WASHINGTON - Congress returns today to a backlog of major issues - including U.S. policy toward Iraq, homeland security and the federal budget - a pile of unfinished business so vast that many lawmakers are resigned to holding a lame-duck session after the November elections.
The workload has two sources: partisan tensions that have slowed basic budget decisions and bipartisan determination to tackle such time-con suming initiatives as a department of homeland security.
What's more, Congress immediately will be drawn into an escalating debate over whether to go to war with Iraq - an issue that has been catapulted to new prominence during the month Congress has been on summer recess.
Many crucial decisions might be put off until after Election Day because congressional leaders are eager to send vulnerable incumbents home to campaign in races that could determine which party controls the House and the Senate next year.
Even if final decisions are deferred, debate in Congress over the next few weeks will influence which of two sets of issues are foremost in voters' minds when they go to the polls Nov. 5: concerns about the economy and corporate scandals, which Democrats want to spotlight, or anxieties over terrorism and national security, which play to Republican strengths.
And the decisions left facing lawmakers this session have consequences that will be felt far into the future.
The homeland security agency could give the president broad new powers for years to come. The emerging budget, with its big increases for defense and homeland safety, will affect how long the government will run a deficit. And any decision to go to war with Iraq will require a huge financial, military and political commitment.
Although the legislative legacy of this session includes accomplishments - a new law cracking down on corporate corruption and major anti-terror ism initiatives - some incumbents facing re-election worry that it will reflect badly on them if Congress does not finish its work before the elections.
The first issue before the Senate, which reconvenes today, is legislation to create the homeland security department. The bill has been approved by the House, but the Senate version has been slowed by Democrats, led by Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who object to rushing action on such a significant change in government.
Central to the debate is the Democrats' refusal to exempt agency workers from civil service protections, as President Bush has proposed. He has threatened a veto over the issue, saying the administration needs more flexibility to manage the security agency.
"I refuse to accept a bill which ties my hands or the hands of future presidents." Bush said. But Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, has accused the administration of 'dragging this common cause into the quicksand of controversy' in order to seize more power for the executive branch.
The House is scheduled to reconvene tomorrow. Debate on Iraq will occur in that chamber's International Relations Committee, where Chairman Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican, is lining up administration witnesses for hearings.
Other committees are expected to weigh in with hearings, but it is not clear when - and in what form - Congress will bring the issue of what to do about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to a vote. Some lawmakers say they hope it is not any time soon because their constituents do not seem prepared for a U.S. attack on Iraq.
Janet Hook is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.