WASHINGTON (AP) - Congress returned to Washington on Monday for an abbreviated pre-election session in which it appears likely to do the bare minimum: making sure that the government doesn't shut down.
Almost everything else of consequence, most notably a set of automatic, economy-rattling spending cuts and tax increases that have been dubbed a "fiscal cliff," will get put off until a postelection lame duck session - and maybe beyond.
Top lawmakers unveiled a six-month spending bill that would finance the government's day-to-day operations until next March to give the next Congress and whoever occupied the White House time to work out a final solution on more than $1 trillion in annual spending for the Pentagon and other Cabinet departments.
Typically such temporary funding bills, known in Washington parlance as continuing resolutions, or CRs, freeze spending at current levels. But the measure released Monday actually allows for a 0.6 percent increase to every program to keep pace with a slight increase in spending permitted by "caps" set by last summer's hard-fought budget and debt accord.
The 2012 budget year ends on Sept. 30. But not a single one of the 12 annual agency appropriations bills has become law, requiring lawmakers to step in with the stopgap funding measure to avoid a disastrous partial shutdown of the government.
Just a handful of high priority programs would be awarded larger increases, including a government cybersecurity initiative, wildfire suppression efforts, a drive to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal and processing of veteran disability claims. A popular initiative to repair the dome of the Capitol was left unfunded, however, despite a high-profile push by Senate Democrats.
The House is to vote on the six-month spending bill Thursday, and it appears set to pass easily, even though many tea party conservatives are upset that it would allow more spending than would be permitted under a GOP budget plan that passed the House this spring.
Less certain is whether a badly gridlocked Congress will be able to find a solution on what to do about food aid and farm subsidies set to expire at the end of the month.