WASHINGTON - Leaving piles of unfinished business for the fall, Congress began exiting Washington Thursday for a five-week vacation with its accomplishments few, its efforts at budgeting in tatters and its collective nerves frayed by months of feuding.
The House's chief accomplishment for the week was a bipartisan Wednesday vote to deal with spiking student loan interest rates, readying that legislation for President Barack Obama's signature. But that bit of progress came the very day that a Republican strategy of embracing painful automatic budget cuts imploded with the collapse of a major transportation and housing bill.
That measure fell victim, top lawmakers said, to opposition from both conservative and more moderate Republicans and laid bare the flaws in the party's budget strategy, which promised deeper cuts to domestic programs than the rank and file were willing to deliver in votes on funding bills implementing the pledge.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., right, Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, walk on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, at the conclusion of a news conference after Republicans defeated a $54 billion funding bill for transportation, housing and community development grants because it exceeded the punishing spending limits required under automatic budget cuts.
Before leaving town, the GOP House prepared its 40th attack on Obama's signature health care law on Friday and slated votes on other legislation aimed at embarrassing the administration and sharpening the party's political message for encounters back home with constituents.
Also on Friday, GOP leaders looked forward to an easier time with two other votes, one to block the Internal Revenue Service from enforcing "Obamacare's" penalties on people who don't buy health insurance and another on the "Stop Government Abuse Act," which among its provisions would allow people to tape record conversations they have with IRS agents and other federal workers.
As the Senate raced out its own doors on Thursday, it confirmed Obama's nomination of Samantha Power as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. That capped an unusually productive run of advancing administration nominations - but one that came only after majority Democrats threatened to rewrite the rules to take away the GOP's right to filibuster such nominees.
Senators also held a bipartisan closed-door luncheon in hopes of continuing the fragile sense of comity that has enveloped the chamber since it defused the filibuster battle.
But that session came just minutes after Republican Senators banded together to shut down the Democrats' attempt to advance their own, far more generous version of the transportation and housing bill, which was filled with funding for popular items such as road and bridge repairs and community development grants for local projects,
Republicans united to kill the $54 billion measure, following the instructions of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who kept GOP defections to only one: moderate Susan Collins of Maine, who co-wrote the measure from her position on the Appropriations Committee. Republicans killed the bill because it exceeded the punishing spending limits required under automatic budget cuts that were themselves the product of Washington's failure to deal with its fiscal problems.
McConnell said moving ahead on the bill would have been seen as backing away from the spending cuts promised in a deficit-cutting deal enacted two years ago that promised $2.1 trillion in deficit cuts over 10 years. The automatic cuts are to total $1.2 trillion through 2021.
Collins, trying to persuade other Republicans to break with McConnell, at first struggled to be heard above the Senate's din.
That prompted an unusual outburst from Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.:
"Madame President, have senators sit down and shut up, OK?" he barked at presiding officer Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who broke into a wide smile captured by C-SPAN cameras.