WASHINGTON - With a final flurry of recriminations, Congress adjourned for the year yesterday without taking action to stimulate the ailing economy and provide help to laid-off workers.
The Republican-led House pushed through a $211 billion package of tax cuts and worker benefits at 4 a.m. yesterday. But the package was blocked in the Democrat-led Senate, with Democrats charging that the bill would mostly enrich corporations at the expense of jobless Americans.
The measure was thought to have the backing of 52 senators. But supporters could not muster the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural obstacles and bring the bill to a vote.
Each side left town preparing the case it will make to voters about why Congress failed to produce some relief for the economy.
Democrats will argue that Republicans wanted to spend too much money on unnecessary tax breaks for the rich. And Republicans will charge that Democrats refused to back a bill that cuts taxes for middle-income Americans and helps struggling workers.
President Bush, who made concessions in the House-passed bill in hopes of winning the support of Senate Democrats, complained that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle had never given the stimulus package a chance.
"That bill ought to get out of the United States Senate and get to my desk so that we can help the unemployed people and help grow jobs," Bush said.
Democrats argued that Republicans had pushed their version of an economic recovery package through the House as a political stunt, knowing the bill could not pass the Senate.
That bill, Daschle said, would do little to help the economy or needy workers and would instead divert billions of dollars from Social Security and Medicare trust funds to provide tax breaks to large companies.
"If you're a temporary worker, this provides no help," Daschle said. "If you're someone who is attempting to provide health insurance for your family, this provides little help. But if you're IBM, you should love this bill because it virtually eliminates your tax responsibilities, even at times of war."
Before leaving for a monthlong recess, Congress approved $430 million in tax breaks for victims and families of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But Rep. Bill Thomas, the California Republican who is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, called it "a feeble gesture" compared with the sweeping economic stimulus package that Congress had been negotiating over for months and that would have aided nearly all Americans.
Both sides pledged to resume the effort when Congress returns to Washington in late January. But they agreed that much will depend on the state of the economy at that point. At a minimum, a 13-week extension of the usual 26 weeks of unemployment benefits is considered likely to be approved early in the year.
Daschle tried to win a 13-week extension of jobless benefits as a final gesture. But he was blocked by Sen. Trent Lott, the Senate minority leader, who complained that Democrats were trying to pick apart the larger package.
Despite red and green clothing and occasional expressions of holiday cheer, Congress left in what Sen. Gordon Smith, an Oregon Republican, called a "bah-humbug" mood - sharply at odds with the bipartisan spirit that dominated the early weeks after the attacks.
Daschle observed that the unity displayed on the emergency anti-terrorism legislation that was quickly approved after the attacks broke down once the subject changed to the economy. "Economic policy, to a large extent, is what defines our parties," he said.
"I think [Republicans] believe there has to be a tax cut for the common cold," Daschle said. "It's impossible to think of a Republican remedy that doesn't involve a tax cut. Our view is that tax cuts have merit and ought to be examined, but there's a lot more to economic and fiscal policy than tax cuts."
Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, charged that Daschle was following a calculated political agenda, one of supporting the president on issues related to the war on terrorism but "giving him the knife on domestic issues."
Besides the economic stimulus bill, the Senate left town without acting on several other domestic policy measures on which Democrats, who took control of the Senate by one vote in June, differ with Bush. Those include legislation to authorize more domestic oil production, to give the president broad trade negotiating authority and to allow religious charities to receive federal funds.
Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana, a centrist Democrat who helped negotiate the failed compromise and was one of three Democratic senators to back it, said leaders of both parties were so beholden to special interests that they could not find common ground.
"So we ended up getting nothing," Breaux said. "I would rather have something than nothing."