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Deadlock in Congress Appears to Worsen as Midterms Loom

With immigration legislation dead for the year, Congress has a very short must-do list as relations between the two parties, already miserable, seem to be getting worse in the buildup to the midterm elections.

The effort to revive the appropriations process is teetering. House Republicans are preparing a lawsuit challenging the power of the president, who denounces that move as a stunt. A special Republican-created House panel on the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, will hold hearings this fall. The positions of both parties are hardening.

As a result, minimal expectations for achievement in the final months of the 113th Congress — and at the midpoint of President Obama's second term — are sinking lower, if that is possible.

House Speaker Rep. John Boehner (R-OH)
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House Speaker Rep. John Boehner (R-OH)

Failure to act in a few crucial cases could imperil the fragile economic recovery. If Congress cannot reach agreement on spending bills or stopgap funding by Oct. 1, another government shutdown could result. And if Congress and the White House do not quickly find money for the depleted Highway Trust Fund, states could be forced to suspend job-providing road and bridge projects at the height of the construction season in August.

Top Democratic and Republican officials expect that Congress will avert both potential crises, though not without the usual partisan brinkmanship. Republicans do not want to be seen as causing another unpopular government shutdown a month before an election they believe is trending their way, and neither party wants to see workers idled from good-paying jobs on community construction projects.

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While the House and Senate may find a way to keep road construction going and federal agencies open, what they do beyond that is an open question. Legislation on veterans' health care, human trafficking and terrorism insurance are on a scaled-back set of achievable priorities, along with an administration request for more border funding.

But the collapse of immigration legislation has left a very big hole.

With any thought of a grand fiscal bargain in the distant past, the possibility of compromise on a sweeping immigration policy was the last, best hope for a big accomplishment this year — a potentially legacy-burnishing success for both Mr. Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner.

Read More Obama tells Cabinet to find areas open to executive action

A visibly frustrated president on Monday disclosed that Mr. Boehner, who was at the White House last week to recognize professional golfers, had said definitively that he would not put any immigration legislation on the floor. That disappointed advocates who had held out hope that House Republicans might be willing to act after the threat of primary challenges had diminished.

The immigration stalemate set off an unusually harsh exchange of words, with Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, saying Mr. Boehner's "failure of leadership is enormous." Mr. Boehner, for his part, said the president was guilty of "giving false hope to children and their families that if they enter the country illegally, they will be allowed to stay."

Mr. Obama, in some of his sharpest comments about congressional Republicans, said they could head off the type of executive action they abhor by cooperating on an immigration approach with broad support.

"I take executive action only when we have a serious problem, a serious issue, and Congress chooses to do nothing," he said. "And in this situation, the failure of House Republicans to pass a darn bill is bad for our security, it's bad for our economy and it's bad for our future."

Read MoreDems try end run on Boehner on unemployment

Midterm elections and deep partisanship have not always been obstacles to legislative progress, with members of Congress mindful of the need to score a few legislative victories so they can have something to trumpet to voters back home.

For example, as Republicans tried in 2006 to maintain their majorities — unsuccessfully, as it turned out — they produced a last-minute string of security-related bills on border fencing and port safeguards after enacting a highway bill and an energy measure. However, a major push on immigration legislation came up short that year as well.

Given the dearth of legislation, the best chance for lawmakers to influence policy was probably through the 12 appropriations bills Congress struggled to pass in recent years. The effort was getting a strong push this year, with the House making steady progress. But the drive was derailed in the Senate by a fight over amendments and the threshold for approving them.

Though Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland and chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, wants to move forward, it appears unlikely that Mr. Reid will accept a demand by Senate Republicans for a host of amendment votes. This puts the spending bills in limbo and Congress on track to once again approve a stopgap funding bill, at least until after the elections.

Read More Boehner lawsuit threat offers midterm fodder

As for the Highway Trust Fund, top officials say Representative Dave Camp, Republican of Michigan and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, has been working on a series of tax changes to provide money into next year, and Senate Democratic leaders have shown some interest.

Despite the inertia, lawmakers have proved that they can get some things done when it serves them. The National Journal reported on Monday that Republican and Democratic members of the House Ethics Committee quietly came together to agree that lawmakers do not have to report free trips they take on their personal financial disclosure forms.

—By Carl Hulse, The New York Times

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