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Lengthy to-do list for in-between Congress session

 House speaker-in-waiting Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, left, accompanied by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., gestures during a news confer...

Congress Republicans

House speaker-in-waiting Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, left, accompanied by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., gestures during a news confer...

Now that the congressional elections are over, the pre-election Congress is coming back this month to deal with a pile of unfinished business: whether to extend Bush-era tax cuts that are due to expire; ratify a nuclear weapons deal with Russia to make significant cuts in both sides' warhead armories; and repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy against gays serving openly.
It remains an open question how much the lawmakers will get done.
The current Congress returns Nov. 15 for a postelection "lame duck" session to be dominated by tax and spending issues. Rarely has such a big pile of work faced lawmakers when the party in power had suffered so much at the ballot box.
A lame duck Congress includes members, retiring or defeated in elections, whose terms have not expired. "Lame duck" is an American political term first used in the 1700s to refer to a stockbroker who did not satisfy his obligations.
Lame duck sessions tend to be notoriously unproductive, especially when there is a turnover in the majority party. The party losing power is in a sour mood and just wants to go home; the party entering power usually prefers to wait until reinforcements arrive in January and wants most business put off so they can put their own stamp on it.
While Republicans easily took over the House of Representatives and picked up at least six seats in the Senate in Tuesday's elections, the new Republican members will not be sworn in until January, with the exception of Sen.-elect Mark Kirk, who was elected to take President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat in Illinois. That means Democrats still will command big majorities in the lame duck session.
Lawmakers in both parties, however, are keen to immediately deal with the looming expiration of Bush-era tax cuts on Dec. 31. Taxes on income, investments, and large estates are set to go up, while the $1,000 per-child tax credit would be cut in half and couples would lose relief from the so-called marriage penalty. That quirk in U.S. tax law makes some married couples pay higher taxes than an unmarried pair reporting similar earnings in individual returns.
President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he would invite both Democratic and Republican leaders to the White House this month to negotiate taxes. "My hope is, is that given we all have an interest in growing the economy and encouraging job growth, that we're not going to play brinksmanship, but instead we're going to act responsibly," Obama said.
Extending tax cuts is a top political priority, but the world will not end if they should expire for a short while: more money simply would be withheld from workers' paychecks. And next April's income tax reports to government collectors are based on tax provisions in effect in 2010.
Other items, however, simply cannot be put off until next year.
Not a single spending bill, legislation to pay for the functioning of government agencies, has passed. A stopgap bill is needed to avoid a government shutdown.
Doctors face a 23 percent cut in their Medicare reimbursements, the government's share for medical insurance for the elderly and some others. Another 6.5 percent cut looms on Jan. 1. That needs to be fixed.
It gets worse. Tax cuts that expired at the end of last year have not been extended, and that is a problem that needs to be fixed this year. It would be too late to deal with it next year because the tax-reporting season already will have begun. More than 26 million families would face tax bills in April averaging $2,600 higher because of the alternative minimum tax, or AMT. It was enacted four decades ago to make sure the rich do not use tax shelters to avoid paying at least some tax, but it now threatens to reach into the middle class because it never has been updated for inflation.
"That's a political train wreck that I can't imagine they'll let happen," said Republican tax lobbyist Ken Kies.
A popular deduction on state and local sales and property taxes already has expired and needs to be revived this year so taxpayers can claim it when preparing their taxes next year. Also in that category are popular tax breaks on college tuition, the widely backed research and development tax credit and a roster of other business tax cuts.
And without action by Congress, 2 million unemployed people will lose jobless benefits averaging about $300 a week nationwide by the end of December. It is by no means a sure thing that the benefits could be extended in the postelection session.
One of the few sure bets is that Congress will find a way to avoid a government shutdown when a stopgap spending bill expires Dec. 3. The lame duck session begins Nov. 15 for a week and then resumes after the Thanksgiving holiday on Nov. 25.
Some lawmakers are holding out the possibility of wrapping all 12 unfinished spending bills for the budget year that began Oct. 1 into a massive $1.1 trillion catchall bill, but that now is a long shot, given the election results. Instead, another stopgap bill that would freeze budgets at current levels, perhaps until March, is needed to avoid a shutdown.
On the other hand, it is looking bleak for the annual defense policy bill, which has been passed every year for five decades. It is caught in a standoff over the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on homosexuals serving openly in the military.
Here is a look at the rest of the agenda and how it may shake out:
_Taxes: Obama supports renewing most of the Bush-era tax cuts, but not those for family incomes exceeding $250,000. Emboldened Republicans will insist, however, and with Democrats splintered, many observers think a one- or two-year extension of everything is most likely. Otherwise, it will fall to the new Congress to decide.
_Physician payments by Medicare, the government's main health program mainly for the elderly: As they always do, lawmakers are likely to address a 1997 law that is forcing cuts in Medicare's payments to doctors. But it is not clear how long a reprieve the doctors will get.
Then there are items that some lawmakers would like to do, but may not be able to:
_Nuclear weapons: Senate Democrats want to ratify the new START treaty between the United States and Russia that would cut each nation's nuclear arsenal by one-fourth.
_Unemployment benefits: Congress has always extended unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed when the jobless rate has been this high. But it took months this year for Congress to extend jobless benefits through the end of November, and Republicans are likely to insist that any further extension be financed by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. That could limit any extension to just a couple of months.
_Social Security, the government's main pension program for the elderly: Before the election, Democrats promised a vote on legislation to award a $250 payment to Social Security recipients, who are not receiving a cost-of-living increase this year. The measure failed to get even a Senate majority this year, much less the 60 votes required to stop debate and vote. This will not pass.
_Other leftovers: There also is unfinished legislation on food safety, child nutrition programs. They will be able to pass only if bipartisan consensus can be found.

Updated : 2021-07-24 20:24 GMT+08:00