Congress' Lame Duck Session Could Be Memorable

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Lawmakers have barely seven weeks to prevent automatic tax hikes as well as mandatory across-the-board spending cuts that could be a blow to the economy. Congressional hearings on the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, meanwhile, will likely be overshadowed by former CIA chief David Petraeus' career-ending extramarital affair.


Congress is beginning a busy post-election session. Lawmakers have weeks to prevent higher taxes, and spending cuts, due to take effect at the end of the year. Then there are hearings on the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, and the scandal over the affair that ended the career of CIA Chief David Petraeus. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: During the Senate's first session since the election, Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid declared Congress is but a vote away from solving the problem of tax cuts expiring at year's end.


SEN. HARRY REID: We could avert the fiscal cliff for 98 percent of American families, and 97 percent of small businesses. Today, the House must only consider the Senate-passed bill freezing tax rates for those making less than $250,000 a year.

WELNA: No way, was Republican leader Mitch McConnell's response. Now, he said, is no time to let taxes go up, even for income above a quarter-million dollars. He added, it's President Obama's job to find a solution to the impasse.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: The time for the president to lead, is now. And that means offering a concrete plan that takes into account the fact that half the Congress opposes tax hikes - not because we're selfish, not because we're stubborn, but bec - we know it is the wrong thing to do.

WELNA: But should Democrats agree to curb spending on entitlements, such as Social Security and Medicare? McConnell said Republicans are ready to find common ground on generating more revenue.


MCCONNELL: Not - as I said - because any of us actually thinks the government needs any more of it but because Democrats, from the president on down, have said they're willing to punish everyone if they don't get it.

WELNA: Meanwhile, senators got briefed behind closed doors on the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that claimed four American lives. Tennessee Republican Bob Corker hopes the hearings, beginning tomorrow, shed more light on the incident.

SEN. BOB CORKER: It was all this miscommunication, misleading, fog - I don't know what you want to call it. But, you know, I think that's the piece that still has people scratching their heads.

WELNA: But it's the FBI's investigation of an extramarital affair between then-CIA Director David Petraeus and his biographer, that's really prompted some head-scratching on Capitol Hill. Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins wants to know why it took so long for lawmakers to learn of the affair.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: I am puzzled by much of what has occurred in the FBI investigation.

WELNA: For House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Petraeus' misbehavior appears a matter of personal indiscretion.


REP. NANCY PELOSI: Why somebody would be personally indiscreet is their own problem. Why they would do it in emails is beyond my imagination. But in any event...


PELOSI: ... the honorable thing was done. The general has resigned.

WELNA: Despite that, calls are growing for Petraeus, himself, to testify before Congress.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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