updated 9/16/2004 4:10:19 PM ET 2004-09-16T20:10:19

For the fourth straight election year, people tired of all the politicking and politicians tired of all the campaigning face the prospect of Congress returning after Election Day for an unpopular lame-duck session.

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Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., says he’s seen a lot of lame ducks in his 32 years in Congress and he is certain of one thing: “They are all ugly.”

But with Congress way behind in finishing its work and only weeks left before it breaks for the election, a lame-duck session appears inevitable. “I dread to see it,” Lott said in a recent Senate floor speech.

Although Republican leaders publicly still cling to the goal of wrapping up the session by early or mid-October, the consensus is that Congress will have to come back after the election, probably around Nov. 15, to complete must-pass spending bills for the 2005 budget year.

Other highly time-sensitive issues include acting on the Sept. 11 commission’s recommendations for reorganizing the intelligence agencies.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said Wednesday that it was “certainly possible we might have to come back,” and suggested to his Democratic counterpart, Steny Hoyer, D-Md., that mid-November would be a good time because both parties will be back in Washington to reorganize for next year’s congressional session.

Democrats, of course, say GOP mismanagement is at fault: “Having a lame duck would be a colossal admission of failure by the majority that also happens to control the White House,” said Todd Webster, spokesman for Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle.

Lame-duck sessions occur when Congress returns after an election to take care of unfinished business. The lame ducks, originally an English term referring to bankrupt businessmen, are lawmakers who are retiring or have had their wings clipped by an election defeat and are hardly in the mood for another stint on Capitol Hill.

15th since 1940
This lame duck session, if it occurs, would be the 15th since 1940 and the fourth straight from the 1998 election year. With people eager to get out of town, and those leaving Congress less accountable to their constituents, they generally are not considered conducive to the writing of carefully crafted, well-debated legislation.

“The idea that we are going to come back in December and work right up until Christmas and fix what needs to be fixed in that period of time to me is a very dubious and, frankly, unwise suggestion,” Lott said.

There have been some notable lame ducks: In 1954 the Senate reconvened to censure Sen. Joseph McCarthy for his investigations into alleged communist sympathizers, and in 1998 the House came back in session to impeach President Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Members returned in November 2000 to work out a budget deal with Clinton, not knowing whether George W. Bush or Al Gore would be the next president. Two years ago the lame duck, in addition to dealing with the usual budget delays, produced legislation creating the Homeland Security Department.

So far this year Congress has sent to the president only one of the 13 spending bills, on defense, that it must pass for the 2005 budget year starting Oct. 1.

Among the other major tasks that Congress is under pressure to finish this year is legislation to create a new national intelligence director and overhaul intelligence agencies. Both the House and Senate are readying bills, but it could take weeks for the two chambers to come up with a compromise.

Transit bill a year overdue
Congress is also more than a year overdue in passing a new six-year highway and mass transit bill, legislation desperately sought by the states to help improve deteriorating and overcrowded roads. The two sides are close to agreeing to a $300 billion package, but must deal with the sticky question of how to divide up the money among the states.

Lawmakers also are trying to extend three middle-class tax cuts that are due to expire at the end of this year. Those provisions widened the amount of income covered by the lowest 10 percent tax rate, increased the child tax credit to $1,000 and provided relief from the so-called marriage penalty.

Business groups are also urging a change in the tax code so that foreign nations will stop imposing penalty tariffs on hundreds of U.S. products. The World Trade Organization has ruled a provision in the current tax code is an illegal export subsidy.

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