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Congress' Lame-Duck, Two-Minute Drill

Capitol dome

U.S. Capitol dome. Dennis Cook/AP Photo hide caption

itoggle caption Dennis Cook/AP Photo

This is the time after midterm elections when Congress resembles a football game where one team that's down by a touchdown goes into a hurry-up offense as it tries to score during the last two minutes of the game.

Congress' sense of urgency is prompted by the reality that its legislative days left are dwindling before lawmakers leave for their winter holiday break. And in the short time remaining, several consequential items must be attended to or else there will be too many unhappy voters to count.

Raising the debt limit to keep funding the government is obviously a major agenda item.

Then there's the question of how to proceed on the Bush tax cuts. The trillion dollar question, of course, is whether the cuts are extended to all taxpayers or those with incomes below $250,000.

And as if those aren't big enough issues to address, there's the continuing impasse on how to extend unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed whose current benefits come to an end Tuesday.

Politics Daily's Patricia Murphy provides a useful summary of what's left to do during the lame-duck session.  As she notes, this is all happening against a backdrop of Democratic despondency, at least in the House, as the majority party makes the transition to its future minority status.

As Murphy observes, extending unemployment insurance as well as the so-called Doc Fix, an action that would keep Medicare reimbursements to doctors from dropping precipitously, has, like the Bush tax cuts, turned into a game of chicken between Republicans and Democrats.

Democrats want to extend both jobless benefits and the Doc Fix and Republicans say they're OK with that, so long as equivalent amounts can be cut from federal spending elsewhere so as not to add to the deficit.

Merrill Goozner at Fiscal Times also has a slightly different list of policies the lame-duck Congress must deal with before its members leave the nation's capital for the holidays.

As he wryly notes, during this season of charity we might want to direct some sympathy towards the Internal Revenue Service and the makers of tax-preparation software. Congress' delay in dealing with how to extend the Bush tax cuts will leave the IRS scrambling to update forms at the last minute.

Keeping with the football simile I began this post with, Congress would normally choose to punt at moments like this since that's how it normally deals with the big issues when partisanship means widespread agreement is near impossible to achieve.

But it's already punted on these issues which is how it reached the point of its current urgency. So punting is no longer an option.

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