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Congress Is Back: Here’s What to Expect From the Lame Duck

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The US Capitol is bathed in the setting sun and seen in the reflecting pool on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Nov. 12, 2010. Congress returns next week for a post-election lame duck session. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) Alex Brandon / AP

Congress is back in town. After nearly two months away to campaign before the decisive midterm elections, members have arrived in Washington to complete the unfinished business of the 113th Congress.

Welcome to the lame-duck session, where at least 60 lawmakers - out of 535 - in the House and Senate who won’t be returning next year will be voting on legislation over the next several weeks.

Democrats, who will no longer have control of the Senate come January, are more likely to have bold plans for the lame duck, as it’s a last-best chance to pass their agenda for the next two years. Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing for modest action, minimizing the work load and holding off on anything that can be shelved until they have control of both chambers in January.

Here’s a list of items on the agenda, ranging from likely to pass to extremely unlikely to pass:

Likely to pass:

Government funding: Before the House and the Senate left town in September, they passed a short term funding bill to keep the government open. That funding bill expires December 11th, meaning that Congress must pass another bill to fund everything from military pay, to the IRS, to national parks maintenance to Social Security payments.

Lawmakers have two options. (Since Congress didn’t finish its work before the elections, there isn’t enough time to pass all 12 appropriations bills individually.) So, they can pass what’s called a Continuing Resolution, which is a short term spending bill that will last for a specific amount of time but likely to be timed so the newly-elected Congress can determine the government’s spending levels for the rest of the fiscal year that ends September 30th.

McConnell: Voters Tired of 'Dysfunction' 4:27

The second option is for lawmakers to pass an omnibus, a bill that combines all spending bills into one massive bill. It will fund the government through the remainder of the fiscal year, which means the current Congress would determine spending levels for the 2015 fiscal year.

Tax Extenders: That’s a wonky term used all over Washington to describe tax cuts that are set to expire. Congress is in the habit of using a patchwork process to deal with expiring tax cuts, so, absent any real tax reform, which has no chance of happening before the holidays, the piecemeal approach is possible.

In this set of expiring tax cuts, at least one is likely to hit every taxpayer. The set includes deductions for state and local sales taxes, deductions for tuition, research tax credits, bonus depreciation tax credits, tax credits for energy efficient homes as well as deductions for NASCAR, the movie and film industry.

Ebola funding: Funding to fight Ebola in Africa and ensure the U.S. is ready to respond to the disease is top on the President’s lame-duck wish list. He asked for $6.2 billion. Funding is likely to be added to a larger spending bill.

Still a question mark:

Keystone: After years of punting on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast, Senate Democrats are considering allowing a vote on the measure in coming weeks, top Democratic aides told NBC News.

The justification is purely political. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana, is locked in a runoff election. As head of the Senate Energy committee and representative of a major oil producing state, the vote could give her some help heading into her December 6th election against Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy.

Republicans have long pushed for a vote on the pipeline and said it would be among their top priorities when they take control of the Senate in January. Democrats are not definitive in their decision to take this route, but if they do, Republicans are not likely to make it easy, perhaps demanding additional energy or environmental related votes in exchange.

Less likely to pass but on someone’s wish list:

ISIS War Authorization: Before Congress left Washington for the campaign trail, they departed without giving President Barack Obama authorization to expand the mission against ISIS beyond the purposes of humanitarian relief and the protection of U.S. resources. (Congress did, however, authorize the training of moderate Syrian rebels.)

President Obama and some Democrats are hoping that Congress revives the debate before the Congressional year ends in December. In his news conference on November 5th, Obama said “the men and women of our military deserve our clear and unified support.”

But it’s probably not likely. A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said there will be “conversations” about ISIS authorization, but didn’t commit to bringing up legislation.

An aide to House Speaker John Boehner indicated that the debate on the issue is likely to be lengthy and with 15 working days scheduled, time is a concern.

Nominees: With the Senate in charge of passing presidential nominees, the issue is often a contentious topic, especially since the beginning of President Obama’s tenure. The tensions got so bad it lead to the rare instance of Senate Democrats changing the Senate rules. With the Senate turning to Republican hands in January, this is the Democrats last chance to clear the backlog of both judicial and non-judicial nominees that has piled up over the years. But by pushing the issue, Democrats threaten further complicating an already sour environment between Republicans and Democrats.

Some high profile nominees are likely to be the center of the debate, including surgeon general nominee Vivek Murthy because of his position on guns.

As for newly nominated Attorney General candidate, Loretta Lynch, Democrats now acknowledge that her confirmation process will likely happen in the 114th Congress, a top-ranking Democratic Senate aide confirms to NBC News.

The reason: There just isn't enough time left to hold hearings and have votes during the lame duck session.

That leaves one less thing for Democrats and Republicans to disagree on as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell indicated that he would put up a fight if Democrats tried to move Lynch in the lame duck.

Immigration: Immigration is the major elephant in the room. President Obama issued an ultimatum: Either Republicans act or he will.

Obama Addresses Immigration Reform With New Congress 2:03

The Senate passed a bill in 2013 but the House has yet to act on it. But the likelihood of the House Republicans moving on immigration this Congress is very small. Speaker Boehner indicated that he’s not going to take it up in the lame duck and warned President Obama against “poisoning the well” if he act through executive order.

- NBC News' Frank Thorp and Alex Moe contributed to this story.