WASHINGTON — The unemployed and millionaires. Doctors and black farmers. Illegal immigrants hiding from the law and gays hiding in the military. Along with just about everybody else, they all have something at stake as Congress struggles to wrap up its work for the year.
Lawmakers, after taking Thanksgiving week off, arrive in town Monday along with the Capitol Christmas tree for the final stretch of the postelection session. Facing a daunting agenda, they could have that tree in their sights well into Christmas week.
At the top of the to-do list are the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, enacted in 2001 and 2003 and due to expire at year's end. President Barack Obama and most Democrats want to retain them for any couple earning $250,000 or less a year. Republicans are bent on making them permanent for everybody, including the richest.
The cuts apply to rates on wage income as well as to dividends and capital gains. A failure to act would mean big tax increases for people at every income level.
Obama has scheduled a meeting at the White House with Republican leaders on Tuesday, and possible options for compromise will be on the table, including providing a temporary extension for the wealthy.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has suggested that the Senate hold two votes: one on the Democratic plan confining the tax cut extension to the middle class, the other on Republican leader Mitch McConnell's plan to extend the cuts to everyone. If both are defeated, as anticipated, then the real negotiations begin.
"There will be bipartisan support in the lame duck to extend all the tax cuts for two or three years, and I think that vote will be had before the end of the year," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Sunday. "And if the president doesn't support that, I think he's running a risk of making the economy weaker."
Congress also has a Dec. 3 deadline to pass a temporary spending bill to avoid a government shutdown. The Senate hasn't passed a single spending bill for the budget year that began Oct. 1. Democrats are working on a catchall $1.1 trillion to fund the government's day-to-day operations. Republicans, fresh off their election victory, are unlikely to go along.
"If this election showed us anything, it's that Americans don't want Congress passing massive trillion-dollar bills that have been thrown together behind closed doors," said McConnell, R-Ky.
One idea is to fund the government at current levels through February, when the next Congress and its influx of anti-spending conservatives, will deal with the matter.
If the pre-Thanksgiving first week of the lame-duck session is any indication, the chances aren't good that Congress will accomplish much in the weeks ahead.
The House tried, and failed, to extend federal unemployment checks for the 2 million people whose benefits will run out during the holiday season. Republicans objected, saying the $12.5 billion cost of the three-month extension should be paid for so it doesn't add to the deficit.
The Senate's main achievement was approval of a long-delayed settlement with black farmers and American Indians who say they were swindled out of aid, subsidies and royalties in past dealings with the government. Under the agreement awaiting House approval, black farmers would receive almost $1.2 billion and American Indians $3.4 billion.
The Senate also postponed, for a month, a 23 percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors; it was to begin on Dec. 1. The House is expected to go along, giving lawmakers time to come up with a longer-term plan to avoid cuts that could prompt doctors to stop seeing Medicare patients.
As early as Monday night, the Senate could pass and send to the House a measure that gives the Food and Drug Administration greater authority to order food recalls and inspect imported food.
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