Lame Duck Congress Returns To Some Heavy Lifting

Congress returns Monday to take up what looks like a year's worth of unfinished business: unemployment benefits, gays in the military, expiring tax cuts and funding to keep the government running. Out of the gate, the Senate will vote on banning earmarks and making a fix to the health care bill. NPR's David Welna tells all to host Liane Hansen.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The debt and deficit problems won't be on the agenda when the lame duck Congress waddles back to Washington tomorrow for a last hurrah. There may not be much hurrah there, though, for the Democrats, who still control both the House and the Senate. They still face looming deadlines on the budget, taxes and unemployment benefits and Republicans who'd rather deal with these issues after the GOP ranks expand in January.

NPR's David Welna joins us to explain everything. And, David, first of all, what will you watching for tomorrow?

DAVID WELNA: Well, Liane, you know, a lame duck session is always a last chance to try to finish a lot of things. So, Senate Democrats are pushing through a big bill with tougher rules on food safety that they wanted passed for a long time and which Republicans had blocked most of the year. But the price that Democrats are paying to get the GOP's cooperation on this is having to hold votes on two amendments tomorrow that are completely unrelated to food safety.

One of them asks senators to ban all earmarks permanently in the Senate. Republicans have made quite a show in the past couple of weeks swearing off earmarks but there are quite a few of them who don't think that's such a great idea. So, I think we're likely to see some of them actually opposing an earmark ban.

The other amendment being voted on tomorrow would knock out a provision from the new health care law that requires companies to file paperwork on all firms that they do more than $600 worth of business with each year. Republicans say that's too much of a hassle for small businesses, and President Obama says they may be right. So, expect to see maybe a first bit of the health care bill knocked out by the Senate.

And we'll also likely see votes in the House this week on repealing parts of the health care law. And interestingly, it's Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat, who's the big backer of that law who's actually sponsoring those measures. He's doing it to dare Republicans to vote against some parts of that law that most people support, such as allowing children to be covered by their family's health insurance until age 26.

HANSEN: In the introduction, I mentioned looming deadlines. What deadlines are looming this week?

WELNA: Well, on Tuesday, a temporary extension of long-term unemployment benefits runs out and that could cut off monthly checks for more than two million people over the Christmas season, unless Congress approves another extension. Senate Republicans blocked other attempts this year to extend those benefits. And I expect they'll do so again this time with the three-month extension the Democrats are proposing.

And Republicans are going to insist that other spending be cut to pay for any more of those jobless benefits.

HANSEN: I understand the same day, Tuesday, the Pentagon releases its study on don't ask, don't tell, the policy that bans gays from serving openly in the military. Will Congress pay attention to that?

WELNA: Well, yes, they will. This report's been highly anticipated because it examines the possible impact on the U.S. military should don't ask, don't tell be repealed. And such a repeal has already been approved by the House this year. And it's part of a big defense bill that Republicans have been blocking in the Senate, largely because it contains that repeal provision.

Republicans had earlier said the Senate should do nothing until the Pentagon finished its study. Well, it has now, and Democrats plan to bring that big defense bill up again in the Senate. But some Republicans are saying they still intend to block it unless the repeal provision is stripped out, which is unlikely to happen.

HANSEN: And if this wasn't a busy enough week, by Friday the government runs out of money.

WELNA: That's right, because Congress failed to pass any of the annual spending bills this year to keep the government in business. It looks like they'll just do another stop-gap bill that simply extends current spending levels probably until early next year. And that will give Republicans, who will control the House by then and half a dozen more seats in the Senate, a better crack at shaping spending bills to their liking - probably much more slim than they are right now.

HANSEN: And we may have buried the lead here but the Bush-era tax cuts expire at the end of the year.

WELNA: They do indeed, unless Congress acts to extend them. And it's quite likely most of those tax cuts will be extended in the lame duck session. The big questions are - will they be extended permanently or just for a year or two? And whether tax cuts for income above a quarter million dollars a household will be extended, something that Republicans and even some Democrats want done.

I think we're looking at a lame duck that will bump up against the next holiday season, Liane.

HANSEN: NPR's David Welna on Capitol Hill. Thank you, David.

WELNA: You're quite welcome.

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