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.
The House is to take up a Senate-passed child nutrition bill, which promotes healthier school lunches and has the support of first lady Michelle Obama.
Also on the House agenda is a last-ditch effort by Democrats to show they have not forgotten immigration policy. Legislation known as the Dream Act, which has stumbled once in the Senate, would provide a path to legal status for the children of illegal immigrants who either go to college or join the military.
Also on the to-do list:
—Senate Republicans have blocked a defense bill that would end the military's ban on gays serving opening. The Pentagon is to release a report Tuesday on how lifting "don't ask, don't tell" would affect military operations, and Democrats say they will try again to change the policy. Graham said he doesn't believe there are "anywhere near" the votes on the GOP side for a repeal right now. "So I think in a lame-duck setting, 'don't ask, don't tell' is not going anywhere.
—Obama says the new START treaty that would reduce nuclear weapons arsenals in the U.S. and Russia is a "national security imperative" and he wants the Senate to hold a ratification vote this year. But a key Republican, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, says the vote should be put off until next year. There are "higher priority items" in the lame-duck session, he said Sunday. The addition of more GOP senators in the new Senate will complicate passage.
—Democrats say they want to give the extension of unemployment benefits another shot. One possibility is tying it to the tax cut bill. Democrats could try to portray Republicans as supporting tax cuts for the rich that would cost $700 billion over 10 years while opposing help for the jobless.
—There are numerous other tax breaks, such as for research and development, that need to be renewed. Congress is facing a deadline to shield some 21 million from significant tax increases by adjusting the alternative minimum tax by the end of the year. The cost of that is about $70 billion.
On the sidelines, hearings are expected on new airport screening methods judged by some travelers as being too intrusive, and House Republicans will continue to develop the rules under which they will govern when they become the majority in January. Republicans must settle several disputes over who will become committee chairmen next year.
To darken everyone's holiday mood, the president's bipartisan deficit commission on Wednesday is expected to come out with its ideas on long-term cuts to Social Security, Medicare, defense and other federal spending needed to keep the government solvent.
"The commission probably is dead," Graham said.
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