Reporting from Washington — Senate passage of an $858-billion tax plan and House approval of a repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy against gays in the military reset the clock Wednesday on the final hours of the lame-duck Congress, which could pass a raft of landmark legislation or nothing at all.
A determining vote is expected Thursday in the House. If House Democrats agree to pass President Obama's tax-cut compromise as written in the Senate, there may be time for more action in the Senate, including the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal and approval of the arms reduction treaty with Russia, among other items.
If the House instead defeats the plan or passes an amended version, the Senate is even less likely to consider anything else before adjournment.
The stakes were underscored in a flurry of threats and maneuvers traded by Democrats and Republicans. Conservative Republicans threatened to force lengthy public readings of massive bills, while Democrats warned of sessions through the holidays and beyond.
Amid the skirmishing, the Senate on Wednesday approved the tax-cut package, 81 to 19, a rare bipartisan vote that left House Democrats in a politically difficult spot.
They remained at odds with the White House over the deal struck with congressional Republicans to extend the tax rates passed during the George W. Bush administration at all levels — including the 2% of American families earning beyond $250,000. But Obama, speaking at the White House, urged lawmakers to set aside their differences and pass "this essential economic package."
Republicans in the House are largely behind the proposal but face pressure from prominent party leaders and "tea party" groups to oppose new deficit spending.
In the Senate, 13 Democrats, five Republicans and one independent voted against the package.
Senators shot down three amendments — one favored by Republicans to permanently extend all tax cuts and repeal the estate tax; another favored by the GOP to pay for the jobless aid from spending cuts elsewhere; and a liberal proposal to extend the tax cuts only to those who earn less than $250,000.
The package would extend the Bush-era tax cuts for two years for virtually every American taxpayer and reinstate the lapsed estate tax at a 35% rate. Democrats prefer a 45% rate.
The package also would provide unemployment assistance through 2011 for as many as 7 million jobless Americans whose extended aid is otherwise expiring, and establish a 2-percentage-point payroll tax holiday for each worker.
Democrats in the House began to acknowledge that they had little power to alter the bill without launching an extended debate across the Capitol that could further endanger their priorities.
"The White House will get what it wants," said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks). "They want the bill delivered to the president's desk, not delivered to the Senate even with modest changes."
Democrats were most opposed to the estate tax provision. Party leaders Wednesday appeared to be devising a way to allow Democrats to express their opposition without substantially altering the bill.
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) said the outcome of Thursday's expected vote was inevitable.
The House measure repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, essentially a repeat of a similar vote in May, was intended to boost that Democratic goal as leaders plotted a strategy through more hostile territory in the Senate before lawmakers go home for the holidays.
Along with other top Democratic measures — an arms treaty with Russia and a youth immigration act — the repeal would stand little chance of passage next year, when Republicans take control of the House and increase their numbers in the Senate.
But as the bill moves to the Senate, it encounters a tangle of competing priorities and stiffening GOP opposition.
Republican senators last week vowed to hold up all legislation until after a compromise tax deal and a spending bill were settled. Yet, as the tax deal passed the Senate on Wednesday, Republicans signaled they were no closer to moving forward on any of the Democratic priorities.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republicans took aim at a $1.1-trillion omnibus spending bill to fund the government through the fiscal year. The bill, laden with earmarks requested by members of both parties, was released Tuesday and faced immediate opposition from Republicans who instead urged the Senate to take up a bare-bones resolution.
One possible exception to the partisan bottleneck was the arms reduction treaty with Russia, called New START, a White House priority that nine Republican senators voted to bring to the floor for the start of debate Wednesday.
But the treaty faces significant resistance. Eight Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), said there would not be enough time to properly debate the treaty. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said he wanted to have the entire treaty read aloud by the Senate clerk.