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A mountain of work on Hill

Deficit fears, fall elections add up to budget woes.

WASHINGTON - Congressional Democrats returning this week to the Washington they control will confront an embarrassing pile of unfinished budget business.

With many Democratic lawmakers running for their political lives five months before the fall elections, even relatively simple tasks such as helping the jobless and preventing cuts in Medicare payments to doctors are hanging - victims of the ever-increasing anxiety over annual trillion-dollar-plus deficits.

A war-funding bill is long overdue. The most basic chore of writing a budget has been all but abandoned. There is no sign of the 12 annual spending bills for keeping government agencies open four months from now.

On the horizon is the question of what to do about renewing tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush. They are due to expire two months after the November election.

Efforts to pass a nonbinding budget resolution, or blueprint, sketching out fiscal goals have stalled in the House.

Moderate "Blue Dog" Democrats have demanded spending cuts beyond President Obama's proposed freeze on domestic-agency operating budgets. House leaders and the liberal core of the party are resisting.

"A $13 trillion national debt is an alarm bell and a wake-up call together, and it demands more than just lip service," said House Republican leader John A. Boehner of Ohio.

It is hardly the first time Congress will not have passed a budget resolution, but Democrats were harshly critical of Republicans' failures to do so in the past.

"If you can't budget, you can't govern," Rep. John Spratt Jr. (D., S.C.), now the House Budget Committee chairman, said when the GOP-controlled Congress failed to produce a budget in 2006.

Unemployment benefits for hundreds of thousands of long-term jobless have been interrupted three times this year because Congress failed to meet self-imposed deadlines for renewing them.

Besides dumping new Medicaid money after it won passage in both houses, Democratic leaders also were forced by pressure from party moderates to drop a $7 billion extension of health insurance subsidies to the jobless.

"I just wasn't willing to vote for a lot of stuff . . . that while good and urgent, should be paid for," said freshman Rep. Jim Himes (D., Conn.).

While on the attack on deficits, most Republicans have steered clear of politically risky topics such as cutting Medicare and other benefit programs.

Obama wants to renew Bush's tax cuts - except for families making more than $250,000 per year and individuals making more than $200,000.

But most Democrats had not voted for the Bush tax cuts. Recent moves by House Democrats to scrap billions of dollars for Medicaid and health insurance subsidies for the unemployed - after voting for them in December - provide evidence of how worries over the deficit have intensified.

"It's pretty obvious that the Democrats are in a mass panic over the deficit," said GOP tax expert Ken Kies of the Federal Policy Group.

There has also been no sign of the 12 annual appropriations bills that usually dominate Congress' summer schedule.

Last year, the House passed all 12 before the summer recess in August. This year, because there's no budget in place, lawmakers have yet to set bottom-line figures for each agency and program for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

Congress may end up bundling most of the bills and passing them as a catchall measure during a postelection lame-duck session.