Lame-duck Congress to confront agenda of competing demands

November 14, 2010

By Seth McLaughlin-The Washington Times

Lawmakers returning Monday for the start of the lame-duck session on Capitol Hill face an age-old political conundrum: How to respond to voter anger over federal spending without cutting into the entitlement programs and tax breaks that so many of their constituents enjoy.

It’s a thorny political issue that promises to haunt lawmakers, who face renewed electoral pressure to speak out against government spending and the soaring national debt, but who also spent the campaign season avoiding detailed discussions about the nation’s fiscal health beyond vague generalities and fuzzy math about their plans to cut waste and reduce spending.

“You get a very different reaction when you tell people, ‘I’m going to cut spending,’ versus telling people, ‘I’m going to cut Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and veterans’ benefits,'” said Donald Marron, director of the nonpartisan Urban Institute and Tax Policy Center. “Those sound really different.”

While those sacred cows will not be on the table during the lame-duck session that starts Monday and could run into December, there are numerous issues that could affect voters.

Congress will have the opportunity to try to resolve their differences about the estate tax, to extend unemployment benefits and to come up with a temporary fix for the alternative minimum tax.

Lawmakers also could take up the White House’s push to ratify the new arms-reduction treaty with Russia and a dozen spending bills that Congress put off earlier this year by agreeing on a stopgap bill to keep the government from shutting down on Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year. Among them is the Pentagon spending bill that includes a controversial provision to end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy that bars open gays from serving in the military, a goal President Obama has said he shares since taking office.

In addition, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also has promised a vote on any recommendations agreed to by at least 14 of 18 members of Mr. Obama’s deficit-reduction commission, and that he would bring up the Dream Act, a proposal that would offer a path to citizenship to illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors.

Meanwhile, conservatives in the Senate will push their Republican colleagues to end the practice of requesting earmarks, or pork-barrel projects.

But the big question that will loom over the lame-duck session will be whether Congress can agree to renew the tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003 under President George W. Bush — a debate that some view as the opening round in a broader battle over how to rein in federal spending and reform the country’s complex tax system.

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