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Everything you ever wanted to know about the lame-duck session

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2010; 7:20 PM

With a lame-duck session underway on Capitol Hill, we know you're brimming with questions about what exactly Congress is doing and why. Fear not: Your new "In Session" columnist has the answers.

What e xactly is a lame-duck session?

We'll defer here to the Congressional Research Service, which explains: "The expression 'lame duck' was originally applied in 18th century Britain to bankrupt businessmen, who were considered 'lame' in the sense that the impairment of their powers rendered them vulnerable, like a game bird injured by shot."

The term was eventually applied to politicians who had announced plans to retire or had been defeated for reelection. It also describes any House or Senate session that occurs between Election Day and the start of the next Congress.

Obvious jokes about bankruptcy aside, this year's session will feature a large number of lawmakers who are themselves lame ducks: More than 100 members of the House or Senate won't be back in January. Keep an eye on the office supplies.

How often do these sessions happen?

According to the CRS, this is the 18th lame-duck session since 1935, meaning that they have occurred in about one of every two Congresses during that span. Lately ,they've become routine: This is the seventh Congress in a row to include a post-election session.

How long will the session be?

Both chambers will be in session this week, then will go back into recess for Thanksgiving week. After that, the picture becomes cloudy, completely dependent on how ambitious Democrats are and how cooperative Republicans choose to be.

In the last Congress, the chambers stayed in session until the first week of January. Congress left town three weeks earlier than that in both 2006 and 2004, and in 2002 lawmakers managed to finish work before Thanksgiving. A repeat of last year, when the Senate passed health-care reform on Christmas Eve, looks unlikely, but the only thing that's certain is that no one should make holiday travel plans just yet.

What will get done?

Remember the earlier reference to lame ducks facing "impairment of their powers"? Therein lies the problem for House Democrats and, to a lesser extent, Senate Democrats as they attempt to get a few more bills passed before Republicans gain a lot more clout in the next Congress.

"This is part of a larger conversation we're going to have with the caucus [this] week on how much we want try and get done in the lame duck," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "We have a long list of things to get done and not a lot of time to do them. . . . The question is, how much, if any, are [Republicans] willing to work with us?"

The real action this week on the Hill is about preparing for the next Congress-both parties in both chambers will hold leadership elections, incoming freshmen are attending orientation sessions and Senate Republicans will vote on whether to impose a moratorium on earmarks. But the majority also has bills left to pass for this Congress, falling into two categories: must-pass and hope-to-pass.

The first category includes Congress's most basic function: funding the government. The current measure keeping the lights on will expire Dec. 3, and Congress is expected to pass another "continuing resolution" that would stretch into early 2011. The odds of a longer-lasting omnibus spending bill appear slim, since Republicans have little reason to help with such an effort.

Both parties have also declared their desire to address the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts that are set to expire at year's end, and negotiations between Congress and the White House on that front will be the dominant story line of the session. A deal on that subject could also include a patch to spare people from paying the Alternative MinimumTax.

Federal unemployment benefits are set to expire for some recipients Dec. 1, and Senate Republicans might not make it easy to pass another extension - Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) famously filibustered one last spring. A temporary fix that had prevented a scheduled cut in payments to doctors under Medicare is also set to expire at month's end.

Democrats hope to complete a defense authorization bill that repeals the military's "don't ask don't tell" policy, but the path forward remains unclear. The White House and Senate are also negotiating on the START arms control treaty.

Both chambers are angling to move a measure that would send $250 checks to Social Security recipients. The House might take up a child nutrition bill that the Senate passed and which is a priority of first lady Michelle Obama. The Senate will probably clear a food safety measure.

Other bills expected to get floor action but probably will not make it to President Obama's desk include the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would make it easier to accuse employers of gender discrimination, and the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who attend college or serve in the military.

So you're saying the lame-duck agenda could be kind of lame?

Final decisions have yet to be made, but this much is clear: The list of bills is long and the time to pass them is short, particularly for a bunch of injured birds.

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