Lame Duck Status Update

Thus far, the lame duck session has been...sort of lame.

Congress has been out of session for Thanksgiving this week, and the previous week, the first of session after the midterm elections, was consumed largely with new-member orientation activities and leadership elections.

As a result, not much has gotten done.

Congress will return on Monday, and the legislative calendar looks a lot like it did before the midterm elections. Here's what's happened since then:

  • The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act advanced in the Senate, clearing two procedural hurdles in the week before Thanksgiving. The Senate will be able to vote on the bill itself when Congress returns next week. This bill appears poised to pass before the end of the year.
  • The Paycheck Fairness Act stalled in the Senate on a procedural vote. A bill introduced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, it attacks gender-based paycheck inequity by inserting more specific language into previous employment-rights legislation. For instance, it specifies that employers are on the hook for punitive (in addition to compensatory) damages. It also creates grants for organizations to train women and girls in negotiating tactics. Every Republican voted against it except Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who didn't vote.
  • The House cleared the Telework Improvements Act, sending it to President Obama's desk. The bill makes it easier for federal employees to work from outside their offices, requiring the heads of executive agencies to establish policies and guidelines for telecommuting.

That leaves a lot of meat on the legislative bone, despite the House naming a post office and congratulating Joe Paterno on his 400th win. Momentous as those may have been, big agenda items have yet to be dealt with.

It's questionable how long Democratic leaders will be able to keep everyone around. Some of these guys lost their seats, after all. And if the Senate passes something, the House will have to vote on it. There has been, I'm told, talk of the House adjourning temporarily and coming back to DC for any votes to send bills to President Obama's desk, should the Senate pass something.

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Here's what Democrats have talked about doing, which they haven't yet done:

  • Unemployment insurance. The House failed to extend unemployment insurance the week before Thanksgiving, which does not bode well. Last time this came up for a vote, the Senate saw the blockade, with Kentucky's Jim Bunning (who is, himself, a lame duck to incoming Sen. Rand Paul) holding the Senate hostage over the extension. People will start losing benefits this weekend, and if Congress doesn't extend it...well, that's not a great Christmas present for the unemployed.
  • Bush tax cuts. There's no way around it: Congress needs to act on the tax cuts before year's end, when they expire. Retroactive application of tax rates after a few months of uncertainty, economic types have said, would be messy. A Democratic aide indicated to The Washington Post's Greg Sargent that Democrats would vote separately on the tax cuts for earnings under $250,000, but speculation lingers that President Obama will compromise somehow, extending them temporarily. This continues to be the first post-midterm showdown of political and negotiation strategy between Democrats and Republicans.
  • Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal, aka the Defense authorization bill. This looks kind of doubtful. A repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell is included in the bill to authorize Defense Dept. programs for another year, and, while gay-rights advocates still believe DADT will see a vote before the end of the lame duck, it's hard to see how this passes. Under normal circumstances, passing a Defense bill can take four or five weeks, as senators debate and vote on various amendments--and that's without a hot-button issue like DADT--so it seems there won't be enough time. If it's to pass, Democrats will have to cut a deal with Republicans to limit the amendments process, or they'll have to find some other way to repeal DADT in a stand-alone bill. There are enough votes to repeal it, right now, but senators don't want to forgo debate on other amendments. The Pentagon's internal review will hit President Obama's desk next week, and Defense Sec. Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen will return to the Hill to press for a repeal, so some pressure will mount before year's end.
  • START Treaty: The president has called this his nuclear arms-reduction treaty his number-one foreign policy priority for the rest of the year. His administration has indicated that it needs to be ratified now, instead of in a few months, because 1) inspections of Russian nuclear arms have expired, and 2) we need to show the Russians that Obama can deliver on his promises. But Sen. Jon Kyl has held up the treaty, asking for more funds to modernize America's nuclear arms (even as they're being reduced), and he has more recently said there's not enough time to ratify the treaty in the lame-duck. Prospects, at the moment, look dim.
  • The "doc fix": Unless Congress alters payment rates, doctors who treat Medicare patients will see their reimbursements drop by 2.2 percent. The House and Senate passed their last temporary "fixes" in June. Given that Congress passes the doc fix every year, this will be less controversial than some of the other items on the lame-duck laundry list.