5 things (other than the ‘fiscal cliff’) to watch during the lame-duck

November 13, 2012

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). (Justin Sullivan – Getty Images)

The lame-duck session of Congress officially begins Tuesday evening when the House and Senate reconvene and begin welcoming new members to Washington.

Lawmakers are currently scheduled to meet for just 16 days between today and the end of the year, but leaders could add more time as they work to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” or the series of automatic federal spending cuts and tax increases set to take effect in January.

And let’s face it: After more than a year of campaigning and partisan rancor, the “fiscal cliff” and all of its policy and economic implications is set to dominate the attention of Washington in the coming weeks. Despite that, there are several other political and policy developments worth tracking in the coming weeks. Here’s a quick look:

1.) What will Nancy Pelosi do?: This is the big political question looming over Capitol Hill in the coming days. The leader of House Democrats is considering ending her historic 10-year reign after the second disappointing election in a row for her caucus, according to The Post’s Paul Kane.

One leading theory, according to some lawmakers, is that Pelosi might announce that she plans to serve one more term as leader and set in motion a two-year succession race among younger House Democrats. As she sorts out what to do, the 72-year old has been reaching out to congratulate Democrats who won and consoling those who lost.

But House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), 73, is waiting in the wings and has hosted a series of meetings with rank-and-file Democrats in recent weeks, presumably to shore up support, if necessary.

2.) What will Paul Ryan do?: Before House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) began laying out the parameters of post-election negotiations with President Obama last week, he sent a copy of his remarks to Ryan, hoping to keep the House Budget Chairman in the loop and on his side as negotiations over averting the “fiscal cliff” begin anew. Ryan, who lost the vice presidency, but won reelection by a slim margin last week, reemerged Monday and told a Wisconsin television station that he doesn’t believe that the presidential campaign was a referendum on his plan to cut the federal budget and overhaul entitlement programs such as Medicare.

In the interview, Ryan declined to answer questions about his own political future, but he has said that he hopes to continue serving as chairman of the budget panel. House GOP term limits would require him to obtain a waiver from Boehner to continue serving as chairman, a move that could compel other House Republican chairman to request extensions of their terms — and thus cause headaches for Boehner.

Will Ryan play an active role in the upcoming fiscal negotiations or hang back? And what would either move signal about his future national political ambitions? (Cliche alert:) Only time will tell.

3.) GOP leadership races: Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will continue to lead their respective caucuses, but two other brewing Republican leadership races might force members to pick sides. In the Senate, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is reportedly mulling whether to challenge Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) to lead the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a perch that can often lead to bigger leadership roles. No matter who earns the spot will be responsible for helping the GOP retake the Senate in two years — and helping McConnell win reelection — a tougher prospect after last week’s setbacks.

In the House, keep an eye on the race to serve as the fourth-ranking Republican. Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) is challenging Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) to serve as chairman of the House Republican Conference in what could become an ugly battle between the caucus’s more conservative members and those loyal to Boehner. The Speaker, eager to keep a woman among the party’s top ranks, reportedly approached Price about dropping his bid in exchange for serving as chairman of the Elected Leadership Council. But Price, an outspoken conservative, would need to toe the party line, a vow he’s reportedly unwilling to make.

4.) Is comprehensive immigration reform for real?: In a well-coordinated effort that surely earned their communications directors at least a pat on the back, Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) announced on separate Sunday political talks shows that they’re restarting talks on immigration reform. Both men agreed that any plan should focus on border security and finding a way to legalize the status of nearly 12 million illegal immigrants. Any progress on this issue before year’s end could make this the chief domestic policy priority of the White House and Congress next year and would signal that Republicans are serious about finding common ground and wooing back desperately-needed Hispanic support.

5.) What other issue gets sorted out?: There are several other policy concerns that merit attention before the conclusion of the 112th Congress. That doesn’t mean they will be resolved, but they’re still worth a mention.

Where to begin? Well, supportive lawmakers, national security officials and the business community are seeking long-sought reforms to the nation’s cybersecurity strategy. Congress has failed to deliver assistance to the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service after vowing to do so more than two years ago. Before the election, lawmakers failed to pass a five-year Farm Bill — and many members won reelection by promising to do so before year’s end. There’s been no movement on passing the annual defense authorization bill and the Violence Against Women Act is up for reauthorization. So is the Foreign Service Intelligence Act

And then there’s Hurricane Sandy.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) is asking for $30 billion in federal disaster aid to rebuild storm-ravaged bridges, tunnels, roads and communities. (Securing the money would require the governor to serious lobby Washington on behalf of his state, something he hasn’t done before to the private chagrin of some Empire State lawmakers.)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.), who earned widespread praise for his handling of the disaster, is also expected to make a large request for federal assistance, in addition to whatever the governors of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and other states might need. But conservative lawmakers are already signaling resistance to such proposals, saying that the Federal Emergency Management Agency‘s disaster relief fund should be exhausted before passage of any supplemental requests. The agency has about $12 billion at its disposal, not nearly enough to pay for storm cleanup.

States affected by the storm should take heart: They’re represented by a cadre of senior, influential and media-savvy lawmakers (Schumer especially) who have vowed to secure whatever is necessary to help their home states.

Paul Kane and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

What did we miss? What do you think Congress will accomplish during the lame-duck session? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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Ed O'Keefe · November 12, 2012