A Daunting 3 Weeks Ahead for Congress

By Jonathan Weisman and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 2, 2007

Congress returns to Washington on Monday with a full slate of must-do legislation, just three short weeks before the Christmas recess and with four members of the slim Democratic Senate majority likely to miss votes as they campaign for president.

The lawmakers' to-do list would be daunting under the best of circumstances: a major energy bill, legislation to rein in President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program, 11 of the 12 annual bills to fund the federal government, a farm bill, and a bill to stave off the expansion of the alternative minimum tax and extend a raft of expiring tax credits.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) must tackle that agenda and battle a combative GOP minority and an intransigent Republican president without a reliable majority.

"The majority leader's job is always tough, and his job has been made all the more difficult by the presidential candidates," said Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who will resign by month's end. "But if you're going to run for president, you've got to get out there and run for president."

Senate Democrats normally can count on a 51 to 49 majority, assuming independent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) stays with his old party. With Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) campaigning furiously for party presidential nominations, Republicans can have an effective 48 to 47 majority, with an extra vote from Lieberman on most national security issues.

With the Iowa caucuses just one month away, many of those candidates have warned their leadership not to expect them around much. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the Senate chamber's second-ranking Democrat, who is in charge of vote counting, said he does not expect to see the candidates during debates but hopes to schedule votes that allow senators enough time to return to Washington.

The alternative-minimum-tax bill is already dangerously overdue. Without it, a parallel tax system enacted in 1969 to ensure that 155 super-wealthy families would pay at least some income taxes would this year reach as many as 23 million more families, mainly with upper-middle incomes.

But Democrats have been stymied by their own pledge to pay for the AMT fix and any other measure that increases the budget deficit with offsetting tax increases or spending cuts. Those offsets are running into a wall of opposition in the Senate from Republicans and some Democrats.

The Internal Revenue Service's independent oversight board last week voiced "grave concerns about the serious risks to the 2008 filing season" posed by Congress's delay on the AMT. Any changes to the tax code at this date would take seven weeks to program into IRS computers before tax returns can be processed, the IRS board said.

Even if Congress can pass an AMT fix in the next two weeks, 6.7 million tax returns still would be delayed, deferring refunds worth $17 billion for weeks, the oversight board estimated. If Congress waits until just before Christmas, the number of postponed tax returns would reach 15.5 million and their worth would be $39 billion.

But the tax bill is not even on the Senate's calendar for this week. Instead, Reid would like to wrap up work on the Senate's version of a farm bill, then tackle the contentious issue of warrantless wiretapping.

The House this week hopes to finish an energy bill that would raise automobile fuel economy standards for the first time in 32 years, then hand it off to the Senate for final passage the following week.

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