Today begins the final two months of the Democratic majority in the House, and the large majority in the Senate. Today, two Democrats, Chris Coons and Joe Manchin, will be sworn in as Senators, while Mark Kirk’s swearing-in must wait, under Illinois law, until the certification of his election, which will happen later in November. Roland Burris stays a Senator until that time, so for the moment, the split remains 59-41, and will stay that way through Thanksgiving.
So what do Democrats plan to do with that majority, as well as their 255-178 spread in the House? Not a heck of a lot. The lame duck session will be dominated by talk about what to do on the Bush tax cuts, but there are some other issues that are likely to get taken up as well. Since I wrote about the possibilities for the lame duck when the last session ended before the midterms, the focus has narrowed a bit. Let’s go over it.
• Bush tax cuts: We know the battle lines here. Democrats want to extend the tax cuts for the middle class, while Republicans want them extended for all tax brackets. They also want the additional tax cuts, like the ones to dividends, the estate tax rates, and a variety of others, set back at Bush-era levels. The terrain where Democrats and Republicans disagree costs about $700 billion dollars, but overall we’re arguing arguing whether to blow a $3 trillion or $4 trillion dollar hole in the budget. For reference, the ENTIRE BOWLES-SIMPSON CATFOOD COMMISSION REPORT gets a savings of $4 trillion. Yet “pass nothing on taxes for the next two months” wasn’t their preferred recommendation.
It looks like Democrats don’t have the votes to pass tax cuts for the middle class only, and the Republicans certainly don’t have the votes to get the tax cuts for the rich made permanent. The meet-in-the-middle here looks like a 2 or 3-year extension, which even Jim DeMint floated this weekend. But that is in no way a “compromise,” as it gives Republicans everything they want and sets up for another fight down the road on an issue where Democrats have already given ground.
• Expiring measures: The government must pass a spending bill, either as a stopgap or something more, by December 2nd, to avoid a shutdown. The argument is over how long the stopgap will last. Nancy Pelosi wants to fund with a continuing resolution through the fiscal year, to September 30, 2011. Republicans want a shorter stopgap, so they can get a whack at setting spending levels when they take over the House.
There are also a host of other expiring measures that Democrats will try to take up. Unemployment benefits beyond 26 weeks will start to expire unless Congress passes an extension by the end of the month. This wouldn’t include any help for the “99ers,” but would merely allow the extended benefits currently in place up to 99 weeks to continue at a time of mass unemployment. It’s very iffy whether the Senate can get that done. In addition, the “doctor’s fix” and a host of tax extensions expire by the end of the year, so we’ll see if the tax extenders bill gets revived to deal with that.
• Food safety: This is actually the bill with the most likely chance of passage. Harry Reid already filed cloture on it and two other bills to start off the lame duck session. The other two, on electric vehicles and paycheck fairness, are actually not expected to pass. But the food safety bill, which received a unanimous committee vote last year, has a good chance of getting done. The cloture vote is likely on Wednesday. The bill would increase plant inspections and give the government more authority to institute recalls. Tom Philpott calls it a small step in the right direction. More important to the members of the Senate, it seems to have the votes, and they can wax eloquently about the bipartisanship it fostered.
• Defense authorization bill: I wouldn’t expect to see this until December. That’s because the Pentagon survey on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell won’t get released until after December 1, and the defense authorization bill includes DADT repeal. So that means that two Republican votes would need to be secured by that time in order to pass the bill. Several have said that they would want to see the survey before making a decision, including Scott Brown, George Voinovich, Olympia Snowe and Judd Gregg.
If it did pass the Senate, then you’d need a House-Senate conference or some mechanism to iron out the differences, with both chambers passing the same bill, all in December, and it’s unclear at this point how deep into the month the session will last. So it’s going to be a tall order to get the bill passed.
It’s also unclear whether Harry Reid will again try to slip the DREAM Act into the defense authorization bill, or whether he will allow a vote as a standalone measure. As a standalone bill, the DREAM Act actually has a shot at passage; Bob Bennett (R-UT) and Dick Lugar (R-IN) have said they would vote for a standalone bill. I do think you’ll see a standalone DREAM Act voted on in the House, perhaps as early as this week.
• The Reid omnibus. The House has passed over 400 bills that the Senate has not taken up. Many of them are noncontroversial in nature. It’s possible that Reid will combine hundreds of these noncontroversial bills into an omnibus package, which he will then offer for a vote. Tom Coburn, in the past, has put holds on and tried to block these kinds of omnibus bills, and I can see it being controversial. It will depend on whether the Senate leadership wants to take the time needed to get this through.
• Remainders: I’ve heard talk about taking one last shot at the DISCLOSE Act on campaign finance reform, and I pretty much don’t believe it at all.
The White House has made the new START treaty a top priority, and they’re trying to bribe Jon Kyl into giving up on his objections to the treaty by promising spending on so-called “nuclear modernization.”
On energy and the environment, outside of the Promoting Natural Gas and Electric Vehicles Act of 2010, which will get a cloture vote this week, I wouldn’t expect anything.
Lindsey Graham wants a vote on Chinese currency manipulation, perhaps similar to the House bill that passed right before the midterms.
There are also the looming cat food commission recommendations hanging out there. If they actually get 14 of 18 commissioners to sign off, the Senate and House have basically promised a vote.