Unpredictable lame-duck Congress set
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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama returned from Asia on Sunday to face the new post-election reality at home: In an unpredictable lame-duck session of Congress starting today, emboldened Republicans are poised to try to force an extension of the Bush-era tax rates for the wealthy and block action on a variety of domestic and foreign initiatives.
Yet even as Air Force One approached Washington, Mr. Obama issued something of a warning to Republicans. "Campaigning is very different from governing," he told reporters on board. "All of us learn that. And they're still flush with victory, having run a strategy that was all about saying no. But I am very confident that the American people were not issuing a mandate for gridlock."
Congressional Republicans do not officially take power until Jan. 5, but they feel vindicated by their election triumphs in continuing a strategy of obstructing Mr. Obama's agenda. And while congressional Democrats will control the House for the lame-duck session, the party is demoralized, divided over how to proceed and frustrated at a lack of direction from a White House still figuring out its own next moves.
Two Democratic senators on Sunday tried to step into that perceived void. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York proposed limiting an extension of the Bush tax cuts to incomes below $1 million instead of $250,000. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia would keep the lower income cutoff and use roughly $65 billion, the amount that would be saved by not extending the rates for higher income for two years, to cut taxes further for small businesses.
"I think there is a compromise in the making," Mr. Schumer said on "Face the Nation" on CBS.
Republican leaders also made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to support keeping the rates low for all taxpayers, despite a projected cost of $4 trillion over 10 years. Of that, about $700 billion is the estimated cost of retaining the top rates for another decade.
On other issues, too, the president's ambitions for the session are likely to clash with both the political realities and the practical limitations of a short calendar -- whether Congress meets for days, as many House Democrats would like, or for weeks, assuming that the Senate gets bogged down in partisan battles over the tax cuts, Mr. Obama's proposed arms reduction deal with Russia and more.
The tax debate could set the tone and potentially crowd out other issues, including a spending measure needed to keep the federal government running. That would play into the hands of Republicans, who prefer to pass an array of short-term extensions that kick the pressing legislative issues into the next Congress, where they will control the House and have a larger Senate minority.
Nearly lost among the talk of expiring tax rates for the wealthy is another deadline: After Nov. 30, emergency federal benefits for about 2 million long-term unemployed Americans will end. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada will try this week to pass an extension, but failing that, many Democrats want extended jobless aid to be the price of any compromise on the tax cuts.
Mr. Obama's senior strategist, David Axelrod, appeared on two networks' Sunday talk shows and reaffirmed that the president favored continuing the Bush income tax rates permanently only for those with incomes below $250,000 for couples filing jointly, or $200,000 for individuals. He also affirmed that Mr. Obama opposed a permanent extension for those with higher incomes, which Republicans have demanded.
In emphasizing Mr. Obama's opposition to a permanent extension, the White House has signaled openness to a temporary one, though whether for one year or more remained unclear.
Two conservative Republicans -- Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, speaking on "Fox News Sunday," and Rand Paul, who was just elected to the Senate from Kentucky and appeared on CBS -- said separately that they wanted a permanent extension of all rates but could compromise on a two- or three-year extension of the rates for high-income earners.
A focus for House Republicans this week will be a vote in their conference on a proposal to ban earmarks in spending bills, by which individual lawmakers dedicate money to a particular purpose. The ban would not be binding on Congress.
House Democrats will caucus Tuesday in a session that is expected to include substantial hand-wringing over their midterm election losses and tense discussions over the bid by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California to remain as Democratic leader in the next Congress.
The Senate was to return this week to a House-passed bill to fix the nation's food safety system. Though it has broad support, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has blocked it.
Mr. Reid and Senate Democrats are also hoping to vote on a major military bill, already passed by the House, that would authorize the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy requiring gay soldiers to keep their sexual orientation secret.
First Published November 15, 2010 12:00 am