to make sure we keep (the military budget) protected, and that we never forget."
But both sides quickly turned to accusing each other of sinking any possible deal to stave off a series of tax hikes and spending cuts as a way to score political points just eight weeks before the presidential election.
Asked whether he thought a deal could be reached before the sequester and tax hikes go into effect in early January, Boehner told reporters: "I'm not confident at all.
"Listen, the House has done its job," passing bills that would avoid the sequester and prevent tax hikes, Boehner said.
"The Senate at some point has to act. And on both of these, where is the president? Where's the leadership? Absent without leave."
With the House in Republican hands and the Senate run by the Democrats, major contentious legislation has stalled this year, and lawmakers have expressed worry that the US economy is racing toward a so-called fiscal cliff early next year if Congress does not act.
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has warned that going over the fiscal cliff would send the vulnerable US economy back into recession.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he was "disappointed" with Boehner's remarks.
"I'm confident that we will reach some kind of arrangement," Reid said. "It's much, much too early to give up, I'm not going to give up."
Steny Hoyer, the number two Democrat in the House, said he has spoken with Boehner about trying to reach a "balanced" deal that would raise the debt limit, tame the deficit and avoid sequestration.
But "I don't think we'll do so before the election," Hoyer said.
"I am optimistic that once this election is over, the patriotism of members -- Republicans and Democrats -- will summons them to coming to an agreement on the most important question confronting this nation, and that is putting this nation on a fiscally sustainable, credible path."
There are just eight more congressional working days in September, and The Hill newspaper reported that lawmakers have convinced their party leaders that they will bail out from late September through the November 6 election in order to return home and campaign.
That leaves key legislation, like a massive farm bill that includes drought aid, in limbo.
"In the number of legislative days we have left, it is unlikely we'd probably get there," Senator John Thune said of the farm bill.
He said an extension of the current bill which expires on September 30, accompanied by stand-alone drought assistance legislation, could be a way forward.
One bill the lawmakers do expect to work out next week is a so-called continuing resolution, a six-month stopgap measure which funds the US government through next March, avoiding a partisan shutdown fight ahead of November's election.
Reid has "indicated to us that the continuing resolution would probably be the last item of this work period before we reconvene after the election for a very, very busy period" before the end of the year, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »