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Ambition is curbed, but Democrats still have a lame-duck agenda

With a few weeks left in control of both houses of Congress, Democrats are pressing a scaled-back agenda that would extend middle-class tax cuts, fund the government and possibly repeal 'don't ask, don't tell.'

November 13, 2010|By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday to begin a complicated lame-duck session that will mark the last time Democrats will be in control of Congress for the foreseeable future.

Gone is any hint that Democrats will try to ram through the rest of the ambitious legislative goals President Obama outlined two years ago when he took office with a Democratic majority in both chambers. No one, for example, is talking about a controversial bill to reduce global warming pollution with a cap-and-trade system.

Still, Democrats are intent on closing out the 111th Congress with a few final strokes that could provide a fitting coda to what historians have called one of the most productive sessions in a generation.

Despite electoral losses that handed control of the House to Republicans and diminished Democrats' majority in the Senate, Democratic leaders are pressing an agenda that would extend middle-class tax cuts, fund the government and perhaps repeal the ban on openly gay men and women serving inthe military.

Yet nothing is certain in the new political climate. As many as 80 incoming House Republicans elected two weeks ago will arrive in town for freshman orientation in advance of their January swearing-in ceremony, and some plan to join a rally Monday to protest the Democrats' plans.

In addition, lawmakers who will be members of the 112th Congress will vote for their leaders next week. Rep. John A. Boehner (R- Ohio) is expected to become the next House speaker, while Democrats will decide whether to retain the outgoing speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), as their leader.

In the Senate, Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is expected to remain majority leader, with Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to continue leading the GOP.

And on Thursday, the new leadership is expected to visit Obama at the White House.

For Democrats, the question in the final weeks of the year is how far to push their agenda before relinquishing control, a situation that carries risks for both parties.

"They think it's the last shot at this for a long, long time," said Matt Bennett, a vice president at Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank in Washington. "When you have big majorities and the White House, which they have for the next three weeks, things become possible that don't seem possible."

Republicans must weigh the political costs of promoting a limited lame-duck agenda that obstructs Democratic initiatives.

Their preference is to focus these next few weeks on immediate fiscal matters. They intend to block what could be the last opportunity in years to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" ban on openly gay military personnel as well as a Democratic-led attempt to extend unemployment benefits to jobless Americans.

Though such stances could alienate moderates, GOP leaders have made it clear they see little reason to compromise after their gains in the Nov. 2 election. McConnell has said his goal is to make Obama a one-term president.

The biggest battle ahead probably will be over the extension of the President George W. Bush-era tax cuts. If Congress does not renew them by year's end, virtually every American taxpayer would pay higher taxes.

The White House has signaled a possible compromise that would permanently extend the tax breaks for families earning below $250,000 annually, or $200,000 for singles, while granting a temporary extension for higher wage earners.

Obama and most Democrats have long held that the tax cuts should be extended only for those earning less than $250,000. They argue that the nation cannot afford the additional $700-billion cost of tax breaks for the wealthy.

Republicans, though, insist that all tax cuts should be permanently extended.

The outcome of the tax debate may determine whether Democrats can advance other priorities, including those to improve food safety, expand the school lunch program or provide a path to citizenship for student immigrants.

"The dynamic of any lame-duck session is unpredictable," said Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), who has led GOP efforts for a limited session. "This one is probably more so than most."

Here are some other issues expected to be addressed:

—Congress faces a Dec. 3 deadline to fund the government or risk a shutdown. Democrats see in the annual appropriations bill an opportunity to pay for their priorities through next fall — and stall GOP budget slashing.

Republicans prefer an abbreviated measure that keeps the government running until shortly after the new Congress convenes Jan. 3, at which point they will try to cut spending back to 2008 levels.

Congress also must act by early December to prevent a 23% pay cut to physicians who treat Medicare patients.

—Repeal of the military's ban on openly gay service members is one of Obama's top goals in the Democrats' lame-duck agenda. The House-approved repeal is stalled in the Senate as Republicans, led by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, say time is needed to review a forthcoming Pentagon report.

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