Can Lame-Duck Congress Get Anything Done?

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The Senate is back in Washington on Monday for a lame-duck session. The first order of business is a bailout for the auto industry. The second may be an economic stimulus plan. It's unclear whether either measure can overcome Republican objections.


And top of the Democrats' agenda is a bailout for the auto industry if they can overcome the Republicans' objections. There's also talk of an economic stimulus plan and leadership posts to fill. NPR congressional correspondent David Welna joins us now to talk about that. Good morning.

DAVID WELNA: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, if the Democrats can come back with a stronger majority in January, which they will be, why are they tackling these big issues in this lame-duck session?

WELNA: Well, Renee, for one thing it could appear a bit impolitic for Congress to simply disappear for a couple of months after the election at a time when the nation's economy is crying out for life support. Democrats will indeed have bigger majorities when the next Congress is sworn in on January 6 - at least 20 more seats for House Democrats and six more seats for sure for Senate Democrats, with three more seats still in play. But in the meantime, during this sort of interregnum we have now, I think they feel they have to at least make a show of feeling the pain of their constituents and trying to do something about it in this lame-duck session.

MONTAGNE: And what about the prospects for a bailout of Detroit, U.S. automakers?

WELNA: Well, that's - I'd say slim to none right now. We will see the Senate make a stab today at trying to steer more money to the Big Three domestic automakers. The idea there is to combine $25 billion in loans for American carmakers to an extension of unemployment benefits that's already been approved by the House. But it's not clear that there are enough Senate Republicans onboard for such a bailout to get past a filibuster. And that's also why we won't see any stimulus package coming out of this lame-duck session, even though President-elect Obama has called for one.

The Senate is likely to extend unemployment benefits, and the House stands ready to convene on Wednesday should the Senate produce any other legislation. But, really, I think this lame-duck session is more setting the table for January when bigger Democratic majorities and a President Obama will tackle both an auto bailout and another stimulus package.

MONTAGNE: And there's also plenty of housekeeping to do - mentioned leadership posts that need to be filled and a couple of senators who are worth mentioning.

WELNA: Yes. Senate Republicans will likely have a fairly intense discussion tomorrow about Ted Stevens on the same day that he turns 85. He's the most senior Republican in Congress, but he's also been convicted on seven felony counts of corruption, and he's still waiting to find out whether Alaskans have in fact re-elected him. But some of Stevens' GOP colleagues are now saying that they don't want a convicted felon in their caucus, and they want him out.

And Democrats will also be meeting tomorrow to decide what to do about Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman. He's been caucusing with them and chairing the Homeland Security Committee, but he also campaigned for John McCain and two other GOP senators. And he even spoke at the GOP convention on McCain's behalf. And some Democrats want to punish Lieberman by stripping him of his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee. But they have to be careful because if Lieberman bolted and joined the Republicans, they'd regain the majority and control of the Senate until January.

MONTAGNE: And those lawmakers who will be choosing new leaders, that would be over in the House.

WELNA: Yes. It's really the House where the real struggles for leadership are going on. After a truly devastating election for House Republicans, Roy Blunt quit as their number two man, and California's Dan Lungren is challenging Minority Leader John Boehner for his job. House Democrats also have to find someone to replace Rahm Emanuel as their caucus chair since he's left to be President-elect Obama's chief of staff. But by far the most closely watched leadership struggle in the House is over the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee. It's a battle of the titans that's pitting current Chairman John Dingell, who's been in the House since 1955, against Henry Waxman, who has 20 years less seniority, but has also made quite a name for himself chairing the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. So that's something to watch this week. It should be quite an interesting week up on the hill.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much. NPR's David Welna.

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