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Still work to be done before this Congress ends

Republicans may want nothing more than to go home and nurse their election wounds, but the lame-duck Congress has lots of work ahead.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Republicans may want nothing more than to go home and nurse their election wounds, but the lame-duck Congress has lots of work ahead.

Items at the top of the list are reviving several popular but expired tax cuts, confirming a new defense secretary and keeping most federal agencies in operating funds.

Lawmakers, including at least 20 House and up to six Senate Republicans who lost their seats in the election and will not be around when the 110th Congress convenes in January, return to Washington on Monday for what could be a month-long stretch to tie up the loose ends.

Federal programs still seek 2007 funding
Such postelection, or lame-duck, sessions are widely disliked because many lawmakers do not want to be on Capitol Hill right now and the rush to finish tends to produce bad legislation. Democrats, poised to take over control of the House and the Senate in January, will resist any GOP effort to move legislation not to their liking.

In the House, Republican leaders are leaning toward passing a bill, known as a continuing resolution, that would fund federal programs at the 2006 budget year levels through January.

The current budget year began in October. Congress, however, has completed work on only two of the 11 annual spending bills, for defense and for homeland security.

That leaves nine bills, worth at least $460 billion and covering programs in health, education, agriculture, transportation and the environment. In the Senate, GOP leaders and some Democrats would rather deal with those bills now.

Continuing resolutions are unpopular because they further delay budget increases that were supposed to have taken effect Oct. 1, the start of the new budget year. Democrats, eager to act on their agenda when they take over in January, do not want to get bogged down on unfinished spending bills.

Five Democratic goals
Democratic leader Harry Reid, the Senate's next majority leader, said figuring out how to fund the government for the next year is one of five tasks Congress should take up in the lame-duck session.

Reid, D-Nev., also listed reviving the expired tax breaks, bioterrorism and offshore drilling bills, and approving a U.S.-India nuclear agreement.

President Bush met on Thursday with GOP congressional leaders and came up with a similar to-do list. He added a Vietnam trade bill and legislation giving legal status to his warrantless domestic eavesdropping program.

"The next few weeks are going to be busy ones," he said.

The House could take up the Vietnam bill as early as Monday, before Bush leaves on a trip to Southeast Asia, including Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital. The measure probably will pass, although some senators have held it up because of concerns about human rights violations in Vietnam.

The eavesdropping measure has stalled in the Senate because of a Democratic filibuster threat.

Nominations and tax relief efforts
The Senate will hold a hearing the first week of December on Bush's nomination of former CIA Director Bob Gates to succeed Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary.

The White House renewed its request that the Senate confirm John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He has held the post on a temporary basis for more than a year. But the prospects for that essentially died Thursday as Democrats and a pivotal Republican said they would continue to oppose the nomination. If so, Bolton would have to leave the job in January.

The tax relief legislation probably will win passage, as long as it is not attached to more contentious legislation. The tax provisions, supported by both parties, would revive breaks that expired last Jan. 1. They include deductions for state and local sales taxes and student tuition, plus business tax credits for research and development.

Efforts to extend the breaks stalled before the election when GOP leaders tried to link the extensions to lower taxes on multimillion-dollar estates and the promise of a minimum wage increase pushed by Democrats.

"If you are willing to seek approval of such legislation without any extraneous matters, I am confident that the bill could be passed quickly," Reid wrote Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

One possibility is combining the tax proposals with a measure to overturn billions of dollars in Medicare payment cuts to doctors now scheduled to begin in January.

In an unpleasant reminder of the problems that contributed to Republican losses at the polls, the House ethics committee is expected to report soon on how GOP leaders handled the case of former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., and computer messages he sent to former male pages. The report could have harsh things to say about Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who announced Wednesday he will step down as his party's leader when the Democrats take over in January.