Will the lame-duck session of Congress that kicks off Monday be a productive last-ditch effort to address a slew of legislative issues or, well, just be lame? That is the question as lawmakers return to work after their six-week break for the midterm elections.
In a general sense, the lame-duck session will be devoted to taxes and spending. On the former, the Bush tax cuts are set to expire Jan. 1. Before the election, Democrats were so divided -- and politically skittish -- that they punted the issue until winter.
After the election, President Obama signaled a willingness to compromise with Republicans, who want the tax cuts extended for all Americans, not just those making less than $200,000. Republicans are now pushing for a temporary extension of all the tax cuts, while most Democrats want to extend only the middle class tax cuts, though some appear willing to agree to a longer extension of the middle class tax cuts coupled with a shorter extension of the cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
Any discussion about what to do with taxes, of course, ties in with what to do about the nation's soaring deficit. The bipartisan commission Obama formed earlier this year to come up with a plan to cut the deficit has to submit its final report by Dec. 1. And the government needs to be funded by the time the most recent continuing resolution ends Dec. 3.
Then there's a whole range of other issues that could see action: extending federal unemployment benefits by the filing deadline of Nov. 30; stopping a scheduled 23 percent cut to Medicare's payments to doctors set for Dec. 1 and another 6.5 percent cut on Jan. 1; passing the annual defense authorization bill that -- for now -- includes a repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy; ratifying the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia; and taking another stab at the DREAM Act, a scaled-back immigration bill that would enable undocumented students who arrive in the United States before age 16 to become legal residents after five years by completing higher education or military service.
But before any of them come to the floor, the Senate is going to tackle three other bills next week: the food safety bill it has been sitting on for more than 18 months; the paycheck fairness act that aims to make sure women get paid as much as men for doing similar work; and a bill to promote natural gas and electric vehicles.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada filed cloture on all three measures before senators left town in late September.
Sounds like a lot of work, huh? It's even more daunting when you factor in that senators are set to take a nice nine-day break for Thanksgiving, from Friday Nov. 19 to Monday Nov. 28.
And if Democrats thought it was tough to get their way with 59 members, including two independents who caucus with them, now it'll be even tougher.
In late November, Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois, who defeated Democrat Alexi Giannoulias in a special election to win the seat Senate previously held by Roland Burris, will be sworn in. That will reduce by one the Democrats' majority. Unlike fellow special election winners Chris Coons of Delaware and Joe Manchin of West Virginia – both Democrats, Kirk is not expected to be sworn in on Nov. 15.
Memorized all those key dates? Here they are in order, you know, for marking your calendars at home.
Nov. 15: Lame-duck session starts.
Nov. 15: New York Rep. Charlie Rangel's ethics trial starts.
Nov. 16: Senate Republican Conference set to vote on imposing a moratorium on earmarks.
Nov. 19-28: Congress is off for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Nov. 29: California Rep. Maxine Waters' ethics trial starts.
Nov. 30: The filing deadline for federal unemployment benefits.
Dec. 1: The deadline for the president's deficit commission to submit its final report
Dec. 1: A scheduled 23 percent cut to Medicare's payments to doctors occurs.
Dec. 1: The military's report on the feasibility of repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays in the military is due at the Pentagon.
Dec. 3: The latest continuing resolution for funding the government expires.
Dec. 31: The Bush tax cuts expire.
Jan. 1: A scheduled 6.5 percent cut to Medicare's payments to doctors occurs.
Jan. 2: New EPA greenhouse gas regulations take effect, but business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce want Congress to delay their implementation.
Jan. 3: The 112th Congress convenes.
Early 2011: The nation's debt will hit its ceiling of $14.29 trillion, so Congress will have to raise it yet again.