Updated at 9:04 a.m. on November 29.
Despite their stated ambitions to pass a number of their remaining priorities in the second segment of the lame-duck session of the 111th Congress that begins this week, Democrats face the likelihood that action on most of those issues will be pushed into next year. They enter the week trying to firm up the schedule for the rest of a lame duck that now appears likely to stretch at least through December 17.
Democratic leaders in both houses will try to line up action on unemployment benefits, federal spending, middle-class tax cuts, immigration, and repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which bans service people who are openly gay. But even as they make those plans, Democrats are reserving the option to do the bare minimum -- extending government funding and existing income tax levels with short extensions -- before permanently shutting the doors on this session of Congress.
Senate action, or inaction, will control much of what will happen in both chambers. A Tuesday meeting between House and Senate leaders and President Obama may also determine what happens on the expiring 2001 and 2003 income tax cuts.
Following Senate passage of a bill increasing Food and Drug Administration power to regulate food safety by mid-week, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is expected to file several cloture motions.
Senate aides said he will set up action on the DREAM Act, a proposal that would establish a path for some illegal aliens to become citizens. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., has also announced possible House action on the legislation this week.
Reid also may file a motion to move on a defense authorization bill that would include a repeal of the so-called "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy on gays in the military. Reid has also said he’ll force votes on Democratic and GOP proposals to address expiring 2001 and 2003, Bush-era income tax cuts.
Action on those bills is likely to follow an effort by Democrats to extend federal unemployment benefits, which begin to expire for tens of thousands of Americans December 1. Odds that the benefits will expire before an extension is passed are high in the wake of the November 18 defeat of a House bill to extend the benefits. Senate Democrats also lack a clear plan on how to overcome GOP opposition to the extension if they are not offset with other spending cuts. The House vote fell short under the suspension of rules that required a two-thirds vote for passage. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Hoyer have both said they will continue pushing extension of the benefits this week.
While top appropriators continue to urge passage of an FY11 omnibus appropriations bill, both chambers in the coming week plan to pass two-week continuing resolutions that will keep the government funded through about December 17. The two-week CR makes it likely that Congress will have to work at least through December 17. Lawmakers could then pass an omnibus spending bill, but aides said another continuing resolution freezing most federal agencies’ funding is more likely.
Action on the Bush-era tax cuts could follow a similar course.
Pelosi and Hoyer say the House could vote this week on extending the tax cuts for families on incomes of up to $250,000. Incoming Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other Republicans want an up-and-down vote on extending all of the tax cuts, including those for the very top earners.
Reid said the Senate will vote on two tax-cut proposals -- probably one drafted by Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., that extends income tax rates only for Americans who earn less than $250,000 and on a second by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to permanently extend all the lower rates for everyone.
The expectation is that both proposals will fail, opening the door for compromise, or allowing the rates for all income brackets to rise. But the most likely result, many observers say, given the shortness of time, is a deal on a short-term extension of all the rates.
Reid faces a similar dilemma on defense authorization. Though most Republicans oppose a bill that includes the DADT repeal, moderates like Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, have said they will back it if Reid allows an open amendment process. But that course requires time that Reid does not have. In 2009, defense authorization took more than a week of floor time. Dropping “don’t ask, don’t tell” could be the only way to move the measure faster.
Senate passage of the DREAM Act this year also may be tough given the level of opposition from most Republicans and some Democrats. Despite White House efforts to sway Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and other Republicans, ratification of a new START treaty was always unlikely this year and remains a long-shot.
The Senate is poised, however, to pass a food safety bill. The House is expected to then pass the Senate version of the bill.
Before finishing the bill, the Senate will take closely watched votes on Monday or Tuesday on a three-year earmark ban and on two proposals to alter a health care overhaul tax provision. Those votes will likely fall short of an unusual 67-vote threshold.
Though Senate Republicans have agreed to a non-binding two-year earmark ban within their conference, Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., have won a Senate vote on three-year earmark ban that would apply to both parties. Backers acknowledge it is unlikely to get the 67 votes needed for approval.
Similarly, business groups have been hoping that a proposal from Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., to repeal a 1099 tax reporting provision in the health care law will pass because it has backing from all Republicans and some Democrats. If it does not, opponents of the provision hope an alternative partial repeal offered by Baucus will succeed. But it is more likely that both will fail.
Hoyer has said the House will take up a bill that incorporates multibillion-dollar federal settlements for the Pigford II black-farmer discrimination case and the Cobell Native American trust mismanagement case. The bill is not yet on the floor schedule.
Hoyer’s office has also announced plans to vote on a bill involving the tax deduction status of contributions made for the relief of earthquake victims in Haiti and Chile.
Meghan McCarthy contributed. contributed to this article.
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