As members of Congress return to Capitol Hill on Monday for the final leg of the lame-duck session, they do so knowing that the next several weeks represent the last days of dominance for Democrats in Washington for the foreseeable future.
Unlike the first two years of the Obama administration, when the president's party wielded huge majorities in both houses of Congress, Democrats now face a future without the chairmanships of key committees in the House or the votes in either chamber to pass bills without significant bipartisan support.
With their power slipping away, Democrats are now weighing which base-pleasing issues -- such as immigration and gay rights -- will get precious time on the legislative calendar, and which others must be shelved indefinitely. Complicating that calculation is a host of time-sensitive and high-priced items, like an extension of unemployment benefits and the expiring Bush tax cuts, that Congress must either pass now or allow to expire.
To add insult to injury for the Democrats, the House this week will vote on whether to censure Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) for his 11 violations of House rules, while the Senate will swear in Sen.-elect Mark Kirk, the Republican from Illinois, to take over President Obama's prized Senate seat and give Republicans a crucial added vote in the upper chamber.
With time winding down and deadlines looming, here are the issues that lame-duck Congress will consider:
- Funding the Federal Government.
Congress must act on a "continuing resolution" before Dec. 4 to continue to fund the government at current spending levels or risk a government shutdown. With none of the 12 appropriations bills passed, Democrats and Republicans will also have to come to an agreement about passing all of the measures together in a massive omnibus bill or pass a temporary spending measure that would allow the next Congress to take it up in 2011.
- The Bush Tax Cuts
. The Bush-era tax cuts that Democrats describe as a "time bomb" will return to 2001 levels (as the legislation originally called for) unless Congress acts this month. Republicans and some Democrats want all of the tax cuts -- including those on income, estates and dividends, as well as the child tax credit, the marriage penalty and the Alternative Minimum Tax -- to remain at today's rates permanently for all income levels, while the White House and top Democrats are pushing to keep the cuts only for families making less than $250,000 a year. A deadlock in Congress means all taxes will go up.
- Unemployment Benefits
. People out of work for 26 weeks or longer won't get unemployment checks after Tuesday without Congressional action. Republicans say they'll approve them if they're paid for with cuts elsewhere in the government, a choice Democrats have resisted all year.
- Medicare Payments for Doctors
, The House will vote Monday on keeping payments for doctors treating Medicare patients at current levels instead of letting doctors' rates drop by a double-digit percentage, as they're scheduled to do this week. The Senate will take it up later in the session, but Republicans are expected to balk at the multi-billion-dollar price tag of the temporary bill.
- The DREAM Act:
Look for action Wednesday on the DREAM Act, a bill that would give young illegal immigrants a path to citizenship if they complete two years of college or two years in the military. The DREAM Act has become a top priority for the Latino community this year as it became clear that comprehensive immigration reform would not be politically viable. As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid campaigned for re-election, he promised immigration activists that he would bring the DREAM Act to the floor for a vote this year.
- Don't Ask Don't Tell
. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, has led the charge against the portion of the defense authorization bill that would begin to lift the ban on gays serving openly in the military. McCain has demanded congressional hearings on the Pentagon report about the issue, which will be released Tuesday. To appease McCain, the Armed Services Committee will hold hearings on Thursday and Friday of this week. But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) predicted Sunday that the issue and the Defense bill won't make it through Congress this year. "It's not going anywhere," Graham said.
- START Treaty
. President Obama has called the nuclear reduction treaty with Russia his top foreign policy priority for the lame-duck session, but a major push from the White House has done nothing to ease opposition from Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the second-ranking Republican in the Senate. Without Kyl's support, Obama won't get the treaty approved by the Senate this year, forcing him to restart START negotiations in the next Congress.
The House and Senate gavel into session on Monday, and leaders say they'll stay in Washington until their work is done.