November's congressional lame-duck session will provide a new battleground for old struggles -- taxes, health care, energy and a lot more as the 111th Congress tries to complete its unfinished business.
Both the House and Senate will meet for a week beginning Nov. 15, break for Thanksgiving, then return for more in the first week of December. Republicans and some Democrats will push for votes on extending all of the Bush-era tax cuts.
Twelve spending bills need to be addressed, probably in an omnibus package. The lame duck Congress could also be called on to consider recommendations due by Dec. 1 from a White House-created bipartisan deficit commission.
Whatever the outcome of the elections, the mood is likely to be combative. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs blamed GOP filibuster threats for the stalled budgetary measures that have come to define Washington futility in recent months.
"There is a system up there that is really broken," Gibbs said Thursday, adding, "That's the way this place works now. Sixty is the new 50."
President Obama met with the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate Thursday to approve agenda items for the lame duck. The president urged Senate leaders to push confirmation of several judicial nominees as well as his picks to run the OMB and serve as second-in-charge at the Justice Department.
The meeting was the last planned before the elections. Attending were House Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Hoyer, and Majority Whip Clyburn, Senate Majority Leader Reid, Majority Whip Durbin, and Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer of New York.
Gibbs said the president "is keenly aware" of the judicial appointments stalled in the Senate. In addition, the White House is pushing for confirmation of Jacob "Jack" Lew, who was nominated to head OMB in July, and James Cole, who was picked to serve as deputy attorney general in May. Republicans have been holding up Cole because he worked as an independent monitor of AIG.
To the dismay of the White House, Lew is being held up by a Democrat. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana has placed a hold on his nomination to show her unhappiness with Obama's moratorium on deep-water oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
"The budget planning process is under way and should be under way with a director with the type of bipartisan support that Jack has gotten through two committees," said Gibbs, calling it "a sad day when somebody is held up with such bipartisan support."
Gibbs also said the administration gives high priority to reauthorization of the child nutrition legislation and the White House later added ratification of the START Treaty in a read-out of the meeting.
Democratic leadership aides said Thursday that the heated debate over renewing the Bush era middle-class tax cuts will be among the items addressed in the lame duck session.
Late Wednesday, Reid filed cloture on three bills. One would provide incentives for alternative fuel vehicles; a pay-equity measure, and a bill to beef up food safety. The cloture votes are slated for Wednesday, Nov. 17.
"We have a long list of items that are out there as well," said Reid spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle. "Nothing has been set. We'll be working that out in the next few weeks."
The energy measure establishes tax incentives for natural gas and electricity fueled vehicles.
Passed by the House at the beginning of 2009, the pay equity proposal won Obama's endorsement in July. The bill amends existing anti-discrimination laws, requiring employers facing discrimination claims to prove pay disparities are not based on gender and loosening strictures around class-action suits.
The third bill marked for cloture also cleared the House last year, and would add muscle to the Food and Drug Administration's ability to tackle unsafe food. The bill empowers the FDA with more recall authority of tainted food and stepped-up oversight capabilities. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has blocked its consideration.
• House Democratic aides say their lame-duck agenda would also include:
• renewal of unemployment insurance due to expire Nov. 30;
• consideration of extending the "doc fix" for Medicare reimbursement to physicians, also set to expire on Nov. 30;
• a $4.5 billion child nutrition reauthorization bill.
Republicans claimed the Senate cloture votes slated for the one-week stretch in November rendered all-but-impossible any votes on the Bush-era tax cuts until at least December.
"They've blocked out the only week in November," said Don Stewart, Minority Leader McConnell's communications director. He added that the cloture schedule "almost guarantees that there's no way to do anything about those looming tax hikes." The tax cuts are scheduled to expire January 1.
Republicans, led by House Minority Leader Boehner, have been warning that Democrats might use the lame duck to push through major, contentious items -- particularly if Democrats lose their majority.
The GOP speculation about such a measure includes action on the DREAM Act, which would give the children of illegal immigrants a chance to earn legal residence, and a bill to essentially codify and build upon Obama's executive order that overturned former President George W. Bush's restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
But should Democrats lose their House majority, there is a real question about whether they try to ram through contentious items in their waning days in power.