Lame Duck Congress Will Duck Issues That Matter Most To Voters

WASHINGTON -- The top concerns voiced by voters in poll after poll this election were the economy and the stagnating middle class.

So, freed from election concerns, what will Washington do to address those problems during the lame duck session in the weeks before the start of a new Congress? A quick survey of congressional insiders offers this answer: Very little.

"Yeah, I think that's a fair assessment," said a senior Senate Democratic staffer who spoke on background in order to offer candid remarks.

"The congressional agenda does not match up with normal people's lives," said a high-ranking GOP aide, speaking on the same grounds, suggesting the assessment was not surprising. "Tell me a news story."

The main reason is that before the elections, this Congress has been one of the least-productive in history, and it left numerous pieces of unfinished business that will need to be completed before the lame duck session ends just to keep government and several key programs running.

There is certainly blame to go around. While the House insists it passed more than 40 bills that GOP leaders say create jobs, most of them are actually anti-regulation measures that would do little, and which a Democratic-controlled Senate would never approve.

And the Senate has been its own special case. Republicans in the minority there have specialized in delay and obstruction, while Democrats have done their best to freeze out GOP measures and avoid politically damaging votes.

The failures leave a heap of work that will need to get done.

Tops on that list is keeping the government open, after Congress couldn't agree on a spending plan for all of 2015, and passed a stopgap that runs out on Dec. 11.

Aides were mixed on how that might go, but most said they thought another stopgap was likely, which would let incoming Republicans have a greater say.

Another major agenda item is acting on President Barack Obama's stalled nominations. Such approvals will get harder in the next Senate, giving current Majority Leader Harry (D-Nev.) incentive to act aggressively in the next few weeks.

"My guess is Reid will try to do as many nominations as he can," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who suggested one should not be a replacement for Attorney General Eric Holder, who plans to resign.

"Seven weeks from the day we come in is New Year's Eve, and that's assuming we don't take Christmas week off and Thanksgiving week off, which we would," Stewart said. "So there's only five weeks maximum available in the lame duck, and that's with everything you've got to do. So to try to cram an AG into that, if they lose the Senate, for the president to try to do that would be a real challenge."

Stewart noted that lower-level, non-controversial nominees, such as many of Obama's stalled picks for ambassadors, could get voted through relatively quickly.

Another area that requires at least a temporary measure is a bunch of expired tax breaks that the two chambers have not been able to agree on. Among them are breaks that the House has voted to make permanent, such as research and development credits and other business-focused largesse. Democrats in the Senate have offered temporary extensions of those, as well as loopholes that they like, such as the child tax credit and mortgage interest deductions.

The breaks expired nearly a year ago, and their fate needs to be resolved, but the differing priorities of the parties and the sheer volume of the loopholes could end up swallowing a significant amount of time.

There are several other expiring laws that aides said would likely get attention. One is a measure that allows satellite TV customers to get local broadcast networks. Another is the the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, which provides a federal backstop to insurers in the event of enormous claims from a terror attack.

On the foreign policy front, the Senate has yet to pass the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015, which is fraught with debates over Guantanamo Bay, war powers and military efforts against the so-called Islamic State. Several aides said they expected Congress would punt on debating Obama's authority to expand war into Syria, but would probably vote to continue funding arms and training for anti-ISIS rebels in Syria.

Some lawmakers also are pushing to curb the National Security Agency's ability to pry into the lives of ordinary Americans, and would like the Senate to move on two bills passed by the House. Debate would certainly burn a significant amount of time, and some senators said they think it's better to wait until the Patriot Act -- which authorizes much of the NSA snooping -- expires in 2015.

There are some measures floating around that could help with middle-class jobs, and may even get pushed through. These include Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Sen. Sherrod Brown's (D-Ohio) bill to expand "manufacturing hub zones."

But others seem to have fallen completely off the agenda. One is the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which pays to train workers who have lost jobs because of the nation's free-trade deals. It expires Dec. 31.

As for some popular items that Democrats tried to use in their re-election message -- such equal pay for women who do the same work as men and a hike in the minimum wage -- they will not come up in the lame duck session. And they're probably dead until the next election.

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.



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