A statue of George Washington stands in the Capitol Rotunda on Capitol Hill. Congress returns Monday for a hectic lame-duck session.
Congress returns Monday for a lame-duck session that will provide Democrats their final taste of Capitol Hill dominance before Republicans take over the House and expand their Senate minority caucus in January.
But with the controlling party limping back after an Election Day thrashing, it remains unclear whether Democrats will decide to close out the final four weeks or so of the 111th Congress with a bang or a whimper.
"There is so much uncertainty going on," says Sam Rosen-Amy of the nonprofit OMB Watch, which tracks federal budget policy and spending. "I have no idea what might happen."
The uncertainty is especially strong with Republicans suggesting they'll block any measure lacking a strong consensus and Democrats in a quandary over their leadership and tone going forward.
The Fate Of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'
What is guaranteed: Congress will have to quickly decide what to do about Bush-era tax cuts scheduled to expire at the end of the year. Members must also deal with a dozen current-year spending bills that they have yet to pass more than a month into the 2011 fiscal year.
What is far less clear is whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, other Senate Democrats and the White House will go to the mat on issues that include a high-profile measure that would end the "don't ask, don't tell" ban on openly gay Americans serving in the military.
"Clearly the president and his staff realize that if we don't get don't ask, don't tell repealed now, it will be a very long time before we have the opportunity again," says Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and head of the pro-repeal Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
The issue took on new relevancy this week when a leaked Pentagon study due to President Obama on Dec. 1 suggested that there would be little risk in repealing the measure, which Congress passed in 1993. The Supreme Court on Friday declined a Republican gay rights group's request to stop enforcement of the ban while a lower court reviews its constitutionality.
Latino activists are also watching to see whether the freshly re-elected Reid will make good on his win-or-lose campaign promise to pursue a measure that gives children of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship through education and military service.
And other pending measures also hang, but barely, in the lame-duck balance — including one that would set renewable electricity standards and another that would provide new bargaining rights to police and firefighters.
All hinge on the question of whether Democrats return to Capitol Hill on Monday defeated or defiant.
The Bush-Era Tax Cuts
The brief session is expected to be dominated by debate over the fate of the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, which disproportionately benefited higher income taxpayers.
Democrats have argued that the cuts, which expire at the end of the year, should be extended only to families earning less than $250,000. Resurgent Republicans, who will take over the House under presumptive Speaker John Boehner, want all the cuts made permanent — at a cost that OMB Watch has estimated at more than $5 trillion, including debt serving and related costs, over the next decade.
Republicans have yet to put forth a plan to pay for the high-income tax cut extension.
The tax-cut prospects became increasingly muddied in recent days by competing accounts of where Obama stands on the issue. The White House, which has opposed extending the cuts to people who earn more than $250,000, has attempted to beat back a report in the Huffington Post that quoted top Obama adviser David Axelrod as suggesting that the president had stepped back from that position.
"We're willing to discuss how we move forward," Axelrod later said in an e-mail to the National Journal, "but we believe that it's imperative to extend the tax cuts for the middle class, and don't believe we can afford a permanent extension of tax cuts for the wealthy."
The coming debate has also been complicated in recent days by deep cuts proposed by the heads of Obama's bipartisan deficit commission.
"The new report," says Rosen-Amy, the OMBWatch federal fiscal policy analyst, "is going to retrench partisans on both sides."
Control Of Spending
The nation's fiscal year began in October, but the government is currently operating under a congressional resolution that continues funding of the past year while a dozen spending bills have yet to be passed.
That resolution that essentially keeps government open expires Dec. 3, leaving Congress with a choice: either approve the 12 spending bills in one big package, or pass another resolution that allows the government to continue operating under 2010 budget levels until sometime after the new Congress convenes.
The latter would give Republicans, who take over the House in January, more control over the spending for the remainder of the fiscal year — a scenario many conservatives prefer.
Path To Citizenship Just A 'DREAM'?
In his tough re-election campaign in Nevada, Reid relied on Latino voters for his edge over Republican Sharron Angle, a Tea Party favorite. One of his promises was to raise the so-called "DREAM Act" legislation during the lame-duck session.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid enlisted the support of boxer Manny Pacquiao to court Latino voters.
The bipartisan measure makes children of illegal immigrants eligible for a six-year path to citizenship that hinges on the completion of a college degree or two years of military service.
Democrats had tried to attach it to the Defense Department spending bill earlier this year.
"Here's what we know: Reid promised in a very clear way that he would bring this up, win or lose," says Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the liberal Center for American Progress.
"Reid still has a job as Senate majority leader in no small part because of the high, high turnout of Latino voters in Nevada," she says.
If the measure doesn't make it into the defense bill — GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona and others oppose its inclusion — and Reid fails to raise it on the Senate floor, Kelley says, "it will not go unnoticed by the Latino community."
Race To The Finish
Whatever the agenda, it will be a race to the finish with enormous economic stakes.
Or, as Rosen-Amy puts it: "The result could be a hectic lame-duck session with trillions of dollars in spending on the table."
And that has the potential to produce, he says, "legislation motivated by political expediency rather than sound fiscal policy."