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Important Business Awaits Lame Duck Congress

Before Democrats have to learn how to navigate the difficult waters of productive cooperation with an ascendant Republican majority in the House of Representatives, there is still a lot of work left to be done for the current session of Congress.

Some important Bush-era tax cuts are due to expire at the end of this year. There are social security payments that need funding. The military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy against gays serving openly is a messy and uncertain legal situation. And that's not even mentioning important legislation involving Medicare cuts, nuclear weapon disarmament, expiring unemployment benefits, food safety and federal spending necessary to avoid a government shutdown.

So when Congress reconvenes on Nov. 15, the question will be: Can politicians buck the trend and become one of the few productive lame duck Congresses facing major turnover in history?

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The Democrats still hold a large majority until January, when dozens of victorious Republicans come to take away seats in both chambers of Congress from Democrats. However, even with the outgoing Democratic majority, politics are still in play.

Lawmakers in both parties are keen to immediately address the looming expiration of politically popular Bush-era tax cuts on Dec. 31. Taxes on income, investments, and large estates are set to go up, while the $1,000 per-child tax credit would be cut in half and couples would lose relief from the so-called marriage penalty.

Republicans want to restore all of these tax cuts indefinitely, while Democrats say they want to restore them for everyone but the wealthy.

President Obama said he would invite both Democratic and GOP leaders to the White House later this month to negotiate over taxes.

"My hope is, is that given we all have an interest in growing the economy and encouraging job growth, that we're not going to play brinksmanship but instead we're going to act responsibly," Mr. Obama said.

But there are other items that simply can't be put off until next year.
A stopgap federal spending bill is needed to avoid a government shutdown. Doctors face a 23 percent cut in their Medicare reimbursements, with another 6.5 percent cut looming on Jan. 1.

And it gets worse. Tax cuts that expired at the end of 2009 haven't been extended, and that's a problem that needs to be fixed this year. More than 26 million families would face tax bills in April averaging $2,600 higher because of the alternative minimum tax, or AMT, which was enacted four decades ago to make sure the wealthy pay at least some tax, but threatens to reach into the middle class because it's never been updated for inflation.

"That's a political train wreck that I can't imagine they'll let happen," said GOP tax lobbyist Ken Kies.

More on the election:

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Election 2010: Winners and Losers
The New House Leaders
The New Senators on the Block

A popular deduction on state and local sales and property taxes has already expired and also needs to be revived this year so taxpayers can claim it when preparing their taxes next year. Also in that category are popular tax breaks on college tuition, the widely backed research and development tax credit and a roster of other business tax cuts.

And, without action by Congress, 2 million unemployed people will lose jobless benefits averaging about $300 a week nationwide by the end of December.

One of the few sure bets s that Congress will find a way to avoid a government shutdown when a stopgap spending bill expires Dec. 3. The lame duck session begins Nov. 15 for a week and then resumes after Thanksgiving.

Some lawmakers are holding out the possibility of wrapping all 12 unfinished spending bills for the budget year that began Oct. 1 into a massive $1.1 trillion catchall bill, but that's now a long shot, given the election results.

Here's a look at the rest of the agenda facing the lame duck congress:

Medicare physician payments: Lawmakers are likely to address a 1997 law that's forcing cuts in Medicare payments to doctors. But it's not clear how long of a reprieve the doctors will get.

Defense spending: A bill for defense spending has been passed every year for five decades. This year, however, it's caught in a standoff over the Pentagon's "don't ask don't tell" policy on gays serving openly in the military.

Environmental regulations: New regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency regarding greenhouse gas emissions go into effect on January 2, 2011. Business associations across the country fiercely oppose them, saying they must be delayed so as not to hurt economic recovery and job creation. Republicans may seek to remove them altogether next year. It remains to be seen how the Democrats will handle that.

Nuclear weapons: Senate Democrats want to ratify the new START treaty between the United States and Russia that would cut each nation's nuclear arsenal by one-fourth.

Unemployment benefits: Congress has always extended unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed when the jobless rate has been this high. But it took months earlier this year for Congress to extend jobless benefits through the end of November, and Republicans are likely to insist that any further extension be financed by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. That could limit any extension to just a couple of months.

Social Security: Before the election, Democrats promised a vote on legislation to award a $250 payment to Social Security recipients, who are not receiving a cost-of-living hike this year. But the measure failed to garner even a majority in the Senate earlier this year, much less the 60 votes required to beat a filibuster.

Other leftovers: There's also unfinished legislation on food safety and child nutrition programs. They'll only be able to pass if bipartisan consensus materializes.

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