(Reuters) - Congress convenes on Monday for the start of a post-election period called a “lame-duck session” that is likely to focus mainly on Bush-era tax cuts and government spending.
A lame-duck period comes between the congressional election in November and the start of the new Congress in January. During this time, Congress can be in session but operates with many lawmakers just voted out of office and with none of the newly elected members, except victorious incumbents.
This time around, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats will be closing out a four-year hold on power, after voters on November 2 decided to put Republicans in charge of the chamber starting in January.
The Senate will continue to be controlled by President Barack Obama’s Democrats but they will hold a smaller majority.
The lame-duck session is a time to try to complete action on long-stalled bills.
It could bog down if departing legislators lose interest or lack the political muscle to get their way. But a lame-duck session sometimes can be productive as the election jockeying is out of the way and lawmakers can vote their conscience.
The session could also be a preview of how Democrats and Republicans will interact next year.
The length is not fixed and depends largely on lawmakers’ appetite for work. They likely will work for a week or so, starting on Monday, and then break for the Thanksgiving Day holiday on November 25. Chances are, they will return after the holiday and possibly work through early December.
Broad tax cuts enacted when Republican George W. Bush was president expire at the end of 2010. Most Republicans and some Democratic lawmakers want to extend most, if not all, of them.
Obama and Republicans have put this issue at the top of their agenda for the lame-duck session.
Initially Obama proposed extending the tax cuts for people making up to $200,000 and families earning up to $250,000 a year. Earners above those levels would go back to paying higher taxes.
Republicans want all of the cuts extended permanently. Both plans would add to already large U.S. budget deficits, although the Republican plan would cost the government more.
Since the elections, Obama has taken a step toward the Republicans, signaling a willingness to extend the high-income tax cuts temporarily, while making the rest permanent.
On Sunday, presidential adviser David Axelrod said Obama would not go along with a permanent tax cut for the wealthiest.
Some Republicans have hinted they would go along with a slightly different approach as a possible compromise: temporarily extending all of the tax breaks for a couple years. Doing so would mean that the 2012 presidential election could be dominated by yet another tax debate.
At least two Democratic senators recently have proposed other tax cut “compromises” and more could surface.
If the parties cannot agree on a short-term plan, the tax cuts will run out on December 31 but the new Republican-heavy Congress convening in January would likely reintroduce them immediately.
If there is progress during the lame-duck session, some other tax law extensions could be folded in. Those include incentives to encourage ethanol, wind and solar energy.
The other top priority of the lame-duck session will be passing legislation to fund a range of government programs. Currently, there is only enough money approved by law to keep federal agencies operating through December 3.
Without the additional funding, federal law enforcement, education, agriculture, space exploration, foreign policy activities, retirement benefits and other programs would have to shut down.
Congress could approve government funding through the rest of this fiscal year, which ends next September 30., or it could do another stop-gap bill, keeping government agencies operating through the first part of next year. Then, it would be up to the new Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate to decide on spending levels for the rest of the year.
Two big questions: Will Republicans try to impose across-the-board cuts or controversial amendments to any of the spending bills, such as prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas pollution blamed for global warming? If so, will Obama veto such bills and risk getting into a fight with Republicans that could bring temporary government shutdowns?
Some senators are pushing for a vote on a bill to impose new U.S. duties on imports from countries with fundamentally undervalued currencies. The legislation, akin to one passed by the House, is mainly aimed at China.
The bill looks set to languish during the lame-duck session as trade has lower priority than domestic issues like tax cuts and unemployment benefits, congressional aides said.
A China vote is unlikely to happen if Democrats decide they do not have the political backing to take on a lot of issues in the lame-duck session.
Most of the new senators will have to wait until January to be sworn in. But three will likely take office during the lame-duck session, allowing them to take part in the early fights over spending, taxes and other hot-button issues.
The three -- Republican Mark Kirk from Illinois and Democrats Joe Manchin from West Virginia and Chris Coons from Delaware -- are filling out terms for seats left vacant by senators’ resignations or death.
The result will be a slightly more conservative Senate than the one before the elections.
Some 800,000 jobless Americans will lose their unemployment benefits at the end of November if Congress does not renew them. Congress has let the program lapse twice this year as Republicans argued that the cost of extending benefits should be covered by budget cuts elsewhere.
Another showdown could be looming, although Democrats could attach an extension to any must-pass spending bills or to an extension of the Bush tax cuts to win Republican support.
Measures that some legislators want to debate during the lame-duck session, most of which face tough odds, include:
-- Stricter controls on offshore oil drilling and steps to encourage cleaner alternative fuels;
-- Ending the Pentagon’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that allows homosexual soldiers to serve in the military only as long as they keep their sexual preferences private;
-- What to do with terrorism suspects held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Obama wants top suspects including the self-professed mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, tried in a civilian court while Republicans are demanding they face military trials.
-- Senate ratification of a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia that would result in a modest cut in both countries’ nuclear arsenals;
-- An expensive, $17 billion “doc fix” so that doctors participating in the federally backed Medicare healthcare program do not suffer steep pay cuts.
Also, a House panel is set to hold public trials for two veteran House Democrats accused of ethics lapses: Former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel and Representative Maxine Waters. Both deny the charges and both coasted to easy re-elections.
Reporting by Richard Cowan, Thomas Ferraro, Donna Smith and Andy Sullivan; Editing by John O'Callaghan