The Leftovers: What's on Tap for Congress's Final Session
Lawmakers return Monday for a post-election "lame duck" session that will represent weakened Democrats' last chance to achieve some legislative priorities before the new, more Republican-heavy Congress is seated.
The following are the major issues awaiting lawmakers' attention:
SPENDING: Congress must provide appropriations to keep the government running throughout the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. A stopgap measure, which expires Dec. 3, was passed because Congress hadn't finished work on any of the 12 spending bills that usually finance the government. Democratic leaders would like to package the 12 bills into one omnibus measure and pass full-year funding at roughly current levels. Republicans may push for a two- or three-month stopgap bill, then revisit spending levels next year after they have control of the House and more power in the Senate.
TAX CUTS: Tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush expire Dec. 31. President Barack Obama wants to make permanent the income-tax cuts for families with less than $250,000 of annual income, but let upper-income tax cuts lapse. Republicans want to make all the Bush tax cuts permanent. Mr. Obama has said he is open to compromise. A likely outcome is a one- or two-year extension of all the cuts.
UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS: A federal program of extended benefits for long-term unemployed Americans expires Nov. 30. Democrats want to extend them further, but Republicans are expected to resist—or at least to insist that the cost be offset by spending cuts. Some Democrats want a deal with Republicans under which the unemployment benefits and the upper-income tax cuts are both extended.
DOCTORS FEES: A scheduled 26% cut in Medicare payments to doctors has repeatedly been postponed. Initially put into law to cut program costs, the provision has been blocked in response to pressure from doctors and amid concern that physicians would stop treating Medicare patients. The latest delay in the payment cut ends Nov. 30.
FOOD SAFETY: The Senate is expected to take up a bill to expand the power of the Food and Drug Administration to regulate food safety. If the Senate overcomes procedural obstacles and passes the bill, the measure would have to be reconciled with a version passed by the House.
START TREATY: A new nuclear-arms treaty with Russia awaits ratification by the Senate. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D., Mass.) is pushing for a vote, calculating that chances dim next year when Republicans will have more power in the Senate.
EARMARKS: Senate Republicans will consider a ban on GOP members requesting earmarks—or appropriations, tax benefits and other provisions inserted into legislation by lawmakers for projects usually in their districts.