If two Maine lawmakers had their way, Congress would be back at work now passing legislation on tax cut extensions and the federal budget.

But don’t bet on it.

Gridlock will likely continue until after November’s election.

Sen. Olympia Snowe says the Senate recess scheduled to last until Jan. 23 should have been canceled and lawmakers back in Washington by Jan. 3, working on issues such as the one-year payroll tax cut extension and a long-term overhaul of the tax code.

Rep. Mike Michaud says if lawmakers fail to pass annual budget and spending bills on time they shouldn’t get paid until they accomplish that basic legislative function.

Snowe, R-Maine, and Michaud, D-2nd District, aren’t the only members of Congress frustrated by congressional gridlock and searching for a solution.

But it really doesn’t matter when lawmakers return to Washington this year.

Collective partisan gridlock made even worse by election-year politics will trump largely symbolic individual calls for action.

“There doesn’t seem to be much on either party’s agenda for the coming year,” said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the centrist Brookings Institution in Washington. “This year doesn’t look great in terms of accomplishments.”

Instead, lawmakers will spend their time on Capitol Hill waging campaign-style debates over issues like how to cut the federal deficit and whether to raise taxes on wealthier Americans.

The biggest debate will be around the $4 trillion worth of Bush tax cuts set to expire at the end of the year, and whether to make them all permanent or to end the breaks for wealthier Americans.

But it will be left to a lame-duck, post-election Congress to determine the fate of the Bush tax cuts — or perhaps to just kick the issue into 2013.

“That is the main story of the year — both parties defining themselves before the election,” Binder said. “They will fight over issues, not legislation.”

There won’t be many lawmakers signing on to the no-budget, no-pay bill Michaud co-sponsored last month, which had just six House supporters when members left town in December.

Passing that bill would almost certainly mean losing pay beginning Oct. 1, when the 2013 fiscal year begins. It has become the norm for lawmakers to stalemate over spending bills until late in the year before cobbling together catch-all measures that satisfy no one.

The only major piece of legislation likely to be approved this year, a one-year extension of the payroll tax cut and long-term unemployment benefits, won’t happen until an end-of-February deadline.

That deadline was set up by the two-month extension passed in December — just before the existing tax cut expired on Dec. 31. And the two-month extension, which satisfied no one, was needed because lawmakers deadlocked on how to pay for a one-year extension.

That deadlock will continue — right up until the latest deadline.

Then Democrats who want to pay for the payroll tax cut extension by raising taxes on millionaires and Republicans who want to pay for it by freezing federal employees’ wages and other spending cuts will miraculously come to a grudging compromise.

“The logic is only to do what they really, really have to do,” said Michael Franc, vice president of government studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “The payroll tax cut was kicked into February, so they have to address that in some manner. Each party will stake out what its vision is for these things and what it plans to do about it if given complete control, and then they will fight about it during the election. Meanwhile, they will pass a minimum version of the status quo.”

The script for Congress’ year ahead already is written.

It will be another year of “these very predictable, recurring, nightmarish showdowns,” Franc said. “You will have another couple of those this year. But once (Congress) gets to that moment, the default position is to continue with the status quo for a defined period of time.”

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at:

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