Congress’s Lame Lame Duck

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Remember last summer when Republicans were warning about the scary lame duck? The ruling Democrats, warned GOP candidates and incumbents alike, are going to try and sneak through all manner of controversial bills against the will of the American people. House Republicans even introduced not one but two resolutions calling on Dems to not pass any legisltation that didn’t have bipartisan support. Climate change! The Employee Free Choice Act! Don’t Ask Don’t Tell!  Money for global abortions!

In reality, the lame duck entered like a lamb this week and looks to leave like one next month. What will they get done? The new Congress has to elect their leaders and rules – the GOP ban earmarks being the biggest news. The old Congress, still in office through the end of the year, must deal with President George W. Bush’s tax cuts before they expire in January. And they’ll have to pass legislation to keep funding the federal government in the new year. Virtually everything else – a list of nearly 30 bills from the DREAM Act, which would help put some children of illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship, to the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, to (yes) climate change and the ratification of the START nuclear nonproliferation treaty – will likely either die or get shunted to the next Congress in January. “We need to keep the lame duck simple,” said Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican. “Most of our discussions will focus on making our current tax rates permanent and then, hopefully, a continuing resolution to fund the government and then we’ll all go home.”

Freshmen from the 112th Congress, which will begin in January, descended on Capitol Hill this week for orientation and to vote for their leaders and rules. Between learning how to use their government-issued blackberries and Dell computers, the new class decides how they’d like to run things next year. Republicans, flush with Tea Partiers, accomplished one of the most newsworthy feats of the lame duck this week when they agreed on a two-year moratorium on earmarks. But for all the hoopla about change, this may not hold up as several prominent GOP porkers — including Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and incoming freshman Roy Blunt of Missouri – said they will continue to request and vote for earmarks. (Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who is still waiting for the state to certify her write in win, said in a statement that she also opposes the moratorium.)

Democrats, who aren’t contemplating an earmark moratorium, are counting the number of Senate GOP defections with bated breath. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will need somewhere between seven and 10 Republican votes on each of the 12 annual appropriations bills – or any other piece of legislation that includes an earmark — otherwise earmarks will have to be stripped out of the measures before they reach the floor.

The real lame duck will begin after Thanksgiving when both chambers finally get down to the business of legislating. While it’s clear there’s near unanimous support for a permanent extension of Bush’s middle class tax cuts, the fate of those for the richest Americans remains in limbo. Conservatives want all of the tax cuts made permanent. The Administration had lobbied to let those for Americans making more than $250,000 a year lapse, but has since indicated that they’re willing to negotiate. “There are millions of ideas out there,” lamented Senator Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, charged with writing tax policy. It remains to be seen what level will satisfy enough Senate Republicans to pass a bill: $500,000, $750,000, $1 million? A temporary full extension of the tax cuts for the richest with the promise to revisit the issue in two years – when, perhaps, a new President might be elected?

How to fund the government next year also remains undecided. Traditionally, the outgoing Congress rolls the unfinished appropriations bills into a giant measure, called an omnibus. But an omnibus usually includes a lot of earmarks and unfunded spending. In this climate, such a bill might be tough. In 2006, DeMint brought down the outgoing GOP majority’s omnibus over objections to profligate spending – and he has less compunctions about doing the same to this Democratic majority. So, Reid’s office conceded, they are looking more at a continuing resolution than an omnibus. A CR, as it’s called, is a simple bill that allows the government to be funded at the same levels as the past year.

After that is a grab bag of legislation; what will pass is anyone’s guess. Most of it will likely languish. But there are other pressing items: an extension on unemployment benefits and the annual supplement to payments Medicare makes to doctors. Democrats are scrounging for the tens of billions of dollars these items will cost as Republicans insist both be fully offset before they’re added to the CR or to the lingering defense reauthorization bill that has been ping ponging between the House and Senate for months. There’s nothing Republicans hate more than voting against troop funding. But, they will do it if, say, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell remains in the bill, or if it gets loaded up like a Christmas tree with earmarks and pet projects – an entirely plausible scenario. There are a few small items that could sneak through: a food safety bill and a measure to increase natural gas tax incentives. But that scary lame duck? Not happening. Demoralized Dems have even less of a chance of passing their agenda during the lame duck than they did before it, even if it is their best last shot for years.