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Congress' Christmas Paradox: Many Big Bills, Too Little Time

Congress' pre-Christmas to-do list isn't for the faint-hearted. i i

Congress' pre-Christmas to-do list isn't for the faint-hearted. Evan Vucci/AP Photo hide caption

itoggle caption Evan Vucci/AP Photo
Congress' pre-Christmas to-do list isn't for the faint-hearted.

Congress' pre-Christmas to-do list isn't for the faint-hearted.

Evan Vucci/AP Photo

Updated at 1:47 pm — The Senate approved the Obama-Republican compromise to extend the Bush-era tax cuts and unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed by a 81 to 19 vote.

Approval was expected in the Senate. While passage in the House is also thought likely, a number of Democrats there want to make changes to the legislation which could complicate matters.

— original post below —

Few thoughts spur members of Congress to action as much as the fearsome possibility of being stuck in Washington until Christmas Eve.

Add to that, this year's special prod that Democrats will turn over House control to Republicans in January and you pretty much have all the explanation you need for why Congress is now moving at a breakneck pace to pass several mega important pieces of legislation — and a nuclear arms control treaty — a week before Christmas.

Of course, this being Congress it can't be as simple as taking each bill up separately and trying to pass each on its own merits. Instead, it always has to be the legislative equivalent of a Rube Goldberg contraption.

Anyway, here's a guide to the incredible to-do list the 111th Congress has in the waning days.

Bush tax-cut extension: A Senate vote Wednesday to pass the legislation arising from the compromise between President Obama and congressional Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts was to be followed by House consideration.

But while finally acknowledging that there's too much momentum behind the deal to stop it, some House Democrats want to make changes to the agreement to make its estate tax provisions less generous to the wealthy.

That effort has little chance of passage but some Democrats feel compelled to try anyway. Meanwhile, they've been warned by Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in that chamber that they'd better not change a thing.

Still alive and well is the Senate Republicans' ultimatum that they would stop any action from being taken until the tax-cut and federal spending bills were addressed.

So if Democrats try to change the tax deal and cause it to collapse, the Senate might as well pack up and turn off the lights for the holiday. At least, it would seem that way.

Federal spending legislation: Senate Democrats unveiled their $1.1 trillion federal spending bill Tuesday, just days ahead of the expiration of the latest "continuing resolution," a stop-gap measure used to fund the government when there's not enough time or agreement to do a proper spending bill.

While the legislation cuts about $26 billion from Obama's recommended budget, it contains many earmarks. This has led some Republicans to inveigh against the bill and to demand that its consideration be put off until January.

But remember, Senate Republicans also said they won't allow a vote on any other piece of business until not just the tax-cut extension but this spending issue is disposed of. So there's something of a push-mi-pull-yu problem here.

Regardless, Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, has said he plans a weekend vote on the spending bill.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell: The House is scheduled to vote Wednesday on stand-alone DADT legislation after the Senate last week failed to advance a defense authorization bill with a DADT repeal embedded in it.

The House has the votes to get it passed. But there's the aforementioned problem of whether Senate Republicans would let it come to a vote if the spending legislation isn't out of the way.

There's also the question of whether there are 60 votes in the Senate for repeal.

Then there's are procedural issues. Some Senate Republicans would want the chance to amend a standalone bill. That's often a way to try to kill a controversial bill.

But Reid could use Senate procedure to block amendments which would likely cause an equal and opposite negative reaction from Republicans. In short, that could wind up as another big, time-consuming mess in a time-strapped Congress.

New START: President Obama has pulled out all the stops to get the New START treaty with Russia ratified by the Senate. But most Senate Republicans have objected to passage during the lame-duck session.

The president insists it must get done. And some cynical observers believe that their may be some linkage between the fact that Sen. Jon Kyl, the Arizona Republican who has taken the lead on START negotiations with the White House, was the same senator behind the estate-tax provision in the tax-cut compromise with the White House.

But as they say in science, correlation is not necessarily causality. Suffice it to say that the president's ardent desire to get START approved by the Senate did probably give Republicans a bit more leverage generally.

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As if all this weren't enough, it appears Sen. Jim DeMint, the South Carolina Republican, plans to gum up the works by forcing readings of both the spending bill and the New Start treaty in their entireties on the Senate floor.

Yes, Virginia it's true. Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms, to paraphrase Winston Churchill.

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