WASHINGTON — San Joaquin Valley lawmakers are returning to a Capitol Hill that's distracted by an imminent and potentially convulsive election.
Heavy lifting remains, ranging from parochial legislation to passing the 13 huge bills needed to operate the federal government. But with less than a month to go before the planned Oct. 8 adjournment, pure politics will now dominate.
"I don't expect a tremendous amount of activity in the coming weeks," acknowledged Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced.
This will mean a lot of legislative fruit dies on the vine. Together, the five House members representing the region between Stockton and Visalia have introduced more than three dozen standalone bills since the 111th Congress began in January 2009.
Some reach far, like one introduced 18 months ago by Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, to revise national food safety efforts. Others are intensely local, like a bill by Republican Rep. George Radanovich to provide for a new Yosemite National Park visitor center in his hometown of Mariposa.
All face bleak prospects, either before the election or in the lame-duck session that's almost certain to follow.
"I think there are limited expectations, certainly on my part, as to whether we can get any traction," Costa said.
Certainly, some things will happen.
Congress must pass a temporary funding measure before Oct. 1, to keep federal agencies working. After the election, lawmakers will return to package together detailed funding for fiscal 2011. This will provide some opportunity for funding local projects. Cardoza, for one, said he's still hoping to secure support for a new University of California at Merced medical school.
Apolitical ceremony, too, will continue.
On Tuesday, for instance, Radanovich expects to join Coarsegold residents Anna and Will Heinrichs in the Capitol for the presentation of World War II medals secured for Anna's first husband, a paratrooper killed in the Battle of the Bulge. Radanovich's office helped secure the long-missing medals.
Mostly, though, sound and fury will prevail, as both parties press for advantage in advance of the Nov. 9 election. The maneuvering, common every election season at about this time, will likely intensify because of how this year is shaping up.
Democrats currently enjoy a 39-seat advantage in the House and effectively control 59 seats in the 100-member Senate. The House, in particular, could well fall into GOP hands in November, political analysts believe.
"Is there an opportunity for us to take the House? I'd say yes," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "Just look at the polling data. If we didn't pick up at least 30 or 35 seats, I think that would be a disappointment."
Even when congressional control is not in serious question, looming elections often prompt members of the minority to block bills and nominees and members of both parties push for votes designed to send signals or make the other side look bad.
"There will be lots of rhetoric, and very little action," Nunes said.
University of California at Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu, for instance, has had his nomination to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stymied by Republicans. Senate conservatives will have no reason to relent before the current Congress adjourns.
The Senate's parliamentary rules and ever-present threat of a filibuster, moreover, make it easy to impede action, particularly when time is short. Cardoza said the House has passed 475 bills this Congress that still await action in the Senate.
"That place is a quandary to me," Cardoza said.
The Senate quicksand has swallowed up major bills including a cap-and-trade greenhouse gases package and a campaign finance reform effort.