What's on Tap in the Lame Duck?

Congress will return to session Monday for Democrats' final few weeks of power, and speculation has been mounting over what they'll try to do once they get back.

Chances are slim that Democrats will drive an aggressive agenda, as they'll be limited by time. There's a lot to be done, and not much time in which to do it. Passing anything other than essential pieces of legislation will be tough.

There is no set date at which the lame duck session will end--recall that last year, in a strained effort to pass health care reform, the Senate held a vote on Christmas Eve--and the only hard deadline is January 3 of next year, when the 111th Congress ends and the 112th Congress begins.

But lawmakers, some of them retiring and some of them having lost their seats on Nov. 2, will be itching to get out of town. No one wants to stay until Christmas again. Which means it's unlikely Congress will take up anything controversial, given that Senate Republicans can filibuster, and the process can drag on and on. The main goal, it seems, will be to extend spending and tax rates set to expire.

So what exactly will Congress do in the next several weeks? Here's a list of the agenda items they're likely to take up:

Funding the Government:
The current appropriations the fund the federal government will expire in December, and, unless Congress passes a continuing resolution to extend the current funding levels (or if it somehow manages to pass a new omnibus appropriations bill), the federal government will shut down.

The Bush Tax Cuts: The tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 will expire at the end of the year, so Democrats and Republicans will have to arrive at some agreement. Otherwise, they would have to extend the tax cuts next year, applying rates retroactively, but this could create some confusion as Americans plan out their personal finances. President Obama and Democrats want to extend only the tax cuts on earnings under $250,000; Republicans want to extend all of them. Obama appears willing to make some sort of deal.

Unemployment Insurance: Once again, federal unemployment benefits are set to expire this month, and Congress must pass another extension in order for millions of unemployed Americans to continue receiving them.

The Doc Fix: The so-called "doc fix" is something Congress does every year, adjusting the rate at which physicians are paid under Medicare. Both chambers passed six-month fixes in June; unless they pass another during the lame duck session, doctors who treat Medicare patients will see their payment rates drop by 2.2 percent.

START Treaty: The U.S. and Russia signed the nuclear arms-reduction treaty in April, but the Senate still hasn't ratified it. President Obama said this weekend, after a meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, that the START treaty remains a top priority for the lame duck session.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell?: It would be difficult for Democrats to pass a repeal of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, but they say they're going to try. The Senate failed in September to pass a Defense authorization bill that included a repeal of DADT, but after the Pentagon delivers its internal review to President Obama on Dec. 1, the votes will be there. The problem: time. Debating a Defense authorization bill, with amendments, typically takes weeks. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid still hopes to hold a vote before the session ends, according to his office.

DREAM Act?: Some had hoped that Democrats would force a vote on the bill to grant legal status to children of illegal immigrants if they are enrolled in college. The Senate failed to pass it in September as Reid forced a pre-midterm vote by including it in the Defense bill along with the DADT repeal. Given how much business the Senate has left to do, it will be tough for Democrats to pass the DREAM Act before leaving down.