WASHINGTON – A deeply unpopular Congress is bolting for the campaign trail without finishing its most basic job — approving a budget for the government year that begins on Friday. Lawmakers also are postponing a major fight over taxes, two embarrassing ethics cases and other political hot potatoes until after the Nov. 2 elections.

With their House and Senate majorities on the line, Democratic leaders called off votes and even debates on all controversial matters.

“It would be one thing if you have a chance to pass something, then by all means have a vote,” Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said Wednesday. “But it was pretty clear that it was going to be mutually assured destruction.”

It was a messy end to a session fraught with partisan fire.

“We may not agree on much, but I think with rare exception, all 100 senators want to get out of here and get back to their states,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is locked in a tough re-election fight against Republican Sharron Angle in Nevada.

One foot out the door, the House and Senate convened just long enough to vote on a “continuing resolution,” a stopgap measure to keep the government in operating funds for the next two months and avoid a pre-election federal shutdown. Even that, along with passing a few minor agreed-upon bills, was expected to take into the night or possibly into Thursday.

Staying or going might seem an equally unpleasant prospect for some embattled Democrats, who are facing more than four weeks of defending unpopular votes in favor of President Obama’s economic stimulus measure, health care law and uncompleted legislation for curbing global warming.

They also head home without what was supposed to be their closing argument of the campaign, an extension of Bush-era tax cuts for families making less than $250,000.

Republicans and a few Democrats urged Congress to preserve the tax cuts for all Americans, even the wealthiest. Democratic leaders opted to avoid the risk of being branded tax hikers and punted the matter until after the elections.

Republicans applied the label anyway, scolding Democrats for folding the tent without voting on extending former President George W. Bush’s tax cuts beyond their Dec. 31 expiration. A motion to adjourn upon completing routine business passed by a single vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s, after 39 Democrats joined Republicans in protest.

“If Democratic leaders leave town without stopping all of the tax hikes, they are turning their backs on the American people,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner.

Pelosi has vowed that the middle class tax cuts will be passed this year.