I said in the last post that I think the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal will just never get taken up in the lame duck session. In fact, that looks to be true of a lot of priorities, as Democrats retreat into their shell. Staring into the abyss of a Republican-controlled House, they will return to Washington November 15, with 58 Senators and 255 House members, for as much as 5 weeks of floor time, and it looks like the plan is to schedule pretty much nothing.

In the wake of a midterm election that President Obama called a “shellacking” of his party, Democratic insiders question if anything more than a stop-gap spending measure and temporary extension of Bush-era tax cuts can pass.

“I’m very pessimistic we’ll get much done,” said a labor official familiar with lame-duck negotiations. “We’re focused on extending unemployment benefits and middle-class tax cuts.”

“Republicans will try to put off everything so they can claim credit for anything that passes at the beginning of the new Congress,” said the source. “I expect a short-term continuing resolution into the new year,” in reference to a temporary funding measure to keep the federal government in operation.

It’s worth noting that there are enough “emergency” pieces of legislation to tide over a session that could be as small as three weeks (one week before Thanksgiving, and perhaps only two weeks after). Congress needs to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government running. There are several pieces of legislation that expire on November 30, like extended unemployment benefits and the “doctor’s fix” for Medicare reimbursement rates. And then there are the Bush tax cuts, which expire at the end of the year. Clearly that doesn’t leave much room for energy, child nutrition, DADT, the DREAM Act, labor bills, a Chinese currency measure, the new START treaty or even the deficit commission recommendations, parts or all of which had been promised a vote in the lame duck.

The only three bills the Senate could take up on November 15, for which Harry Reid filed cloture at the end of September, are bills on natural gas and electric vehicles, the Paycheck Fairness Act (a companion to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act), and the food safety bill. It’s unclear which one they’ll start with or whether they’ll finish any of them.

As for the tax cuts, a debate where Democrats held the upper hand with the public but decided to duck the issue before the elections, you see the trajectory completely in two headlines today: “Obama opens door for talks with GOP on tax-cut extension” and GOP: There’ll be no compromise on tax cuts. While the President is talking about a temporary extension for up to two years as a “basis for conversation,” Republicans are roundly rejecting anything where the tax rates don’t move together. They don’t want “decoupling,” where the middle class rates get extended permanently and the rates on the rich get a temporary extension.

While I think that Congress will spend a lot of time on this debate in the lame duck, my money is actually still on gridlock, because Republicans can get what they want after January.

Republicans, meanwhile, have been less accommodating, with some suggesting that they could simply hold off until January, when they will control the House and hold a stronger hand in the Senate. That would set the stage for a more powerful push to permanently extend all the cuts — the preferred GOP alternative.

“They might blame GOP obstructionism. But, you know, people are going to start missing a lot of money in their weekly paychecks in January. And there’s only going to be one person in the White House,” said a Republican House aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe party thinking.

I actually don’t think people will start missing the money in their paychecks, or at least they won’t make the connection. They never did about the tax decrease done through their paychecks the past two years. But Republicans will scream and cry and use the mighty Wurlitzer about it so often that they can adequately pressure the White House into a permanent extension.